Saturday, March 14, 2009

Understanding God: God is Active & Involved (2)

I just wanted to have some follow up detail and amplification of what I wrote yesterday, so here are some loosely connected thoughts on the same subject.

Let's start with one that pretty much stands alone, which is the question of miracles. People have become so mushy in their thoughts about miracles that it is a truly disturbing subject, rather than one that is joyful and affirming. It is a joyful and affirming subject because miracles are evidence that God will intervene in the natural order of things on occasion, so by knowing miracles can and do happen one has a comforting evidence of God's existence. The Bible documents in both the Old and the New Testament miracles performed by God either directly or through his Prophets or through Jesus Christ. There is something you must take care to notice. Collectively there are very few miracles documented in the Bible except for those performed by Jesus Christ. Thus I have to remind you of the obvious: genuine miracles are an exceedingly rare event. This is contrary to the popular babble that I see everyday that "miracles occur all the time" and "miracles are all around us." That is simply not true. The Bible demonstrates that genuine miracles may occur only once every several hundred years, if one studies their occurrence and their time tables.

Before these modern times when so much is blurred between reality and imagination (or wishful thinking), believers understood that miracles were very rare. They prayed to God for cures for their loved ones and so forth but they understood they were not praying for miracles. Believers pray to God for his mercy, his grace, and therefore "best outcomes" of ordinary situations. Believers before these modern times would never think to pray for a miracle per se because they understand that it is a rare event and granted by God according to his own initiative and for his own reasons. Now, I am not trying to be unkind or harsh, so I will explain that one reason that people confuse wonderful outcomes with miracles is that people have forgotten that life is punctuated by events that are what we would call "wondrous" or makes people "marvel." Someone who pulls back from the brink of death to a full recovery is an example of an event where people should marvel and have a feeling of wonderment, but not assume that it is a miracle. It might be an example of an excellent and unexpected outcome, one based either on a stirring combination of good things happening at once (great medical care, strong fortitude, and some extra grace) but not a miracle. So much of what people think are "miracles" are, instead, wondrous and marvelous outcomes to unlikely situations.

So what is a real miracle? A real miracle is one and only one thing, which is that God personally intervenes to overcome the natural order of things. Think of when God, as the Angel of the Lord, appeared with two other angels to Abraham and told him that he and Sarah would bear a son in their extreme old age. We know that is a miracle because God made it happen; it would not have happened otherwise. However, an elderly woman becoming pregnant in either ancient times or now in modern times cannot be called a "miracle" by any stretch of the imagination. It might be a medical wonder or a marvelous unexpected glorious event, but it is not a miracle. A miracle is not a fortunate escape from an accident, or a fantastic medical comeback from the brink of death, unless God is overcoming all natural law (biology and physics) and consequences (results of human actions) to make it so. That in all honesty very rarely happens, and that is obvious through study of scripture.

The one and only time where miracles became "common" was, of course, those by Jesus Christ. Again, remember that these are miracles performed by God through Jesus. We know this because Jesus explains that there are certain things he does to result in a successful miracle, such as prayer and fasting. By the way, it's not like Jesus fasted before performing a miracle. Jesus, as God's instrument, kept himself a pure vessel for the performing of miracles through his continual pattern of prayer life and fasting. Thus Jesus was always in the state of grace to perform a miracle without "preparation." This is why in one event the disciples could not perform a miraculous cure and Jesus told them that those types of miracles required prayer and fasting. Jesus did not mean that it's like a magic formula to do before the miracle, but rather that they were not the perfect vessels that he was (and, by prayer and fasting, maintained in perfect communion with God). So while the Gospels record only a few of Jesus' specific miracles, the Gospel authors indicate that Jesus performed many miracles that go unrecorded. For example, Jesus would cure all those who were ill or infirm in an entire village. Thus one can have confidence that Jesus, and Jesus alone, performed hundreds and over a thousand miracles.

It is obvious that Jesus was graced by God to perform these miracles in order to provide evidence of the mercy and power of God, and that God is present in the world. Thus Jesus performed miracles to authenticate his identity in the name of the Father, God. This is why the Apostles were able to perform some miracles, especially Peter, both during Jesus' life but most particularly after Jesus resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven. Paul, who encountered the resurrected and ascended Jesus, also gained from Jesus the ability to perform miracles. But the volume of miracles is far less by Peter, Paul and the other disciples because performing "lots" of miracles was no longer the point. The point was to spread the Good News, the Word, the New Covenant, not to continue to "prove" that God exists and that Jesus was his Son and messenger.

Look at St John the Apostle and Evangelist, the longest living of the Apostles, and the only one not to be martyred. One would think that he would leave a long list of miracles, if God had been "opening the floodgates" to make miracles common, but the treasure he left was not a lot of cured ill people but his Gospel, his Letters, and the Book of Revelation. So the entire point of the miracles performed by Jesus and gifted to others to perform in his name was not either to 1) make miracles more commonplace or 2) make miracles the preferred form of "proof" of God's power and mercy. Rather, the situation kind of can be described as going back to how it was during the time of the Israelites, where God will intervene for a miracle on rare occurrences for reasons only God understands. The one difference is that while the focus on how one always looks to God for the miracle remained true, the Israelites had prophets among them, or God would appear through his Angel, while in modern times the miracles would come through the name of Jesus Christ. God is still the one performing the miracle, but ordinary people who called upon God using the name of Jesus became saints who could perform miracles at God's behest. In the time of the Israelites God would suddenly call upon one of his priests or prophets, such as Eliseus, and send him on a miracle "mission," for example. After Jesus Christ all who believed were able to trust in God through Jesus to call upon him. In other words, all can ask, and have a path by which they can ask with confidence and faith, but that does not, of course, mean that a miracle will be granted or that miracles can be "produced" at one's own behest.

I am sure that one of the reasons people are confused by this in modern times is that they match what Jesus said about asking anything of God in his name and it will be granted with the automatic assumption that this is like a miracle formula process. That simply is not true. But rather than be disappointed, or think that Jesus was exaggerating, one should feel better and affirmed if one truly understands what Jesus was saying. What many people think today (including many preachers who ought to know better) is fraught with error. Again, I am not trying to be unkind but to get people on the right track again (as their forefathers and foremothers were, who well understood what Jesus meant).

First of all, remember that the Gospels are written records of what Jesus said to his followers. Jesus did not speak with "the pen in mind, where his words will be written down to apply to everyone." What I mean by this is that Jesus was not dictating a recipe book... he was speaking to specific people at a specific time. Thus when Jesus said "you" can ask God he meant the people he was speaking to, his followers, can ask. Yes, of course, Jesus means that what he says specifically to the disciples will also apply to all people in the future...up to a point. For example, when Jesus spoke to the disciples, or those in the synagogues when he preached, and those who gathered on the hills to hear him, he was speaking to believing Jews. In other words, his audience was Jewish people who lived lives of belief in God. Even the Pharisees who he quarreled with about doctrine were, of course, God fearing and believing Jews. Jesus accused them of being hypocrites, not unbelievers. So there is a baseline that you must understand. When Jesus says "you" can ask God for something, the "you" he meant was believers, since that is who he is addressing.

Now, this is not elitist or limiting, and here's how to use some logic to understand it. Suppose that you were there when Jesus said those words. You get on a fast horse and gallop out of town until you find the first village of non-Jews or unbelievers. You tell them "I have discovered a magic formula! If you ask anything of [whatever they call God if they believe at all] using this name 'Jesus Christ' you will get what you ask for!" Um, duh, how likely do you think that would be? Could then the first Roman pagan that you found ask for a bar of gold using the name of Jesus and it would fall out of the sky? (Unless God had a sense of humor that day and hit him in the head). Obviously not. Your Jewish, Christian and Muslim forefathers all understood perfectly well that Jesus was not giving out a "magic formula" to "get whatever you want."

So what was Jesus saying? Again, remember his audience, the Apostles and disciples. They were already his followers and believed, not only in God but they believed in Jesus, and thus were the first Christians. By their mindsets and their actions (giving up all they had and following him) they were already predisposed to asking of God only what is of the greatest good. If Peter or James, or Andrew, for example, said to Jesus, "OK, we are now going to try out what you just told us and ask of God something in your name," you know they would not ask for a bigger paycheck, or to have the most beautiful woman throw herself at them, or to have riches and fame. What they prayed for and asked for, and what was given to them by Jesus as he was among them and the Holy Spirit after Pentecost can be listed 1) greater faith 2) the ability to perform miracles to glorify God and strengthen belief and 3) the ability to turn the hearts of men and women through their words.

This is what is like "moving a mountain." Peter would not ask for bars of gold or a long life, but he would walk into Rome and pray to God in the name of Jesus "that he convert and save as many souls as possible..." and look what Peter did.

So how does one take the words that Jesus gave to his specific audience, the believers who were his disciples, and apply them today? By understanding that 1) you must ask of God only what is for the greatest good, and let God determine that and 2) obviously you must believe in God, and Jesus, as they really are with your full heart and soul. I do not know many people alive today who could meet those requirements, and this is why you do not see many examples of asking something of God in the name of Jesus Christ and having it answered. (Or at least, not as you expected it).

What did the Apostles and disciples worry about the most and want the most? The right words to convert hearts and minds and to save souls. And thus, what were they most granted? The right words to convert hearts and minds and to save souls.

This is why the saints have risen through the years since Jesus and the Apostles were alive on earth and have been able to perform, some of them, astonishing miracles. They asked to do so to glorify God, not themselves and not even to be "good deed doers." Miracles are not an alternative form of charity! Miracles happen in order to 1) glorify God, 2) strengthen belief and 3) fulfill God's mysterious will, and not as a human determined form of charity, "good deed" or "kindness." So called "spiritual healers" are often the furthest away from God, not the nearest, because they view what they strive to do as a "good deed" to "promote healing" and to "cure," but not as an adjunct to what should be their "main business," which is the glorification of God.

Does this help? I think it should. It has become a very confusing cloud of wishy washy thinking where people talk about miracles as if they have a meaning that is totally different than what is clearly enunciated in the Bible (and the Torah and the Qur'an). Miracles were never a new age "charity coin" or a "wow, did that turn out well" phenomenon. Miracles are the extremely rare genuine occurrences of God "reaching into" natural law and the consequences of "cause and effect" and changing the outcome. The miracles performed by Jesus make this abundantly clear, from the raising of the dead to the healing of broken bones in an instant, as if they had never been broken, or the restoration of eyesight, including to those who were born blind. God, who controls all, since he is the creator of all, overturns his own rules when a miracle-a genuine miracle-occurs.

This is why when one reads the lives of the saints you do not see a lot of examples of saints running around "miraculously" curing hundreds of people or providing through "miraculous" means social services or kindness of food or housing to the poor. Miracles are not charity. Instead one reads of yes, sometimes remarkable cures, but one or two instances in order to glorify God, not to make miracles as a social service. What is far more common are the miracles by which the saints proclaim the glory of God through their miracles, such as when St Anthony showed the mourning family the heart of their miser family head in his treasure chest of coins rather than in his body. It was far more important that St Anthony use one miracle to demonstrate that God will judge the greedy and unjust by the shocking transportation of the heart from the body to his treasure chest than if St Anthony became a "miracle heart specialist," "miraculously curing" a bunch of people of their heart murmurs and so forth. Great escapes from accidents, providential cures from dire medical circumstances, and lucky breaks are not miracles! When I say a providential cure I mean that God has constructed a world where it is his will that some people do have wondrous and marvelous remissions, cures, births and other natural phenomenon without it being "a miracle," where God has overturned, for the moment, the natural order of humanity and things.

So, the next logical question is, why does it sometimes "work" to pray to a saint for a miracle and it happens? First of all, this is why the Catholic Church has a rigorous process to determine if it really is a miracle or if it is just one of those providential goodnesses that occurs, so that one can determine if there is valid cause and effect between praying to a saint and, for example, a cure. Wondrous things can and do happen without God intervening. By the way, I know that some people in modern times have claimed false miracles and even think they have "fooled the Church" by providing bogus documentation and so forth. What is to be gained by that? Do you want miracles or not? Fooling the Church authorities does not mean that miracles are bogus in concept or that the Church does not know what it is talking about. God continues to grant miracles-legitimately-wherever and whenever he wills it, even if there are a sad and mean spirited group of people who for whatever reason falsify the information they give to Church authorities. This was a particular problem during the time of Pope John Paul II, and the sad and ultimately self defeating why's of that are a subject for another time. But pretending that your Aunt Millie had a miraculous cure by praying to Saint [fill in your local favorite] does not change one iota the validity of rare but genuine miracles and how God chooses to dispense them (though I'd not hold your breath if you someday need a miracle and you've spent a lot of time manipulating the faithful).

So, the Church has a process by which they determine, as best as they can in an increasingly false and agenda driven world, if praying to a saint or the intervention of a saint resulted in a bona fide miracle. When they determine this they recognize the miracle and also start the process of sainthood, which I won't get into here. My point is to explain, when a miracle "really" occurs, why does a saint have a role in it? If all miracles come from God, why does praying to a saint sometimes "work?"

All miracles come from God. God is all knowing and so, of course, if you pray to St. Mary, for example, God hears your prayer and he (and he alone) answers. So why pray to St. Mary and not directly to God? Because you are honoring and venerating the virtue of the saint who has proven through his or her life their glorification of God. When you ask God something through a saint you are being humble. It pleases God when someone, for example, approaches St. Joseph in prayer, or St. Mary, and asks them to intervene and intercede with God. It pleases him because you are honoring the virtue and devotion that those saints, who he dearly loves, glorifies him and are testimonies to faith and the truth.

The Bible and other literature shows how often someone who needs a favor from someone first contacts the most beloved child of that potentate, such as the first son, or the favorite daughter, and asks them to put in a good word. It softens the heart of the person from whom you seek favor when you recognize and respect how much that person loves the intercessor. This is why the name of Jesus is so powerful, and must not be cheapened by asking Jesus for a successful drug deal or some escape out of a jam that dishonesty got you into. Mercy, yes. God will flow mercy on those who approach him through Jesus, so great is his love for Jesus. But, obviously, you must show that you honor and recognize the love and devotion and the goodness of the intercessor's glorification of God.

So that is why God has often giving miracles, both requested and unsolicited, to those who approach God through veneration of the saints. That is what it meant when it is said that St. Mary, for example, will "intercede" for her children. It's not like Mary knocks on the door of God's office and says, "Please help this guy out" and God says either yes or no. In the process of praying to Mary for intercession God is, of course, able to discern the amount of honor that you are giving Mary, your motivations, and what is for the greater good. Mary, who lives, as all the saints do, within God, is in a constant state of wishing the best for all (which is why God has allowed her to come to earth in specific authentic apparitions, such as at Fatima). As the pure vessel that preserved from sin by God gave birth to Jesus Christ, Mary, by her very existence, is perpetual intervention to God... it is up to the person to demonstrate to God their respect for Mary's sanctity and intercessor power, not Mary. Mary does not have to "ask" God; it is one's demonstration that one wishes Mary to ask, for what and for why, that is necessary. This is why it is obviously not, as some Protestants charge, Mary "worship." Rather one is demonstrating to God that one honors the love and perfection of faith that Mary, and the other saints, have demonstrated for the glorification of God. That is why it is very difficult, so to speak, for God to turn away anyone who asks something appropriate and with the genuine foundation of love and faith in Mary's goodness.

This is why there have been genuine miracles by genuine saints in the centuries since Jesus Christ walked the earth. The miracles have been motivated, and thus granted, for the glory of God and the strengthening of faith, not using the methods humans chose but by God's methods. God, for example, will not "prove he exists" by "miraculously curing cancer" while people continue to smoke and pollute. I mean, how obvious is that? You can't pour sewage into a river and say to God "Prove to me you exist by letting me drink even this polluted water and be healthy and live to be over one hundred years old." Miracles strengthen faith by demonstrating that God can, and does, intervene when he wills it, but not as a constant button to be pressed whenever someone wants to know if God is still "on hold" on the phone line.

Many miracles by saints have nothing to do with cures or charitable kindness at all. For example, the sanctity of some bodies of saints is not a "cure for cancer," but something to marvel at how several dozen saints maintain pure bodies even centuries after their death. While they lived many saints demonstrated miracles by living only on sacred bread, in either its physical form or angelically delivered. So they did not miraculously stock a food pantry at the local community center (good deeds and alms by humans are expected to do that). They glorified God by turning their very bodily sustenance over to him. The same is true of the stigmata. The stigmata are not "signs of power" like some sort of tattoo. They are miracles that correspond to the saint's sanctity and spiritual vocation in God himself.

When you really read the lives of the saints and even jot down on a tablet what kinds of miracles they performed, you start to cleanse yourself of the modern confusion that miracles are like "super good deeds" or "happy endings in bad situations." That is why in old English people use words more like "wondrous" or "marvels" to describe super good deed or happy endings in bad situations, rather than "miracles." The only exception is on the battlefield, back in the times when combatants invoked God (and remember, President Lincoln commented how he knows that both the Union and the Confederacy with sincere hearts invoked God). So even then those who believed, such as Lincoln, were sound and good thinkers about the reality of providence and God's will, but also hesitant to prematurely ascribe miraculous intervention. This is why people used the softer and more accurate word, providence, which leaves open grace, goodness, and protection by God without specifically and inaccurately calling it a miracle.

Much of what is good in the world comes about through God's providence, not God's miracles. God is like the farmer who gives the crops everything they could want and need to grow. That is providence. A miracle would be to make, for example, manna fall from the sky to feed the Israelites during their Exodus. Providence gives a people water, rich soil, sunshine and shade, all in the proportions whereby the crop can grow in abundance. These are gifts from God that can almost be thought of as the pre-existing goodness of the situation. The Founding Fathers felt that very much as the United States of America came into being, and they mention providence by name. They would never have confused providence with a miracle, though, except, as I said, in the dire circumstances on battlefield where one is more easily discerned if it truly exists. God can and does turn the weather, but again, remember that is extraordinary and rare. The Founding Fathers, even with their diversity of faith, had keen hearts to understand that God was with them in terms of providence, and to be alert to the opportunities, on the battlefield, though often it was in hindsight, to miracles. I like this analogy because it demonstrates how an agrarian people, as were the Founding Fathers, have by virtue of that pulse of life understanding, a sensitivity to God's presence, just as the Israelites (at least when they were not being stiff necked numb skulls) had as agrarian and pastoral people. Modern industry and worse the electronic media has broken that sense of God's genuine presence and the ability to discern providence from miracles, or even to savor providence at all.

I can guarantee you that few of the American Presidents, regardless of the level of their faith, went very many days without having a thought or two about the feeling of providence. They more than anyone appreciate the especial protection and grace from God that America has benefited from. They too, in modern times, should be among the first to be alert to the squandering and abuse of providence, and the grave risk that this entails. People need to worry less about "miracles" and being "touched by an angel" and more about regaining the fullness of providence from God that has been to a large degree thrown away in the trash and abused as if it were a curse instead of a blessing.

I hope that you have found this helpful.