by Father Joseph Chamblain, O.S.M.
When we were to ask a hundred people where healing miracles are most likely to occur, most would probably say in churches, shrines, sacred grottos, and especially in places like Lourdes, known for its healing waters.
However, the other day I learned something, that at first seemed hard to believe, but after a while began to make perfect sense. More miracles take place on airplanes than in churches. Veteran flight attendants will testify to this.
A passenger arrives in the gate area in a wheelchair, having been pushed through the long concourse by an airport employee. Unable to walk unsupported, the passenger is given priority boarding and is seated as close to the front of the plane as possible (often the front row).
The flight attendant places the individual’s luggage directly above their seat, since the overhead bins are completely empty at that point. Then, over the course of the next few hours, the miracle takes place. When the plane arrives at its destination and the cabin door is opened, the passenger is able to leap up, grab their luggage, and be the first to deplane. It’s a miracle! Perhaps such miracles happen so frequently in flight because of the close proximity to heaven.
This raises the question: What exactly is a miracle? The dictionary defines a miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting a supernatural work of God.” That definition suggests that two levels of interpretation are involved in claiming that a miracle has taken place: first that something that cannot be explained logically or scientifically has occurred, and, second, that this “something” can only be attributed to God.
In the Catholic Church, when a healing is attributed to the intercession of someone being considered for beatification or canonization, an elaborate process takes place. At what point does a healing reach beyond the capacity of science or medicine to explain it? Declaring something a miracle is not an exact science. Even science is not an exact science. Science always involves some interpretation of facts. Witness the differences of opinion among scientists about how to best protect oneself from Covid-19, and how the majority thinking about how the virus was spread changed over time. In other words, miracles not only exist in fact; they also exist in the eye of the beholder.
We see things not just as they are, but also as we are. In ordinary life, mourners at graveside will sometimes mention a butterfly landing on the loved one’s coffin and then flying away or a flock of birds passing overhead. Was that a miracle? Was it a sign from God that their loved one has gone to heaven?
In the Gospels and in life we see how miracles can strengthen faith, but cannot create faith. Even after Jesus performed an extraordinary sign, sceptics would claim that he was using not the power of God but the power of the Evil One. Often Jesus’ own miracles had a social dimension. Healing lepers not only cured their disease, but enabled them to return to their family, their work, their worship community. Other miracles had a symbolic significance. He gave physical sight to a man born blind, who had already proved himself capable of seeing with the eyes of faith and “see” a lot better than his contemporaries.
Perhaps, in the end, miracles tell us much more about us as they do about the events themselves. If we believe in a personal God, a God who is involved in our world, a God with whom we interact in prayer, a God whose vision for the world Jesus articulated in the Gospels, then we are going to be more attuned to the miraculous in daily life than those whose notion of God is vague and abstract. Small children see miracles everywhere.
So many things are a great mystery. Children notice how water pushes back at you when you push against it. They notice that airplanes can fly like birds and flowers bloom and then fade. They notice that the man in the moon is watching them. As adults we often lose our sense of wonder. We learn about aviation and Newton’s laws and polysynthesis.
We think everything can be explained. We fail to be amazed at things that cannot be logically explained, like Christ being present under the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist or God coming to earth as a little child. We have to remember that living in “the real world” is not a synonym for putting away childish things, but about waking up to the reality that everyone and everything that exists was created out of love.
When we wake up to reality, we begin to notice miracles again: when enemies decide to speak to one another, when a notorious world leader starts talking about disarmament, when a person who has led a notorious life has a conversion of heart. Miracles are the norm in God’s world. Perhaps that is the reason that Jesus said, “Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of God”. As the late rabbi and poet Abraham Heschel prayed shortly before his death, “I did not ask for success. I asked for wonder. And you gave it to me.”