Miracles ain’t what they used to be

21 Sep

Ah, the good old days! Remember all those miracles we used to get – the magically-generated food; burning, talking bushes; water turning into wine; walking on water; parting the Sea of Reeds (not the Red Sea); talking snakes; magic fruit trees; etc, etc?

No of course you don’t. Nobody saw them. The only account we have of them is a book of mythology masquerading as history that nobody can agree on which parts are meant to be symbolic and which are literal; and rather more tellingly, nobody has ever produced a consistent standard by which to decide… or why it’s necessary to decide at all.

Be that as it may, one thing I think we could all agree is that all the best, Cecil B. DeMille-acles ‘happened’ in pre-Biblical times. Since the Jewish oral traditions were written down to become what we now call the Bible – or more ironically, the Holy Bible – the standard of miracles has fallen dreadfully. Where once we had the sick healed and the dead raised at a touch, we now get statues drinking milk. Statues, it should be noted, made of suspiciously porous stone. Once upon a time, whole crowds of people were slaughtered in their tens of thousands by the infinitely-loving Yahweh; the best that we can expect nowadays are rather ambiguous marks on toasted products, fruit or walls that could be said to sort of almost look like faces if you squint your eyes a bit and get the angle just right. It also helps if someone tells you what to look for.

Then there’s Cardinal John Henry Newman.

When Jack Sullivan was halfway through his course to become a deacon, he was struck by crippling back pain… a condition described by his orthopaedic surgeon as severe stenosis, or compression of the spinal cord and nerves. He didn’t like the thought of surgery, one of the fruits of science, interfering with his ‘studies’ , so he did what any good religiously-minded person would do: pray. But not to any old deity or even saint. He decided to pray to Cardinal Newman, a 19th century writer admired by James Joyce who was made a Venerable by John Paul II for being “heroically virtuous.” And lo! a miracle occurred!

Jack’s back got better.

That is to say, the pain eased enough for him to complete another year of his course before returning with a vengeance. Clearly the miracle didn’t take. This time he opted for the non-magical route and had corrective surgery, which left him in a lot of pain and facing months of recovery. So after a few days he prayed to Newman again, despite the partial success the first time – and wannabe-Saints be praised, the lame could walk again! As a result of this bona-fide miracle, Newman has now been beatified, in an extremely high profile and above all newsfriendly ceremony in Birmingham; which means he goes through to the final round after which, if he manages to work two miracles, he becomes a real honest-to-god saint (and presumably gets his own letterheaded stationery).

It’s interesting to compare this account with a medical opinion from a specialist in this field:

Michael Powell, a consultant neurosurgeon at London’s University College Hospital, said a typical laminectomy took “about 40 minutes, and most patients… walk out happy at two days”.

Mr Cornwell even quotes the scepticism of Newman himself on miracles, arguing that the faithful should be prepared to accept they occur within, rather than outside, nature.

That last part is another way of saying if it’s something with at least a probability, however slight, of getting better on its own, it ain’t supernatural. But magic gets more press. Which of these headlines stands a better chance of making the front page:

“Man Walks Again After Divine Intervention!”


“Man Has Spinal Surgery – Back Feeling Better”

It’s all very reminiscent of the lunacy surrounding the canonisation of the well-known fraud Mother Teresa. Christopher Hitchens tells the incredible story:

As for the “miracle” that had to be attested, what can one say? Surely any respectable Catholic cringes with shame at the obviousness of the fakery. A Bengali woman named Monica Besra claims that a beam of light emerged from a picture of MT, which she happened to have in her home, and relieved her of a cancerous tumor. Her physician, Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, says that she didn’t have a cancerous tumor in the first place and that the tubercular cyst she did have was cured by a course of prescription medicine. Was he interviewed by the Vatican’s investigators? No. (As it happens, I myself was interviewed by them but only in the most perfunctory way. The procedure still does demand a show of consultation with doubters, and a show of consultation was what, in this case, it got.)

According to an uncontradicted report in the Italian paper L’Eco di Bergamo, the Vatican’s secretary of state sent a letter to senior cardinals in June, asking on behalf of the pope whether they favored making MT a saint right away. The pope’s clear intention has been to speed the process up in order to perform the ceremony in his own lifetime. The response was in the negative, according to Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the Canadian priest who has acted as postulator or advocate for the “canonization.” But the damage, to such integrity as the process possesses, has already been done.

I dream of a world free of such superstition and the carrion clergy getting fat on the credulous, while demanding special privileges as they do it. The paradigm shift has already started. The ground is moving under their feet, and the ground is us.

Now that’s magic.


3 Responses to “Miracles ain’t what they used to be”

  1. Patty Thomas September 22, 2010 at 02:38 #

    Great opening and please, keep up the good work! Our voices need to be heard and you write so very well. Congrats on joining the blogosphere… looking forward to more.

    • keplersdream September 22, 2010 at 03:21 #

      Cheers, Patty. I was worried about not having much to blog about, but our Vatican friends make it too easy! I almost feel sorry for them!

  2. miki webster September 22, 2010 at 08:55 #

    Well done. Look forward to more of the same, keep ’em coming.

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