Thursday, October 06, 2011

Unbelievers keep saying that the miraculous healings attributed to saints are merely rare, natural occurrences that we don't have the science or technology to explain.

I think God, in His infinite wisdom and power, works miracles that happen to be beyond the understanding of anyone who would witness.  A miracle to a panhandler a thousand years ago might be transparent to a physicist today; a miracle to a lawyer today might be transparent to a doctor a thousand years from now.

This may seem tidily pat to unbelievers, but hopefully it will remind believers of hope.  There's plenty of room for mystery.

God can do whatever He wants, remember?  If we explained every mysterious healing by saying "I'm confident medical technology will advance to the point where this sort of thing is commonplace; it just happened to occur spontaneously in this case," then we're making hulking, looming idols out of science and technological progress.

There's nothing wrong with putting mundane faith in science; with as much as the state of the medical arts has advanced, there are lots of reasons to hope for continued improvement in maintaining health.  But reasonable optimism is no substitute for sober open-mindedness to unexpected possibilities, or for rational and informed thought.

I'm sure I'll revisit that subject more in the future, as I have in the past.  Permit me a disjointed segue.

Most often, the standard I hear for a healing to be considered miraculous by atheists and non-Christians is the regrowth of a missing limb.  It would be an understandably dramatic and easily documented event, to be sure.  Has such a thing, then, never happened?

In the little research, I've done, I haven't heard of such a thing--the closest I could come was a few references to a surgery in the third century by Saints Cosmas and Damian where the gangrenous leg of Deacon Justinian was replaced by a leg from the cadaver of an Ethiopean.  Not quite the same thing, not a lot of corroborating evidence at hand, if still miraculous in magnitude given the era.

There are a few other cases that might be dramatic enough to qualify, however.

In 1921, Peter Smith was born at Mother Cabrini Memorial Hospital.  As was custom at the time, a silver nitrate solution was put into his eyes for prophylactic purposes.  Instead of using the usual 1% concentration, however, the nurse accidentally used the stock 51% concentration.  Young Peter's eyes were burned out of his head, and the solution ran into the crying infant's mouth and down his throat, burning his lungs.  His temperature rose to 108°F.

They prayed for him before the Blessed Sacrament.  In two days, his eyes were restored.  A day after that, his fever was gone.

Father Peter Smith died of an aneurysm in 2002.

In 1892, Marie Lemarchand visited Lourdes.  A victim of lupus, she bathed in the waters and was cured; her ulcerous skin was regenerated, and she no longer coughed up blood.  Atheist and author Emile Zola was there to witness it.  

But believing and seeing are two different things, and there is such a thing as a dogmatic faith that miracles do not happen.

Zola had claimed he only wanted to see a cut finger healed by dipping in the miraculous water.  Although he examined Ms. Lemarchand closely enough to describe the condition of her skin (he omitted the details of her coughing in the report on his trip to Lourdes) when she arrived, when asked to look at her after bathing in the water, he said "Ah no!  I do not want to look at her. She is still too ugly."

Before he left Lourdes, he asserted that he would not believe in miracles even if everyone at Lourdes were healed.  In his book on the subject, he suggested that it perhaps wasn't lupus the woman had at all, and that her cure was merely psychosomatic.

You can almost feel Zola considering the possibility that the world was stranger than dreamt of in his philosophy, before falling back on "it wasn't really lupus so it wasn't really a miracle."

Some have even speculated that Padre Pio was only faking his stigmata, since they miraculously healed in the days before his death.  While doctors had examined his wounds in life and his woundless body after death, the skeptics comfortably asserted that no medical investigation was allowed or made, for convenience of perpetuating the "myth" of Padre Pio's stigmata.

But what about limb regrowth, you ask?  Was that not the original contention?

I submit that limb regrowth is a more trivial matter than the cure of lupus.  It may also be simpler than regrowing an eye, although I won't stake anything on that.

We are already culturing tissues in the lab.  Teeth and ears have been grown, and in July of this year a trachea was grown and successfully implanted into a human.

To this I say, so what?

We are not talking about "medical miracles" of coaxing stem cells to replace missing or excised tissue.  We are talking about spontaneous curing of conditions of missing limbs.

We must be careful, we believers and we skeptics; for to explain how something might have been done is not to explain how something was done.  In cases when we cannot be sure of all the events, the gap between "what we know at the moment" and "what we know could have accomplished this" may be large enough to admit reasonable doubt, and there is no shame or conviction either way in that; but when we speculate about likely explanations for bizarre phenomena, and we later come into facts that make reasonable suppositions impossible, it is silly and dishonest to persist.

I say this because at some point I would wager a missing limb will be miraculously restored, and some skeptic is bound to say "That could have been done on an outpatient basis" and be satisfied that no supernatural explanation could disprove a natural means for healing, even if it is known that the subject did not in fact visit a hospital, that no one who had the means to grow a limb "in the field" was present. Theists do have it a little easier in that God can work through natural means just as well as directly intervening, and so we may never know when God may make an exception to how the natural processes run in a case of limb stumps or cancer or lupus, but we want to be careful not to accede a miracle when someone fails to prove a mundane occurrence was possible in opportunity while spending all his effort to prove that a mundane occurrence just happened to be physically possible.
It's the difference between "could have done" and "did do."

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