What Miracles Mean

Woven into the history of the world's religions, miracles are more about faith than fact. In 'The Book of Miracles'

Newsweek/May 1, 2000
By Kenneth L. Woodward

A decade ago, at the age of 12, Bernadette McKenzie found that she could no longer stand upright, even after three operations. She suffered from a tethered spinal cord, a rare congenital condition causing constant pain. The nuns at her school in suburban Philadelphia began a series of prayers, seeking the intercession of their deceased founder, Mother Frances de Sales Aviat, whom they regard as a saint. On the fourth day, Bernadette herself knelt by her bed, telling God that if this was to be her life she would accept it. But she wanted to know, a sign. If she were to walk again, she pleaded, let her favorite song, "Forever Young," play next on the radio. It did. She immediately jumped up and ran downstairs to tell her family. Bernadette didn't even notice that her physical symptoms had disappeared, something her doctors say is medically inexplicable. Her recovery is currently being evaluated by the Vatican as a possible miracle.

Does God answer prayers? Do miracles, extraordinary events that are the result of special acts of God, really happen? Last week Christians and Jews around the globe celebrated the miracle stories central to each faith: the resurrection of Jesus at Easter and the deliverance of the Israelites at Passover. But are miracles now merely stories from long ago and, intellectually, very far away?

Not to millions of believers worldwide. Every week of the year, somewhere in the world, believers gather to celebrate the miraculous deeds that God or the gods, a saint or a sage, worked on behalf of the faithful. Many Jews and Buddhists, as well as Christians, Hindus and Muslims, still look for, and, by their own accounts, experience, miraculous interventions in their lives. True, many people consider stories like Bernadette's hopeless superstition, or mere coincidence. But many others allow for the possibility of the miraculous. According to a new NEWSWEEK Poll, 84 percent of adult Americans say they believe that God performs miracles and nearly half (48 percent) report that they have personally experienced or witnessed one. Three fourths of American Catholics say they pray for miracles, and among non-Christians, and people of no faith at all, 43 percent say they have asked for God's intervention.

Most Americans who pray for miracles ask for cures, for themselves or for loved ones. Indeed, half of those polled (50 percent) credit God with bringing back to life people who have been declared dead by medical authorities. Today, in fact, not only the Vatican but even some Muslim and Pentecostal groups have developed follow-up procedures to determine whether reported healings are in fact beyond medical explanation.

But for the believers, the real question isn't one of fact but of faith. Whether the story is a sacred event like the parting of the Red Sea or a contemporary account of a healing, the impulse is to ask, "Did this miracle really happen?" The important issue, however, is not if a miracle "really" happened but what believers make of the stories of miracles, whether the miraculous took place on the journey to the Promised Land 3,000 years ago or in Philadelphia in our own time. Miracle stories, ancient and modern, do two things: they explain the ways of God to the faithful, and they are the means by which believers experience the presence of God, or the gods, in their own lives. So if we are to grasp why so many people hold fast to these stories, we have to know the tradition in which the story unfolds and how miracles are understood in each faith.

Miracles are found in all the world religions. In ancient India, as in the ancient Middle East, miracles functioned as both signs and wonders. As wonders, they incited awe; as signs, they always signified the presence of transcendent power. When the Buddha dazzled his kinfolk by rising in the air, dividing his body into pieces and then rejoining them, he sig-naled for all to see that he had achieved complete liberation from the iron laws of karma. When the Prophet Muham-mad produced water in the desert for his companions to drink, he demonstrated the compassion of Allah the All-Merciful. And when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he signaled his power over death and foreshadowed his own resurrection. He also echoed the miracles worked by the earlier Hebrew prophets Elijah and Elisha, and set the pattern for the same miracles to be worked by the apostles Peter and Paul.

NEWSWEEK's reporting on contemporary miracle stories, and the historical research I undertook for "The Book of Miracles," demonstrates that believers still make room for the miraculous. And the history of each faith explains why, even now, so many of us believe in the unbelievable.

For as long as she can remember, Angela Boudreaux has been praying to Francis Xavier Seelos, a Redemptorist priest whose bones lay buried in her parish church in Gretna, La. In the summer of 1966, Angela, now 70, was diagnosed with liver cancer. After exploratory surgery showed huge tumor masses throughout 90 percent of the organ, she was given two weeks to live. "She looked like someone out of a concentration camp," recalls her physician, Dr. Alfred J. Ruffy Jr., now a retired professor from the Wake Forest School of Medicine. But Angela prayed to Father Seelos, asking for time to raise her four children. Almost immediately, Ruffy noticed that the grapefruit-size tumor had begun to shrink, a reversal he says could not be attributed to the rudimentary chemotherapy he had used. "It was the most remarkable case I've ever been involved with," says Ruffy. The following November, Angela was on her feet and caring for her kids. The Roman Catholic Church declared the cure a miracle and two weeks ago Ruffy and the Boudreaux family were in Rome for the beatification of Father Seelos.

Healing the sick is the basic form Christian miracles take. In the Gospels, Jesus works miracles either to elicit faith or, more often, as a response to an individual's faith in him. In John's Gospel especially, miracles are signs that in Jesus the long-awaited kingdom of God is now present. By restoring the dead to life, Jesus is also restoring sinful humankind to a new relationship with God, a mission that will be completed only by his own death and resurrection. In sum, the healing miracles not only show the compassion of Jesus but also reveal what the power and love of God are really like.

Throughout the early Christian centuries, those who died for Christ were also revered as intercessors with God in heaven. Even through their relics, it was believed, these "friends of God" above could be conduits for prayers from the faithful on earth. This belief in "the communion of the saints" is what lies behind the miracles required by the Catholic Church of those who, after death, are officially recognized as saints. Restored to God themselves, they are, Catholics and Orthodox alike believe, able to aid others who sincerely seek favors in this life.

A year ago Tyler Clarensau shuffled to the altar in the gym of Park Crest Assembly of God Church in Springfield, Mo. It was, he thinks, probably the 200th time he'd sought healing for malformed knee joints that surgery had failed to correct. Suddenly, a group of 40 other Pentecostal teenagers encircled him and began to pray. Gradually the whole congregation was raised to a prayerful roar. An hour later, when silence fell, a church volunteer pronounced that God had finally healed Clarensau's legs. Shakily, he stood up, all eyes on him. He began to do deep knee bends, something he hadn't accomplished in years. Now he can run, slowly. "I'd heard stories about people getting healed," says Tyler, 15, "and I thought it was pretty cool. But I didn't really know for sure until it happened to me."

The leaders of the Protestant Reformation rejected the Catholic "cult of the saints" as pagan superstition. But the heirs of the Reformation continued to believe that God shows "special providences" over the faithful, in effect, miracles by another name. Visions and prophecies accompanied the waves of "awakenings" and revivals among American Protestants. Many new sects and movements, including the Mormons, believed that God was restoring the church of the New Testament, with all its signs and wonders. If individual believers could experience God for themselves, they could also experience his miraculous touch. But only in the last century, with the rise of Pentecostalism, has Protestantism democratized the miraculous. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Pentecostals believe they themselves can work, as well as receive miracles, just like the apostles of Jesus.

Shoshana Levin is a singer-songwriter from a liberal Jewish family on the West Coast. But for the last 10 years she has also been a student of the Torah and a member of Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic group in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a devout believer in the power of its late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. In July 1992, Shoshana's mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer and not expected to live. The day after she heard the news, Shoshana went to the rebbe's secre-tary with a letter asking Schneerson for a blessing (berucha). She was told to call back that afternoon and, in the meantime, to have her family put mezuzas throughout the house, do good deeds and light Shabbos candles. Her mother reluctantly did as her daughter instructed, writing several checks for charitable causes. That afternoon Shoshana was told that the rebbe had granted his blessing. Three days later, when doctors did a biopsy on her mother, there were no signs of the cancer. "Someone's prayers were answered," the doctor said.

Of all religious groups in the United States, surveys show, Jews are least likely to believe in miracles. One reason may be the Hebrew Bible itself. Miracles gradually disappear as the Bible moves from the first book to the last. In Genesis, only God works miracles, that's what God does. But after Moses is introduced, control over miracles begins to shift from God to his prophets. Moreover, from Moses to Elijah and Elisha, miracles change from public performances for large groups to private miracles on behalf of individuals. Finally, God himself ceases to appear in the Biblical texts, and miracles cease, as well.

Religious Jews believe that life itself is a miracle. Nonetheless, the Talmudic literature contains a number of miracle stories about a few great sages whose deep immersion in the Torah gave them the power to work miracles. By the 18th century, Jewish mysticism developed the figure of the tzaddik ha-dor, a rebbe of exceptional holiness whose very soul is rooted in a higher realm; in this way he acts as a channel through which God's blessings flow to the community and, in turn, as the agent of his people in petitioning God for favors. In Israel today, and in Hasidic communities elsewhere in the world, rebbes are still regarded as saints with unusual powers, and after death their grave sites become shrines.

As a great soul, Rabbi Schneerson belongs to a long line of Hasidic saints. According to Chabad philosophy, a rebbe can work miracles when he perceives that an illness or other misfortune is the will of God. In those cases, he can beseech God to change what he has willed. More often, however, the rebbe shows his followers how to use mezuzas and other artifacts of Orthodox observance to open the regular channels to God's grace. Even after his death in 1994, Schneerson has remained a channel for those seeking miracles. His office still receives more than 1,000 letters requesting blessings every day.

Hisham Muhammad Kabbani is a Sufi saint, a sheik in the Naqshbandi Order of Islam, which traces its lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad. Now 55 and head of the order in North America, he has an M.D. from Louvain University in Belgium. He relates a miracle story that occurred in 1971, when his own spiritual master, Sheik Muhammad Nazim al-Haqqani, made a rare and unexpected visit to Kabbani's home in Lebanon. "He said to me, 'I have received an inspiration from a chain of our grandmasters that your father is going to die tonight at 7 p.m.' I asked, 'How do you know this? My father is old but in good health.' He said, 'It is through our essence and the spiritual connection that has been passed over thousands of years.' It was 5 in the evening and he told me to call the family together and not to tell my father. At five minutes before 7, my master came to my father's room. My father told the sheik that he was in pain and his heart was failing. When the clock was ringing at 7, my father passed away."

In the Qur'an, the Prophet Muhammad rejects every request to work miracles, saying that the Qur'an itself is a miracle, the only one a Muslim needs. But in the oral traditions (ahadith) of his life, Muhammad works numerous miracles. He multiplies food for his companions and heals a variety of ailments. Islamic theology distinguishes sharply between the miracles (mu'jiza) that God's prophets could perform and the karama, or wonders worked by later Muslim mystics and saints. Islam means "submission" to Allah; Sufi mystics who submit their minds and bodies in total prayer achieve a level of spiritual knowledge that produces karama. Thus Sufi spiritual masters can intuit disasters, read the needs of souls and help the sick.

From the beginning, Islam has also maintained a vigorous cult of the saints. The Qur'an itself speaks of friends of God (awliya' Allah), and over the centuries Muslims have singled out certain figures for devotion, including Muhammad's favorite daughter, Fatimah. For Shiite Muslims, the Prophet's son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib even surpasses Muhammad as an intercessor with Allah. Pious Muslims venerate their saints, cherish their relics, invoke their protection and look to them for blessings.

Maharaj Krishna Rasgotra, a retired foreign secretary of India, remembers the precise day almost 30 years ago when he became a devotee of Saty Sai Baba, India's most celebrated living saint. Over the years, the government official often witnessed Baba work his signature miracle, producing out of air mounds of vibhuti, sacred ash that his devotees credit with healing properties. But it was in 1986 that Rasgotra experienced Baba's power firsthand. After suffering a heart attack, Rasgotra lay in a hospital recovery room. Among the hovering doctors and nurses he saw Baba, though the saint was a thousand miles away. When physicians told him he needed bypass surgery to avoid a fatal attack, Rasgotra consulted Baba in person, who told him he didn't need it. Rasgotra skipped surgery and today, at 75, he plays 18 holes of golf regularly. "I have total faith in Baba," says Rasgotra. "Whatever he says comes about. Whenever you are with him you feel you're shedding something and acquiring a new kind of life.

For more than three millenniums, India has been a land of living saints. It is also a land of nearly countless local gods and goddesses, some 3 million of them, by one recent estimate. All gods, however, are but different forms of a single Absolute (Brahman) which is also the ground (Atman) of everyone who exists. Just as Hindu gods can descend in human form, so the Hindu saint can achieve god-like consciousness. Thus, through rigorous meditation and other yogic practices, the practitioner can decant his bottled divinity. Given this view, the line between human and divine is not as distinct as in the West.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism are quite precise about the kinds of powers or "superknowledges" that a successful practitioner of meditation can expect. Among them are knowledge of one's previous lives, and the abilities to traverse great distances in a moment and to penetrate the minds of others. But Buddhist sages, in particular, are wary of displaying these powers to others, lest it bolster the ego they are trying to overcome. Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, a Chinese Buddhist monk, established a Chan monastery in San Francisco in 1970. In Asia, it is reported that he could heal the ailments of those willing to follow the dharma of the Buddha. But in the United States, where he died in 1995, Master Hua thought that using supernatural powers as a teaching tool would be counterproductive in a rational, scientific society.

Outside of Asian cultures, however, few believers encounter living saints, or their miracles. Indeed, in all the world's religions the most common miracles are those connected with prayers offered anonymously at shrines. The "modern" shrine tradition may well have begun 2,500 years ago, when the bones of the deceased Buddha were distributed as relics to tribal chieftains. Later they were collected and enshrined in stupas across northern India. Today India is home to innumerable shrines to assorted Hindu gods and goddesses who are also implored for miracles. In some Islamic countries, as in Catholic regions of Europe, pilgrimages to shrines remain a popular form of piety. But only relatively recently have efforts been made to validate reported miracles.

The Marian shrine at Lourdes in France, where the first miraculous cure was accepted in 1858, has had only 66 of 6,000 healing claims authenticated by the shrine's medical boards. The last was in 1987. In Iran, the Jamkaran mosque outside the holy city of Qom has been a point of pilgrimage for a thousand years. But only in 1998 did mosque officials begin investigating reported cures through its Registry of Divine Acts of Mercy. So far, officials have validated six miracles out of 270 claims.

Miracles will always withhold their meaning from doubters and the merely credulous alike. In any case, miracles alone are never a substitute for faith. But as the United States becomes home to all the world's religions, miracle stories have acquired a new and almost civic dimension. While they show that religions provide very different visions of how the transcendent operates in the world, those differences need not divide us: miracle stories also invite spiritual seekers to journey into worlds other than their own. As Gandhi understood, religion is itself an "experiment with truth." But miracle stories can be interpreted only by communities of understanding and memory, that is, traditions. As an old Hasidic saying puts it, "He who believes all these tales is a fool, but anyone who cannot believe them is a heretic." For believer and skeptic alike, that is the paradox inherent in any religious faith.

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