From time to time I’ll post some of my old articles here. If it’s a re-run for you forgive me. Remember you can also read my archived articles on my website. Here’s one I wrote some years ago for the UK’s The Universe.
Fortean Times is an irreverent, weird and wonderful magazine that reports strange happenings all over the world. In Fortean Times you can read about the abominable snowman and conspiracy theories, weeping Madonnas, stigmatics, ghosts and goblins. You can read about angels and aliens, UFO’s and crop circles as well as stories of miracles and monsters, myths and magic. The great thing about this magazine is that it reports all these strange happenings with the right mixture of humour, belief and doubt.
The editors understand that there are lots of gullible people out there. They realise there are hoaxers, charlatans, frauds and people who are willing to cash in on the superstitious crowds. In addition, there are some people who are sincerely fooled and others who are simply crazy. Despite all this, the editors also understand that strange things really do happen. There may be hoaxers and tricksters, but they are only believable because there are other genuine events in the world that defy explanation according to the usual natural laws of science.
The Catholic Church’s position on the supernatural is actually very close to the editors of the
Fortean Times. When faced with supposed supernatural activity the Church does not deny or affirm. She does not say all weeping Madonnas are a trick, nor does she say they are an authentic miracle. She withholds judgement. When someone claims to see the face of Mother Teresa in a bagel or the image of the Virgin Mary in the glass of a tower block the church authorities usually do not comment. Faced with stigmatists, miracle workers, incorrupt bodies and heavenly apparitions the Church doesn’t deny or affirm. When a supposedly supernatural occurrence is so prominent that the church is forced to comment she always advises caution. We are told to look for all the natural explanations first. So when Pope John XXIII’s body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt the Vatican officials quite wisely said it was ‘remarkably well preserved’, and didn’t suggest that there was necessarily anything miraculous about it.
The church takes the safe middle ground. In contrast to this balanced view there are two extreme positions taken in our society. The skeptical person says, ‘Miracles cannot happen because there is no such thing as miracles.’ On the other hand, the gullible person believes every ‘miracle’ that comes along and is amazed by every strange event without question. Our society is awash with these two extreme views, and we desperately need the sound and sensible middle way.
Those who take a materialistic view deny the supernatural altogether. Some scientists believe the fixed laws of science can explain everything, and that miracles are therefore impossible. Some psychologists suppose that supernatural incidents are all in the mind—ignoring the fact that some supernatural events are witnessed by thousands. More open-mided theorists admit that strange things happen, but insist that these are simply natural events for which we do not yet have an explanation. This is a better answer, but it also doesn’t account for all the facts. Some supernatural events are simply strange, one-off miracles, and there is no other explanation.
The skeptics have their position strengthened by the huge numbers of people who are willing to believe in any ‘supernatural’ event. Fortune tellers, astrologers and ‘urban shamans’ are making loads of money with their so called supernatural gifts. Alternative therapists, spiritualists and angel-counselors are drawing more and more people into various forms of occult worship and superstition. The shelves in bookstores are loaded with books on witchcraft, casting spells and black magic. The supernatural is big business, and two old sayings are true: ‘There’s a sucker born every minute’ and ‘Once people stop believing in Christianity they don’t believe in nothing they believe in anything.’
In the face of facts, the Catholic view is the most sensible. Like Fortean Times, Catholics believe that ‘there is more in heaven and earth…than the philosophers have dreamt of.’ There is a real supernatural realm. However, we try not to be gullible. We believe in miracles, but we don’t go chasing after them. We are dubious when faced with reports of supernatural events. We admit that there is much within the natural world that we don’t fully understand. We acknowledge that the human mind is complex and mysterious, and that much that passes for ‘supernatural’ may have more to do with the workings of the human mind than the workings of God. At the same time we do not deny the possibility of miracles. Indeed, we embrace the greatest miracles that the world has ever seen: the incarnation of God as a human being and his resurrection from the dead.
To deny miracles and to be gullible are both wrong. Instead we should live happily with the possibility of miracles. If we believe in a God who made the world, then it is no problem to believe that he might sometimes interfere with the world he has made. Miracles are not a contradiction of nature. They are the confirmation that there is someone bigger than nature. A miracle reminds us that creation is alive and open-ended. Anything can happen. With God nothing is impossible. The universe is therefore much more like a party than a stage play.
Catholics are people who live quite easily with the possibility of miracles, while not being that impressed by them. The attitude of St Thomas Aquinas illustrates the best Catholic attitude to supernatural events. During his lifetime a nun became famous for her ability to levitate. Thousands flocked to the monastery to see the nun floating up by the ceiling. Thomas Aquinas was taken to see the amazing sight, and after witnessing it he simply shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘I didn’t know nuns wore such big boots.’
This simple and humorous approach is the best way to deal with reports of the supernatural. Yes, we believe strange things happen. There are many things we can’t explain. Some of them may actually be acts of God in our lives. But after all is said and done we turn to the miracles we know he has done and is doing in our lives every day: the miracle of his birth among us, and his continued miraculous presence in our lives through the Mass.