I don't think that three robins make a spring--not in Chicago, where I live, anyway. So I can't call what I'm going to talk about a trend. But within a week I've encountered three women saints, each one a miracle-worker, in three separate works of popular culture: two movies and a novel. This has made me wonder what's going on. If I were a trend-sniffing, politically correct hack writing this column for what Jimmy Breslin calls "the New York Times Newspaper" instead of Beliefnet, I might be announcing a revolution.

The three women in question are Sarah Miles, the heroine of the debris that director Neil Jordan made out of Graham Greene's novel "The End of the Affair," Helen O'Reagan, the heroine of the film "The Third Miracle," and Rachel Lane, the heroine of John Grisham's novel "The Testament." All three work miracles, all three are dead by the end of the story, and all three seem to go on working miracles after their deaths--although Jordan lost his nerve, changed Greene's ending, and denied Sarah the sanctity Greene clearly intended for her. (I conclude that Jordan, a man of unquestioned talent, is an anti-clerical Irish agnostic who has the arrogance to think he's a better storyteller than Greene. He turns the secular rationalist in the novel who tries to talk Sarah out of her faith into a rigid priest who tries to talk her out of her adultery--which in Greene's version she has already given up!)

This gripe aside, all three stories are compelling. In two of them, "The End of the Affair," and "The Testament," the heroines bring back a dead man they love to life--and offer their own lives in sacrifice. In the other, "The Third Miracle," Helen O'Reagan, who is already dead. miraculously brings a priest back to his faith in his vocation. Playing that role is Ed Harris, who looks so much like a priest that he probably ought to be one. Nearly everyone in all three stories rejects the miracles. One exception is Sarah's lover, Bendrix, in "The End of the Affair," who (perhaps much like Greene himself) becomes angry at God for taking Sarah away from him.

I read the novel and saw the two films shortly before reading a Sunday Gospel that featured one of Jesus' more spectacular miracles: the changing of water into wine at Cana. As I read, I smiled, thinking about the significant numbers of clergy--and the many theologians--who are made uneasy by the prodigality of the miracles Jesus works. The Gospel stories abound with them. Jesus is in fact uniquely self-effacing among the storied wonder workers of his time, in that he warns people not to seek "signs" and miracles from him--yet he nonetheless performs quite a few of them.

How can a rational person believe in miracles?, asks the embarrassed theologian--doubtless thinking of his academic colleagues down the corridor in the faculty office building. How can God permit a violation of the orderly laws of nature that She has established? So the theologian tries to explain away the miracles of Jesus, reducing God to the Great Architect of the Universe that the deists of the 18th-century Enlightenment imagined--Someone Who, so to speak, throws out the first pitch and then lets the came continue on its own without further interference. Unlike the theologians, however, Scripture scholars these days are far more open to the literalness of the miraculous. The Christian tradition that Jesus actually worked signs and wonders is too ancient to be questioned, they say, even if we don't know how He did them.

I can't imagine any God worthy of the name Who is not deeply--and directly--involved in the lives of all of us. The theologian who wants to appease the rationalists forgets about how many wonders and mysteries there are, even in the natural universe, and how little we really understand about them. Moreover, most people simply are not rationalists. Even in former socialist territories such as Slovenia and East Germany that officially enshrined atheism for many years, more than half the people believe in miracles, almost twice as many as who believe in God. (Who works the miracles if there isn't a God is a question which doesn't seem to bother these folks.)

Patently the word "miracle" is often abused-- as in, "It was a miracle that the Bulls won a single game this year." However, studies have demonstrated pretty clearly that prayer has an effect on the recovery of sick people, even when it's prayer that they don't know about, and the people praying don't know them. Such research scares the living daylights out of my secularist colleagues. There are more things under heaven, Horatio, then your sociology dreams of. There is an area of the uncanny, the wonderful, the utterly astonishing that exists beyond our reason. Most people know that, and they accept the fact that real miracles can happen, at least on occasion. Better than trying to appease the rationalists, theologians should strive to appease the majority who know the rationalists are wrong.

Unlike many of its credulous members who run off to every new supposedly miraculous shrine about which they hear, the official Catholic Church takes a very sane position on this issue: it believes in the possibility of miracles, and at the same time is profoundly suspicious of every miracle that is alleged to have occurred. This Catholic double vision, acknowledging the reality of both the rational and the inexplicably wondrous, also permeates the fictional world of those three miracle-working women, Sarah Miles, Helen O'Reagan, and Rachel Lane, making their stories so haunting, yet so seemingly concrete. As I said, I don't know whether their stories constitute a trend--but I know they affected me.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad