It happens every year. I’m walking past the library, or some other building loaded with windows, and one of my students bursts out the door and runs toward me with eyes dilating, hair frazzling, nerves fraying, arms waving, and body quaking to ask, out of breath, did these things really happen?
“Things” referring to the miracles and visions we have been reading about in the sixteenth-century autobiography assigned that week.
What the student means is this: did the miracles or visions happen in an objective sense, so that if I or other witnesses would have been there we would have seen them too? Or was the author just Nuts? For how else to explain that she saw Jesus everywhere she went, including at the breakfast table?
The autobiography in question this year was written by Ana de San Bartolomé, a Spanish nun who lived from 1549 to 1626 and who toward the end of her life, at the behest of her confessor, put down her spiritual odyssey on paper. Or in Mormon lingo, she wrote her personal history.
A lot of other nuns and mystics did the same thing, including the most famous authors of this genre, St. Teresa of Avila and Ignatius Loyola. Most are chock full of visions and miracles and the otherworldly—which makes perfect sense when you understand that the point was to show God at work in their lives. But students, including Mormon students, are puzzled about how to read them. More specifically, they want to know, were the fantastic events described “real?”
My job isn’t to answer that question, of course, but to suggest approaches to such accounts, and especially to draw approaches out of the students. After all, I’m not sure that my reading is any more right than theirs. I’m also not sure, after years of exposure to such accounts, that the “reality” of the miracles or vision is the right question to ask, at least in the way “real” is usually understood.
It’s a perfectly understandable question, of course, for people of various backgrounds. I asked it myself when I first read some miracle stories, because I had learned when young, through word or cultural osmosis, that the heavens were closed until around 1820 and that most people before and even after that date thought the same thing. It didn’t take long to figure out that more than a millennium of Catholics certainly did believe in miracles and visions, but still, they couldn’t actually be “real,” could they?
My early response was similar to what my students still go through, though they might be a little more inclined to view such experiences as “partially real.” As in “partially true,” or a “portion” of the truth or the spirit. Just not the full deal. Just God granting a tiny sliver of light to keep people going until the full light emerged. (I’m not guessing here, as this is the idea that initially prevails in the discussion of such readings.)
When I was a student, I began to open up to the idea that other believers’ claimed encounters with the divine might be just as real as my own, thanks largely to an old religion professor at BYU named Burt Horsley. He must have been 65 or 70 by the time I took his class on Christian History, but he had a mind far more supple than those of his overwhelmingly returned-missionary students, and a grounding markedly different from that of other religion professors I’d known. For he calmly responded with contrary evidence whenever some student confidently pronounced that only someone holding the priesthood could possibly receive a genuine vision, or whenever someone scoffed at the claim that the bones of Peter might actually lie in St. Peter’s in Rome.
His openness to the reality of the experiences of other-believers was reinforced when I started reading for myself thousands of claimed miracles from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, especially when I read them in their original handwritten form. Such documents were produced in mountainous quantities by the Catholic hierarchy, which went to a lot of trouble and expense to interview witnesses, doctors, and the alleged beneficiaries of every claimed miracle and vision because the Church wanted believers to believe only in the “true.”
Sorting out the true from the untrue was trickier than it might seem. It came to focus on distinguishing between events that had either natural or supernatural causes. Yes, nature too was a miracle, said Augustine, for it was created by God, but when God worked through the ordinary course of nature most experts regarded Him as working only indirectly. What we have come to call miracles involved events in which God could be said to work directly, or in other words, supernaturally (“above nature”).
This is where the Church’s investigators devoted their energies when they went about judging claims of direct divine intervention: was it real or unreal, natural or supernatural? And it’s also the approach that still dominates today, including for Mormon students, even if they don’t see any juridical process at work around the miracles people claim in their own culture. They still want to know: did the event really happen (in an objective sense) and was its cause divine?
But maybe there’s a better question to ask about claimed miracles. While writing a book about miracles, I came across the work of a Catholic psychologist named J. H. van der Berg, whose 1956 book Metabletica offered something beyond the usual “natural” and “supernatural” dichotomy.
Such an approach was unsatisfactory to him because understanding of what is “natural” changes all the time, thus changing as well understanding of what is “supernatural.” Moreover, this approach tends to severely limit the number of miracles and visions regarded as genuine, as possible natural explanations can often be found. In fact, of the hundreds of thousands of miracles claimed over the centuries, only a small fraction have been judged as genuine.
Better, argued Van den Berg, is to regard a miracle as a sense of nearness to God—and that sense is inherently highly subjective. It does not fret about an objective and scientific distinction between nature and super nature.
In other words, the reality of a miracle or vision does not lie in the thing observed, but in the observer.
To illustrate he uses an example from the French writer André Gide, who as a child went walking in a valley with a young girl; at a certain moment he lost sight of her, but then suddenly she stepped from the trees into the meadow, and with the light shining on her face in such a way as she smiled that suddenly for Gide the valley was filled with love and happiness. Someone else walking past the valley might have looked and seen merely a geological cleft in a geographical landscape. But Gide saw something else that to him was absolutely real, and that made him feel God.
That miracles are rooted within us rather than in God (for again according to Augustine nothing is a miracle to God) is confirmed, according to Van den Berg, in Jesus’s saying in Mark that he could do no miracles in Nazareth, for no one believed; he didn’t say he would not do them, or that he would do miracles and people just wouldn’t see them, but rather that he could do no miracles.
This helps to explain why there will never be consensus as to whether this event or that is a miracle or not: because the miracle depends on the viewpoint of the person looking. And it’s not merely about faith—yes, you must believe in a miracle to see it, but how you believe also matters. For people believe in different ways, and God speaks to them in their own language, according to the Book of Mormon.
Which means not only that God may speak to people in ways we find strange (Balaam’s ass, anyone?), but that the way God speaks to us is strange as well.
And if our miracles and visions are strange, and subjective, but real, then there is no reason that the apparently strange encounters of a Spanish nun in the sixteenth century were any less real.
The key is whether a person feels the nearness of God, and who but the person can judge that? Maybe we feel it in silly ways sometimes, or fool ourselves into thinking that this or that is God. But we learn from such experience and perhaps find the nearness more easily as we go.
Maybe this highly subjective approach is also inherently wishy-washy: “then people can claim anything as a miracle or vision!” This is certainly how I feel sometimes listening to claimed miracles in church, when I start longing for the sort of juridical process that would greatly restrict such claims. But then I remember Gide, and the boy in the magical valley in France. And I think of Emerson’s insistence that a true religious experience must be an original religious experience—thus your own encounter with God, not someone else’s encounter with God.
By the end of the discussion, most students have come to this conclusion themselves, and the distress has abated. Until the next interesting time around.