Seeking Miracles, Near and Far

Seeking Miracles, Near and Far May 3, 2016

Today’s post is the last on The Story of God With Morgan Freeman. I wrote this after previewing this Sunday’s episode, “The Power of Miracles.” You can watch it on the National Geographic Channel, or on the National Geographic app beginning the day after it airs on TV.

The Biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea is one of the miracles referenced in this week’s episode of The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. (Wikimedia Commons image)

“The real miracle is realizing that you’re connected to everything around you.”

I’m still pondering this line from “The Power of Miracles,” the final installment of The Story of God. It was one of many thought-provoking comments made in my favorite of the program’s six episodes.

I’ve had my own brushes with the miraculous through the years, most dramatically when my older son survived a bout with meningitis as a baby. So I’m hardly a skeptic when it comes to miracles.

But I liked how this episode tried to de-mystify miracles, while still acknowledging the possibility that God does intervene in miraculous ways. I appreciated the matter-of-factness of the psychologist who talked about the ways in which humans misunderstand the laws of random chance.

St. Bernadette is associated with the healing shrine of Lourdes, France. (Wikimedia Commons image)

Certainly, in the religious realm discussions of miracles too often are based on problematic theology. One person survives an auto crash; another doesn’t. It’s small comfort to the grieving relatives of the latter when the former claims a miraculous intervention.

I’m with the atheists on this one, agreeing with them that sometimes random chance goes in your favor, and sometimes not.

In my own life, the time I thought most seriously about miracles was on a visit a number of years ago to the healing shrine in Lourdes, France. The shrine has been associated with miraculous cures since 1858, when a peasant girl named Bernadatte Soubirous is said to have received a series of visitations from the Virgin Mary.

A spring appeared at the site of these apparitions, and after a woman was cured of a broken limb after bathing in it, word soon spread around Europe. At a time when medical care was often scarce and ineffective, it isn’t surprising that a place that offered the possibility of miracles became popular.

When I visited Lourdes, the shrine was packed with people speaking a variety of languages, many clearly suffering from various physical ailments. Some were being pushed in wheelchairs, many walked with difficulty, some were wearing kerchiefs to hide their loss of hair from cancer treatments. They congregated in front of the rock where Bernadette received her visions and at the spigots where they could get water from the miraculous spring.

holy spring
Pilgrims line up to get water from the spring at Lourdes. (Lori Erickson photo)

One might expect that Lourdes would be a place of sadness, given the pain obviously experienced by many of its pilgrims. But I was struck by the feeling of joy at the shrine. I think part of it came from a sense of solidarity among the visitors. At Lourdes, everyone was part of the same parade of the broken. There was no reason to hide or be ashamed of their afflictions.

Or, to use words that echo the line from this week’s episode on miracles, they realized they were connected to everyone around them—a fact that is often obscured under more ordinary circumstances.

At Lourdes, there are certain standards that must be met before a physical cure is pronounced miraculous. Physicians must attest to the seriousness of the original condition and its complete reversal after visiting the shrine. In the history of Lourdes, 66 cures have been deemed miracles according to these criteria.

But the church’s teachings also emphasize the fact that miracles can occur at Lourdes—or anywhere else—even though a physical cure hasn’t happened. There can be a miracle of the heart, in which pain and bitterness are eased.

Healing, in other words, can happen in many forms. This is part of why Lourdes was also full of an emotion closely connected to healing: hope, a feeling that can lift the spirits of even the most afflicted.

And in this, I think there is a direct link to the belief expressed by the Buddhist monk at the end of the episode. “The real miracle,” he says, “is the transformation of the human mind.”

Even though Lourdes is thoroughly Christian in its theology, I think there are many there who would nod their heads in agreement at his words.

Let me add just one thing: one of my favorite songs, Everything is Holy Now, by Peter Mayer. I love what he says about miracles, in particular.

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