Elaine Jakes always pronounced the word miracle “myuracle.” I’ve rarely heard another person do so, and I honestly can’t recall whether Lizzie Ann Jones Evans (Elaine’s grandmother and my great-grandmother) or Blanche Evans Jakes said “myuracle.” It has been too many years since Lizzie died (1968) and, I suppose, too many since Blanche passed away in 1982. But my mother’s pronunciation rings in my ears just as Lizzie Ann’s blessing does.
Lizzie Ann’s blessing was as simple one: “God,” she said to me when I was but five years old, “has chosen you for a very special purpose in this life.” I think that, though a five-year old may not remember how that person pronounced miracle, that same five-year old could hardly fail to remember, throughout his life, the blessing of his great grandmother only four years before her passing at the age of 94.
I suppose that blessing is, for me, writing, and that’s why I write. And part of why I write is because I wish simply to chronicle everyday miracles (or should I say myuracles?), for it was not only my mother’s pronunciation of the word miracle that was striking but rather it was her inclination to see miracles in everyday events. Someone, perhaps a proper theologian, might be annoyed by the practice of seeing miracles in practically everything, for he or she might argue that it debases the value of the term miracle. A miracle, someone might say, really should be a spectacular event, something, well, miraculous, like a child being rescued from a burning building, someone recovering improbably from a disease or other condition, or someone whose life situation changed so dramatically that no other word than miracle will do. While I don’t disagree that all those things are miraculous, I think, like my mother, that day-to-day miracles can be just as telling, maybe even more so.
Telling? Telling of what? That is the question for any miracle, big or small: what story is it telling? And, all this came up at a pub the other evening, just briefly, as I sat there having a beer with a famous archaeologist (who will remain nameless) about his improbable career and meteoric rise in the profession and just the many strange—in fact, were I to tell his whole story, surpassing strange—things that had to have happened for him to be the outstanding professor (for his command of the ancient languages outstrips nearly any other archaeologist that I’ve ever met) and stellar field archaeologist that he is. And while any one of those things could be fobbed off as mere coincidence, the sum of them, well, it amasses to a ponderance of circumstantial evidence of a miracle.
And that is what this blog is about: it’s the small “myuracles” that really add up that are, in many ways, far more spectacular than the big ones. Of course, we all rejoice when trapped miners are rescued from deep in the bowels of the earth. Or when a child falls three stories and survives, or when our friend recovers from an aggressive form of cancer. And we should, for those miracles are wonderful things, and I always feel sorry for the atheist who says to me, “If I only saw a miracle first hand, I’d believe there is a God” and then often adds, “but I haven’t seen one, and I never will.”
My response isn’t, “Well, I have, many times.” I think that, but I don’t say it. Rather, I say, “Have you ever seen a baby nestled in its mother’s arms? If that’s not a myuralce” (and here I deliberately mispronounce the word in honor of Elaine), “I simply don’t know what is.”
I recently visited an old friend of mine in Frenchtown, New Jersey, not far away from New Hope, Pennsylvania, where he and I both grew up. He has some life challenges and he is receiving Disability Compensation. That means he has as good a life as he can have under the circumstances, for when one is “on Disability” there are likely to be some obvious challenges. He faces them every day, and I am proud of the way he handles them and I am proud to be his friend.
And I am glad to share some memories with him and to have them of him. I was visiting him, as it turned out, on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We talked a bit about the significance of those holidays, what they meant. I told him that I believe that Maundy Thursday is derived from the word Magdalene, as in Mary Magdalene, who some interpret to have been the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet for burial at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany (Matthew 26:6-13). While I don’t know if she is that woman—to my mind it would be strange for Matthew not to have mentioned that—I do think that tradition held it was her and the association with the anointing of his feet for burial and with the last supper on that Thursday eventually crystalized, and thus the Thursday was called Maundy, a corruption over time of an adjective (or the genitive case) of Magdalene.
But I wax pedantic again, for the real point of this blog is my friend, by visiting whom I was blessed. I went there, back home to New Hope to bless him. I went to go to church with him, to take him out to dinner a couple of evenings and to encourage him in his life and faith. But I didn’t expect that he would bless me.
His blessing wasn’t just one thing, it was many. It was his smile, the faith we share, the hope we have. The vision of each other, I imagine, well and entirely healed in Heaven someday, me from my sinful self, him from his disability. So I went to bless, thinking I would bless him. But he blessed me.
And the one moment where that blessing really hit home was when we were just leaving his church in Frenchtown, for he worships there in a fine old Presbyterian church. He hasn’t much money, so he really couldn’t offer me a “gift” per se. But he did something better than that: he took from the small table that holds worship materials a complimentary copy of Our Daily Breadfor March, April and May of 2018 and he offered it to me.
That evening after we had dinner and I had dropped him off at his apartment, back in my hotel room in New Hope I happened to open to the 11th of April, which even though it was not the date corresponding to the reading, I read because it is my granddaughter’s birthday. The short devotional for that date is entitled, “How Long?” And I thought of how long I had known my friend, how long he had struggled with his disability, how long I have taken my own health and life for granted. And I thought of that vision of Heaven that I mentioned just above, with all the souls there well, able, and free from the sin that drags each one of us down in this life. And I thought, “How long?” And here I quote from the close of that short devotion, written by Bill Crowder: “In our seemingly endless moments of struggle, His unfailing love will carry us.”
I think that that will be enough for this life, for we certainly are here for but a short time. And in the meantime, don’t be surprised if you wind up being more blessed by someone whom you try to bless than you actually ever bless them. For that is often the way that blessing works.
In the second chapter of what is perhaps his most renowned piece of apologetic narrative, C. S. Lewis writes, “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed.” How sadly true this rings these days in light of the tragic events in France and Turkey. Yet Lewis is not speaking about current events, not really, for he immediately goes on to say, “That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel that we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing that anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.” Lewis continues, in Aristotelian fashion (as he often does in Mere Christianity) to parse out the question of God, dividing opinions about the divine into Epicurean/Nietzschean/Hegelian terms (i.e., non-existent or at least non-interventionist, detached, beyond good or evil) on the one side, to conceptions of God connected with justice, righteousness, etc., on the other. In this latter group he places Islamic, Jewish and Christian thought. Before I left for Europe, as I walked my dog one last time I was thinking of another idea, not so much about God as about strangeness, which dovetails with the “twist” that Lewis mentions in the above citation. In the story of Balaam and Balak from the perhaps not-too-often-read book of Numbers in the Old Testament, more often known as the “story of Balaam and his ass,” Balaam is summoned by Balak, the king of Moab. Though he is warned explicitly by his talking donkey about going to Balak’s court, Balaam nevertheless complies with the regal summons. After Balaam’s arrival in Moab, Balak requests, presses, even tries to trap Balaam into pronouncing a curse on the Israelites (Numbers 22:6-17). To grasp fully the implications of Balak’s insistence that Balaam make that curse, one has to recall that in the ancient world curses were really a big deal. Although nowadays I but rarely hear of anyone pronouncing a curse on another person—though it still does happen and is not hard to find on the Internet. In antiquity these were staunchly
believed to bring ruin and disaster on the accursed. The third heir to the Roman principate, Nero Claudius Drusus, who was known with the agnomen by the adopted name Germanicus Iulius Caesar, or simply Germanicus for short, died under a curse before he could ever take the imperial reins (described vividly by Tacitus in his Annales 2.69). Some Greek inscriptions—a famous one, for example, from the island of Thasos—even offer instructions about how to get out from under a self-pronounced curse. We have thousands of curse tablets, too—i.e., shards of broken pottery with nasty little curses written on them. Socrates was the victim not only of a death sentence pronounced on him unjustly by the Athenian court but was the subject of many such curses written on potsherds and cast into wells in Athens. Even in the period of the Renaissance/Reformation, Martin Luther (probably impishly, inasmuch as it comes from his Table Talk ) put a quite nasty sounding curse on whoever happens to love the work of Erasmus—and he did so in Latin, no less—followed shortly by a further playful quip, “Whenever I pray, I pray for a curse upon Erasmus” (Table Talk, 672). But what I am calling “weirdness” and what brings us back from the rare dinner party conversation about ancient curse tablets or the rivalry between Luther and Erasmus to the more likely breakfast-time (and at any rate more edifying) conversation about C.S. Lewis is theastonishing behavior of Balaam. I do not mean the fact that in this story the ass can speak or even what it says, but rather what Balaam himself says, which I shall cite at this blog’s end. When urged, compelled, downright bullied by Balak into cursing, Balaam nevertheless blesses. And that, it occurred to me as I walked my dog, is what is really strange about this story and what is weird about God, for that matter, as I understand him from Holy Writ. Such weirdness, simply put, is that blessing, an unusual thing to do, is a recurrent theme. To wit, St. Paul expands upon this unusual point of view in his epistle to the Romans (12:14-17), “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep… . Recompense to no man evil for evil.” When I say unusual, I mean it is simply because I do not feel like blessing when I am wronged. I do not feel like blessing when I am bullied. In fact, I rarely feel like blessing anyone at all. And this to me seems to be the “you could not have guessed” factor that C.S. Lewis is speaking about. It has nothing to do with a debate about Jesus’ miracles or political hot-button issues or even the hot-button issue of whom one should vote for in any election, let alone one as confusing as the next American election. Rather, this teaching, which in a sense goes back to a man known better for his ass than his counterintuitive stubbornness, is central to the New Testament narrative. It must have astounded his disciples when he said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor,’ and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). The same theme is even more riveting when it turns up among the words of Christ on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). These are all, it seems to me, very weird teachings, what Lewis calls “that queer twist.” Yet someone might object: “They do not sound that weird to me! After all, the Bible is a religious book. Why should you be surprised to find pietistic teachings in it?” Yet the notion of “religious” alone does not necessarily evoke such profoundly counterintuitive teaching. In fact, the Bible itself is often indicted for its violence, as accounts of rape and incest are recorded there, as are many a war, many a battle—wars often advanced to claim a land for the Jews at the expense of Canaanites or others already inhabiting those regions. Add to this that one of the more memorable verses recorded by Moses is, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23). And other spiritual books outside of the Bible speak of just retribution, using violence to achieve justice and to right human wrongs on behalf of God. Yet Christianity turns this formula on its head: “Pray for your enemies.” “Bless, and do not curse.” In closing, I present neither proof of God nor of Christianity. Rather, I offer here merely an observation indebted to C.S. Lewis’ comment; my own is based not on Balaam’s talking animal but on Balaam’s own speech: “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent; hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good? Behold, I have received a commandment to bless: and he hath blessed, and I cannot reverse it” (Numbers 23:19f.). In these turbulent, violent and inhuman times, may Balaam’s ancient but quite excellent summation offer us a path to sanity and healing in a world gone mad.
 Russell Meiggs and David Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford Clarendon, 1969), entry no. 83; on the notion of being foresworn, cf. A.J. Graham, “An Ellipse in the Thasian Decree about Delation (ML 83)?” American Journal of Philology 110 (1989): 405–12.
Thanksgiving Day in America is a time of great joy for some, joy sometimes laced with sorrowful memories. Yet one aspect that I particularly enjoy about Thanksgiving is the opportunity to recall, to reflect not simply on the many blessings of the year but also upon old friendships, family members who have passed away, and even those who are alive and well but who live at a great distance. Seeing Emil and Janet (née Jakes) a few weeks ago in Nanticoke was a blessing; reuniting with an old friend, like my Austrian friend Peter, who is coming to visit this Thanksgiving will be a sweeter treat than the pumpkin pie.
Indeed, seeing a friend after many years is a uniquely wonderful thing. A few days ago I was in Europe, finishing a trip to Paris and Rome. (God bless Paris, in this hour, and all of humanity in a difficult and especially tense moment.) On that occasion just over a week ago now, I went for the first time, at the invitation of a friend, to the university known as La Sapienza, Rome’s most renowned university.
The name of the university (in Italy held in as high regard as Oxford or Princeton is among Anglophones) means, when translated, “The Wisdom,” and though it enjoys perhaps the most interesting name of all the major institutions of higher learning in the world, it suffers from the starkest architecture and least comely examples of bas relief.
The reason for this is that most of the buildings of La Sapienza were designed by Marcello Piacentini (a name that means “little pleasing” and whose buildings please but litte), one of the principal architects of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, under whom apparently ugly was then the new beautiful, just as abject was the new free. Yet this blog is not to be about politics or architecture or intended to slander the no doubt well-intentioned educational wing of the fascist regime, or even to be rife with paradoxical statements or oxy-(or any other types of)-morons.
Rather, it is about my trip to “The Wisdom,” where I heard the lecture of a certain Professor Conte, whom some regard as the most famous philologist in the world. Now it might sound a little bit funny to say the most famous philologist, for I just promised not to indulge in oxymorons. After all, you might be wondering, can any philologist really be famous? But Professor Conte is famous, at least in certain circles, and the sizable lecture hall (or aula) in which he presented his lecture at La Sapienza was so packed with students and professors that many had to stand or sit on the floor. There the esteemed, recently retired professor from Pisa delivered his lecture on literary “thefts,” or borrowings, as he was seated at a desk atop a raised dais at the front of the aula.
The last time I had seen the great professor was about a quarter century ago when I was fortunate enough to visit Princeton University when he was lecturing there as a visiting fellow, as I recall, in Princeton’s famous Institute for Advanced Study. All of this was just before he became the top literature professor at la Scuola Normale in Pisa, which, when translated, is perhaps the second most interestingly named institution of higher learning in Italy, i.e., the “Normal School.”
All those many years before, that same professor and I had enjoyed a dinner together, after which we had stayed up smoking cigars, something I pretended that was not abnormal for me, although of course he knew it was. As he and I smoked—he enjoying the cigars, I merely trying not to choke—we chatted about literature and art, culture and rhetoric, and yes, even the idea of literary “thefts”—that is the way that one author might draw on the work of another—a fresh consideration of which was, all these years later, the subject of his lecture at La Sapienza. Such thefts, he said, are not plagiarism, but imitations that are adapted, reinvigorated, and deployed afresh; they are made new, made one’s own.
Seeing him again was something like returning to a favorite grove, one nearby your childhood haunts, if you should be lucky enough to have had a grove or a memorable childhood; I am fortunate to say that I did (cf. Curious Autobiography, ch. 9).
Yet to return to the metaphor, seeing such a friend is a situation comparable to when one might rediscover one’s favorite tree, the one under which you once sat reading and thinking, and reading some more. That is what it was like for me to have sat before him again as he spoke. I found the shade of that tree, its daunting height, the inspiring reach of its branches sweetly invigorating, joyous, refreshing my memory of years gone by.
We spoke for a few minutes after his presentation. He remembered me (“of course,” he said sincerely) after so many years. It was as if, save the cigars, we were discussing literature again, even his favorite poem, and mine; for we share a single poem, a single author. Moments like this are rare, but they are important, and I spend this blog writing about this one for a very good reason: I would submit to you that they are among the finest moments that we can share. Life is tragically short, and we have but few such opportunities. If Milton is more than poetically correct about his late espoused saint come to him like Alcestis from the grave, rescued from death by Herculean effort, though pale and faint, we may just see our friends again. It will not merely be in The Wisdom’s aula, but in the Hall of true wisdom.
But to say as much is itself a Miltonic theft, of sorts, which is why I do it here, both as a tribute to the professor and as a harbinger of a glorious hope. And, in as much as I am about the business of thievery, let me allude to a painting that deftly suggests such a scene, one by Raphael.
Though none in the aula of La Sapienza could have known as much that afternoon as we sat there listening intently to the professor, we were but a few hours away from the Paris bombings. How miserable that the arts and humanities can be so quickly destabilized by terror. How incredibly sad such a grotesque act can render the world asunder. Though the terrorists have sadly claimed the lives of a few, they have nonetheless failed to steal our culture, for they know nothing of the thefts about which we speak here. They shall never lay claim to the liberty of our souls that produces art, literature, and what the French call joie de vivre.
Yet we have much to be thankful for, even in the midst of such tragedy. And that brings me back to the notion of Thanksgiving, much more than “turkey day.” Rather, it seems to me that we might better nickname it “Memory Day,” a day to recall both the material blessings, such as shelter and food—a sample of which might be to your taste, see below—and those who came before, whether a distant quasi-historical memory of some pilgrims and their supposed encounter with Native Americans or someone in our families for whom we are particularly thankful. On Memory Day we might just recall all those who went before us: they made our country, the United States, what it is—a wonderful cultural mélange with a distinctly American moral compass and unparalleled work ethic—and they also made the world a better place.
Certainly, my grandparents did that: they sacrificed not simply for their family, but for the poor. Harry took part in, I recall distinctly, a number of mission trips to Haiti, long before community service became chic. Closer to home, he and Blanche, my grandmother, would often clandestinely provide food and clothing for the poorer families nearby—whether in Larksville, Shavertown, Kingstown, or Nanicoke—dropping the homemade care packages off on their porches. So, my dear reader, I will, for my part, think on these things as a relish the hope of seeing old friends again, both those who are founts of learning and thosefamily members, whose time in this world may have passed but whose legacy abides. Both are sources of humane and cultured inspiration. Their inspiration stands; it flies in the face of the cowardly acts of terror of our times. From both that professor and progenitors, I will commit humane “thefts,” as I hope to imitate both by borrowing directly from them in my thoughts and my life. And in that sense, I hope you will join me and be a thief. Sometimes, indeed, it takes a thief.
 In the inscription above the main portal the Latin phrase Studium Vrbis presumably suggests a center point for the study in the city rather than the discipline of Urban Studies or the like. When translated, it literally means “Study of the City” or “The City’s Study.”