In 1987 I was a young Anglican priest living in England. Between jobs, with three months free, I decided to hitchhike to Jerusalem, staying in convents and monasteries along the way. As I was traveling through central France, I decided to stop at Nevers to see the incorrupt body of St. Bernadette. The hitchhiking that day was difficult, but a truck stopped on the outskirts of Nevers, and I found I was just a short walk from my destination, the Convent of St. Gildard.
I was given a room by a cheerful French sister and made my way down for supper. The refectory was full of mentally handicapped Irish pilgrims on their way to Lourdes. I found a seat at a long table with some other individual pilgrims. Before long a woman came and sat next to me and said in a rich Alabama accent, “Excuse me, but the sisters asked me to sit here with you because you speak English and ah do too.”
So I was introduced to Mary Jane, who had been raised a Southern Baptist but converted to the Catholic faith after having a vision of St. Bernadette. She informed me that she came to France every summer to “spend time with Bernadette and practice mah French.”
Mary Jane had the keys to the place and took me on a tour that evening. She showed me Bernadette’s cell as well as the mausoleum where the saint had been placed after her first exhumation. She told me the story of the saint’s life and death, the subsequent exhumations, and the marvel of her incorrupt body. “Ah know all about these things,” Mary Jane confided, “‘cause mah daddy in Mobile is an undertaker.”
The next morning after breakfast I was about to hit the road north to the great Romanesque abbey of Vezelay when Mary Jane rushed out and stopped me. “Before you start on your pilgrimage again, you need to go in and spend some time with Bernadette.”
So I took off my backpack and went into the chapel where Bernadette’s body lies in a glass casket. I kept silence there for fifteen minutes and noticed a beautiful fragrance of flowers—but there were no flowers. As I prayed, the fragrance grew stronger, and I felt transported by a presence that was beyond my understanding.
When I got back outside and shrugged on my backpack again Mary Jane greeted me with a huge smile, “Well, how was it?” I explained the extraordinary experience and she said, “Yes. You have experienced the odor of sanctity. Many people who are close to God receive this grace from Bernadette.”
More Things in Heaven
So what happened? Did I experience a supernatural fragrance? Was it a little whiff of heaven or had the cleaning lady sprayed air freshener around the room? Did the fragrance come from Bernadette’s incorrupt body, or was it some other sort of olfactory sensation that science has yet to explain? For that matter, is Bernadette’s body really incorrupt after all these years, or has she been embalmed?
The same questions arise with all types of paranormal religious phenomena. Did the sun spin at Fatima and Medjugorje? Did St. Joseph of Cupertino and St. Theresa of Avila really levitate? Were Padre Pio’s stigmata miraculous? Could he really bi-locate? What happens when visionaries “see” the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Januarius’s blood liquefies and people are healed with relics or through anointing or by the prayers of a long-dead saint? Is St. Juan Diego’s tilda really a miraculous image? Do people really speak in the tongues of angels at charismatic meetings? Did Mother Teresa’s face appear in a bagel and the Blessed Virgin on the side of an office building, and did Jesus really talk to St. Faustina 2,000 years after his death and Resurrection?
Did all these miracles (and many more) really occur down through history, and if so, why are they so difficult to analyze and explain? Why, for instance, did St. Therese’s body see corruption, but not St. Bernadette’s? Why do miracles occur more in some ages than in others? Why do some relics heal and others do not? Why do some saints receive stigmata and visions and inner locutions and others do not? Why are there so many different kinds of supernatural events—some stupendous and some silly?
The first thing to remember about the miraculous is that it is miraculous. In other words, by its very definition, the event is extraordinary, and because it is extraordinary, it is difficult to categorize and explain. If an event takes place outside the box we should not be surprised if we find it difficult to put it into a box.
Religious experience is bigger than religion. That is to say, God himself is “outside the box.” While we have our doctrines and dogmas and traditions and theology, God is greater than all our explanations and there is more in heaven and earth than our neat little answers can contain.
C.S. Lewis wrote that he only knew one person who had claimed to see a ghost, but she resolutely refused to believe in ghosts. This leads us to another peculiar fact about the weird things that happen: They do not necessarily convince anyone of the reality of the supernatural or the existence of God.
In his book Heaven: A Guide to the Undiscovered Country, Peter Stanford recounts the story of a famous atheist who had a near-death experience and was given a glimpse of hell. He recovered and cheerfully proclaimed that while it shook him up for a few days, he soon returned to being an atheist.
Supernatural experiences convince very few people of the truth. Neither are they a prerequisite or a guarantee of holiness. In other words, here on this earth you don’t have to do miracles to be holy, and miracles aren’t an automatic guarantee that you are holy. There are many natural explanations for the weird things that happen, and even when the cause is supernatural, it is no guarantee that the strange event is divine in origin.
Therefore, while it is natural to be impressed by seemingly supernatural events, it is not right to jump to conclusions and declare the person involved to be a saint, or the event to be straight from heaven. In fact, the right response to supernatural events is to tread the tightrope between gullibility and disbelief—to be both believing and skeptical.
Believe It or Not
When Bl. Pope John XXIII’s body was exhumed for the canonization process in 2001, everyone gasped to find that his body had not decayed. People jumped to the conclusion that he was an incorruptible.
However, the Vatican was more cautious. Officials simply reported that his body was in a “remarkable state of preservation.” The papal undertakers soon offered an opinion that the well-preserved condition of Bl. John ’s body could be explained through natural causes. He had actually been lightly embalmed, and the body was placed into a cypress coffin inside a lead casket inside a marble sarcophagus. Each one of them was sealed. It was therefore not surprising that in a dry, airtight environment the body was not subject to rapid decay.
Whenever a natural explanation for a seemingly supernatural event is available, it is to be preferred. However, that doesn’t mean that you dismiss the possibility of miracles, because as soon as you have a natural explanation for one strange happening, along comes another example which cannot be explained.
When the Maronite monk Charbel Makhlouf died in 1898, strange lights appeared over his grave. When dug up, his body was found floating in mud with a strange liquid seeping out. He was buried in the church, and his body was again exhumed in 1927, 1950, and 1955, each time with no trace of decay. The blood-like liquid continued to ooze from his body and was gathered and used to heal the sick.
Therefore, while the response to a supernatural event is to attempt to find a natural explanation, it is not correct to dismiss the possibility of a supernatural explanation. The Catholic approach to weird happenings is to cultivate a kind of skeptical, yet open-minded curiosity—neither falling into open-mouthed credulity nor maintaining a cynical disbelief.
Use Your Head
In the face of seemingly supernatural events, it is possible to play the detective, and—like Hercule Poirot—study the evidence, use our little grey cells, and come up with some possible solutions to the riddle. Trying to figure out exactly what is happening when faced with weird events is a complicated business, but explanations can be put into five categories.
The first explanation is an honest mistake. People jump to conclusions. They think the body of the saint is incorrupt, but then discover that it was embalmed. Maybe what we thought was the sun spinning was a refraction of light through clouds, or an indication that we need our eyes tested. In this category fall those who think they see a supernatural sign in a bagel, tree trunk, or burnt piece of toast. It isn’t a supernatural sign, but the result of an overactive imagination. These people experience something which they do not understand and conclude that the supernatural is involved. They simply make a mistake.
We also have to make allowances for fraud as an explanation. Unscrupulous charlatans are known to fake healings and supernatural wonders in order to con people. These scam artists use a range of conjurer’s tricks, hypnotic suggestion, and manipulative crowd-control techniques. Sometimes they do it out of a sincere desire to help people and encourage their faith. More often they are in it for a fast buck. It’s not always simple, though. Sometimes the fakers believe their own tricks. They use low-level forms of crowd manipulation techniques and group hypnosis without knowing exactly what they’re doing. Nevertheless, these “miracles” are still a form of fakery, and what seems supernatural has a natural explanation.
A third category of natural explanation can be called “mind projection.” In this case inexplicable things really do happen, but the cause is the individuals wishing for something to happen and projecting their wishes onto the outside world. This “wishing” usually happens at a subconscious level. Some healing and phenomena at charismatic services like “fainting in the Spirit” fall into this category. This category of natural explanation includes a whole range of religious experiences that seem to be supernatural, but are, in fact, simply human responses to religious stimuli. Prayer, worship, group dynamics, and heightened atmospheres of spirituality can induce altered states of consciousness which feel supernatural and produce seemingly supernatural phenomena. These are not necessarily supernatural in origin. Often they are just human reactions to a spiritually exciting experience.
The fourth possible explanation takes us further toward the supernatural, and this category can best be named “religious transcendence.” In this situation, an individual or a group of individuals enter into a highly transcendent state of consciousness, and they become the channel or location for a supernatural intervention. Very often these people have a natural psychic gift, and when this gift is yielded to a greater power, amazing things can happen. This category explains individuals who experience stigmata and other wonders. It includes groups of people who experience shared visions or witness strange phenomena together. This category of supernatural experience is partially due to natural phenomena, but it overlaps with real supernatural contact. The human contact with the supernatural is not necessarily from God. What happens might be diabolical in origin.
The last category is a genuine, totally supernatural event, and there are two kinds of these: divine and demonic. These events do not have a natural component and can only be explained by a direct intervention from an outside spiritual force. These supernatural interventions can be diabolical, angelic, through the intercessions of saints, or by a direct act of God.
While these categories offer a helpful guide to sorting out and understanding seemingly supernatural events, they don’t supply the whole answer. Such events defy easy categorization, and the borders between the different categories are porous. The true cause of a particular phenomenon might be a combination of factors—both natural and supernatural.
It might be tempting to use the stupendous supernatural stories of the saints to try to convince people of the truth of the Catholic faith. However, because the supernatural events are so slippery and hard to understand, they do not supply good apologetics ammunition. It’s not always clear if a weird event is supernatural or not, and the complicated and ambiguous parts of the faith do not provide the clarity and precision needed for sound apologetics.
Using supernatural stories of the saints to evangelize can actually be counterproductive. The miraculous stories of Catholicism are often so bizarre that they end up disturbing and confusing people. If you tell a non-Catholic friend about the incorruptible bodies of saints or saints levitating or the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima, you are likely to confirm his prejudice that Catholics are ignorant, superstitious, and gullible.
Using strange happenings to convince people of the truth of the Catholic faith is also unwise because it draws attention away from the truly important questions. Supernatural occurrences in the lives of the saints are not vital core beliefs of the Catholic faith. You can be a good Catholic and not believe the stories of St. Bernadette’s incorrupt body and St. Joseph Cupertino flying. Furthermore, even if the person you are evangelizing is interested in miracle stories, it can distract them from what you should be discussing.
Even worse, concentrating on the supernatural can distract you from what is really important about your faith. If the devil can turn you from true worship and get you obsessed with stigmatics or eucharistic miracles or whether or not the pope dedicated Russia to the Blessed Virgin properly, he’s got you where he wants you.
There are two useful things about the supernatural stories of the Catholic faith. The first is that they keep alive the idea that reality is not as certain and sure as we might like to think. Reality possesses an open-ended, unpredictable, and elastic quality. Secondly, miracles remind us that our religion is founded on a miracle. Tales of the unexpected remind us that our faith is supernatural at its very core, and this truth can spark curiosity and open up the whole question of how the spiritual world interacts with the physical. This question is vital because it leads into an enlightening conversation about God’s plan of salvation and the sacramental economy.
The Grandeur of God
Supernatural miracles are, by definition, unusual events. They are also unpredictable, subjective, and complicated. The sacraments, on the other hand, are objective, reliable, and simple. Each sacrament is a miracle of God’s supernatural interaction with the world. When we say that weird events are of secondary importance, this is not because we want to be less supernaturally minded, but more.
Dynamic Catholicism is alive with the supernatural every day. Through the life of prayer, through living a life charged with the grace and beauty of the sacraments, the supernatural life of God radiates through every aspect of our ordinary lives every day.
The saints were not obsessed with supernatural, weird events. That is because they were on fire with the Holy Spirit working through their lives day by day through an intimate interaction with the sacramental life of the Church. They had eyes to see God’s mighty hand in all his works, and with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, could say, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
When we begin to understand the power and the glory of the supernatural, sacramental life of the Church, then the weird things that happen begin to pale into insignificance. When they do occur and they are authentic, they merely complement and refer back to the greater sacramental life of the Church. When they are inauthentic, all they do is distract us from the real work of God in our lives.
Christianity is first and foremost centered on the miracle of the Incarnation. It is this miracle—in which God himself is hidden in the ordinary world—that is the foundation of our faith, and it is through the sacramental mysteries that we truly enter into this miracle and are transformed. Weird things do happen, but wonderful is better than weird, and the transformation of ourselves, our souls, and our bodies into the image of Christ is the most wonderful miracle of all.
Aquinas and the Flying Nun
One day a novice ran up and told St. Thomas Aquinas about a nun who could levitate. This phenomenon was attracting large crowds, and didn’t Thomas want to come and see it for himself? When he arrived at the convent chapel he looked up, and there, sure enough, was a nun floating in mid-air.
“Look, Father, isn’t it amazing! What do you think?”
Thomas answered, “I didn’t know nuns wore such big boots.”
His wry observation was the right response to supernatural phenomena. St. Thomas did not disbelieve, but neither was he terribly impressed with the flying nun. One of the reasons he was not impressed was because he understood the slipperiness and unpredictability of seemingly supernatural events. He understood that a supernatural event didn’t necessarily prove a person’s holiness or prove anything at all, except that there are things we don’t understand.
The other reason Thomas would not have been very impressed with a levitating nun is that he already knew that the supernatural and the natural world were in a constant state of interaction. He understood that while weird events are difficult to pin down and explain, God had already provided a clear, objective and reliable transaction between the spiritual world and the physical world—first through the revelation of his Son, then in the foundation of the Church and the administration of her sacraments.
Supernatural events are exciting and sensational, but Thomas’s reaction is right. We should treat them with a cheerful, down-to-earth skepticism. We don’t doubt the reality of miracles or dismiss the supernatural events, but they’re of secondary importance. In other words, there is something far greater in our faith.
by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.