Grains of Salt and Degrees of Faith: What Makes a Miracle?

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Miracles in America.

How do you really know whether something is real? Espeically in the age of dime-store card tricks and photo shop, it seems we cannot even trust our own eyes half the time. Beyond that, though, there is also so much suspicion regarding such things.  With this in mind, where can miracles actually come into our lives? In his article, “The power of miracles: Naples’s prodigious blood,” BBC ‘Heart and Soul’ correspondent and former friar Mark Dowd tries to find a good answer.

Taking what he calls “a very large dose of salt to accompany [him],” Dowd explores the credentials of a few ‘miracles’ throughout the world and especially Italy, ranging from the Neapolitan feast of San Gennaro (or, Saint Januarius) in which a vile of the saint’s ancient blood can turn from a 5th century solid back into liquid form.  to the supposedly posthumously healing of Pope John Paul II, and even a comparatively much ‘smaller’ and substantially lesser-known miracle in an Italian suburb in which a man (Signor D’Alfonso) was brought out of a comma through the praying ferocity his sister-in-law, a nun, who organized prayers for him.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these stories is that all of them are either confirmed or toted as real miracles not just by Dowd, but also by the Vatican and other faithful. The scope of the miracles ranges incredibly, as does their respective celebration and their acceptance. For example, while thousands gather in the streets to witness whether or not Saint Januarius’s blood will change and consider it a moving miracle if it does, many – including Dowd – would “like to [examine] the phials and their contents several hours beforehand” to be sure the change was not mere illusion.

On a similar note, although Signor D’Alfonso’s case has been holistically confirmed in the Vatican through multipe medical testimonies, he rarely speaks of the event in fear that it “will be misinterpreted as mere vulgar ‘magic’ rather than as an invitation to deepen one’s faith because of a sign.” In efforts to canonize Pope John Paul II, many must also sort through and investigate uowards of 3,800 claims of his extraordinary posthumous intervention in believers’ lives.

Ultimately, Dowd’s experience leads him to state that miracles much be viewed “through the eyes of faith” and while I agree, the term feels a bit overly-simplistic. Clearly what makes up a miracle (and how people should incorporate such miracles into their lives) varies tremendously depending on the person, like all ‘faith.’

To return once again to The Color of Christ, the face of God is ever-changing, both through how he is seen and shared. The original missionaries in America, Catholics appropriately enough, brought with them a god or god image of rules and statures, of colonizing rather than adaptive faith, much the same way the ritualistic observation of the saint’s blood in Naples  remains fairly uniform for decades at least. In contrast, the Moravians brought a more malleable interpretation of Christ and Christian faith, with more of a focus on the sacrificial and healing capacity of Jesus, which fit more easily into the lives and culture of Native Americans than the mission-based image given by the early Catholics the way that Pope John Paul II’s healings and the miracle for Signor D’Alfonso are significantly more individual. Rather than basing the variance of such miracles on the “eye of faith” then, we might also consider the lens of circumstance. After all there is a substantial difference between witnessing a miracle in the middle of a Church festival, and seeing one at home or in a hospital room.

Feast of San Gennaro in Naples

This of course, does not mean that any miracle is less important, or that any image of Christianity should be dismissed. Despite their differences after all, the Jesuits, Protestants and Catholics of old (and those to whom they witnessed) were brought to the same God. These miracles happened somehow and are real to someone.

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