Friday, September 2, 2016

Miracles, Mysteries, and Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa has been officially declared a saint by the Catholic Church, and NPR had an interview the other morning with a physician and historian about miracles.  In order to be canonized a saint, there must be evidence for two postmortem miracles.  Evidently, Mother Teresa was judged to have accomplished that.   

Lest you turn up your nose: The criteria for healing miracles are stringent.  It must be established that the disease was real; that despite all efforts, the best medicine failed to help;  that the healing was rapid, complete, and permanent (the healing must be shown to have held at least twenty-five years). These are tough criteria, and for any miracles so defined to exist at all would be a severe challenge to science.

NPR interviewed a physician-historian, Jacalyn Duffin, who had been asked to explain a healing in a case of canonization.  Dr. Duffin explained that she was an atheist and her husband was Jewish, and so couldn’t be accused of any bias.  The healing she was asked to comment on proved to be beyond her or science’s ability to explain.   This encounter with the inexplicable prompted the historian to go to the Vatican Archives and study the records of healing miracles from 1588 to 1999, altogether coming up with 1,400 cases.  She gives an account of what she found in Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints and Healing in the Modern Word.

For our purpose there are a few points to underscore.   One is that the Church has always relied on the best medical professionals of the time to make the calls on whether a case passes the miracle criteria.  Medical science is steadily advancing, and therefore more critical. In spite of the increasing sophistication, and the use of experts who are not believers, the ratio of unexplained cases of reported healings remains the same. There is, nevertheless, a strong animus against unexplained healings.  In her book, Radical Remission, Kelly Turner notes that most physicians shy away from even discussing unexplained remissions – and the word ‘miracle’ causes them some serious angst.     

Dr. Duffin’s conclusion for NPR seems right on mark.  The fact that a healing is unexplained is not proof that God was the cause.  I would suggest, however, that the belief in God – a super-placebo effect – might be a big factor.  In fact, there are lots of mysteries without explanations.  So what we have is not a miracle -- the result of divine intervention -- but a mystery, an invitation to expand our mental horizons.  And perhaps the mystery is in ourselves.

One is, of course, free to believe it is a miracle, in the strict sense; but there are difficulties.  To qualify as a miracle in the theological sense, we must assume that Mother Teresa survived death, was with God and responded to the patient’s prayers from heaven.  That’s a lot to assume. How could anybody know?   All we really know is that somebody prayed, said Mass, or performed some other ritual act, and aimed it toward the desired healing outcome.   

Mother Teresa got us started on this topic of miracles.  Is the concept passé?  Not if you choose to believe it.   What then is the alternative?  Instead of a genuine miracle, we must settle for a mystery.  Is it such a loss?  Instead of being awed into submission, we embark on exploration for answers.      

A final twist of irony. After Mother Teresa’s death, her diaries were found.  Bad news for the pious, a fact that the combative atheist Christopher Hitchens gloried in.  The diaries revealed that for the last 50 years of her life, her faith wavered and slackened most of the time, while the rest of the time it was dead as a door-nail. This, in my view, would make her a saint of ancient Stoicism, and place her in the company of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.   

Whether as stoical mythology or magical psychokinesis, Teresa’s canonization is a reminder of something unwise to ignore: our latent capacities to resist and transform physical existence.  We underestimate our powers to our detriment. As for the task of unbinding our consciousness – the subject of this blog -- it’s another arrow in our quiver.

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