For the past year or so my wife and I have hosted prayer gatherings in our home, basically just a small gathering of friends getting together to share food, prayers, readings, reflections, etc. A couple of weekends ago, our theme was “miracles” in honor of Christmastime, which sparked a uniquely vibrant discussion.
Almost everyone present said they’d experienced a miracle at some point in their lives. But what was even more striking for me was the number of stories that were more spiritual in nature than physical. One friend recounted the appearance of a helpful stranger out of nowhere as he struggled to make it back home for a loved one’s funeral. Another talked about the sudden lifting of a burdensome feeling of hate she had harbored for her stepmother, one she’d carried for years after her mother’s passing.
We often hear about miracles, especially around this time of year, but they’re often earthly in nature. Sometime these miracles take the form of diseases that suddenly cure themselves, or serendipitously finding money in a time of financial need, or succeeding against all odds in some competition or in one’s career.
I, like many people, have my own story like that. A few years ago, I fell asleep at the wheel late at night and ended up in a violent car accident. (No other cars were involved, luckily.) I emerged and literally examined every part of my body, incredulous that I was in one piece. An hour or so later, as I watched my gnarled car being was pulled out from a ditch, a police officer told me he’d never seen an accident like that not claim someone’s life.
I believe in God, and the same night of the accident I remember praying to thank Him simply for the opportunity to live, and to promise not to take that opportunity for granted. It was more of a prayer of gratitude than anything else. But I have never thought to call this episode a miracle, and in the immediate aftermath, I remember feeling uncomfortable when some people around me sought to describe it in those terms.
Part of the reason is that to suggest that God or some spiritual force saved my life is also to suggest that He elected not to save the lives of the many people who do, in fact, die in car accidents (34,000 last year in the US alone). I feel the same way, for instance, when someone refers to a sick patient’s unexplained recovery as an act of God. The truth is that everything in our universe is an act of God, everything that is spectacular and everything that is mundane. But using this language, I feel, sometimes inadvertently becomes a slap in the face to those who weren’t lucky enough to emerge unscathed from a wrecked car or from an arduous battle with a deadly disease.
Like some of those friends I mentioned above, I feel much more comfortable leaving aside the word “miracle” to describe those things in life that are more spiritual, and dare I say, matter more than even life and death. This is, for the most part, how Baha’is prefer to think about miracles. Miraculous things can happen in the physical world, and we should never question God’s ability to cause such mysterious events. But these experiences are relatively unimportant in comparison to His countless spiritual miracles.
Here is how Abdul-Baha explained this concept, when asked by a Western believer specifically about the miracles of Christ:
But… for the Manifestations* these miracles and wonderful signs have no importance. They do not even wish to mention them. For if we consider miracles a great proof, they are still only proofs and arguments for those who are present when they are performed, and not for those who are absent…
Therefore, miracles are not a proof. For if they are proofs for those who are present, they fail as proofs to those who are absent…
Recollect that Christ, solitary and alone, without a helper or protector, without armies and legions, and under the greatest oppression, uplifted the standard of God before all the people of the world, and withstood them, and finally conquered all, although outwardly He was crucified. Now this is a veritable miracle which can never be denied. There is no need of any other proof of the truth of Christ…
If a blind man receives sight, for example, he will finally again become sightless, for he will die and be deprived of all his senses and powers… If the body of a dead person be resuscitated, of what use is it since the body will die again? But it is important to give perception and eternal life—that is, the spiritual and divine life…
The meaning is not that the Manifestations are unable to perform miracles, for They have all power. But for Them inner sight, spiritual healing and eternal life are the valuable and important things.
That passage, to me, is a reminder that the true value of religion and spirituality is the power to transform the human heart and uplift our collective lives, not to perform magic tricks and faith healing spectacles.
It also encourages me to recognize the small, subtle spiritual miracles that happen all the time but are rarely acknowledged. For instance, yesterday morning I left my office to to go get an egg sandwich, and as I was about to re-enter the building I realized I was missing my wallet. In vain I went looking all over for it in the streets, hoping I’d somehow dropped it on the way back from the deli and that I hadn’t been pickpocketed. When I dejectedly went back to my building, the guys at the security desk waved me down and asked if I’d lost something. It turned out I’d dropped my wallet on the steps outside the building, and a someone walking the streets of Midtown Manhattan had picked it up and passed it to security. Nothing in it was missing.
Not losing cash or avoiding the headache of canceling credit cards is not the miracle, of course. But what about the random stranger picking up a wallet full of money and thinking first and foremost of the person who lost it? That kind of thing may happen all the time, but I don’t care. It still gets my vote as a miracle.
*The term “Manifestations of God” is used in the Baha’i writings to refer to God’s divine messengers, one of which, Baha’is believe, was Jesus.