Some Sundays ago in Point Arena I decided to skip yoga and convinced my wife to go to church with me. Every decade or so this nice Jewish boy likes to get a dose of how the rest of the world operates, and I do appreciate “the message.” I had originally wanted to attend the Catholic mass, but I knew I had a better chance of enticing my wife– someone I would consider very spiritual but not religious, if I baited the hook with the likelihood of getting to sing some of the Methodist hymns she loved so much as a child. It worked.
The guest speaker gave a charming lecture, which he opened by asking anyone in the congregation of eleven septuagenarians and one young mother with a baby in her arms to raise their hands if they believed in miracles. I raised my hand, but I don’t know if I would have raised my hand had I not had a firsthand experience of a miracle. It was a small event, made eminently more credible by the fact that it was shared with my cousin Paul, who to this very day, nearly a half century later, remembers.
Three days after my beloved grandmother Gussie died, my cousin and I boarded a bus to go somewhere in Queens. We were both in our early teens, and we walked to the empty seats in the back of the bus so we could look out the large rear window. There was another bus right behind us, and there, clear as day, my cousin and I watched in silent awe as we saw our grandmother boarding the bus behind us. The two of us were speechless; we just sat there and watched her slowly walk from the sidewalk up the steps and onto the bus. Our bus then departed, and when we lost sight of her, my cousin and I just looked at each other. Eventually, one of us said, “did you see what I saw?” The other one of us, as I recall it, just nodded silently.
I recently picked up a 2004 book by Todd Michael called “The Twelve Conditions of a Miracle” at a library book sale. Michael dissects the parable of the loaves and fishes (the only parable that appears in all four gospels) in order to uncover the conditions for a miracle to occur. He goes to the original Greek of Matthew, rendering the translation in greater depth than is offered in the King James Version.
As the title states, Michael discerned 12 ingredients to a miracle stew. The vision of my grandmother did not have all 12 ingredients, but it clearly had the first. Michael talks about the need for a “vacuum,” a space which nature abhors and within which a miracle can occur. The loss of my grandmother, a source of kindness and warmth in a family filled with conflict and pain, left a gaping hole. In the story of loaves and fishes, it was the hunger of the masses that was the void. In the resurrection story, it may have been the loss of a loving and compassionate minister in a troubled world that created the vacuum leading to the vision of Jesus rising three days after his death.
I have often thought that what my cousin and I might have witnessed was simply a woman who looked a lot like our grandmother, and that our vision wasn’t a miracle at all. I don’t think either my cousin or I believe that, but after all a belief is just that. In their seminal book called “The Social Construction of Reality,” Berger and Luckmann posit, as the title suggests, that those beliefs that comprise that which we think are real are in essence just socially agreed upon constructions.
When most of us think about miracles, we think about good things that happen that are inexplicable by the laws of science we have come to believe. What is a miracle, then, but an event that somehow lives just outside the meandering border of the socially constructed rules of science?
Michael suggests that meditation is the most effective method for creating the condition of a vacuum. I am not sure that one needs to be in a vacuous state in order to experience a miracle, but it makes sense that however we come to a place of heightened receptivity, being in that place of openness to receive whatever the universe may bring our way leads to the greatest likelihood that we will experience the miraculous. Believing in miracles infuses that which lives just outside the border of belief with a precious sense of awe. And in my view, it is in that feeling of awe that we come closest to experiencing that ineffable construct that many of us refer to as God.