One of the basic instincts of human nature is to seek signs that validate what we know or believe to be true.
It’s why young lovers seal their engagement with a ring, why couples that have been married for decades still give each other anniversary gifts, and why children still look forward to birthday cards from their grandparents—all are tokens, or signs, of affection from people who we know love and care for us.
This impulse is no different when it comes to our relationship with God. If anything, the desire to have a sign from God may be even more intense. Often, as individuals, we look for those too-good-to-be coincidental events or seemingly miraculous occurrences, such as healing from an illness, as validation that God exists and loves us too. Over the centuries, people have sought, and often believe they have found, evidence of God’s presence in various miracles and apparitions.
Despite the decline in faith, the desire for the miraculous has not abated even in our time. It’s why thousands recently flocked to a supposed image of Mary in an oddly shaped pattern on a church cross in Rhode Island after a recent downpour—and why news that a mysterious priest had ministered to a car crash victim in the Midwest electrified the Catholic news and social media.
In the both cases, the initial signs of the miraculous appear to be overstated. In Rhode Island, the diocese issued a statement saying that it was “highly unlikely” the image on the church cross was “the result of divine intervention.” As for the angelic priest, the actual priest later came forward.
Believe without being credulous
In the absence of an authoritative ruling from the Church, the faithful Christian must take a paradoxical attitude towards any alleged miracle or supernatural event. On the one hand, as believers in a God who actively works within creation, we must also be open to the possibility of the miracles in our world—always ready to counter the claims of skeptics, materialist, atheists, and scientists who overstep the boundaries of their fields.
On the other hand, Christians cannot be too credulous—readily believing any claim of miracle, however tenuous or dubious. If everything becomes miraculous, then nothing really is. So the Christian who lends credence to every report of a miracle undermines the credibility of those events which really are true miracles.
In a sense, the Christian really needs to find the right mixture of healthy skepticism and faith. Perhaps a good model for all Christians to follow would be that of someone who experienced what the Church has said is an authentic miracle: the French nun whose healing from Parkinson’s disease is attributed to the intercession of Blessed Pope John Paul II.
The example of the nun
Beginning in May 2005, members of her order, the Congregation of the Little Sisters of Catholic Motherhood, began praying for a cure through the intercession of John Paul II. On June 2, the disease had become so crippling that the nun asked her superior to be released from her work.
“She encouraged me to endure a bit longer until my return from Lourdes in August, and she added: ‘John Paul II has not yet said his last word’ … Then, Mother Superior gave me a pen and told me to write: ‘John Paul II.’ It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon. With effort, I wrote: ‘John Paul II.’ We remained in silence before the illegible letters, then the day continued as usual,” the nun, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, recalled in her testimony, as published by ZENIT.
By 9 p.m. Sister Marie recalls felling a sudden urge to pick up the pen and write again. She was surprised to see that her handwriting was legible. Confused, she turned in for the night—only to wake up in the middle of the night feeling different. Sister Marie “leapt” out of her bed and spent the waning hours of the night in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Two hours later, she realized all of her symptoms had departed.
Parkinson’s is a progressive disease of the nerves that afflicts those who suffer from it tremors and impaired movement. While the severity of some symptoms may abate for a time, it does not go into remission like cancer. There is no known cure.
Given the facts of the case, the typical person would readily believe she had experience a miracle—but Sister Marie herself refrained from saying so. “All I can tell you is that I was sick and now I am cured. It is for the Church to say and to recognize whether it is a miracle,” Sister Marie said at March 2007 press conference.
There have been cases of patients claiming to have been cured from Parkinson’s disease before—but the usual explanation is that they were improperly diagnosed in the first place. However, in order for Sister Marie’s healing to have been approved as a miracle by the Church her case would have had to have been examined by both local diocesan doctors and Vatican-appointed doctors. It took four years, but in May 2011, the Vatican officially affirmed the authenticity of the miracle in a declaration that recognized John Paul II as a Blessed.
The attitude of this nun is one that all Christians should emulate—an utterly humble faith that patiently seeks understanding without demanding it or claiming to already possess it.
The greatest miracle of all
The possibility of miracles actually poses two challenges for the Christian. In addition to the first, discussed above, one must keep alleged and authentic miracles in perspective: all miracles should point back to the Incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus.
C.S. Lewis, in his famous book on the topic, Miracles, described the Incarnation as the “grand miracle.” He wrote: “The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. Just as every natural event is the manifestation at a particular place and moment of Nature’s total character, so every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation.”
Of course, the crowning moment of the Incarnation was another miracle: the resurrection of Jesus. British philosopher Richard Swinburne calls this event a “super miracle” that bore the definitive stamp of God’s approval of Jesus’ life and teachings—an unmistakable sign that Jesus was Who He said He was. (See his book, The Resurrection of God Incarnate, for more.)
What Jesus said about miracles
Jesus Himself rebuked the crowds for seeking miraculous signs for their own sake.
In Matthew 12, “some of the scribes and Pharisees” tell Jesus, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” Is this not a reasonable request? Doesn’t it make sense to ask God Incarnate to do miracles?
But Jesus responds, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.”
Some important context: this rebuke comes after Jesus had in fact performed two miracles—the healing of a man with a withered hand and the curing of another man who had been rendered blind and mute by demonic possession. Jesus, it seems, is not rebuking belief in miraculous signs. Instead, He is calling on his followers to see the signs as pointing forward to Himself, in particular, to His passion, death, and resurrection—which is what is meant by the allusion to Jonah in the belly of the whale.
Miracles, of course, have continued to occur in the ensuring two thousand years. Anytime there is an authentic instance of one, it’s something we should welcome as a special gift of God worthy of our belief and admiration. But we shouldn’t be disappointed if our lives do not seem directly touched by some new miracle, because ultimately, what greater miracle could we possibly need than the Incarnation? What’s more, as Catholics, we believe that all of us continue to encounter the Incarnation today—in the Eucharist, the saints, and the Church itself.