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Posted at 2:53 PM ET, 01/14/2011

Miracles, beatification, and Gabrielle Giffords

By Alexandra Petri

I've always wanted to be beatified. Whenever I tell this to people, they seem startled -- "That would take a miracle!" At first I thought they were just being cruel. But -- as we see with the beatification of Pope John Paul II -- it turns out that's a job requirement.

Still, it seems as though miracles have depreciated over time. Nowadays the assertion "I believe in miracles" tends to be followed by "Where you from? You sexy thing."

Back in the day, miracles were big. You walked on water. You multiplied fish and loaves. You cast out demons. Who has demons anymore? Now the worst we have is bedbugs.

Maybe this is science's fault. Used to be, you produced roses in winter, and you were a saint. Now you produce roses in winter, and you're a Whole Foods. Make people speak in tongues, then? Saint. Make people speak in tongues now? Foreign language instructor. We used to exorcise. Now we just work out.

So miracles have been gradually restricted to faith healings (Christopher Hitchens hates it when you try to do this to him) and the astounding apparition of, say, Jesus on your toast. Now, on Ebay, you can buy this "Natural Image of Jesus Christ on a Shell! Miracle!" for just $2,800! Act now!

Miracles have gotten degraded to the point that we often use them when what we mean is "improbabilities." Miracle Whip, for example, is extremely improbable. Increasingly, "miracle" is just a word you hear in infomercials. Miracle Gro. Miracle Blanket, which apparently is something you can swaddle your infant in. Miraclebody jeans. Miracle Ear. Miracle Fruit. The Miracle Heater. None of these are, strictly speaking, miracles. Miracle Noodles, which contain no calories, are, in fact, the opposite of loaves and fishes.

But in spite of all this creeping cynicism, a miracle remains as a requirement for sainthood. So for Pope John Paul II (named for the two best Beatles) to be canonized, a French nun had to vouch that praying for him cured her Parkinson's. This is a remarkable happening, truly. But, like most remarkable happenings, it is difficult to verify.

But maybe this isn't a change. David Hume, who didn't believe in miracles, regardless of where he was from (Scotland) or whether or not he happened to be a sexy thing (somewhat), said that:

When we peruse the first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different manner, from what it does at present. Battles, revolutions, pestilence, famine and death, are never the effect of those natural causes, which we experience. Prodigies, omens, oracles, judgments, quite obscure the few natural events, that are intermingled with them. But as the former grow thinner every page, in proportion as we advance nearer the enlightened ages... It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days.

And that was in the 1700s.

He's right to be skeptical. Science keeps yanking down the curtain on these wondrous displays. But maybe a new curtain has gone up in its stead. Now we actually refer to things as miracles of science, which seems like a contradiction in terms.

In fact, the only other time the term "miracle" has peered into our consciousness in recent days has been in the recovery of Gabrielle Giffords. "Miracles happen every day," one of her doctors said, "and in medicine we like to attribute them to what we do or what others do around us. [But] a lot of medicine is outside our control."

That struck me as an interesting perspective on the miracle concept. Given the onslaught of science and reason, we could have abandoned the concept entirely. But instead, people have embraced it -- on a smaller scale. These days, when it comes to miracles, no one is expecting bells and whistles. Trumpets need not sound from on high. Bushes don't have to catch fire. Reason has pushed most of these displays out of service anyway. The impossible no longer occurs with any reliable frequency -- but the improbable still does. A cameo from Jesus on your toast is one thing. But when something that is out of our control turns out as we would have wished -- that may be as close to a miracle as we can hope.

Still, whatever definition you pick, I think I'll have to wait a long time to be canonized. Although, for the record, I was very involved with the U.S. ice hockey team in 1980.

By Alexandra Petri  | January 14, 2011; 2:53 PM ET
Categories:  Big Deals, Petri  | Tags:  awareness, miracle, science  
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