There was an eye-catching headline on the front page of a recent Saturday edition of The Vancouver Sun.
“Saint or Science?” it read. Underneath, was the following sub-head: “A Surrey man, ravaged by flesh-eating disease, lay close to death. Given just hours to live, he suddenly recovered after a visit from his priest. Now the church is investigating whether a long-dead Irish monk is behind the ‘miracle.’”
The priest called to perform rites on the dying man used a relic — in this case, a piece of cloth from the habit of a modern-era Irish-French monk, Columba Marmion, who died in 1928. While praying to spare the man’s life, the priest placed the relic on the patient’s head, heart and on the dressing covering the diseased leg. He asked that “Blessed Marmion” intercede with the Lord and bring healing, and the next day asked his congregation to pray for a miracle, as that was the only hope for the dying man.
A few days later, a blood culture showed a negative result for the presence of the “flesh-eating” diseases that had ravaged his body. He was cured and he has lived to tell the tale. The front-page picture features the Surrey man, Peter Andersen, and Rev. John Horgan, the priest who performed the service.
The “miracle” is no run-of-the-mill occurrence and has raised eyebrows in Catholic circles. It is now under “canonical investigation” by the Church … the first such inquiry that has ever been held in Western Canada. The result could lead to the canonization of Columba Marmion as a saint.
The story was eye-catching because the use of relics as healing tools has now virtually vanished from the religious toolbox, compared to the Middle Ages, when their use was ubiquitous. The Catholic Church appears to have distanced itself from the use and worship of relics, though it appears not to wholly reject them.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, quoting a decree of the Council of Trent (Sess. XXV), says “that they who affirm that veneration and honour are not due to the relics of the saints, or that these and other sacred monuments are uselessly honoured by the faithful, and that the places dedicated to the memories of the saints are in vain visited with the view of obtaining their aid, are wholly to be condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned, and also now condemns them.”
On the other hand, it appears that a Bishop can be disposed to investigate modern miracles involving relics. The facts of the inquiry may then be forwarded for consideration by “theologians and pious men,” and in cases of exceptional difficulty be submitted to the Holy See … the Pope, in other words.
Columba Marmion has already been beatified by the Catholic Church on the strength of an earlier miracle attributed to his post-humous intercession — the healing of a Minnesota woman in 1966 under similar circumstances. A second confirmed post-humous miracle results in full canonization. Mother Teresa is at the same stage of the canonization process. She, as does Marmion, takes the title, “Blessed” Mother Teresa.
A Throw-back to the Middle Ages?
Well, it is gratifying to see a couple of believers on the cover of the newspaper, instead of another politician or celebrity or scientist. Miracles, relics and saints in the modern era are anachronisms, especially as they were widely discussed and commented on in the Middle Ages on a daily basis, so great was the hunger for signs of God’s favour. The news article is a reminder that there is still a sense of wonder over whether God intercedes in the affairs of the world in the same way that those of the Middle Ages believed.
Having unlocked the genomic code, designed supercomputers, and unleashed nanotechnology into the world, it is fascinating to see a thirst in some people for miracles. That some are willing to consider that a cloth worn by a potential saint was the driving force behind an incredible medical turnaround is truly a curiosity.
Which Side Are You On?
I was initially interested in the story because it recalls the time period I have chosen to write my novel about. Once again the medieval era resonates with our own times. But it also provides a commentary on our time, quite apart from the Middle Ages: that despite the secularization of our modern world and the predominant position of science, there are still some who take the spiritual view of the world (including myself, by the way).
Stories like this, I think, have the effect of drawing a line between believers and non-believers. They ask: “What is your explanation for what happened? Do you swallow the miracle theory, or do you reject it?” Some will dismiss the miracle explanation out of hand; that the man’s recovery from flesh-eating disease was in no way related to the use of a relic or the intercession of a beatified monk who died 86 years ago. Others, with strong faith, will be inspired by occurrence of the miracle. Perhaps a few will teeter on the edge.
Anti-religious sentiment has enjoyed a resurgence, lately, as seen, for example, in the recent spate of books that call belief into question in no uncertain terms: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens and Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris.
Critics such as these would claim that it is harmful and irresponsible for the newspapers to promote the idea that a man’s flesh-eating disease could have been cured by a piece of cloth. There is a scientific explanation, they would say, one that might explain the man’s recovery as an aberration in the flesh-eating organism, for example, or a failure to replicate. In the face of such plentiful scientific knowledge and technological advancement, how could anyone maintain a belief in miracles?
Ingenuity and Arrogance of Science
The story of science shows the upward surge of human knowledge, the ingenuity of scientists to gradually peel away the mysteries of the universe. But there is something cold in the all-encompassing sway of empirical thought and rationality today — the arrogance in the idea that there is a scientific explanation for every phenomenon, observable or unobservable.
I’m attracted to the corners of our lives where rationality falls away and we are confronted with the mystery and immensity of the universe. And what we think we know in this life is a speck of dust and the unexplained and yet-to-know stretch off into the cosmos. Yes … there is room in my life for miracles, and I am comforted by stories like Columba Marmion and how his spirit and light might be behind the miraculous recovery of Peter Andersen.
Brother Richard has been listening intently. A moment ago, he looked up from his psalter and asked what I meant by the genomic code and nanotechnology. I delayed answering him until I finished writing this blog post, as I think it will take a little while to satisfy his curiosity.