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.”
When I was a student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, I had a course entitled “Approaches to History.” In it, we considered various ways of writing and reconstructing history. It reflected the first beginnings of what is now commonly referred to as revisionist history, which means history interpreted through the lens of a particular sociological or political agenda. It sounds innocent enough, and at some level it is innocent. On the positive side, such an understanding of history means that we can’t just take for granted what we have inherited in a history book that purports to be unbiased. To enlarge on that, it means that there is no “unbiased” history. Everyone, wittingly or not, has a point of view that is influenced by his or her surroundings, his or her values or lack thereof, and when one interprets or reconstructs or writes history it will be, inevitably, interpreted or written through the aforementioned lens.
Take Christianity, for example. The Christian scriptures were written, presumably, by Christians who no doubt would have had a bias as to how to interpret the history of Christmas and Easter. The minor miracles surrounding Christmas are less spectacular than that of Easter, so I leave those aside. But Easter: now there’s a dilemma. If the Christians are the ones in charge of relating the history of the empty tomb, couldn’t they be revising their interpretation of the events to suit their own political agenda? In the gospels (and non-canonical concomitant Christian literature), the early Christians all claimed that the tomb was empty. A modern historian, operating from the assumption that miracles don’t “really” happen, could revise that account: “Well, the Christians were obviously biased and were unable to see clearly what happened, so they pretended he was raised from the dead. Or maybe they even hid the body and lied about the resurrection.” And thus this historian has revised the history to what is “more likely” or at least more logical. But the lens of that historian has its own bias: it is based on the notion of miracles not happening.
But what if those miracles did happen? If one were to entertain that possibility for even a moment, one would have to go back and reconsider, yet again, the big miracle of Easter and, yes, even the minor miracles surrounding Christmas. And one would have to look at one’s own life and recognize those times when something happened that seemed miraculous. And so forth. That process may just lead that person upwards out of despair and directly to the wider, redemptive implication of Easter, the foot of the cross. But that is the material of another blog.
Let me close with another aspect of history: not just how we can interpret it, but how heavy it is, for that is the title of this blog. For example, the weight of the Second World War and the atrocities that led up to that war is indeed ponderous. Hopefully consideration of those events has changed the way we think about evil and has strengthened our resolve to confront it courageously when we see it again. The same can be said of the American Civil War and the circumstances that caused that conflict—can we do better now, can we move forward together as a country, regardless of race, creed, or color? Can we consider and recognize the weight of history without carrying on our back the unnecessary burden of history?
I don’t know if we can, but I know where such healing must start: it starts not in the legislative chamber or in the courtroom or in a protest march, but in the heart. It starts with each one of us letting go of the ponderousness of his or her own history. We can’t forget the past, but we can let the burden of it go. I have a friend who is still carrying the burden of his childhood with him. No, he can’t just forget his childhood, and in fact he should not, for we all need to learn from our parents’ mistakes so that we don’t inflict those same mistakes upon our own children. But we don’t need to carry the weight of those mistakes, whether our own errors or those of our parents, around with us any longer. How can we let go of such a burden? The answer lies in our consideration of Christmas and Easter above, summarized by St. Paul at Romans 7:24. If miracles happen, we can let go; if they don’t, maybe we can’t. I believe we can.
I almost entitled this blog “Amusing and Unamusing Encounters,” but then I thought to myself, “What encounter do I ever have that is actually unamusing?”
Even encounters with boorish folks, say the high-brow types, who want to demythologize (their term, not mine) everything, are actually quite amusing. I was at a cocktail party recently chatting with just such a person, who was schooling me on how there is nothing miraculous in this material universe, nor can there ever be, as the universe is naturally material. I did not point out to him the circularity of his argument, nor did I question whether his use of the word “naturally” was meant to be a pun. It didn’t seem likely that it was, as he did not seem capable of puns. His words were rather dour, cold and in any case far too sober, even though he was paradoxically well-along on his second martini. Still, this “fact” was at the forefront of his if not small, at least pretty well closed mind.
Still, for all his dourness, the encounter wasn’t unamusing. Had I had the chance to get a word in edgewise I might have asked him if he believed in binary opposition or at least whether there is the possibility of a thing having an opposite. If he agreed, I might have asked him what the contrasting opposite of necessary is, and he might have answered “unnecessary,” or, inasmuch as I already said he was rather high-brow, “superfluous.”
Then I might have asked, “And what does Nietzsche contrast with a mere, unenlightened human being?”
“Der Übermensch” he would no doubt have been his reply, and for the benefit of the by-now-gathering unlearned corona of listeners he would likely have added, “The Nietzschean ‘Superman.’”
And what about “natural? What is its opposite?” I then would have added.
“Now if you’re going to try to get me to say ‘supernatural’, well I won’t take that bait,” he cleverly would have retorted. Yet even in his recusal of saying the word, he would have said it. Not exactly a “touché moment” for me, but still, in his unintentional paralepsis it he would have at least brought it up.
And, I think, that is by and large what happens to each one of us when we try to deny any possibility of coincidences being miracles, any impression of some kind of divine intervention in our lives. We will always retreat to what is material (and therefore secure) and, in most cases, not happening directly to us. We think of, or even go so far as to make, a verbal reference to “all the people starving in … [and here just fill in a country, region or continent where human brutality or inattentiveness is responsible for suppression, leading to the starvation of much of the population].” We don’t bother to ask ourselves, “What actually causes that devastation?” for that would, in most cases, involve assignation of blame to human beings and maybe even point back to our own apathy in the face of human injustice. And we rarely, if ever, go beyond that to say, “And, while I’m on that topic, what can I do about it?” For the second question would undoubtedly involve our checkbook.
Yet even such cocktail conversation about the natural, material world in which we live, were one to happen upon us (and one did, at least in part, recently for me), can be amusing. It is amusing because it can remind us that there is such a thing as the supernatural—what we might summarily call “magic,’ even if we mean it not in the para-normal sense but rather theologically—and that if there is a supernatural corresponding to the natural then all things are possible. Yes, all things—but that’s not my idea, I stole if from a higher source.
But let’s leave that aside for two other amusing conversations. First, I spoke about television quality with a television salesman at Best Buy. His concern for me to buy a high-quality television was palpable. I tried to tell him that “I am not a television person.” Of course, that must have been amusing to him, since I was buying a television. But I insisted, “I don’t watch TV.” My wife and I just put discs in a player occasionally to watch a film. Still, he was telling me about how much better the quality of the more expensive televisions were, and I could tell it was not simply to make a sale but because he was clearly concerned for how much more I could enjoy television watching—I think he did not believe me about only watching films on discs—were I to purchase the high-quality TV set (though it is not a “set” anymore, it is more like a movie theater screen).
“The smallest I will allow you to buy is a forty-inch screen,” he said, “You won’t be happy with anything smaller.” I stress he was not just trying to make a sale: he actually cared about me, I could tell. All in all, rather an amusing exchange. I left with at 43” television set—or rather “in-house movie screen.”
Finally, one last amusing encounter: I read recently that a woman was arrested for assaulting her husband because he forgot her anniversary. When I mentioned that to my wife we had an amusing conversation of a different kind. My wife was entirely sympathetic to the woman. I found that amusing. Needless to say, I will be especially attentive not to forget our anniversary next year. Perhaps we shall celebrate by watching a movie on our super-sized TV at home.
I was recently in Orvieto, in whose Duomo is the corporal upon which the miracle of Bolsena is said to have taken place. That miracle is the blood that dripped, it is said, from the host when a priest, who personally doubted the notion of transubstantiation, experienced a miraculous event when he broke the host. Orvieto thus became the seat of the festival of Corpus Christi, a feast day that it shares and always shall with the scenic lakeside town of Bolsena.
“I am Catholic and even I don’t believe that,” a friend of mine said over dinner. I thought little of his remark at the time, but a few days later I wondered why he does not believe it, for my personal reasons for not believing it have nothing to do with the fact that it is a purported miracle. My basis for unbelief in the event has to do with my Protestant understanding of Christian doctrine based on the final words of Christ on the cross, not because a miracle can’t or didn’t happen in Bolsena.
In fact, were I God, I could hardly imagine a more scenic place for a miracle than Bolsena. But that has nothing to do with the notion of a miracle. Rather, miracles, whether orally (or artistically) transmitted, like that of the host of Bolsena, or recorded in Holy Writ, like that of the miracle of manna come down from heaven to feed the hungry Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness, simply require a bit of faith, but with that bit of faith added, do tend to make sense in a world that is otherwise too often senseless without them.
Now one could say that I am probably overthinking this, and I probably am, especially inasmuch as one certainly could call, paceRaphael, the miracle of Bolsena merely a minor one. It is, after all, only a miracle that is said to verify a point of Catholic doctrine, not one that healed the sick or raised the dead. But however that may be, it got me to (over-)thinking, and I found myself pondering miracles in general. Thus I wondered whether, were there to be someone who did believe in a minor miracle of any kind, what might that same person do with the major miracles? I have in mind those such as the miracle of the manna recorded in the book of Exodus. That miracle itself prefigures, if not the miracle of Bolsena per se, at least the central feature of it, the Bread of Heaven, which all Christians, whether trans-, con-, or a- substantiators, agree is in some sense the body of Christ. (Those who believe in the real presence, in down and under the bread, I personally think, are closer to the truth; those who do not are not. But that is, to my mind, adiaphoristic in the greater scope of things and certainly will be resolved on the other side of the Jordan, where “real presence” will be played out at a new level).
And thus to return to the manna specifically. The symbolism of manna itself, bread from heaven, struck me, as I pondered it, working backward from Bolsena to the exilic wilderness of the Israelites. It seemed to me to be particularly central to Christian thought, for at the center of the Lord’s Prayer lies a petition specifically for a more mundane kind of manna: “Give us this day our daily bread.” That centrality, that powerful, real sustaining presence of God through bread and wine in our life, to give our bodies true blood and corporal form are not unrelated. The miracle can be fancy, like manna from heaven, or humble, like daily bread, but it is a miracle nonetheless, sustained evidence of a God who is capable of miraculous events, even as that of Bolsena, which I paradoxically don’t believe in, as I said at the outset. But the reason for my skepticism is not because the event itself is said to be miraculous but rather because of Christ’s final words, “It is finished.” And with that, I will parrot those words, for this blog is, likewise now finished, with a hope for you and me and a world that needs them but deserves them not, the continuance of miracles among us.
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 holes 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.