Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On Natural Wonders and the Miraculous

This might seem to be a non-sequitur, but there are principles here which involve the discussion below regarding Intelligent Design.

"An 83-year-old Indian holy man who says he has spent seven decades without food or water has astounded a team of military doctors who studied him during a two-week observation period," says a recent news report. It explains that the man neither ate nor drank during the time of observation, except for occasionally swishing his mouth with a little water.

"We still do not know how he survives," neurologist Sudhir Shah told reporters after the end of the experiment. "It is still a mystery what kind of phenomenon this is."

The yogi offers an explanation: "He says that he was blessed by a goddess at a young age, which gave him special powers."

Is this a miracle?

The Angelic Doctor offers a helpful distinction:

"Miraculum proprie dicitur, cum aliquid fit praeter ordinem naturae. Sed non sufficit ad rationem miraculi, si aliqid fiat praeter ordinem naturae alicuius particularis quia sic, cum aliquis proiicit lapidem sursum, miraculum faceret, cum hoc sit praeter ordinem naturae lapidis. Ex hoc ergo aliquid dicitur esse miraculum quod fit prater ordinem totius naturae creatae" (ST I, q. 110, a. 4)

A miracle properly so called is when something is done outside the order of nature. But it is not a sufficient
ratio for a miracle if something is done outside the order of any particular nature; since otherwise anyone would perform a miracle by throwing a stone upwards, as such a thing is outside the order of the stone's nature. So for a miracle is required that it be against the order of the whole created nature.
It may be outside of the order of man's particular nature to survive without food and water -- but it might not be outside of the entire order of the universe.

St. Thomas goes on to say that even if an angel performed what is unexplainable according to the natural order of a particular being, its power is limited according to its nature and the laws of the universe. Thus, a person can benefit from the power of a demon -- or a "goddess" -- which is supernatural to our perspective but natural from the perspective of angelic natures. But this is not a miracle absolutely speaking, for only God can perform an act which is outside all natural laws, such as raising the dead.

One sign of a true miracle, the Angelic Doctor notes, is that the supernatural happens on account of the invocation of Christ's name. For an example of this we can turn to St. Catherine of Siena, who, according to Bl. Raymund of Capua her biographer, practiced what St. Thomas taught. He writes (ch. 12, no. 311):
All who knew Catherine were well aware of her profound and characteristic reverence and devotion towards the Blessed Sacrament of the Body of our Lord. She received the Sacrament so frequently that it was popularly reported that "the maiden Catherine receives Holy Communion every day," and that she lived and kept up her strength on it without taking any other food.
Raymund, always careful to dispel mere rumor, finds the report inaccurate: "In saying this, they were not quite correct, still I believe they spoke in good faith."

The truth is, he says, Catherine did not receive communion every day. Just most days. As for surviving on the Holy Eucharist alone ... if that seems astounding, he offers something else to ponder. Once he celebrated Holy Mass with only Catherine present and when communion time came:
Her face appeared to me like the face of an angel, radiating rays of light and somehow transfigured, so that I said to myself, "That face is not Catherine's"; and judging by what I saw I went on to say, in my own mind, "Truly, Lord, she is your spouse, faithful and pleasing in your sight." With this thought in mind I turned back to the altar, and still speaking only mentally I said, "Come, Lord, to your spouse." I do not know how this thought came to my mind; but as soon as I had formed it the Sacred Host moved of itself before ever I touched it. I saw it plainly moving towards me for the space of three finger-breadths and more, until it reached the paten which I had in my hand. But I was so stupefied, first by the light that shone on Catherine's face, and secondly by this marvel, that I am not certain whether or not I actually placed the Host on the paten or not. My belief is rather that it moved on to it of itself though I do not venture to vouch for this.

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