I have to admit I like this kind of thing. I'm interested in healings, exorcisms, and near-death experiences. I'm a sucker for any kind of miracle story, from the missionary rescued from a well by an angel to a guy who sees the Virgin Mary on a window shade. I'm fascinated by the Shroud of Turin and the blood of St. Januarius. I sometimes worry about my predilection for the paranormal. I fear it is the same sort of instinct that makes me slow down at the scene of a car crash.
So on a summer afternoon, a truck driver dropped me off a few hundred yards from the convent of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. After finding my room, I made my way down to the dining hall. Everyone was chatting away in French, when suddenly a woman sat down next to me and flashed a big smile. In an accent redolent of the American South, she drawled, 'Ah hope you won't mahnd if ah sit here.'
'Please. Be my guest.'
'My name is Peggy Jane. The sisters asked me to sit here with you since I speak English.'
Peggy Jane told me she was from Alabama and used to be a Southern Baptist. She became a Catholic because she'd had a vision of St. Bernadette. After supper Peggy Jane took me on a personal guided tour of the convent. We saw the room where the saint died in 1879, and Peggy Jane recounted in a whisper the death agonies of the young woman. Then we went outside to the tomb of Bernadette, where I heard all about the exhumation process.
Peggy Jane explained that she knew all about this stuff because her daddy was an undertaker in Mobile. I learned how the exhumation was certified by doctors, lawyers and the town mayor. How on two separate occasions ten years apart a fragrance greeted those in attendance when the coffin was opened. When examined, Bernadette's body remained unspoiled despite the damp climate and the lack of embalming.
Peggy Jane and I entered the neo-Gothic convent chapel, and there she was. Like something out of a Disney film, Bernadette lay in a glass coffin wearing her nun's habit. Her face and hands looked perfect, but they've been encased in a skin of pink wax. The cadaver is inspected now and again, Peggy Jane told me, and although the skin is shrunken and discolored-after more than a hundred years-Bernadette is still intact.
So I took my backpack off and went back into the chapel. I knelt down and asked for God's blessing on my journey that day. Then the mass ended and as I was sitting in the silence I smelled this wonderful, intense fragrance of flowers. I looked around. There weren't any flowers anywhere. Outside Peggy Jane asked how it was with Bernadette. I told her about the fragrance, and she beamed, "You have been granted a great grace. You have experienced the odor of sanctity. Many people experience this while praying with Bernadette." She took my hand, and looked me in the eye. "Please remember to pray for me in Jerusalem." I did.
I don't know what happened. Maybe the cleaning lady had a spray can with 'Odor of Sanctity' on the label and she gave the chapel a shot every morning. In any case, I'm interested because it matches up with other stories. There are lots of accounts down through the ages in both Catholic and Orthodox circles, of the odor of sanctity, corpses that exude perfume instead of putrefaction. There's an Orthodox monk in a Syrian monastery, for instance, whose body oozed fragrant healing oil for a couple of decades.
I'm interested not because I am particularly credulous or because I think miracles prove anything. In fact, I'm interested for almost the opposite reason. While I do believe in miracles, and I'm prepared to accept that such phenomena are miraculous, I'm interested in the apparent randomness of it all.
If this is a sign of holiness, why don't all saints smell good when their coffins are opened? Why should Bernadette's body be uncorrupted but not St. Thérèse's for instance? It is all rather wonderful, but like most wonderful things, there's not much rhyme or reason to it all. It doesn't prove anything. The rebel in me likes anything that upsets the status quo. Surely the bizarre is always fascinating and fun, and yet if you mention such experiences in the presence of educated liberals you definitely commit a social error.
The turned-up nose from tasteful folk indicates why weird religious events are ultimately interesting. The paranormal is fascinating because it introduces the unknown and the unexpected to a society that is desperate to keep the material borders intact and the spiritual realm at bay.
I like the miraculous because it smells authentic. What good is religion if it doesn't upset our assumptions and make us think again? Wherever religion is fervent, it allows for the miraculous. Wherever religion is real, it allows for the miraculous. Miracles don't prove a religion's validity or truth, but they do indicate some kind of transaction between the material and the spiritual worlds.
Miracles are also authentic because they attract ordinary folks. I am suspicious of any religion that is the refuge of only the educated and affluent. A religion that excludes ordinary people is more like a set of table manners than a religion.
Finally, I like the kooky end of religion because it reveals a God of surprises. When a body is uncorrupted or people smell flowers when they should smell putrefaction, it's kind of like a divine joke. I think God likes practical jokes. He likes the effect of tricks. He likes upsetting our smug, preconceived mindset about the nature of the physical world. Maybe miracles are given not to prove anything, but simply to remind us that the physical world is not so solid and real and dependable as we think. It's all much more rubbery than that--and more unexpected.