Miracles: So What?

9839c6ee-a777-4189-a03e-6c0cc0b0128eLast year I bought a book from the internet titled Raised from the Dead: True Stories of 400 Resurrection Miracles by Father Albert J. Herbert (1986).  As one could probably guess, the anecdotes this book contains span many centuries and involve many people who had flatlined coming back to life, really incredible stuff.  Father Herbert treats the accounts in an old-school ‘devout’ manner, as though each incredible miracle were a natural matter of course and a testament to the will of God.   While inspiring, I found them just too incredible.  My own faltering set me on a mission to try to corroborate accounts of miracles with credible evidence.  Maybe by bringing back an olive branch, I could also inspire others to climb to the mouth of the cave (mixing metaphors, lol).

A miracle is a supernatural phenomenon (which we here at disinfo are to no small degree acclimated) but one that strings along a set of religious implications as well.  For example, Jesus performed 3 different types of miracles: healing, exorcism, and natural wonders.  However, numerous divergent religions will claim miracles on behalf of their deity(s).  One notable modern non-Catholic, undoubtedly among many, who is widely referred to as “miracle worker” is Sathya Sai Baba, who has many remarkable miraculous claims to his name.

Regarding the idea of miracles in numerous divergent religions, Cardinal Lepicier (1893-1936) writes: “We readily admit that miracles can be worked outside the Catholic body in exceptional and individual cases, since the Holy Spirit is free to seek His instruments where He will.  This creates no difficulty especially when the miracle-worker is a man of holy life and has no other aim in his works but the honor of God.  Such miracles may have as their purpose to furnish extra proofs of the existence of the supernatural order.”

However, Prof Steven Dutch of the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay would quip (to voice the part of anyone adhering to a rational perspective regarding miracles), “So far we have proven only that there is a supernatural realm that occasionally impinges on our own.”

To attain further to a rationalist perspective, I will excerpt Prof Dutch’s very thoughtful and objective essay on the enigmatic subject of miracles:

“One principal reason science rejects miracles is that the vast majority of miracle claims have proven untrustworthy…Religious believers need to clean up their own house before accusing science of being unreasonable.  A second principal reason science rejects miracles, is that writing something off as a miracle forecloses any possibility of explaining it in other terms.  Science rejects miracles for exactly the same reasons that accountants do when conducting audits, the police do when conducting forensics, and mechanics do when trouble-shooting cars.

“[Philosophical empirialist and skeptic] David Hume’s position on the matter is sometimes summarized, ‘to prove a miracle, it would have to be an even greater miracle for the evidence to be faulty.’ [In his book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume says “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”]

“…One possible explanation for any account of an extraordinary event is always that the event actually happened. Improbabilities can furnish us with good reason to doubt the event, but can never disprove it. We are, however, perfectly justified in demanding that the person claiming the event supply better evidence…This is because accepting ‘miracle’ for an explanation necessarily puts at odds every ounce of the natural philosophy that a rational point of view has accumulated.”

If I can then meanly paraphrase what a presiding attitude towards miracles is, essentially: ‘because miracles must necessarily be either hysteria, hoaxes, coincidences or placebo-effects, there has not been a serious attempt to catalogue them because it would expose them as false, which the devout observer realizes deep-down and thus avoids.’  (This, I would like to emphasize, is MY paraphrase of a prevailing ambivalent philosophy toward miracles. ) I greatly value Prof. Dutch’s essay for stating what I believe many people actually think, but also what I consider as an ‘under-informed’ position.

I would first like to emphasize that the Vatican’s guidelines for discerning actual medical miracles are surprisingly strict:

1)      The disease must be considered impossible or at least extremely difficult to cure.

2)      The disease must not have reached a stage at which it was liable to shortly disappear of its own accord.

3)      No medical treatment must have been applied, or if it was it must have certainly been ineffectual.

4)      The cure must be sudden, instantaneous.

5)      The cure must be complete.

6)      It must not be proceeded by any crisis due to natural causes at the expected time; otherwise the cure, far from being miraculous, must be considered either wholly or partially as natural.

7)      Finally, there must be no relapse into the same disease after the cure.

And further for the opposing case, there has been at least one longstanding example of an attempt to ‘get one’s house in order’ with regards to evidence for miracles.  In Lourdes, France a medical investigation bureau was set up in 1882 by Dr de Saint-Maclou to study and assess the miracles occurring locally.  In fact, in the mid 20th century this establishment had 14 different MD PhD staff to scientifically examine the case notes of cures submitted to it.  Additionally, the medical examination board metes a fairly high attrition rate for alleged cures.  For example, in 1946 it examined 36 cases of alleged miracles.  Of those 36, 9 individuals returned to be reexamined the following year and only 4 of those 9 were actually accepted as authentic cures.  In 1947 it was 75 examined, 11 reexamined, and 6 accepted; in 1948 it was 83 – 15 – 9.

The site at Lourdes’ holiness can be wholly attributed to apparitions of a woman claiming to be “The Immaculate Conception” which appeared solely to Bernadette Soubirous in a grotto above a pool near Lourdes in 1858 when she was age 14.  As word of the apparitions spread, many followed her to the site where she knelt before her vision.  While in a state of trance, Bernadette was instructed by the apparition to kiss the muddy ground of the grotto, drink the muddy water, chew the grass and even eat some of the mud (much to the embarrassment of some of the believing onlookers).  When she dug in the mud, she uncovered a spring which cleared the water in the pool.  These waters are the source cited in the many miraculous cures ever since.  Interestingly, when Bernadette was exhumed for her beatification in 1909, 30 years after her death by tuberculosis, she was found to be partially incorrupt.  The church employed a Doctor Comte to harvest saintly relics, who was amazed at the state of the liver, which after 46 years had remained in a remarkable state: “One would have thought that this organ, which is basically soft and inclined to crumble, would have decomposed very rapidly or would have hardened to a chalky consistency. Yet, when it was cut it was soft and almost normal in consistency.  I pointed this out to those present, remarking that this did not seem to be a natural phenomenon”

The book I found to aid my quest for credible miracles was found in the bibliography of 400 Resurrection Miracles.  The book, titled Modern Miraculous Cures: A Documented Account of Miracles and Medicine in the 20th Century by Dr Francois Leuret and Dr Henri Bon (1957) stood out starkly for its accountability.  This book contains 20 very well documented miracles, some would say exhaustively. The text delineates the relevant background information, relays thorough diagnoses both before and after, and employs very credible witnesses, all of which are amenable to the attitude of a modern skeptical empiricist.

Here is a specific account excerpted from Modern Miraculous Cures recounting the experience of Madame Jeanne Gestas of Bordeaux, whose cure had been accepted by the Lourdes medical examination team as miraculous in August 1947 and canonically recognized in 1952. Written by Professor Pierre Mauriac [please pardon its length and dullness, but the proof is in the fact that all the details are known and diligently catalogued]:

“In December 1942 Mme Gestas underwent a gastrectomy for an ulcer of the lesser curvature.  However, gastric symptoms persisted and Dr Dubarry performed a second laparotomy for a small diaphragmatic hernia (the stomach had herniated through the oesophageal opening) on May 11th, 1944.  In the course of this operation part of the transverse colon was removed because of some evidence of inflammation around that organ.

“The patient recovered from the operation in three weeks.  On her return home, however, symptoms suggestive of peritonitis developed; she ran a temperature, and was in bed for eighteen days while ice bags were applied.  She never seemed to improve after getting up.  She could do no work for a tear, needed to rest several times a day and had to get a servant to help her in the house.

“An X-ray taken in November 1945 revealed another diaphragmatic hernia and at the patient’s request a third laparotomy was done on January 4th, 1946.  The viscera in the epigastrium were found to be involved in thick adhesions.  The operation was prolonged and its sequelae serious—the patient was in shock, developed pulmonary congestion, and a fistula formed which lasted several months.

“The patient spent a month in the clinic and then returned home to bed for a further two months.  When she got up she continued to suffer from dyspeptic symptoms, vomiting, and abdominal pains, similar to those found in ulceration of the alimentary tract; she also suffered from intermittent attacks of intestinal obstruction sometimes associated with fecal vomiting.  One such attack required continuous aspiration for forty-eight hours.

“A fourth laparotomy was considered, but conservative treatment was decided upon.  Mme. Gestas was now very exhausted and weighed only 99 pounds (normal weight 146).  She was at this point persuaded by a cousin to go to Lourdes.

“She states that she came back from Lourdes unimproved.  However Dr Dubourg, her surgeon, noted that the attacks of intestinal obstruction became less and that Mme Gestas had put on several pounds in weight.  He recorded, however, that she continued to suffer from painful attacks which suggested that the peritonitis was still active in the subumbilical region.  Her general health, though he considered improved, remained poor.

“Mme Gestas remained subject to such discomfort as to prevent any active life on her part; she continued to suffer from attacks of partial obstruction and abdominal pains.  In an attempt to relieve the latter, Dr Dubourg tried injections about the sympathetic nervous system.  The treatment was unsuccessful.  So the patient’s life dragged wearily on until August 1947.

“On the 21st of that month she set off once more for Lourdes.  On her first visit water had simply been poured over her; on this occasion (August 22nd, 1947) she underwent a complete bath.  She immediately felt a tearing sensation throughout her abdominal visceral that afternoon she wondered (rather doubtfully) whether the pains were less.  She awoke the following Saturday with no discomfort and, abandoning all her dietetic precautions, she ate string beans which she digested painlessly.

“Since then Mme Gestas has had no further functional or painful symptoms referable to her abdomen and has put on forty-eight pounds in weight.  We may summarize the case as follows:

“The patient, aged fifty, underwent three laparotomies—for gastric ulcer and inflammation and adhesions about the colon.  She was suddenly cured after bathing at Lourdes.  As a result she was freed of all alimentary symptoms which had prevented her from working for several years and which had brought about a loss of forty-eight pounds.  Mme Gestas is, at this origin, in excellent health.

“…Notably Mme Gestas has not been a practicing Catholic since age 20…This case, which last year I could not see my way to confirming as outside of nature’s laws, I now feel cannot be considered as within its bounds.” (Leuret, Bon p156)

Just for good measure, I will include another notable case at Lourdes which comes from 1858, one of the very first cures that took place less than a year after the apparitions to Bernadette had begun.

“Pierre Bouriette was a quarry worker in Pic du Jer, directly adjacent to Lourdes, whose job it was to set off blasting charges.  In 1938, twenty years before the apparitions, his right eye had been injured by an explosion which had damaged it.  For twenty years this organ had been a blind, red, oozing sore.  Coming to Dr Dozous, who had examined Bernadette in her trance and was nonchalantly dismissive of the supernatural aspects of the events, Bouriette asked about the healing powers of the spring.  Dozous replied ‘You can go to Bernadette’s spring if you like.  Come back cured and I’ll believe its powers.’

“Three days after his interview with Dr Dozous, Bouriette washed his blind eye in the still muddy spring water.  He did not really have much faith in the water’s powers; curiosity rather than hope was the driving force behind his action.  (the majority of visitors to Lourdes still go there in this frame of mind).

“He was quite taken aback when he realized that, when he had washed his eye, he could see with both of them.  He rushed to the physician to have his cure properly verified.  As soon as Bouriette saw the doctor he shouted that he was cured.  Dr Dozous, who had quite forgotten the talk some days before, said, ‘My dear man, that isn’t possible—the stuff I gave you can’t cure you—the drops are simply to prevent you feeling pain and to avoid infection developing in the other eye.’  ‘But it’s not you who’s cured me, doctor—it’s Bernadette’s water.’ ‘I can’t accept that,’ said Dr Dozous and, turning his back on Bouriette’s now healthy eye, he wrote on a sheet of paper a technical phrase that Bouriette could neither know nor invent. Covering Bouriette’s healthy eye with his hand, he asked him to read what he had written.  This Bouriette did. ‘I could hardly have been more shattered if a thunderbolt had fallen at my feet,’ Dr Dozous states in his account of the incident.”

Dr Dozous, went on to be an instrumental record-keeper for the early days of the cures taking place at Lourdes.

Even though numberless anecdotes of miraculous events dot the centuries (and, as any conscientious skeptic or the Vatican would say, you certainly can believe in them if that’s your thing), the quality of evidence (not hermetic from unknown variables) eliminates almost all sources except those from relatively recent times.  The necessary deductive paradigms and scientific incredulity were simply not a part of general philosophy for most of the last 2000 years.  One can argue, however, that given the disposition and moral conscience of the Saints as a rule, one would be hard pressed to imagine every claim among many thousands of miraculous claims to be a fabrication or a trick. This evidence, however remarkable, is not fundamentally empirical and not scientifically admissible to most skeptics.  This does not stop the less-skeptical observer of becoming enlivened and enamored of their recounting.

In any case, if you were curious, I have included a couple stories of my personal favorite thaumaturges (or ‘über-miracle workers’) from 400 Resurrection Miracles: St Margaret of Castello and St Anthony of Padua, who each have their own subchapters (summarized as follows):

St Margaret was born in 1287 hunchbacked, with a deformed leg, and blind, to the utter shame of her parents who walled her in a chapel when she was 6.  Margaret became a very pious young lady, knowledgeable in scripture and limping around to help beggars and prisoners.  While in life, she had only a few minor miracles attributed to her, but after her death at 33 the list of miracles is astoundingly long!  A woodsman mangled by a bear, a child who fell from a high balcony, and a drowned little boy were all brought back to life through prayer to Margaret for intercession.  At her funeral a mute and crippled little girl was brought to the bier where Margaret’s body lay.  To the astonishment of the crowd, the dead Margaret lifted her arm and touched the child, who had never walked, and she rose to her feet and screamed “I have been cured!”  Numerous other cures were sworn to by notaries and are recorded in medieval documents.

St Anthony of Padua was born to a noble family in Italy in 1195.  He had many contemporary admirers, including Pope Gregory the IX, Pius the XII and St Francis of Assisi.  He is claimed to have known the Bible by heart.  Anthony had bilocated to save his father, Martin de Bouillon, from ruin when the recipients of a large sum of money had refused to issue a receipt and claimed to have never received any money.  Anthony suddenly appeared by his father’s side and described the transaction in detail, including the type of coinage, and demanded a receipt be issued, which was duly complied with.  Another time, Anthony’s father was framed for murder when a body was dumped on his property by passing assassins.  Anthony, who had been in Padua without extant knowledge, set out on foot for Lisbon to try to exonerate his father at the trial.  When he burst into the court, he proclaimed his father’s innocence; for proof, he would furnish testimony from the victim himself.  Judge and jury carried out to the fresh grave where the coffin was exhumed and opened.  Anthony commanded the dead man, in the Name of God, to declare whether his father was the murderer.  To the astonishment of the crowd the dead man rose to a sitting position, raised his right hand and declared Martin de Bouillon innocent.  Anthony granted the corpse absolution and the dead man laid down again, refusing to identify the actual perpetrator “I come to clear the innocent, not denounce the guilty.”

So can we, with the sheer vastness of ‘sub-par’ evidence and a healthy number of incisive, convincing accounts of “Catholic Miracles” begin to draw a line on one side or another of “to prove a miracle, it would have to be an even greater miracle for the evidence to be faulty?”  I will accept the explanation that “there is a supernatural realm that occasionally impinges on our own” and be curious as to whatever further details those expressing that position can furnish, but personally I go MUCH further down Dogma Lane with my own reasoning.

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  • Adamas Macalz

    This isn’t something limited to monotheism or any spiritual approach… it just something that happens to those who go high enough on their spiritual evolution… which is rather rare these days

    • godozo

      Not sure how rare it is, but with the scientific bias (pro-repeatability, pro-measureability, and pro-observation) of the present day the spiritual definitely suffers.

  • BuzzCoastin

    One must expect the unexpected or [one] will not discover it; for it is difficult to discover and intractable. (DK 18)

    Heraclitus

  • echar

    I wouldn’t use the word miracle to describe such, because of it being a religiously loaded. I feel it may be giving the credit away, to boot.

    However, I feel that a person becoming sober is quite amazing. To go from someone bent on destroying their lives and others (usually unintentional), to someone who is willing to face reality.

    I also find the effectiveness of Iboga and ayauasca in treating people with chemical dependency to be amazing.

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