To tell you the truth, talk about miracles makes me squirm. An ongoing spiritual argument starts raging in my soul, and all the voices are loud. I deal with this by looking for an Off Button, which can be any number of ways of changing the subject.
The argument is between my belief and my horror at my belief. And both are engaged when people tell me about their miracles. There’s usually something triumphant in those testimonies. And I rarely hear words of deep thanksgiving.
How can any of us be smug about a miraculous outcome, when so many of us do not get a miracle?
When Downton Abbey’s Lord Merton’s deadly diagnosis was reversed upon retesting, my friend reacted angrily. “That doesn’t happen!” she pronounced, rejecting the episode as silly, and I thought of the ten months her husband lay suffering in a hospital, his prayers for a cure – and hers – were not answered. Yet in the same week, another friend, a colleague, who was told he had Parkinson’s, went for further testing at MGH, and was told he did not have the disease.
Why do miracles happen, and not happen? Happen to one and not another. Happen to us now and not then? Happen when we pray and not happen when we pray? Leave us, afterwards, sure and yet unsure, that they happened.
Morgan Freeman, in the final episode of his series, The Story of God, began with this question. And he hooked me from start to finish. I’m grateful for the way he explored the question.
He introduced a Latino immigrant, a Manhattan window washer who survived a fall from the 47th floor when the cables of his platform broke. He was injured, spent weeks in a coma, but is fine now. But he has trouble claiming the miracle even his doctors said it was, because his brother, who was with him on the platform, died. Why would God save him, and not his brother?
Most of us, as Freeman notes, believe God is watching over us always. So we expect miraculous care. But why not for the brother, too?
Freeman takes his question to a Seder where the rabbi tells him Judaism begins in miracles, Passover happens in the month of Nissan, which means miracles, and celebrates the miracles that saved the Jewish people in their long walk to freedom. The rabbi notes that the ritual ten drops of wine placed by each person on their plate represent sorrow for the blood shed by the Egyptians, and recognition that the miracles did not benefit everyone.
Freeman finds miracles are part of every religious tradition. He talks with a Vatican official about them. He also talks with a psychologist who believes we mistake random moments, that fall within the laws of mathematical probability, for divine intervention.
Freeman offers his own turning point in life: in 1980 he made three films, all of which were big hits: Lean on Me, Driving Miss Daisy, and Glory. Was this probability? Or was it a miracle?
He takes us to a Roman historian who tells us that the Circus Maximus, essentially a horse track, became a place of heavy gambling, illegal in Rome’s pantheon where the gods produced fate, not chance. The god Mithras, who could influence Fate, became a favorite of horse racers. The ruins of Mithras’ worship chamber, below the Circus Maximus, are open for visitors.
From a Taoist faith calculator, a follower of the Way of Lao Tsu, Freeman learns a theory of the energy of the universe that is always there and can be directed by us. Everything that happens, says the Tao, is a result of all we are connected to. And the adage, “Birds do not fly, they ride the wind, fish to do swim, they are carried” holds this message.
Freeman visits a doctor in Virginia who has experienced his own miracle of healing. Twenty years ago he was diagnosed with a rare and painful form of lymphoma, and has video of the giant tumors that made baseball sized lumps on his neck, under his arms and in his abdomen. He was told he had no hope and would soon die. His church gathered many times in circles of prayer for him, laying hands of blessing on him and calling for his healing.
And then he took a dose of chemotherapy, which he had been told would not heal him but would reduce his pain. And immediately his tumors began to shrink. In 48 hours, they were gone. The doctor believes that the power of faith in the people around him made the impossible possible.
Freeman then travels to the Orient, and learns a quite different story of healing, how Gautama Buddha, seeking the answer to suffering, retreated from his search to sit motionless under the Bo Tree, and after decades of motionlessness, became enlightened – freed – by simply letting go, and focusing his mind.
Freeman reminds us that inexplicable things occur all the time. People get breaks. Fall in love. Inspire one another.
I think of the treasures of memory I hold dear, such miracles as I want always to remember, because, as Freeman says, they give us hope, and move us to make what is merely possible, real.
Image: Muhammed points out the splitting of the moon. Anonymous 16th-century watercolor from a Falnama, a Persian book of prophecy. Muhammed is the veiled figure on the right. Image from en-wikipedia.org.