hen I was in the throes of my home-schooled religious education, I scoured my family’s collection of Saint books and confirmed what seemed unquestionable at the time — that miracles are, well, miraculous. Dominic’s blessings shattered the cups meant to poison him; Don Bosco cured six children of smallpox; St. Thomas Aquinas levitated; the apostle Peter convicted a married couple of economic stinginess and they dropped dead in terror.
A skeptical man visiting Lourdes looked at the crutches hung up as testimonies to miraculous healings and whispered, “A single wooden leg would be more to the point.” His dart hardly dented my faith — limb regrowths and reattachments are common fare for the Catholic. My favorite comes from Anthony of Padua. He heard a young man confess to kicking his mother, and cried out, in defense of downtrodden parents everywhere: “The foot that kicks the father or the mother should be cut off!” Being a literal-minded penitent, the man went home and lopped off his foot with an axe. I can only assume that, when Anthony went to reattach the man to his foot, it was with a dry sort of humor. “I suppose I put a foot in my mouth,” he may have said. Or perhaps he asked God to forgive him for his anger, “which has proved a stumbling block to the foot of this young moron.”
These days, we are more apt to hear that the “real miracle” of the reattached foot was not the foot, but the forgiveness; the young man had not so much lost his foot as he had lost his moral footing — the Saint’s visit put him back on his feet. Priests and pastors warn their people not to get footloose praying for wondrous events that defy explanation. The “real miracle,” we are assured, is that God loves us even when we are sinners; that your uncle quit drinking; that we raised enough money to repair the roof.
These gifts can be referred to as miracles in a broad sense — unexpected wonders that we attribute to a special action of God. These are, undoubtedly, the ordinary stuff of Christian life. I, being a floppy sort of Christian, would flop on the floor and give up praying all together if not for the car that starts after the Hail Mary and the heart that softens after the Mass. If I seem to cast shade their way, it is because I worry that these “miracles” are often lauded at the expense of miracles understood in a strict sense. “Miracles in the strict sense are apparent” says the Catholic Encyclopedia — grasped by the senses. They are show-offs, like dancing suns, and resurrected stillborn children. They exist to manifest the glory of God. Aquinas defined miracles as wonders “apart from the generally established order in things” — like manna from heaven or the bi-location of Padre Pio. It is not enough that the cause of the wonder be obscure, or fortuitous, or even unlikely. If it’s a miracle, its cause is “completely hidden,” not simply from you, but from every potential onlooker — whether a scientist from the future, a theoretical physicist, a mob psychologist, or a statistician. The thing is “wondrous in an unqualified way” because it springs from a cause hidden to all men at all times — the Hidden God. To add it all together: a miracle can be defined as an event apart from the generally established order of things, apparent to the senses, the cause of which is completely hidden from all men, rightly attributed to an action of God.
Thus the committee for determining miraculous healings at Lourdes limit their declaration of “miracles” to those healings that show the appropriate pizazz:
The original disease must be incapacitating, with a sure and precise diagnosis…The cure, which should be sudden, instantaneous and without convalescence, must not result from medical treatment; and recovery must permanently restore normal function to the beneficiary.
In this sense, “the miracle of childbirth” is not a miracle. Finding peace is not a miracle. Finding a job is not a miracle. It jars with our sense of piety, but the Catholic Encyclopedia makes the point rather clear: even “the justification of the sinner, the Eucharistic Presence, the sacramental effects, are not miracles for two reasons: they are beyond the grasp of the senses and they have place in the ordinary course of God’s supernatural Providence.”
To say that these things are not miracles is not to malign them — it is to malign our manner of thinking. We have a horrid tendency towards Deism — imagining that the world was created by a God who has nothing more to do with it besides “look on from the outside.” We do not see it as ordinary, natural and proper for the world to be interpenetrated by divine power. Rather, we see the workings of God as exceptions to a “more real,” established and secular order — and so we call them miracles. Deism renders God into a magician — an unnatural oddity who pops into a closed system in order to jiggle its parts. It is the Catholic belief that Creation is an open system — a movement of all things into intimate communion with a Creator who creates and sustains them in being. To refuse to call the beauty of a sunset a “miracle” reminds us that it is ordinary for “the heavens to reflect the glory of their Maker” in a universe that dwells in intimate communion with its Creator and Sustainer. To give up calling the presence of Christ in the Eucharist a “miracle” could be scandalous but it could also represent the first moment of faith in the Real Presence, understood as the ordinary means through which God has chosen to remain incarnate among his people.
Overusing the term “miracle” has reinforced the deistic universe and its concomitant conception of a magical God, so easily demolished by evangelical atheists. By the same token, it has distanced the Christian from a real belief in the mighty works of the Saints and the apostles. We feel safe asking for safe “miracles” — like healing for cancer patients, the cause of which is obscure. We do not ask for miracles in the strict sense, wondrous without qualification, the causes of which are hidden from all men — like a regrown foot. Sure, we claim to “see God in the little things,” but this hides a perverse doubt that has given up on God acting in any of the big things. We have sentimentalized the miracle because we have accepted the basic sadness of modernity: The world seems to plod along without God. We don’t expect him to act in any apparent way. We call the ordinary “extraordinary” because we have ceased to believe in the extraordinary.
Calling every other thing a miracle is like calling wolf — after a while, no one recognizes the real thing. Christianity is unique in that it requires belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ– a miracle understood in the rigorous sense of a wondrous event, outside of the natural order of things, apparent to the senses. If we call every cure and passing butterfly a “miracle” we will not understand the sense of what our faith is based on — a visible, historical, resurrection of a dead man, the cause of which can only be ascribed to God.
Christians will often take the position that “miracles happen every day” as a kind of rebellion against the ascendent secularism of our age. But the belief that every sunrise and chance-meeting is a miracle is not actually disconcerting to the secular mind. It implies that every moment of divine presence is an unnatural breaking-into the closed circle of modernity– that the natural order is godless. This view supports and confirms absolute secular power: if the universe is a closed, godless system, then it should be ruled and governed without reference to God. On the other hand, there is the Christian who sees the sacraments of the Church, the daily guidance of Providence, and the glory of Creation as the natural, non-miraculous, ordinary order of things. His view does not posit divine presence as a break with a natural, secular order. It posits divine presence as ordinary. This view puts the absolutism of secular power into question. If the universe is an open, god-created, god-sustained and god-penetrated system, then it should be ruled according to its nature — according to its humdrum, everyday orientation towards God.