I have a friend who has a beloved uncle whom I also know quite well—he might as well be my own uncle. Indeed, he allows me to call him by that familiar title. Yet he does not believe in miracles. I would like to say that it isn’t the case that he doesn’t believe they can happen as much as it is simply that he has never seen one. But, in fact, it is the case that he does not believe they can happen at all.
Now I myself am as skeptical as he is about faith healers on television who ask you to send money for a prayer cloth that they have anointed with some kind of healing oil. I am not sure whether this is just an American phenomenon; perhaps some of you who might be reading this in another country are not familiar with this phenomenon—I mean televised miracle workers, not miracles per se. Yet for those of you who may not know, I can tell you this much: at certain times of the evening in the States you might just flip to a certain television channel and find a certain man (for usually it is a male) who will touch some certain person in a crowd and (likely by some prearranged agreement) that person will throw their crutches aside and begin leaping about on the stage (for usually it is a stage) and declare that they have been healed.
Yet I don’t count such a spectacle as a miracle. Rather, it is precisely a spectacle, something that the (possibly well intentioned, possibly not) televangelist has put together (whether to entertain or, more likely, to obtain donations). This is not a miracle. Instead, I count as a miracle a baby.
I write this on the very date, twenty-three years ago to the day, that a friend of mine had to deliver his own child because the doctor had gone out to have a smoke—I say nothing here about doctors ought knowing better—at the very moment that the child was appearing. My friend told me that he had the unique opportunity of receiving nearly half of his daughter’s body before the nurses came charging in to help. The doctor, in the meantime, was enjoying an unsanctioned rendezvous with the Marlboro man. That, to me, is a miracle—not the smoking doctor, but the daughter, choking, gurgling, gasping for her first breath as she entered rapidly into this world.
To look closely at a newborn baby is a startling act, for it is to behold a miracle. It is amazing to think that the child has grown so rapidly in the mother’s womb. Indeed, it is more amazing to think that it has grown in another person at all. If you are lucky enough to behold it immediately after birth lying upon its mother’s chest, with tiny grasping hands, its look of new life, and the image of its mother’s love, you will witness perhaps an even greater miracle than the child’s birth. G.K. Chesterton once wrote “… we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.” In short, like that of the egg producing a chick, the idea of a human being, a mother, producing a baby is rather fantastic, at least if we suppose for a moment that we had never known how babies came into being. If we are not amazed by this, it is only because we take it for granted.
Now this is not the only kind of miracle that I believe exists, but I do believe that it is particularly miraculous. My friend has never quite gotten over his catching that child as she came into the world; he still talks about it, especially when he waxes nostalgic over a glass of wine and a bite of Swiss cheese, whose wholes themselves, too, might just be particularly miraculous; else why would there be at least two theories about the holes in the cheese?).
But beyond the particularly miraculous, the “that’s-amazing-when-you-think-about-it” type of miracle, there are also miracles that are peculiarly miraculous. It is that type that the charlatan televangelist tries but fails to emulate with his smoke and mirrors on television every week. That type is the kind that people all too often crave, about which someone might say, “now if I saw that kind of (peculiar) miracle, I would believe that miracles can happen.” But of course those miracles, indeed any miracles, particular or peculiar, hardly ever appear to those folks. There are two reasons, I suppose, for that.
First, miracles are, by definition, miraculous. They don’t happen often or they wouldn’t be so. Second, the people about whom I am speaking can’t see the miracles when they’re right in front of them. They miss the particular miracles because they don’t recognize in the face of a baby a mind-boggling sight, a fantasy come alive. Nor would they see, of course, peculiar miracles, nor accept another’s account of them, such as Elaine Jakes catching the scent of cheese in a church in Stockton, NJ, and beginning to go to that church regularly soon after that. Nor would they accept a story, even from a known source, about someone encountering an angel. They may even believe that love is merely a chemical reaction of the brain and that forgiveness is something unachievable, especially in certain egregious circumstances. They might even say there are no such things as truth or justice. And they certainly don’t believe in Superman, or at least the archetype that he represents in the comics.
And my dear uncle might say, “Well, for every ‘miracle,’ you produce, I’ll show you ten non-miracles, and worse yet. How do you explain the Holocaust alongside your so-called miracles?” And he would be spot-on right. This is the most vexing question. What he is essentially asking is why children die, why genocide happens, why there is human suffering, why there is such sadness in the world.
I cannot answer these questions. Rather, I can only revert to miracles. I start with the Italian adverb-adjective combination, molto particolare. I learned this expression from a dear friend who studies art. He uses it to describe the finest workmanship. It is a kind of Italian code word for “very beautiful, very well made.” Now, perhaps I am but stating the obvious, but I believe particular (i.e. the Italian particolare) miracles are often overlooked simply because they are the rule.
One takes the beach for granted if one lives by the shore. One takes the Alps for granted if one lives on Mont Blanc. Babies are born every moment, colorful flowers bloom in green fields, peaches are succulent, and a true friend…—well you’ll know that when you find one. I made such a friend a long time ago at Dickinson College; his name is Tim, and he is a lawyer now in
Harrisburg. I spoke of him to a dear colleague just yesterday; even after all these years I described him as closer than a brother. Such friendship is a particular miracle, too.
I am not so far off topic as you might imagine. If human suffering somehow mars particular miracles—certainly it does for my dear uncle and I believe for many others with whom I’ve spoken about the possibility of life having meaning—peculiar miracles, if not quite offering an answer, nevertheless somehow offer a response to the problem of human suffering. Such miracles are no less beautiful than the particular, everyday miracles, but they are strange in a different way than a chicken coming from an egg is strange. They are peculiar precisely because they defy natural laws. I take one (click here) or two (click here for another) recent examples from the news. If you look at these clips, you’ll see that they both record children coming back to life when they were dead. Not near death; dead. Now one could say that that kind of thing happens somewhere in the world everyday. But, first of all, it does not. Secondly, it does not happen to you every day. It does not happen to your neighbor or friend every day. And when it does happen to you, there’s a chance then that you’ll recognize that you were party to a peculiar miracle.
If particular (i.e. beautiful) miracles are tarnished by humankind’s inhumanity and the grief engendered by natural disasters, peculiar miracles are not so much a response as perhaps an antidote to the vexing question of human suffering. This would be especially true if peculiar miracles should be construed as messages from another world. If that were to be the case, the adjective peculiar would indeed be a good descriptive term for them. But that is the stuff of another blog, a blog about life—and wine and cheese, of course. And now that I think about it, perhaps the holes in Swiss cheese are a peculiar miracle after all.
 Orthodoxy, p. 290.
 The Curious Autobiography, p. 185.
 The Curious Autobiography, p. 206.