Friday, July 18, 2014

Miracles don't happen in our postmodern age--or do they? Dorothy Day and my friend Sarah

In The Keys of the Kingdom, A.J. Cronin's delightful novel about the spiritual journey of Father Francis Chisholm, a Scottish priest, Cronin sketches a story about Father Gerald Fitzgerald, who is hoodwinked by Charlotte Neily, a young woman who claims to have experienced a beatific vision of the Virgin Mary and to have discovered a miraculous spring of healing water. After reporting this amazing event, Charlotte takes to her bed,where she displays the stigmata and survives for nine days without any food or drink.

Father Fitzgerald is completely taken in and soon envisions the construction of a shrine like the one at Lourdes and an influx of pilgrims and tourists.  Unfortunately, Father Fitzgerald's junior curate, Father Francis, unmasks the miracle as a hoax when he comes to visit Charlotte and discovers her propped up in her sickbed, eating chicken and drinking beer.

Meanwhile, another Catholic family, the Warrens, are anticipating the death of their young son Owen, who is dying from an ulcerated leg. Without telling anyone, Warren's mother bathes Owen's leg in the spring that Charlotte discovered, and his leg is healed.

When Father Francis is invited to the Warren house to witness Owen's recovery, he thinks he is being summoned to administer last rites and even fears he may be too late.  But when he arrives, Father Francis finds a healthy young Owen along with Owen's physician, Dr. Willie Tulloch, a kind man but fiercely atheist.

Dr. Tulloch is happy to see his patient recover but he is somewhat angry as well. "There's bound to be a scientific explanation beyond the scope of our present knowledge," he tells Father Francis. "An intense desire for recovery--psychological regeneration of the cells."

Then Doctor Tulloch stops short and grabs Father Francis's arm. Almost desperately, he cries out: "Oh, God!--if there is a God!--let's all keep our bloody mouths shut about it!"

Even today, almost all of us know someone who was at death's door who mysteriously recovered. But, like skeptical Dr. Tulloch, most of us refuse to believe in miracles. There must be some scientific explanation, we tell ourselves. After all, we live in a postmodern age--an age of reason, rationality, and secularism. If there is a God, we damned sure don't want to know about it.

But in truth miracles happen every day. I have a good friend, Sarah Maple, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Her doctors told her she could expect to live about two years.

But in 2010, Sarah's brain tumor began to shrink and eventually disappeared. In early 2014, her doctors discovered a second brain tumor, but in July that tumor too began to shrink.

It is true that Sarah has received excellent medical treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Nevertheless, almost everyone who began treatment with Sarah at Mayo and who had the same diagnosis has died. Surely the fact that Sarah has survived so long is miraculous.

During this harrowing experience, Sarah experienced a second miracle. Although she had been raised in a severe Protestant denomination that is well known for its hostility to Catholicism, Sarah had abandoned that tradition before she became ill. And during her illness--at the age of 63--Sarah entered the Catholic Church.

Many people have prayed for Sarah. I myself invoked the aid of Servant of God Dorothy Day and I am absolutely sure that Dorothy heard my prayer and was sympathetic. My friends Mark and Louise Zwick, who run the Catholic Worker Hospitality House in Houston, also sought Dorothy's aid. Friends of mine from Tanzania--two Catholic priests--prayed for Sarah and asked the Ugandan Martyrs to intercede on her behalf, and I am satisfied that their prayers have great power.

And whatever one may think of the miraculous powers of the Catholic saints, almost everyone I have told about Sarah's story--Catholic or non-Catholic-- has said that Sarah's conversion to Catholicism is miraculous.

So let us look for miracles in our daily lives--let us expect them. Even though we live in a deeply cynical postmodern world, God's healing power is surely present now as in ages past. His spirit constantly moves among us as we give ourselves over to a childlike faith that we are not alone in a soulless universe. We are all sustained in the palm of God's loving hand.

And God sent Christ to dwell among us. Mysteriously, he is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. And though we are not worthy that he should come under our roofs, let us have confidence that if he but says the word, our souls shall be healed.

Dorothy Day


A.J. Cronin. The Keys of the Kingdom. Chicago: Loyola Classics, 1941.

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