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What We Talk About When We Talk About Miracles
In the main, we humans believe only in the miracles experience tells us could actually come to pass. Is that really so miraculous?
This essay originally appeared, in slightly different form, in 2011.
Miracles have been on my mind since I heard the story of Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk-Algonquin woman whom the Vatican canonized in 2012. The miracle that sealed her canonization was 5-year-old Jake Finkbonner’s 2006 recovery from the flesh-eating bacterium Strep A. His chest, neck, face, and scalp were infected, but a Blessed Kateri relic and prayers to the long-dead woman supposedly halted the progress of the infection before it reached his eyes, brain, or heart.
Jake’s recovery is wonderful, perhaps even remarkable, but is it a miracle? We tend to use the word miracle in two different senses without always making much of a distinction between them. Sometimes we mean an occurrence has come to pass that was simply quite unlikely. In this case, miracle is nothing more than a hyperbolic turn of phrase. But just as often, we mean an occurrence that could only have come to pass through some kind of supernatural or divine intervention.
The waters of miraculousness are muddied by the frequency with which the word gets tossed around in the news. A game-winning three-point shot from half-court at the buzzer gets the same tag as the 10-year-old Dutch boy who survives a plane crash that kills all 103 other people on board.
But are any of these occurrences more than rhetorical miracles? We know that, under the right circumstances, people can survive plane crashes. We know that, with the right combination of skill, training, and luck, improbable last-minute field goals can happen. We know that internal diseases can be halted or cured, even if we don’t always understand the precise mechanisms that bring this about. These and other seeimingly remarkable occurrences are things that we learn — through our experience in, observation of, and interaction with the world — are, in fact, possible.
In other words, when we sit at the bedside of a cancer-afflicted loved one and pray for God to send a cure, we know that a cure really is possible. But imagine sitting at the bedside of a loved one whose leg has been severed in an accident. Would any of us pray to God for the leg to regrow or be restored without surgical intervention and seriously expect that prayer to be answered? Probably not, because we know through our experience of the world that limbs do not spontaneously regenerate. We don’t even think about the possibility that God would provide such a miracle.
Which is odd. Our expectation of what God can miraculously accomplish is confined entirely to the realm of the possible. What we know is flatly impossible rarely enters into our thinking.
A miracle would be 104 out of 104 passengers surviving a horrific plane crash without a scratch. A miracle would be a priest sticking someone’s severed leg back to the stump and having it reattach itself. Surely these feats would not be beyond an omnipotent God who traffics in the otherwise impossible. But no, what we consider to be miracles really aren’t, and what would be true miracles do not lie within the realm of our expectations, or even of our imaginings.
Young Jake Finkbonner, after being cured by a miraculous relic, still had that innate understanding of what is possible and what isn’t. He told NPR in 2011 that he wanted to help kids like him when he grew up. Does that mean he wanted to become a priest? A saint?
No. After undergoing more than 25 procedures to help reduce his facial scarring, he said he hoped to become a plastic surgeon. ∅