Doubting Miracles, Or A Reason To Believe

(by Joe Simmons, SJ)

This past weekend witnessed the canonization of seven new saints in Rome.  For holy men or women to be recognized as capital-S Saints in the Roman Catholic Church, typically two miracles need to be attributed to their intercession.  Usually these come when someone is healed without an easy medical explanation.

Call me the modern skeptic, but I always found this litmus test to be… well… troubling, I guess.  In my mind, the process goes something like this: people petition would-be saints for the miraculous healing of a loved one.  If the sick person recovers, the candidate moves a step closer to canonization, like a rook in a churchy game of chess.

And if the sick person does not recover?  Well, then the faithful pray-ers are left wondering if they bet on the wrong horse.

This all hit me a few weeks ago, when I heard the backstory of Blessed (now Saint) Kateri Tekakwitha.  As the story goes, a Native American boy in Washington State was suffering from a flesh-eating bacterium a few years back.  His doctors could not stop its progression, and feared he would die.  He was anointed, and his family prayed to Kateri for her intercession, asking her to heal him.  A religious sister then placed a relic of Kateri next to the boy.  The next day the bacterium ceased progressing.

Causation?  Coincidence?  Soothing superstition?  Hell if I know.

Yes, the expert opinions of medical professionals were sought.  And the boy was certainly healed—he was in Rome for her canonization.  But I’ll admit to sometimes wondering whether these explanations aren’t verdicts in search of evidence.

Fast-forward a few days to witness the rearranging of the interior furniture of my doubt.  A friend had arrived at work in a panic, having just received word that his otherwise healthy father had been rushed to the hospital with a rare, flesh-eating bacterium—one that almost always results at least in amputations; often in death.  Necrotizing Fasciitis the bacterium is called.  The same bacterium the boy in Washington State was cured of a few years back.

Coincidence?  Hell if I know.

When it fell to me to organize a prayer service for my friend’s dad I asked, what should it include? What was God saying in all this?  It was while I was asking that I found myself praying to her, Kateri Tekakwitha, an unknown woman who died in 1680 at the age of 24, about whose miraculous cure I have just expressed my doubts.

Alright, maybe “praying” is too strong.  I was rolling her name around in my head, thinking about my skeptical appraisal of all things miraculous.  Or marveling at the coincidence of it all.  I wanted to believe, and maybe in some partial way I did, but the doubt was all through me too, splitting my mind—a mind exposed to the intellectual radiation of too many philosophy courses to readily believe in the miraculous.

But there was something prayerful in my uneven pondering.  Maybe it was this: the critical distance between other people’s miraculous healings and what was needed right now had disappeared.  At least this: now a part of me wanted to believe.  In his eloquent way, the great French philosopher Paul Ricoeur put the desire like this: “beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.” [See note below.]

At the prayer service we prayed the rosary and we asked Kateri to stop the bacterium.  We asked her to save my friend’s father’s life. We prayed that the churchy chess piece would make her move.

Two days later, I got away for a mini-retreat up at St. John’s University up north in Collegeville.  I’ve written before that St. John’s is one of those thinner places where I receive God a bit more easily.  Hungry for the outdoors, I got out running—up, down, around—an unknown path that hugs the shores of Lake Sagatagan.  I crested a hill and came upon a clearing where a lone statue stood.  It was of a young, serious woman frozen in gray stone, with a dog at her feet.  Beneath it, the plaque read “Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.”  Odd, I thought, given that at the time she wasn’t to be named a saint for another eight days. And yet here I was, and here she was, plaque and all.

I reached out, and put my hand on her cool stony foot.  Coincidence?  Soothing superstitions?  I waited there a minute, watching the late afternoon sunlight play on her stony face through the leaves.  Silent.  Assured.

Deafened by the silence around me, I kept on running.

A week later, Kateri was recognized as a saint in Rome.  Jim’s dad continued his recovery.  He lost some chunks of flesh from his arm, but otherwise the bacterium’s spread was successfully stopped.  His doctors were amazed that he didn’t lose his arm, let alone his life.  Jim is grateful as hell that his dad is still around.

I don’t have the time or qualifications to do any serious medical investigation.  I’m not interested in proving, or disproving, any saintly gambit on the part of Kateri Tekakwitha.  But I stop, and I wonder: would I recognize miracles around me if I saw them?

[Note]: Lewis S. Mudge wrote of this famous line, which occurs toward the end of The Symbolism of Evil (1960), that “this longing is shared today by the many for whom historical-critical method remains indispensable, but at the same time insufficient to bring us to a ‘post-critical moment’ of openness to the Biblical summons. Is there an intellectually responsible way through the critical sands, always shifting, sometimes abrasive, to an oasis where bedrock, with its springs of water for the spirit, once again appears?”  I sure hope so.

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