Thursday, February 24, 2011

Miracles and Shysters

I don’t know when my skepticism of miracles began. I was raised hearing Biblical stories of miracles and I never doubted their authenticity or reality. I still don’t. I do however remember when I was in second grade watching Kathryn Kuhlman on our 19” black and white TV and she creeped me out. (Benny Hinn has picked up both her healing and creepy mantel in my estimation). Oral Roberts looked like a door to door vacuum cleaner salesman to me. In 1969 when I was 17 I “converted” from Catholicism to the Jesus Movement and at the same time got involved in the churches of Christ which is a cessationist tradition (the power to perform miracles through human agency ceased when the last Apostle died, though God is still capable of effecting one directly).

I always felt like an outsider in the Jesus Movement. I prayed for the gift of tongues when all my friends were speaking in tongues, but I wasn’t willing to fake it. I never spoke in tongues. I would sit on the floor as a long haired, glassy eyed Bible study leader talked about audibly hearing the voice of God leading him to do this or that and everyone would close their eyes and raise a palm toward heaven mumbling “Thank you Jesus, praise Jesus”. I felt faithless and like a judgmental ass because I was sitting there thinking, “C’mon people, this guy has dropped more acid than a pool cleaning service, he’s so fried and wouldn’t know the voice of God from a K-mart blue light special announcement.” I remember one story in particular about a church picnic football game where someone knew a friend who was at the game where someone got tackled and had a compound fracture of his leg (the bone was STICKING OUT!) and the players gathered around, laid hands on him and prayed and the bone WENT BACK IN! and THEN he got up and played the rest of the game with no ill effects! I never asked why 90% of the miracles happened to people who knew someone who was “there” when it happened, but they were never ”here”. Not that I thought they were consciously lying (after all, why would they lie?), but I just couldn’t bring myself to believe them for some reason.

Over the years now and then, I prayed for an undeniable miracle to happen before my eyes so I would not be so doubting and perhaps even faithless. By the time I became an Episcopalian at about age 40, I had heard dozens of second hand and a few firsthand accounts of miracles but still had not personally witnessed or experienced anything that was undeniable as a divine intervention like a polio victim being straightened or a blind man seeing instantaneously. I’ve heard lots of the more garden variety of miracles like cancer disappearing, people getting “premonitions”, survival stories and “wild coincidences”, all attributed to divine intervention. But the problem for me was that most “garden variety miracles” were things that happen even to unbelievers, but were attributed to Christians’ prayers or faith in God. It always seemed to me to be somewhat triumphalistic when atheists experienced spontaneous remission of cancer too. Over the years I could not force myself to rationalize a miracle out of a coincidence or some “normal” anamoly of science or medicine that happens to some people regardless of religious affiliation or even belief in God or a god.

So I had left the rationalistic churches of Christ and had been reading the great Mystics of the Church and was more open to the possibility of divine intervention than ever in my life. I joined the Episcopal Church and the priest at our parish was into the charismatic healing movement. He was big on the Vineyard ministries and Francis MacNutt, a Roman Catholic faith healer. One weekend we had a “healing event” which featured Francis MacNutt, a local Vineyard pastor and our parish’s “healing ministry team”. A couple hundred people showed up for the mini-Benny Hinn fest. During the course of the night people got whacked on the head, slain in the spirit, fell down, cried… all the usual things you see on TV. Several people in our parish came and were “healed”. A child’s leg grew, a man’s club foot “felt like it was getting better”, psychological traumas from childhood abuse were removed. During the session, a middle aged man in shorts and a short sleeved shirt came forward for healing. He twitched uncontrollably and looked around the room as if he was surrounded by Ninja assassins. He had a red, scabby skin condition, perhaps a case of severe eczema, as close to looking like a leper as you could imagine. The healing team sat him in a chair up on the altar area, and they all gathered around him and laid hands on him (on his clothing, actually, no latex gloves for faith healers). One woman on the team stood behind him. Her breasts sat on top of his head as she laid her hands on his chest from behind. She had her eyes closed, her face raised to heaven and spoke in tongues. Every once in a while someone on the “healing team” would ask him, “Do you feel the Spirit moving?” The man would say, “Yes, yes…” then timidly, “….I think so.” My unbeliever friend Joe who was looking for a miracle too leaned over and hissed loud enough for half a pew all around us to hear, “Of course he does, I’d feel the spirit if her melons were on my head and she was feeling me up.” The man walked off the stage, still twitching, still scabby and we never saw him again. Four weeks after the” healings” no one talked about our members who were “healed”… the still clubbed foot, nor the surgery to correct the child’s short leg, nor the ongoing treatments for various ailments. So, the six years of Vineyard and Francis McNutt ministry experiences in the Episcopal Church only reinforced my skepticism. I vacillated between feeling faithless and like a wet blanket on the tongues of fire of the Holy Spirit, and feeling smugly superior to the “healers” that I perceived as deluded, or egoists, or marginal and weak and trying to fit into an elite club in the parish.

Then I became Orthodox. And I found out the Orthodox Church believes in miracles. It REALLY believes in them. The Church has “wonderworking” saints, icons, relics, oil, and elders. The Holy Spirit is alive and well in the Church. So “BAM!” my issues with the miraculous just got kicked up several notches. It seemed I had to buy into all kinds of miraculous occurrences that I’d never heard of in my Protestant experiences: icons that weep myrrh, dead people that don’t rot and smell like roses, relics that heal people, dead saints that wear out the shoes put on their feet, fire that spontaneously appears and lights candles on Pascha night in the Holy Sepulchre. And, again… I heard the stories (why would people lie?), and I know just about everyone believes them because well… just about everyone believes them. If someone doesn’t, they don’t speak up. But like before, I’ve never seen any of it with my own eyes. And my feeling of being a fringe dweller and a curmudgeonly faithless ass kicked up several notches as I read and listened to people tell stories about this wonderworking icon or the oil they were anointed with that healed them and I had to play “pious” and mumble “Thank God”, which seemed to me to be the Orthodox version of the Jesus freak's lifted palm to heaven and breathily chanting “Thank you Jesus”.

I connected those two dots and I figured out the real issue for me. It was not that I disbelieved the possibility of miracles, it was that I doubted the judgment and discernment of the people who were claiming or reporting them. How DO we know we should be thanking Jesus or God for what we think we saw or experienced? Just because it was “miraculous” doesn’t make it “from God”. I knew that from the Bible. But even with that clearly in the Scriptures, I never saw anyone in 40 years question whether or not something miraculous within the Church was of God or Satan.

So when I delved further into the miraculous in Orthodoxy, I discovered something I really liked about Orthodoxy: It actually encourages us to view the miraculous with caution even if individual Orthodox people don’t. It teaches us to be skeptical and to be discerning of alleged miracles because it takes seriously the possibility of demonic delusion and “lying wonders”.

My best friend (who is also a former church of Christ miracle skeptic) was at an Orthodox summer camp where icons started weeping. Even though he called me the night it happened, the news of it didn’t spread like the spiritual wildfire one would think, and when the priest in charge of the camp was asked about what it meant he just said, we don’t know what it means, we’ll see what fruit it bears. I liked that a lot. Of course “fruit bearing” can also be a tough thing to discern. It assumes the spiritual qualifications to judge fruit. A couple years ago I heard of a “monastery” in Texas that had a phony “weeping icon” that drew thousands of pilgrims and helped them raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and basically funded their monastic pedophilia ring. How could thousands of pious people and even clergy be duped over a period of years? I've noticed that when it comes to someone questioning anything monkish or anyone in a black robe, by the reaction one gets it seems that gullibility is a fruit of the Spirit.

So in my area recently it was announced that there was a travelling priest with a (CERTIFIED!) piece of the “True Cross” WITH the blood of Christ on it. He is from Cyprus and has family in America and wants to immigrate. He was appearing at a local monastery and then at a local parish doing healing services with it. (I didn’t go, it sounded too much like Steve Martin’s “Leap of Faith” the way it was promoted). The story was he was given the relic by a woman, a total stranger, who handed it to him and told him God told her to give it to him. (Ummmm... yeah.) He eventually discovered its healing powers and began travelling doing healing ministry. The relic is embedded in a heavy, large gold cross and when he puts it on people’s bodies it “sticks” to the places that need healing. He can remove his hand from it and it stays put. Hundreds of people flocked to the monastery and then to the parish for healing.  Personally I don't know if the Cross sticks because of God or not. I'm not any more convinced that it is a piece of the True Cross by that than I am by the piece of paper certifying its authenticity. But, there are things that I was told that sent my skeptic meter into the red zone. One thing was that he seemed to “know” things. “Knowing things” isn’t always a good thing.

About 20 years ago a group of buddies and I paid five bucks to have our Tarot read by a street gypsy one Sunday night on Mill Avenue, just for grins. As she turned over card after card, she revealed my life… way too specifically to be mere “astrological coincidences”. I didn’t know how she did that until I became Orthodox years later. You see, the demons know what “is”. They cannot tell the future, but they can reveal real events that have happened to people. There are dozens of stories of monastics who were drawn into delusion because they thought they were clairvoyant, but in reality they were being fed information by the demons so they would fall through pride and their desire for followers and admiration. The stories usually go that everyone around them was fooled except for one person who saw the imperceptible signs of delusion and demonic captivity. So, not even clairvoyance whether it is a gypsy or an “Elder” is a sure sign of godliness, it can be demonic manipulation.

Anyway, those who attended the “True Cross” healing sessions said it was very moving. They were amazed. They were uplifted. They “felt the grace”. OK, so you felt something you thought was “grace”. So does that make it of God? No. It just means that’s how some individuals perceived it. Am I willing to accept the witness of someone “feeling the grace” as affirmation of the presence of the Holy Spirit? Frankly, no. (And as an aside, I would not even accept MY OWN feelings as affirmation of the presence of the Holy Spirit. I’ve felt a lot of things in my life that turned out to be passions rather than piety.) The Scriptures and the Fathers say that Satan sends a strong delusion into the Church to lead people astray. Of course the “most convincing demonic miracles” would happen in the Church. Satan appears as an angel of light, not like Batman. Why send a strong delusion to unbelievers when a weak delusion will do the trick?

So, as for me, I’m perfectly content to sit back and wait twenty or thirty years to see what kind of fruit this brings forth. In the meantime if God wants to kick the skepticism out of me, I’m sure He knows where to kick me and how hard. The thing is, I don’t feel deprived of any “spiritual joy” nor do I believe the Gospel any less because I am skeptical of miracles, even ones affirmed by thousands of pious people. I am content to believe if God did a miracle in someone’s life it doesn’t matter if I believe it or not. It is what it is and it is between that person and God. It doesn’t make me any more in awe of God or any more faithful one way or the other. I do know that when it comes to miracles, there is safety in caution and dire consequences for gullibility. There is a big difference between attributing everything to God, or everything to Satan, and being unwilling to make pronouncements one way or the other because one doesn’t trust one’s own judgment nor the judgment of other people to discern the difference.

I’ve always liked G.K. Chesterton’s take on miracles. He sums up my thoughts very nicely:

"No religion that thinks itself true bothers about the miracles of another religion. It denies the doctrines of the religion; it denies its morals; but it never thinks it worth while to deny its signs and wonders.
And why not? Because these things some men have always thought possible. Because any wandering gipsy may have Psychical powers. Because the general existence of a world of spirits and of strange mental powers is a part of the common sense of all mankind. The Pharisees did not dispute the miracles of Christ; they said they were worked by devilry. The Christians did not dispute the miracles of Mahomed. They said they were worked by devilry. The Roman world did not deny the possibility that Christ was a God. It was far too enlightened for that.

In so far as the Church did (chiefly during the corrupt and sceptical eighteenth century) urge miracles as a reason for belief, her fault is evident…. It is not that she asked men to believe anything so incredible; it is that she asked men to be converted by anything so commonplace.

What matters about a religion is not whether it can work marvels like any ragged Indian conjurer, but whether it has a true philosophy of the Universe. The Romans were quite willing to admit that Christ was a God. What they denied was the He was the God - the highest truth of the cosmos. And this is the only point worth discussing about Christianity."

And thank God that's the only thing required of me to be truly Orthodox.

47 comments:

Your Intrepid Editor said...

Spot on once again. This is one of those "I thought I was the only one" moments. Thank you for saying it so well.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Shortly after I was baptized, the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God came around to our parish. I was able to stand within about 5 feet of it during the whole of a 3-hour service. I could see one thing and one only: that the bed of cotton upon which it sat on the lecturn was becoming more and more amber with the "myrrh".

I'd been told all kinds of stories, firshand accounts, about how, even before the days when it was framed, it would pour out myrrh, so much it would sometimes make a puddle on the church floor.

But like you, I'm a skeptic. Can;t help it.

That icon "lived" in a Russian parish in Montreal. So I wrote to James Randi's organization called Skeptics something-or-ther, whose mission was to debunk stuff like this. I suggested they should target this icon and see if they could unmask it.

Well, they couldn't. They went to see it and all they could come up with was, somebody must have coated it with soft wax before the service, so that under the bright light, the wax melted into oil.

Yeah, right, enough oil to anoint the foreheads of 300 of us. And nobody noticed that much wax caked on the icon before. Uh-huh.

I'm still skeptical of that icon.

More in another comment.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

And then there was the time I suddenly began experiencing the worst pain of my life, far worse than childbearing. And Demetrios, who was in bed, said to me, "Come here and lie down beside me." So I did, and he prayed. And instantly, as in within a minute, I felt perfectly fine.

Finally, finally, I had experienced a miracle firsthand and undeniably!!!! I went and told Fr. Nicholas.

Except that a couple of weeks later it came back and it turned out to be gallstones. By lying down, I had shifted their position so they no longer hurt.

I still had to have the gallbladder out.

Ikonophile said...

Thanks s-p.

I've had my own issues with miracles, though not quite the same as your story. It helps to read stuff like this from my fellow Orthodox Christians.

John

Hira Animfefte said...

Bravo.

konstantina said...

From your description it sounds like the priest was Papa Stavros from Crete, not Cyprus. The piece of the cross belonged to his mother, not some unknown woman. A bit of his biography and the circumstances that lead to many people seeking him out so that he could pray over them is in this talk, narrated by Costa Zalalas.
http://www.pigizois.net/arxodariki/omilies_eng/Precious_Cross_01.mp3

konstantina said...

Oh and here is the second part of that talk.
http://www.pigizois.net/arxodariki/omilies_eng/Precious_Cross_02.mp3

Anam Cara said...

I had a friend, an agnostic, whose brother-in-law was hospitalized with a ruptured appendix. They were told that there was little hope, the infection had spread too quickly and, on Saturday, that "it would take a miracle" for him to live.

At my Protestant Sunday School, I asked my class to pray, not just for healing, but for a miraculous healing so that my friend and all the doctors would HAVE to say, "There is a God!"

I checked with my friend later in the week and he said, "Well, you're not going to believe this: an amazing thing happened. Sunday afternoon he was better; he asked if he could go home. They told him that if he could eat, he could leave. He did and he did."

I was jumping out of my skin at the report I was so excited. I told my friend about our prayers and that we asked specifically for a miracle so that he would know there is a God. His response: "It was pretty amazing."

I could have slugged him.

Benedict Seraphim said...

S-P:

Oh, man, does that same RM cessationism with which I was raised make it hard NOT to be skeptical.

I am sooooo glad that now that I'm Orthodox, I can say "What does the Church think of this?" What? She hasn't spoken? Okay. (Shrugs, keeps on going to confession.)

Reader John said...

I never greatly craved seeing miracles, even in the charismatic era of the late 60s when, attending an Assemblies of God church briefly, I saw purported healings from drug addiction and such.
The only thing I disagree with about your article is the title. Guys like Benny Hinn are "charlatans," not "shysters." My profession has special rights to "shyster."

s-p said...

Konstantina, Thank you for the clarification. I have heard varying stories (from people who allegedly actually talked to him) including he's a monk from Mount Athos. I think this is how some hagiographies get started.

BelleArtMom said...

Last year the Kursk root icon came through town (like the King Tut exhibit or something?). I have only been Orthodox about a year, so I kept my mouth shut when everyone at church was so excited to go visit it. Like you, I don't doubt supernatural things can happen. It just doesn't interest me that much right now. But when my priest talks about saints being two places at once and saving people in disasters and my kids talk about it later, I certainly don't discourage them.

s-p said...

Of everything I've posted on the blog I think this one was the the one I've hesitated the most to put up. Yes, YIE, I thought I was the only one too and I'd get inundated with stories "proving" miracles or be accused of doubting "the Church". It is hard to sit and listen to people go on and on about "miracles" and not feel like a jerk for being agnostic and unimpressed.

@BelleArtMom, I too feel like there is an element of "sideshow" to the traveling icons and relics. It's too much like "Leap of Faith" for my sensibilities. Of course I realize that I could be wrong and its my own fault if I am missing out on a blessing because of my "rationalism". But, I've never been one to go out of my way to seek out "blessings". I believe mine come in my day to day walk with God, all I have to do is pay closer attention.

Ioannis said...

Our scepticism is pretty much a match. My philosophy of science background combined with a somewhat conservative Episcopalian upbringing does not incline me towards such things. In my own experience I may have seen miracles but I've not identified them as such at the time. More often, I've seen desperate people seeking signs to prove to themselves foremost that they are loved by God. At the slightest excuse, they would go from terrible alienation to terrible inflation, puffing up with self-importance. I've seen gentle souls who believed that the witness of Scripture, the witness of the lives of the saints and the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church are not sufficient ... and manufactured miracles for the "weak". Inevitably, this second group was little different from the first but they had rationalized deception.

It seems to me that our Lord moves among us, touching us in the living moment ... and it is literally too much for us. He does not mean for us to make of Him a spectacle ... it doesn't help anyone. Religious hysteria is not faith.

I accept the faith of the Orthodox as sufficient ... not my faith but the faith of my people throughout time who have known God and been known by God. I am something of a no-account but not in the eyes of my Lord. He loves me as a true parent and it is sufficient. I've been given the miracle of receiving the Baptism of Christ. I hope for the miracle of a spirit of repentance that I may make a start before I die. It's not very dramatic. If I learned to curb my tongue, I'd consider that a true miracle of grace.

Keith said...

When I hear of "miracles" I get as far as hoping they are true.

Anonymous said...

Ioannis said: "If I learned to curb my tongue, I'd consider that a true miracle of grace."

That's exactly the thing. An even bigger miracle, for me, would be if I could learn to let go of the critical, judgmental, and angry thoughts themselves, whether I speak them or not. What a continual echo chamber of self-justifying, enemy-damning yelling goes on in my heart. I could go on the weeping-icons-and-relics tour for the rest of my days and most likely it would be nothing for me but a big distraction from my sins.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Do you remember the old Phil Donahue program? Once there was some guest on that show who had brought with him a fake "weeping icon", trying to debunk them all. Except that instead of using an image of the Theotokos, he used one of the Mona Lisa, not to offend anybody. He sat there and explained that it was a total fake, engineered by himself.

Then one old woman in the audience asked if she could come up and look at it more closely. So she was granted permission, and up she came, had a good look at the icon, crossed herself Catholic style, and started to genuflect.

She was interrupted in mid-genuflection by Phil Donahue, who said, "No, no! This isn't the real thing! This is only the Mona Lisa..."

But it still impressed me, how much people seem to want/need such things to be true.

nothinghypothetical.com said...

This is a much more complicated topic than it appears on the surface. The subject of miracles is actually not one thing, but several different matters entirely. (Not least of which, is that we are without any common definition of what a miracle actually is.)

I dislike the awkward and slightly prideful name of my own blog, "Nothing Hypothetical", but it came from a very dark place where I wrestle with these very things.

I am convinced that radical empiricism is a delusion. Yes, a useful delusion, but a delusion all the same. Utility is a delusion as well, but that's for another time. Anyway, if the definition of a miracle (and for most folks this is the operative one) is an "exception" to natural law, empiricism is axiomatically in opposition to support any miracle.

But I do not think this is the most important point. The most important point is how we view others; how we believe, or even more importantly believe in (or with) others.

While it is important to affirm that perhaps all but the greatest of saints live in substantial delusion, we must also affirm they are persons and their belief that they have experienced something is real, even when what they experienced is "not real".

There is something terribly wrong with scholars who would walk into the monastery near by and tell the nuns that there was no such person as Saint Barbara.

Miracles are a matter of perspective. When I put on one set of glasses in the morning the world is a clockwork doomed by fate, and another set of glasses reveals every step filled with grace.

Benita50 said...

I am new to Orthodoxy, but as a Christian I can say only one thing. Dont look for a miracle, expect it. It changes much in faith. Who can say that the myrr oil heals, or the belief that it can. Either way who cares. The one thing I have learned on my search for God is..When you expect the unexpected, its a miracle.
If we doubt in miracles, then we must doubt the resurection of Christ or even if there was ever such a person. We read the scriptures and repeat in the Creed,He was crucified, died and was buried, and on the third day he arose.Was that not a miracle, has it not been written that over 500 people witnessed and attested to seeing Jesus alive and risen after he was seen crucified and buried? If we believe in that miracle, why cant we believe in them happening today. For some reason, I find in the Orthodox church, not so much mainstream but in the heretic church so to speak of the The True Orthodoxy Church of Greece, more spritualism, more of an acceptance and belief in miracles and deep spirituality. I guess I took it literally that if you have the faith of a mustard seed you can move a mountain, I have not moved a mountain yet, but feel that my faith just may not be ready for that one either, or perhaps God does not want the mountain moved.Just because God does not allow the miracle does not mean it does not exist. It just means he doesnt want it for a reason.. Blessings to all Benita50

Victor said...

I'm sure I've got some details wrong but the gist of this story is as I read it years ago....

Two monks went to see an elder reputed to be clairvoyant. They wanted to know whether a particular vision they’d had was from God and determined to ask him. As they were on the way, the donkey they’d brought with them died. When they arrived, the elder asked them what had become of their donkey. Astonished, they replied that they had no donkey. He replied that he knew their donkey had died on the way. Even more astonished they asked how he knew this. His reply “The demons told me.”

The story as part of the corpus of the Tradition is about the fact that discernment is not common.

I've also heard it said that elders will tell people to believe that a 'prompting' is from the devil rather than from God. If it is the devil, he'll eventually leave you alone. If it is God, He won't be offeneded and will knock until you answer.

Anonymous said...

What a breath of fresh air!

Fr. Zach

The Grey Pawn said...

My daughter was born last year with a serious congenital heart defect. I have lived in an ICU for eight months by her side on an up and down roller coaster ride. I've been told that it would be a miracle if she lived. I've been told it would be a miracle if other children lived. Some didn't. Mine did. If you want to know what miracles are real and from God and which are false, look for the beautiful subtlety, and not the dramatics. Numerous "things" happened during our stay that the "specialists" can't explain. Nothing like glowing light or fireworks, just subtle microscopic changes that would be hard to scientifically explain but "just happen". It took time but through steadfast prayer and visitation and anointing of oil by our priest, she recovered and healed. My daughter brought me back to my faith because it didn't feel genuine to pray to God and ask His mercy if I was not straight with Him and honest with myself. I considered that to be a miracle. I take my faith more seriously now. Life is the grandest miracle of all. If you are healthy and enjoying Gods beautiful creation, then you are living a miracle. In short, we experience miracles everyday. They just aren't happening on a stage with a man in a rhinestone suit. God bless!

Anonymous said...

I guess it depends on how you define miracle. As I held each of my three daughters seconds after they were born, I just KNEW that each of them was a true miracle.

I also know that there are more things going on in the world than I can understand.

The miracles in my life are ongoing and mostly unnoticeable to the average viewer--that I didn't flip off the guy who cut me off, that my blood pressure is not off the chart when I read of the incredibly stupid things that happen in a so-called "Christian" country, that I didn't pass along that juicy tidbit of gossip or that I could actually forgive the father of my children who had neglected and mistreated them (and really mean it) when he in his dying days asked me for that forgiveness. (Of course, I had had to pray for a forgiving spirit through clenched teeth for more days than I will admit to anyone to get to that place and that I actually could had little to do with me and much to do with the Grace of God. Lord have mercy.)

Marty said...

I heard a comment by Bishop BASIL of the Antiochians concerning the weeping icon in the Chicago area, "Our Lady of Cicero." The quote was something to the effect of don't believe because of this happening. The true miracle occurs every time we celebrate the Liturgy, or find ourselves in the presence of God in prayer.

tartumaaponderings said...

And here I thought I was alone. Good read - thank you.

Anonymous said...

well written. perhaps what people forget is that the biggest miracle god does, is give him his heart back. we seem to just want our sight, arms and limbs made well - and forget that real healing is invisible, yet shines out of ones heart.

s-p said...

Benita50, I do believe in the Biblical miracles. I also believe in modern day miracles. The issue for me is not whether or not miracles happen, but what is their source within the Church and do we have the ability (or even the DESIRE) to discern that. Personally, I would not believe that a Church (or a Christian) is more "spiritual" than another because they expect miracles, have performed them, or have more or "better miracles" than another. From what I read on your blog, you are a walking miracle with your kids. :)

Bill M said...

This was a hard one for me. Your experience is similar to mine (I remember hearing Kuhlman on the static-covered AM station on the car, and being both fascinated and repulsed by her "message".) I traveled through both charismatic and cessationist groups. My interest in Orthodoxy over the past few years has been both helped and hindered at various times by the stories of Saints and miracles. I agree with your concern about discernment, and the other thoughts about sensationalism and such expressed here in the comments.

Frankly, this is one of the aspects of Christianity that does more to energize a nascent atheism in me than it does anything else. We really are foolish and easily fooled people.

I apologize in advance for any offense in this next bit. I truly do to intend any. I have much in common with those who use the word "miracle" to talk about their children. We have stories of unexpected health and surprising coincidence in our family too. And the joy of a small one's laughter is a gift from God.

But these are not "miracles". Nor is a sunset a "miracle". We know what a miracle is, and Jesus did them: blind see, lame walk, dead live, storms cease. To use the word "miracle" to talk about things that are not miraculous -- no matter how wondrously nice they are -- is to weaken the meaning of the word.

James the Thickheaded said...

Steve:

Thanks!

Not sure I know what a miracle is. Catholic church has a very defined process.

FWIW, I don't feel the need for the big thing... the magic tricks. Not sayin' they don't happen. Only, like you, I remain a skeptic... even to the point you suggest: Just because something unexplained happens, doesn't mean it's from God. I prefer that it come from God, but there is always the "other guy".

Small signs and wonders... like coincidinks... those seem to be signs enough for some of us.

And mostly, I'm so suspicious of these things, I don't really talk about them even when I'm there, or they happen to me. Just makes me feel like a flake... which I guess at least is an authentic experience ;)

Remember Earnest Angely and the "Hand" print you can buy for $5 ?
These things often seem to move toward looking like commercial exploitation even when they aren't.

So do I have to now remove my cross? Turn in my chrismation certificate? Watch out for thunderbolts?

Anonymous said...

This is a tough area for me.

I may be relatively new to Orthodoxy, but I am not new to Christianity as I have been seeking after God and True Truth about Him since I was a wee girl. I have always had knowledge and understanding; I have always "known" and/or "seen" things...usually about individuals or groups of individuals in some sort of authoritative capacity. I have felt compelled to confront them on their "stuff": adultery, embezzlement, lies, whatever, and have done so in the spirit of leaving my gift at the altar to go, be reconciled. Inevitably, I've been laughed-at, disciplined, silenced, rejected, demonised, and everything else imaginable. But, always, within about three months, the community will suddenly blow-up with the scandal, the leader(s) will resign in shame, and the community will find themselves seeking after God in repentance. Meanwhile, I will be cowering the in corner, weeping, begging God for forgiveness and a different life... Take this away, O God and forgive me, a sinner.

I spent 30 years in a cessationist denomination who told me everything I thought I knew was from demons. Even though the fruit was always to send people running back to God, what I thought I knew was, according to the doctrine, from satan. Reading this today, as a cautionary tale, and very well-timed, is more of the same for I am extremely wary and often concerned as I and my priest seek to discern what this is that is and has been happening to me.

I love Orthodoxy because it embraces the Good Gifts from God. But the extreme expression of this has made everyone either a sceptic or completely naive. So...what do I do? How can I be so completely self-deluded, and yet, so completely and utterly on my face before God?

Sometimes, I feel on the edge of despair. I do not seek what I seem to know. I kick against it. Yet the compulsion to do something with it...to confront the person(s) who seem to be needful of the confrontation is so compelling, I just can't let it go...even though the personal pain is great. I've been thrown out of some of the best churches... ;p

Yet. Yet.

Fortunately, I am working with a spiritual director who is helping me to grasp two thing: pray, speak, walk away. And yes, the discerning of spirits is necessary in adjunct to this as well. So knowing and understanding go hand-in-hand.

I hate this. I wish I could give this gift back. But I submit to God's will for my life...and I pray for strength.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Anonymous said...

Some of the most insightful treatment of this subject is found in The Brothers Karamazov, chapter "The Odor of Corruption". False witness to Christ is always a parody of that which is certainly real; but it is of our own doing.

dc said...

when we were in Austin, over 20 years ago, I asked an Orthodox friend about that monastery. He said, "I think the icon weeps BECAUSE of where it is." I think sometimes miracles are warnings. A response of private repentance and confession, rather than testimonial or tour, would be the opposite of a demon's goal, therefore the safest route.

Larry Anderson said...

Thank you. I find weeping icons, incorrupt relics and fragments of the True Cross to be all very...interesting. That's about as far as I'm willing to go. If the Church has decided they are valid miracles, I am quite willing to happily accept that, but I'm reluctant to allow my faith to rest on mere physical objects. On the other hand, physicality is an essential element of the faith; after all, the whole Church rests on the fact of the Incarnation. If physicality did not matter, we wouldn't bother with icons, candles, incense and vestments. So who am I to question such things? Still, I struggle with them. Perhaps it's a relic of my Protestant upbringing. So be it.

Personally, I find the greater miracle to be that I am allowed to enter into the Church, to serve in the altar, and to receive Communion even though I am a terrible sinner, who is filled with doubts and fails to pray often enough. My local parish is a miracle, filled as it is with loving people and a caring priest. The fact that it exists, that it was there for me when I ready to enter into it, and even that I found it is enough proof to me of God's love. I could not ask for more.

Alexander The Mediocre said...

oh boy, this is really a subject that is not easy to deal with: miracles.

Here goes nothing...

*****1. We do not need "special effects" to believe. Although God may give us stuff like that (only he knows why...) from time to time, these are the exceptions and not the rule.

*****2. We do not have to try to find out if any of the miracles are from God or not. Nor do I think that I have to be smug and "looking down" on those "guilable folks" that believe everything that is served to them. There is a story of the ancient Fathers that goes like this:

"Once there was a Thief. Now this thief wanted to go and rob a womens monastery. After thinking a bit about it he decided the best way to do this was to dress up as an "Elder" and go to the Convent. So he did. The Nuns there greeted him with great honor! They treated him like a living miracle-performing Saint!! One of the Nuns drank the water from which he bathed his feet and she was healed from an ailment that was making her suffer! The Thief seeing the miracle felt true repentance! He fell on the ground and asked for forgiveness. But now, the Nuns thought that he was doing this because of humility (after all they saw him perfoming a miracle didint they ?) so he could no longer convince them he was a thief!!!

The bottom line is: Every miracle is God's work , and even if it's not it could be or it could become. God always has the final word on the matter.

*****3. We should not base our faith in miracles nor we should be guilable to swallow everything that is handed to us. Although this seems to contradict #2 , this is not the case. I am very happy to accept that this or that is a miracle but not to base my spiritual decisions and life on the miracle. I have a spiritual father for that. While being pious (see #2) might be a "Good Thing"(TM) , being careless in how we live is not.


These three simple rules (not of robotics but of Orthodoxics) are my 2 cents on miracles and the Orthodox Faith.

Alexander The Mediocre said...

What I would like to add on #3 is that even if we knew that a miracle is from God beyond a shadow of a doubt I am certainly not sure that I am properly equipped spiritually to understand its meaning and assess its spiritual impact correctly..

OrthoRev said...

John the Baptist worked no miracles during his ministry, yet Christ called him the greatest of the prophets (Mt 11:11).

I've seen the Kursk Root icon once and the Iveron icon twice. The second time I saw the Iveron icon, a guy hobbled in on crutches to venerate the icon. Two hours later, he hobbled out, still on his crutches.

Jack said...

I know that three years ago my kidney function was down to 19%. At 15% dialysis is started.

So in March I had an A/V fistula put in my left arm to make a port for dialysis so it would be nice and healed when the time came to use it.

Of course, I was scared! And of course, before the surgery, I received the Mystery of Holy Unction. (And confession, of course.)

On my first visit to the nephrologist about a month after the surgery (and lab work), to our surprise, my kidney function had gone up from 19% to 40% (Low Stage IV to mid Stage III). He couldn't figure out why.

Since then, my kidney function has slowly crawled up to 49%, where it's stayed for the last year.

Neither nephrologist can figure out why (they are both Hindus, btw).

I believe it's the grace of the Mystery of Unction. It's high enough to keep me off dialysis.

And it keeps unbelievers guessing.

nothinghypothetical.com said...

Someone is wrong on the Internet and I must correct them!

But seriously, I would like to propose a thought experiment for Bill M and any others who believe as he does that there are a special class of things which are rightly called miracles and that the broadening of the category weakens the designation.

Ask yourself for what purpose miracles occur. Then ask is this purpose not furthered when my eyes are uncovered to see the One who is ever present and fills all things.

I quote St Jules Winnfield, "Whether or not what we experienced was an According to Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved."

ofgrace said...

Nothinghypothetical, I am absolutely with you on that last comment. I am reminded of Fr. Stephen Freeman's metaphor of the One-Storey Universe. The real issue istm is discernment. Something that may seem "perfectly ordinary" to the eyes of the spiritually blind is truly God revealing Himself to the one who has eyes to see. Truly to hear God in one's heart is a miracle. My children are both miracles, and so is my whole life, and every time I come to the Chalice! But the various inexplicable phenomena commonly called "miracles" or "signs and wonders" if you will-- that is another thing.

Regarding this latter category, Steve, thank you for describing so clearly what so many of us growing up in similar backgrounds have experienced and thought. I'm so grateful for the Orthodox emphasis on discernment on the one hand and God's honoring of childlike and guileless faith on the other (I think of the story from Mt. Athos of God honoring the prayers of the simple monk who was devoted to "St. Ascension," not realizing Ascension referred to a Feast Day and not to one of the Saints). I love that miracles (save except for that of the Eucharist perhaps) are not central in Orthodoxy, but rather the Meaning of it all, expressed in the Divine Liturgy and Mysteries of the Church and in her Saints. That is more than enough for me.

Bill M said...

David, I won't deny what you are saying, as if to deny the "everywhere present" God who is Existence (echoing Fr. Stephen's recent post on what is "Unreal", which is top-notch.)

My point was a simpler one, and perhaps more focused on vocabulary than it should be. "Miracle" the word has a meaning, that is commonly understood, and can be a means of communication and discussion. But if "miracle" is meant to refer to everything from the milk in my cereal bowl to the raising of the dead, then it (the word itself) becomes less useful as a carrier of understanding.

From my experience, in conversation with unbelievers, or seekers with just a seed-sprout of faith, they ask about "miracles" and so-called "miracles" and con men and frauds, and it does little good, in that conversation, to say, "But everything is a miracle! This child is a miracle! This flower is a miracle! Your next breath is a miracle!" It may be entirely true, in a sense, but that is not what they are asking about.

But... this distracts from Steve's excellent post, which was more about the discernment of believers, than the meaning of words.

JHunt said...

Part I

I have had the blessing of venerating the myrrh-streaming icon of St. Anna in Philadelphia and the Kursk Root icon on a few occasions. The Kursk Root icon came to our City just a few weeks ago and a man was healed of cancer after venerating the icon. The cancer had spread throughout his chest before the icon visited, and the following week when he went to his doctors the cancer was gone. I know the priest well who serves the parish where the icon of St. Anny began streaming myrrh a few years ago, and I know of many stories of healing which he has related to me.

I think one should not be automatically skeptical about such things, but neither should a person automatically believe what they are told simply because a relic or icon is described as “miraculous”. We should not think mockingly about icons or relics which are described as miracle-working, but neither must we always believe that an icon or relic is miracle-working just because somebody claims that it is. I do not think the word skepticism is appropriate here, but rather we must exercise discernment. In the case of the Kursk Root icon and the icon of St. Anna, I know their histories, I have seen them with my eyes, and most importantly my bishops have given their blessing for these icons to be taken to parishes for veneration. When one hears that a miracle-working icon or relics are being brought to an area, one should try to research the history of the holy icon or relic, and most importantly one should make sure that the holy object is being brought with the blessing of a true bishop of the Church.

JHunt said...

Part 2

While I have venerated true miracle-working icons and relics, I have also encountered icons and relics that I have not felt comfortable venerating. In one case, a supposedly miracle-working icon was brought to a parish that I happened to be attending on that day, and yet to my surprise the icon was being accompanied by a certain monk who I am familiar with, who was not under any bishop in America, and who has a rather “colorful” and questionable history. I do not think the priest had his bishop’s blessing for this icon to be brought, and after venerating the icon I made several inquiries to Orthodox priests who served parishes around the one-man monastery where this monk resides. The priests knew nothing of this icon, and neither could I find any stories on the Internet demonstrating that the icon had been brought to other churches. The monk who brought the icon spoke for hours after the service about the icon’s history and how he obtained it, and yet because of what I know about him, his past, and his present situation, I am not confident that he was being honest. The priest who invited this monk seems to be, please forgive me, a bit or na├»ve in general, and I think most priests would exercise much more discernment than him in this matter and would not have invited this monk to bring the icon to their parish. The priest I mention also has a relic of St. Mary of Egypt, and yet I have heard numerous times that the relics of St. Mary have never been found, so I am reluctant to venerate this relic also.

So, I think one should be discerning and should look into the history of a relic or icon that is being brought from another location, and only after doing some research should one express respectful skepticism or caution if something does not add up about the story or the person bringing the object. What is perhaps more important, however, is to make sure that the object is being brought with the blessing of the local bishop and the bishop of the area where the object is being brought from. If one investigates the history of the object, this investigation will only increase one’s reverence when venerating the object if it is a true holy object. If one’s research raises a number of questions which makes one uneasy about venerating the object, one at least has a basis for being skeptical and may raise their concerns with their priest and/or the priest/bishop of the parish where the object is being brought. If a person is a member of the Orthodox Church, however, it is their responsibility to understand what the Church teaches about such things and why the Church has preserved so many holy objects and so many stories of miraculous healings over the centuries. If one has a “hard time” with such things because they were not raised in the Church and still have baggage from an agnostic or heterodox Christian upbringing, or if a person is reluctant about such issues because of human pride or arrogance, such a person should humbly recognize that they still have a lot to learn, and should humbly struggle to acquire the right attitude and understanding about such things.

nothinghypothetical.com said...

It is a fair thing to be concerned for communication, but I believe that any such communication requires significantly more time than can be saved by using the word without further investigation into its meaning. Fr Stephen has already been brought up here, but I remember another point of his. How when folks ask him about Orthodoxy and what it is, and whether it is like being Catholic, he says, "yes, but without a Pope." Even though this is clearly not true, the dinner table, or passing by in the street, or at a public function there is just not the time or the space to explain further.

The subject of miracles needs discussion even among believers (and well-read ones as well). I need a better understanding myself!

I'm not advocating we develop a secret language or highly specialize uses of words that others could not understand without education. Oh wait...

Hypostasis. Ousia. Nature. Person. Energia. ... hrm.

At any rate, I am still of the odd-man out. I have seen none of these miracles (those that fit your definition as a violation of the experience of radical empiricism), nor have I met someone in person who could testify to their own miraculous experience that I might believe their testimony. I have only "stories" and strangely those stories are never the proverbial regrowing of a limb, or the hair of a child who lost it because of cancer treatments, the rapid receding of flood waters, or other unmistakable manifestations (how about someone stealing from the Church and dropping dead from the accusation?).

Our God, he does not play hide and seek with us, does he? All I admit in this post is that I do not understand these things we call commonly call miracles. I only understand the definition I presented which seems to fit with Fr Stephen's One-Story Universe.

Jodie Anna said...

my story is similar to yours, only I went Lutheran, Brethren, Baptist, Charismatic, Anglican, Orthodox :) In the charismatic church we attended, the pastor was a confessed "miracle chaser." Since I had an unknown illness (now known to be Fibromyalgia), I was a great candidate for healing. I went forward many times, even though I was greatly skeptical. I wanted healing so badly, I wanted what they were doing to be true. Finally I was "slain in the spirit," which was actually the pastor pushing me over and me allowing her to do so. It was a heart-breaking experience. Still, I always have believed in the possibility of healing and miracles - real ones! When we got our first icons last year, fresh from being blessed on the altar, I had a strange experience. I went into my daughter's room while she was at school and instantly smelled a strange, sweet fragrance. As I approached where the icon hung, the scent got stronger. I stood there kind of stunned and wide-eyed, then I crossed myself and left the room. I called my priest and told him about it, but we didn't discuss it any further. Later when I went into the room, it had its regular smell of dirty socks, lol. Who knows what happened - what I know for sure is that God loves my daughter and her patron Saint loves her and prays for her. My daughter has mild Autism, which is a great struggle for her and us and her Saint is an unmercenary healer...I know they have a special connection and that's what really matters to me.

ofgrace said...

Jodia Anna, my daughter has "mild" autism, too. . . .

I love your story about the icon of your daughter's Saint. Thanks for sharing that.

Gaberham said...

http://www.gocomics.com/ziggy/2011/03/03/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=gadget&utm_campaign=gadget_clickthrough

ha

how about asking God for a sign?
Sometimes they come, and other times, it's just...whatever i want it to be, or get REALLY confused about all the "signs."

Elissa Bjeletich said...

Like the Grey Pawn, I have spent months praying Ina hospital for my child. My child survived, plenty of children didn't. I have never felt comfortable asking for miracles, and now after a liver transplant she is home. The true miracles that happened in that hospital included the miraculous peace with which God filled me in dark moments, the miracle of doctors and nurses and janitors working together in that hospital... When people say that she is a miracle, I agree and say that she is a miracle and a reminder that we are all miracles, every day. I don't doubt that God sends myrrh-streaming icons and signs, but I am with you in your concern that not all of these things come from God. We shouldn't need them anyway; every day, He offers us much better miracles every day. Thanks for bringing this ip. God bless.