Monday, February 29, 2016

Seen Any Miracles Lately?

Glory be to God for dappled things –
 For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
 Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
 Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.       - “Pied Beauty”, by Gerard Manley Hopkins


God Is Everywhere
   Believing Catholics see the presence of God everywhere. We see Him (Who created all things and holds them in existence) even in things as ordinary as “trout that swim” and “finches’ wings”.  Sometimes, however, our Lord seems to speak to us through more extraordinary means, through the events we call miracles. The word "miracle" might first make us think of those dramatic Miracles formally recognized as such by the Church, as, for example, those entered as evidence toward the canonization of saints.  These are relatively rare, as the Church has very strict standards of evidence, and insists that there be no available natural explanation.  But there is also a steady stream of less well-attested occurrences in the life of every believer that may not meet the strict standards that official Miracles demand, but still serve as powerful reminders that God’s Providence surrounds us .  . . at least for eyes to see that can.  Even the greatest Miracles, on the other hand, are not enough to sway those who simply don’t want to see.


Miracles in the News

    I came across a couple reports of apparent miracles in today’s news, and they got me thinking.  First, there is this story about a Bible that emerged almost unscathed from a car that rolled over and burst into flame:

The burning car, the Bible that survived (firstcoastnews.com photo)

 The entire interior, except the Good Book, was consumed in flame (I also heard a report on Catholic radio of a similar occurrence in Brazil, in which a statue of Our Lady of Aparecida was found unscathed in a building that had been gutted in a fire, but I haven’t been able to find any news report about this case online).  Then there is this story, about one of the victims of a serial murderer in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  According to the original news story the 14-year-old girl was pronounced brain dead after she arrived at the hospital, and
the hospital was in the process of preparing her organs for donation when the girl squeezed her mother’s hand . . .
The mother then asked her daughter to squeeze her hand again if she could hear her, and she did . . . The doctor asked the girl to give a thumbs up if she could hear him, and she gave two thumbs up . . .
The hospital then immediately started prepping the 14-year-old for surgery, the lieutenant said.
The girl is in critical condition today, her family said in a statement, saying, "Our daughter’s prognosis is uncertain as she continues fighting for her life."
     The doctors have since claimed that there was never a formal declaration of brain death, so this case would not qualify as an official Miracle using the standards of canonizations or of Lourdes; nevertheless, it still seems to the family that the Lord has brought back to them a child who was gone.  In the case of the un-burned Bible, it could be that there is some natural explanation: perhaps there was something in the car’s interior that protected it  . . . although the article tells us it was simply on the front seat.  It is, at the very least, a nice reminder that God’s is present and active in our world.  Eugene McNiel, for instance, the Good Samaritan who rescued the driver of the burning car, has a very simple, straight-forward explanation for the survival of the Bible: “That is God.”  To which he adds: "You don't believe? (Then) I don't know what to say."


Seeing Isn't Always Believing

   Therein lies a curious fact about miracles great and small.  They seem most often to strengthen and reward the faith of those who already believe, or to encourage those who are willing to believe, but have not quite committed themselves.  Those who refuse to believe, on the other hand, can explain away even the most dramatic miracles.  A classic example is the case of the 19th century French novelist Emile Zola.  Zola was a sceptic who was particularly obsessed with the Shrine at Lourdes, where there had been a number of miraculous cures since the Blessed Mother had appeared to young Bernadette Soubirous there in 1858.  The writer went to the Marian Shrine where, as George Sim Johnston writes in Crisis magazine [full article here], he witnessed:
an 18-year-old girl named Marie Lemarchand who was afflicted with three seemingly incurable diseases: an advanced stage of lupus, pulmonary tuberculosis, and leg ulcerations the size of an adult’s hand. Zola describes the girl’s face on the way to Lourdes as being eaten away by the lupus: “The whole was a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood.” The girl went into the baths and emerged completely cured . . . Zola was there when she came out of the baths. He had said, “I only want to see a cut finger dipped in water and come out healed.” The President of the Medical Bureau, Dr. Boissarie, was standing beside him. “Ah, Monsieur Zola, behold the case of your dreams!” “I don’t want to look at her,” replied Zola. “To me she is still ugly.” And he walked away.

Photo of the Grotto at Lourdes in the 1890's, crutches of healed pilgrims
can be seen hanging in the upper left corner of the picture.
Zola was more fortunate than most of even the most devout pilgrims: there have been less than one hundred officially confirmed miraculous cures at Lourdes in the past one and a half centuries (although there have been many more unconfirmed cures), and most visitors don't see even one of these. The unbelieving author, however, was allowed to witness two:
Zola subsequently witnessed a second cure at Lourdes, that of a Mlle. Lebranchu, who was suffering from the final stages of tuberculosis. He told Dr. Boissarie, “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.” He put the second cure in his novel Lourdes (1894), but depicted the woman as relapsing into her former condition on her way home, the implication being that the cure was neither permanent nor supernatural, but rather a case of autosuggestion in an hysterical religious atmosphere.
But Zola, who remained in communication with the woman long after her recovery, was perfectly aware that there had been no relapse. When Dr. Boissarie questioned him as to the honesty of his account, pointing out that Zola had said that he had come to Lourdes to make an impartial investigation, Zola replied that he was an artist and could do whatever he liked with his material.
   Miracles have no effect on the Zolas of this world, because such people simply don’t want to believe; they fasten upon any possible technicality, and when all else fails they simply invoke the Science Of The Gaps defense: “Of course there’s a natural explanation, we just don’t know what it is”.  Scripture warns us that there will be intransigent blindness of this sort:
. . .  and coming to his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brethren James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?" And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house." And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief. (Matthew 13:54-58)



Pass It On
   Those who have already given their hearts to the Lord, on the other hand, see his fingerprints everywhere, not only in the miraculous, but in every detail of creation (as described in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Pied Beauty, above).   It may seem strange that God showers favors on those who, apparently, need them the least, but Scripture helps us out here, as well.  St. Paul says:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.     (Romans 8: 28-29)
Any gift God gives us (i.e., Grace) is not for us alone, but is for us to share in our turn, for the benefit of others.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:


Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. There are sacramental graces, gifts proper to the different sacraments. There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning "favor," "gratuitous gift," "benefit." Whatever their character - sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues - charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church. (CCC 2003, my bold, italics in original)


Fr. Rob Lupo (Portland Press Herald photo)
The Son is the image of the Father and we are to be conformed to the image of the Son ( see Romans 12:2); God’s interventions great and small can help form us in that image, if we let them. Those who refuse to see more direct manifestations of God’s power are sometimes willing to recognize it reflected in his adopted sons and daughters, or are at least willing to be more open to it if they see that it has changed our lives.  It's often the case that people formerly hostile to the Church open their hearts because of the Grace they see in the lives of believers. Fr. Rob Lupo, for example, formerly an angry, anti-Catholic atheist, gradually let go of his hostility because of the example of a good Catholic friend, and today is not only a believer, but a priest in the Diocese of Portland, Maine [article here].  I’ve heard it suggested that perhaps even St. Paul himself was more ready to listen to the voice of Christ on the Road to Damascus after witnessing the faith and courage of the Christians he had been persecuting.

Miracles In All Shapes And Sizes

Most of us never witness first-hand the most dramatic miracles, but not all miracles are of teh dramatic sort. In his Summa Contra Gentiles St. Thomas Aquinas describes three different kinds of miracles [full excerpt here]. There are 1st degree miracles, truly miraculous events which are things which “nature can never do”, such as the miracle of the Sun at Fatima. God seems to reserve these for very special occasions.  2nd degree miracles are things which  “nature can do, but not in the same order”; someone who was dead coming back to life, for instance: it is natural for a human being to live, unlike the Sun dancing in the sky, but in the natural order of things we stay dead once we have died.  Finally, third degree miracles are

what is wont to be done by the operation of nature, but without the operation of the natural principles: for instance when by the power of God a man is cured of a fever that nature is able to cure; or when it rains without the operation of the principles of nature.

These are miracles, in other words, in which things develop in an apparently natural way, but whose course is determined by God. The 180 degree reversal in the life of former atheist Rob Lupo, who is now Fr. Lupo, is an example of a 3rd degree miracle.
    I doubt there is any one of us who hasn't had some experience of these 3rd degree miracles, the unlikely events that push us closer to God, or the seemingly impossible favors that follow closely after our prayer (this seems to happen to my wife a lot, most recently yesterday). We shouldn't be deterred by the fact others aren't persuaded; when Christ comes again in Glory I'm sure there will be some who try to dismiss it as a mass hallucination. Faith, however, tells us that God is constantly working to form us in his image, even in the smallest things: "He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him."