Recently, I have been reading Paul Badde’s The Face of God. It’s a fascinating introduction to the Veil of Manoppello, an image of Jesus which seems to have a miraculous origin; in fact, it comes from the same source as the Shroud of Turin. You can read the book for yourself, but I wish to mention just one thing, which Badde quotes, about miracles, and which is precisely the most fundamental issue.
On page 307, we find an exchange between Harnack and Schlatter. Harnack, all full of the nicey-nice of the unbeliever says that they are really in agreement about everything except the small matter of miracles. Schlatter takes fire:
“No, we are divided on the question of God, for what is at stake in the question of miracles is in fact whether God is God or merely a part of the realm of subjectivity.”
That is exactly the point of miracles: that God has a personal initiative in the world and is not just the niceness at the core of (some) things. He is not just our best ideas, our highest ideals, our final hope. He isn’t just within us, though religious people do take their interior life seriously. God is always more than our interior life, much more. When the psychologists get through with saying that our whole interior life is just a construct, the religious people are not even fazed: what elements go into the weaving of the interior life is of no more significance than that our exterior life is partly made of jelly beans. God is still out there with initiatives, and we are still ourselves within, sharing his personal life through our own initiatives. We have an interior life that is real, and God comes to meet us as a real person – even with a face!
But also, going on to distinguish miracles from magic, notice how gentle the miracles are. Here is this face in Manoppello, as simple a face as ever there was, and it’s printed on a pretty amazing piece of cloth, but you don’t see right away that the fabric is amazing; you have to talk to a byssus-weaver to get it. So how many of us hang around chatting with byssus weavers?
None of us, that’s how many. There’s only one such artist left in all the wide world, diving in the sea to harvest anchor silk from the mussels and then taking it home to clean, treat, and weave it, a few grams at a time.
When you have magicians, all the energy is disorderly; it’s about power and display and selfishness. Disney has it. But miracles are about mercy, and if they disrupt anything at all, the scale is so small it cannot be measured.
In Cana, for example, 120 gallons of wine. OK, that’s a lot, but were there fireworks? No, and most of wine is water anyway. He did it without being noticed, and we know that because the steward didn’t even know where the wine was from.
The Church has a very careful way of looking at miracles as personal words of God. Nobody gets canonized just for a miracle, but when all the best judgments have been made about a person’s holiness and courage, the last word is with God: a miracle is requested as a sign of his initiative in desiring that we honor this person as his representative. And the miracle requested is not lightning and thunder; mostly it’s just a healing of somebody no one ever heard of, so they can go on with a life that most people will never notice.
But God notices, and so do their friends, and the friends also notice that God is our Father and friend. That’s the point.
And in Manopello, the miracle is the gentle miracle of an apparently simple face somehow imprinted in an incredibly fine sample of byssus silk. You can pass it by — or you can be captivated by it.