Sunday, November 11, 2012

Can't I Just Have a Little Miracle?

Willa Cather's "Death Comes to the Archbishop" has a scene where the Holy Family miraculously provides food and shelter to a missionary who would have died otherwise. The character says afterwards that perhaps miracles are not an unusual circumstance but rather the lifting of a veil on the spiritual reality undergirding everyday life. As an undergraduate, I was so taken with this that I found an excuse to include it in my senior thesis.

But this conceit is actually exactly wrong. There isn't a miraculous and somehow kinder movement beneath the plain-jane mediocrity of 2012 Texan life. The fact is that the natural order is the rule rather than the exception not because God doesn't want to make it too easy for us, but rather because it in itself is the most perfect expression of His love and kindness. How can this be?

The primary reason is that God is greedy. Greedy to see His beloved sons and daughters exercising the gifts which are peculiarly His own, particularly practical love and the creative work of salvation. Love is not something you feel while sitting alone in your room thinking about Jesus and puppies. Love is an action where you choose the good of another as though it were your own good (enter caveat that this good for the other must be consistent with what is good for you). Of course, humans are finite and imperfect beings, and so the work of their love, even when infused with grace, will be less perfect than what God would have done through direct action. But His direct action would not have built up love between souls, and also would have restricted the work of salvation to Himself.

An example: You and your husband are sitting exhausted at the end of the day. Your toddler has climbed up into her chair at the table to have another go at the dinner that wasn't worth finishing an hour ago. Peace reigns until a key portion of dinner escapes to the floor below, and a keening sound of loss pierces the air. Wouldn't it have been nice if the bread could have been miraculously exempted from gravity so that it moved sideways to the table instead of down to the floor? And not wildly unreasonable, since you're only asking for a temporary reinstatement of Aristotelian movement toward natural place.

After a short discussion over who could best get up to recover the bread without doing a violence to themselves, one of you returns order to your toddler's world. The small act of service builds up your child's love for you, in a "I take it for granted that my parent is a demi-god" sort of way, and also builds up love between you and your spouse, possibly in a "I feel kind of guilty and a little defensive" sort of way: this is just because human actions are always imperfect, and it doesn't negate the real good. The most important thing is what happened in your soul when you were able to comfort the grieving and succor the overwhelmed. Because God just shared with you His own special role of working for the salvation of souls.