by Jamie MacKinnon
Miracles are so-called because they excite wonder. In unphilosophic minds any rare or unexpected thing excites wonder, while in philosophic minds the familiar excites wonder also, and the laws of nature, if we admit such laws, excite more wonder than the detached events. . . . The universe, which would explain everything, is the greatest of wonders, and a perpetual miracle.
Miracles in bread, miracles in bed. Miracles at lunchtime and on cometary nights. Miracles in supermarkets and on county roads. I’ve found miracles in smell and taste (beer, salmon, lentils, cheese) and in sound (skates on ice, the eeeee aw aw aw of a seagull). There are miracles in shadows and reflections, as well as in things directly visible.- George Santayana, The Idea of Christ in the Gospels
Miracles can be found in the many ways and places of life, but too often we miss them. We don’t look for them. We don’t even notice them, not even when they call out, and tickle our senses.
To understand this failure, consider the solipsist, a person who holds the view that the self is “all that exists,” or “all that can be known.” That’s not you or me, of course, but solipsism is a common-enough, if often tacit, foundation for an arid scepicism.
Post-modernism, still prevalent in many corridors of academe, tends to be sceptical about truth, which is fine, I suppose, but it also tends to be sceptical also about the knowability of anything beyond the self. Such scepticism carries costs, one of which is a diminished sense of wonder, which is the wellspring of faith.
Miracles require faith of the flintiest kind: faith in the existence of an objective external world, faith in truth and truth-seeking. It is this kind of faith that makes one susceptible to the world’s grandeur.
Miracles appear to the credulous (which is not to say the gullible), but belief alone won’t give them birth. Belief forms a ground on which miracles may be perceived by the wondering senses.
In simple terms, a miracle is an event or state of being the cause of which is beyond one’s ken, and thus attributed to the divine. Cicero got this wrong, thinking miracles something without cause: “nothing happens without a cause, and nothing happens unless it can happen. When that which can happen does in fact happen, it cannot be considered a miracle. Hence, there are no miracles” (De divinatione).
It isn’t lack of cause that defines a miracle, but our inability to understand just how things have come about. As with magic: hidden cause, astonishing effect.
A miracle has unknown roots, but not so the word. The Latin mirari, to wonder at, is a stem, and this stem has branches that include the words smile and laugh.
An inconvenient fact for the solipsist is that much of what is real and significant lies outside one’s experience. An inconvenient fact for the rest of us is that we see so little of the world that is not, in the final analysis, a reflection of ourselves. We’re not often interested in coming to terms with much that is truly strange. But that is precisely what attentive living requires us to do.
Were we to look, we’d find miracles in fungi and funiculars, in protein and prime numbers, in snow and silicon chips. And in dancing and burning, as well as in the stillness of statues and frozen ponds.
At the dawn of a new millennium, does such a call make you smile? Does it make you laugh?
Anagram for “reclaim,” rhymes with lyrical.
Here’s to many moments of miracles and wonder.
Jamie MacKinnon is an Ottawa-based writer.