Back in my agnostic days, I used to think that one good solid miracle would make a lifelong believer out of the most hardened atheist. I myself was never able to embrace atheism since the world was simply too mysterious and strange a place for me to declare “There is no God” without trial. It was too cocksure a sentiment for me.
So I thought that there might be a God, but that precisely the same mysterious strangeness of the world kept me from making any hard and fast declarations about him.
“If he’d just show himself with one straight up miracle, I’d be good. I’d never doubt him again. Nobody would!”
What can I say? I was young.
The reality, as I was to discover, both in my own life and that of others, is that God can answer your prayers for signs and wonders—sometimes spectacularly—and yet there still remains before us all the need to make the choice to believe.
Take, for instance, the case of Emile Zola. A famous novelist and literary figure, he was an atheist and materialist, but he was not going to let any facts get in his way when he visited Lourdes. Arnold Lunn tells us his story in his book, The Third Day:
Zola . . . accepted with simple faith the unproved and unprovable dogma that the natural world is a closed system, and that supernatural agencies do not exist. Zola’s negative faith was proof against the stubborn fact of the two miracles which he himself witnessed at Lourdes, of which the first was the sudden cure of an advanced stage of lupus.
Zola describes Marie Lemarchand’s condition as he saw her on the way to Lourdes. “It was,” writes Zola, “a case of lupus which had preyed upon the unhappy woman’s nose and mouth. Ulceration had spread and was hourly spreading and devouring the membrane in its progress. The cartilage of the nose was almost eaten away, the mouth was drawn all on one side by the swollen condition of the upper lip. The whole was a frightful distorted mass of matter and oozing blood.”
Zola’s account is incomplete, for the patient was coughing and spitting blood. The apices of both lungs were affected, and she had sores on her leg. Dr. d’Hombres saw her immediately before and immediately after she entered the bath. “Both her cheeks, the lower part of her nose, and her upper lip were covered with a tuberculous ulcer and secreted matter abundantly. On her return from the baths I at once followed her to the hospital.
I recognised her quite well although her face was entirely changed. Instead of the horrible sore I had so lately seen, the surface was red, it is true, but dry and covered with a new skin. The other sores had also dried up in the piscina.” The doctors who examined her could find nothing the matter with the lungs, and testified to the presence of the new skin on her face. Zola was there.
He had said “I only want to see a cut finger dipped in water and come out healed.” “Behold the case of your dreams, M. Zola,” said the President, presenting the girl whose hideous disease had made such an impression on the novelist before the cure.
“Ah no!” said Zola, “I do not want to look at her. She is still too ugly,” alluding to the red color of the new skin. Before he left Lourdes Zola recited his credo to the President of the Medical Bureau. “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.”
Seeing is not automatically believing because belief, in the Christian sense, is not mere intellectual acceptance of some abstract proposition about the existence of an abstract god. Rather, it is the choice to commit oneself body and soul to the crucified and risen Christ, who demands we too take up our cross and follow him. And not everybody wants to do that.
Not that John the Baptist was some flippant doubter like Zola. On the contrary, John was the toughest of the tough disciples. What little we know of him shows us a man willing to give 110% to God. Committed to him from conception with the promise of an angel, John grew up in a household where he doubtless heard the strange tale of his conception and birth many times.
And he doubtless heard the story of Mary’s visitation to his mother many times too. As the sixth-month’s-older cousin to Jesus, they likely met from time to time on such occasions as Passover in Jerusalem. He seems to have, at one and the same time, known something of the strange call on his cousin’s life (since he declares that he needs to be baptised by Jesus (Matthew 3:14)), and yet, by his own admission, the full truth of Jesus’ identity seems not to have dawned on him till the moment of Jesus’ baptism:
“I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven and remain on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptise with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptises with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34)
Some people see this as a contradiction. I see it as a very typical specimen of the kind of slow change of heart and mind that is the stuff of Christian conversion. Rare indeed is the dramatic sort of thunderbolt conversion where a St. Paul is knocked off his horse and becomes a believer all in an instant. In fact, even St. Paul did not really experience an instantaneous conversion. God took a good while with him before the Damascus Road encounter with Jesus (which is why Jesus could point to his tortured conscience and say to him, “It hurts you to kick against the goads” (Act 26:14)).
And God took a long while afterwards, sending him into the desert like Jesus and then off to Antioch where he spent years learning the oral tradition of the Church and the liturgy. Only after that long, drawn-out process does the Church finally lay hands on Paul (conferring ordination) and send him off to become the Apostle Paul. And Paul will, his life long, remark that it is still possible that, having preached to others, he himself could, by sin, end up a castaway (1 Corinthians 9:27).
In short, conversion, in the Christian tradition, is a lifelong process, not a one-time event. It’s why Jesus took three years instructing his apostles (who still completely fell apart on Good Friday).
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