Separating the Authentic from the Counterfeit.
Our fascination with miracles is inextricably tied up with our fear of death. Miracles give us hope for preservation from suffering and, ultimately, an escape from death. They not only give us hope for a short-term solution to a problem facing us, but more importantly, they reveal the reality of God and so give us hope for the ultimate solution to the problem of death.
When we face our death, either in our imagination or in reality, our minds struggle. The mind cannot imagine not being, and this creates anxiety, very often the central fear in our lives. While most creatures can focus on only the here and now — the fundamental tasks of eating, fighting, and reproducing, which keep their species alive — humans can reflect on the past and imagine the future. This ability allows us to pass on knowledge to the next generation, save for retirement, and apply science to the questions of the universe. It also means that we spend some time in the present lamenting the past and worrying about the future. It means we contemplate, and sometimes obsess over, our death.
Mortality is a threat that we cannot fight or run away from. We know that, at least in earthly terms, we are and will be defeated by it. In the absence of religious belief, we find various solutions: denial, distraction, existential crisis, despair, and so on. The central promise of Christianity is that Jesus Christ defeated death and provides a solution to this apparently impossible problem. The proof of this promise is that Jesus vanquished death on the Cross and rose on the third day. As St. Paul says,
And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. (1 Cor. 15:14)
The Gospels describe a number of miracles that Jesus performed as proofs of His divinity: healings, exorcisms, resurrections, control over nature, and forgiveness of sins. All of these proved Christ's divine identity in the Jewish worldview — that He had powers, including over suffering, sin, and death, that no purely human person could have. These miracles, therefore, are among the central proofs of Christianity.
It is important, though, to define miracle carefully. To do this, we need a quick background in epistemology — the study of how we come to know things. St. Thomas Aquinas points out in the Summa Contra Gentiles that a miracle is essentially something we cannot explain. That's easy enough. When we cannot explain something, we wonder about it, maybe even experience a sense of awe. There are some events that are awe-inspiring to some but mundane to others: seeing a faraway planet might be incredible for a child but commonplace for an astronomer. Thomas addresses this by saying that a true miracle is something that has a cause that is absolutely hidden from everyone, and that nobody, no matter how knowledgeable, can explain.
Thomas then organizes miracles into three ranks. Miracles of the first rank are things done by God that nature can never do, such as the raising of Lazarus, who had been dead in the tomb for four days. Miracles of the second rank are things done by God that are natural, but not in the way He accomplishes them. It is natural for a person to see, but not for a person to see after having been born blind. Miracles of the third rank are things done by God that nature can do, but without the usual natural limitations. In time, a high fever usually passes, but sometimes God cures a fever instantly. For Thomas, anything done by the power of any creature cannot be a miracle; only acts done by God can be. This means that anything done by an angel, or a fallen angel, cannot be a miracle, as they are creatures.
In the Old Testament, God primarily performed miracles to reward or to punish people — but His miracles also advanced His will for the world and the people in it. In the New Testament, we mostly see Jesus performing miracles that were proofs beyond His words of who He was. These miracles involved His healing and freeing people from their physical and spiritual shackles. The central miracle of His life, of course, was His Resurrection, by which He conquered death and freed people from it.
We continue to see miracles in our time. We hear stories of amazing healings, apparitions of Mary, Eucharistic miracles, heavenly near-death experiences, angels appearing, and other wonderful events. In our scientific age, though, it has also become easier to dismiss these accounts, appealing to fields such as neuroscience to explain away the seemingly unexplainable. It has also become easier to fabricate audio and video evidence with computers, making good objective proof of miracles even more important — and harder to come by. This is why medical miracles, which can be substantiated by reliable objective medical data, are those most relied on for the causes of saints.
Thomas addresses this by saying that a true miracle is something that has a cause that is absolutely hidden from everyone, and that nobody, no matter how knowledgeable, can explain.
The unsolvable problem remains, though: we have not solved death. We can avoid it and distract ourselves with shallow stimulation, substances, and the ego, but eventually death intrudes. Someone dear to us passes, we get older, or we get distressingly sick. This helps explain the common pattern of drifting away from religion as a seemingly invincible young adult but returning later in life. Our egos cannot defeat death alone, and so, on some level, we find that we need God between us and death.
My professional background is in therapy and evaluation in forensic settings and my research background is in brain science, specifically brain-wave analysis. Building on this experience for about fifteen years, I have been increasingly involved as a lay consultant in exorcisms (called a peritus, or "expert," in religious demonology and exorcism for the Pittsburgh Diocese). I have both attended and helped at hundreds of solemn exorcisms and taught at national conferences on exorcism for more than a decade. Although only priests can perform the rite of exorcism with permission from their bishop, I participate by screening potential demoniacs for mental health conditions, ensuring that the victim of demonic attack is prepared for and stable during the exorcism, and coaching the exorcists when needed: I might explain what a demon is doing and what the best response is. Finally, I get calls from exorcist friends and dioceses all over the country about the exorcism ministry and specific cases.
My confidence in the supernatural is not only based on faith but has been built through years of extraordinary experiences and observations. Medical doctors and mental health professionals who work with those in our care also sometimes have their worldview shaken by the spiritual realities they see and so cannot deny. I want to be a rational person, and the truth is that, given what I have seen, it would be irrational to deny the spiritual world. I have come to a place where I have to say that for me it is all real. God is real. Angels and demons are real. The spiritual world is real. Jesus Christ is alive and present as I write this, and with you as you read it. I have seen too much evidence to deny it. But, I know that most people have not seen. I know that most people have some faith, but they hunger for their own proofs.
This book on miracles is not meant to be merely a collection of pious stories, but one of analysis and personal sharing. How were things validated in the past? How are they validated now? What are the proofs, and why should we believe them? Some of the events recounted here are so old that we have to choose whether to trust those who were there and wrote down their experiences. One of the many positive aspects of science and modern medicine is that they have sometimes provided objective scientific proofs that were not available before. We now have more than pious testimony in some cases. So, let us look at the miracles of the past and the ones in our modern age and see if we can find signs that we can hold on to and that point to God.
Adam Blai, "Introduction" The Catholic Guide to Miracles (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2021): 1-5.
Reprinted with permission of Sophia Institute Press.
Adam Blai, a layman, is a peritus (Church-decreed expert) in religious demonology and exorcism for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. He has also served as an expert in these areas in training priests, deacons, and laity in many other dioceses. He is an auxiliary member of the International Association of Exorcists, a Vatican-recognized Private Association of the Christian Faithful based in Rome. Over fifteen years of working and training in the exorcism ministry, he has witnessed or experienced a number of miracles, some of which he has been appointed to investigate by the Church. He also works in the tribunal of the Pittsburgh Diocese and is pursuing a canon law degree. He is the author of The Catholic Guide to Miracles.Copyright © 2021 Sophia Institute Press
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