April 29, 2011

Magical Thinking in a Miraculous World

It is quite possible that an animal has spoken civilly to me and I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention. Children pay better attention than grownups. If Fern says that the animals in Zuckerman’s barn talk, I’m quite ready to believe her. Perhaps if people talked less, animals would talk more. E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web

…a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels. Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Stage magicians Penn and Teller caused a stir in the magic world when they began showing audiences how tricks were done. This worked because, contrary to what you might expect, taking the magic out of the trick didn’t actually…take the magic out. When the audience saw what was really happening, they were as amazed by the reality as by the illusion.

I believe that miracles work mostly in the same way: God allows us to see the depth behind the everyday existence of which we usually see only the surface. And the reality is more astonishing than the illusion.

And it came about when the LORD was about to take up Elijah by a whirlwind to heaven…Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please, let a double portion of your spirit[i] be upon me.” He said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. Elisha saw it and cried out, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw Elijah no more.

Elijah told Elisha that he would become his spiritual heir if he saw him—the clear implication being that Elisha might well not have seen a chariot and horses of fire come to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. If Elijah would have been taken up that way whether Elisha saw it or not, the miracle is not in the occurrence, but in the seeing. Like Penn and Teller, God allowed Elisha to see the way it was actually done.

Another, more recent example: the nineteenth century Russian monk Seraphim of Sarov, after fifteen years of austerities in a hermitage, moved back to the monastery when, because of his reputation for holiness and wonder-working, people began to seek him out in his retreat. He took on the role of a staretz, or spiritual advisor. One day, sensing that he was having trouble getting through to a disciple, he took the young man by the shoulders and said, “Look at me.” The disciple told Seraphim he couldn’t bear to look at him, because lightening was coming from his eyes and he appeared to be all aflame. Seraphim told the disciple that he was able to see him in that way because God had opened his eyes. Once again, it’s evident that someone else might have been in the room also and seen nothing unusual—the seeing was the miracle.

St. Serafim of Sarov

So when we read some pious legend about a friar surprising St. Francis at his prayers and seeing him levitating or whatnot, the relevant question, it seems, is not “what actually happened?” but “what did the informant actually experience, and what does it mean that he or she experienced it?” The spiritual reality is always active behind the visible reality–we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” A miracle is when we’re enabled to peek behind the curtain.

Of course, what we can actually see every day is pretty miraculous, too. In Charlotte’s Web, Dr. Dorian gives Mrs. Arable his take on the “miraculous” writing in the spider’s web:

I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.

The web is White’s symbol for the miraculous within the everyday. But what exactly is a “symbol”? Well, the word “symbol” comes from two Greek words meaning “thrown together.” When two friends were about to be parted, they would break an animal bone, each of them keeping one half as a symbol of the other. In other words, the symbol you hold in your hand is only half of a reality, the other half of which is elsewhere—and the two halves symbolically throw the two of you together. And I think the phenomenal world is sown with symbols of the spiritual world–effulgences of the hidden reality that burst forth into the visible one. Why else should there be music? Or flowers? Notwithstanding all the valid evolutionary explanations about bees and pollination, the fantastic blue of delphiniums is here for us because God just couldn’t help himself. And the other half of that symbol is with God, and can throw us together with God if we let it.

So we needn’t be on the watch for something overtly extraordinary. A spider’s web or bird’s nest, photosynthesis, azaleas and the wonders of the human brain—we can explain them to an extent, but we can never explain them away. They are miraculous, and on our very best days, we can see that. The Zen master Hakuin said, “Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away. We are like one who, in the midst of water, cries out in thirst so piteously; we are like the children of a rich man who wandered away among the poor.” We often miss the miracles because we are looking for magic. Maybe if we talk less, the universe will talk more.

[i] A first-born son inherited twice as much of his father’s property as his brothers; Elisha was asking Elijah to make him his spiritual heir.

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