History is filled with miracles, supernatural signs, and prophecies. Every culture has a time of miracles, often early on when that culture was just forming. These early miracles often tell people how the world was formed, how cities and nations came to be, or even why we have mountains and oceans. True believers say that miracles happen every day, while others say that miracles only happened a long time ago. When we hear about miracles today, are they real? Could it be that we live in an age of miracles?
If we're going to talk about miracles, about things that cannot logically happen, we really need to set up some definitions. Let's start with big miracles. Let's call these mega-miracles. If the earth stopped turning, that's a mega-miracle. If stars fell from heaven, that's a mega-miracle. If saying the word "unicorn" brought millions of unicorns into being and dispersed them across the world in a matter of seconds, that's a mega-miracle. There is little if any evidence about mega-miracles occurring in our lifetimes, let's skip that (although, if anyone is aware of any mega-miracles, please comment below and let us know!)
Let's go from the very large to the very small. We can call these mini-miracles. These miracles might
happen without supernatural intervention, and could
be just coincidences. Still, these are the kind of events that make you say, "That's a miracle!" It just seems too convenient to happen... unassisted. Someone, in the middle of a desert, who dying of thirst and stumbles on a spring, or a well, or supplies left by some anonymous traveler. A lottery winner who promised God he would donate half of the winnings to the church, or who got the winning number in a dream. Or even a patient who unexpectedly recovers from a serious ailment. Any one of these could be a miracle, but none MUST be a miracle.
Between these mega and mini-miracles, we have a different category of miracle. These don't violate the laws of nature but had to come from a supernatural source. For example, being hit by lightning, dying, and then returning to life, without assistance from anyone. Even more unlikely would be someone blown apart in an explosion, and then the parts assembling themselves into a healthy human being, with no scars or signs of the original injury. That would be either a very big "normal" miracle" or a mega-miracle.
Before we said that some individuals believe that the age of miracles is over, while others disagree and see miracles today. If there are miracles that we can observe today, do they happen in places that they can be observed? As it happens, they do!
Most religions agree that God is everywhere, but there are sacred places where the footprints of God are seen more often. Grotto’s, lakes and rivers are especially known for miracles. Miracles are also known to occur near certain statues and icons, or relics… items that were once used by holy men (or parts of their bodies). Temples and churches are often built around these sites, and it is not uncommon that these sites were considered holy prior to Christianity, Jewdiasm or Islam.
If holiness is measured by the number of miracles, then grotto of Lourdes, in France, may be the holiest site in the world. The story goes that in 1858 a 14-year-old local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, was collecting firewood with her sister and a friend. Bernadette had the first of a series of visions of a woman, who was the Virgin Mary. "The Lady," told Bernadette to drink the water from a muddy river, which suddenly became clear. "The Lady" said, “a chapel shall be built and a procession formed.” Since that chapel was built, over 200 million visitors have toured Lourdes.
Lourdes provides a unique opportunity to examine 150 years of data from the millions of people that have sought out miracles and from those who claimed to find miracles. Since the beginning, the Catholic Church has researched reported miracles and has "approved" miracles that hold up under examination. If any other group did the analysis, they might use different criteria, but the Catholic Church is one of the groups with the resources to examine thousands of miracles over the 150-year history of Lourdes.
Let's look at the data. Of the 200 million visitors, not all are looking for a miracle. Some are merely tourists. Most of the miracle seekers are ill and seek a cure. Some seekers are too ill to travel without help. If we assume 2 caretakers for every miracle seeker, that yields 65 to 70 million seekers. How many of these miracles at Lourdes have been recognized by the Catholic Church? A total of 69.
Miracles are supposed to be rare. But sites that have concentrated spiritual power or are blessed by saints are supposed to be more miraculous than elsewhere. If Lourdes is the world’s most famous site for miracles, shouldn't we see more miracles? Is it that no site is more miraculous? But the seekers who go to Lourdes are also the most pious of people. They believe in the power of this site, and they believe in their religion (usually Catholic). If Lourdes is the most miraculous place, with the most pious people, wouldn't you expect more than a “one in a million” chance for a cure?
St. Peter healing Saint Agatha
Saint Peter Healing Saint Agatha - c. 1614. by Giovanni Lanfranco (born January 26, 1582, Parma, Italy and died November 30, 1647, Rome, Italy) was an Italian painter of the Baroque period. | Photo: Giovanni Lanfranco | Saint Peter, Saint Agatha, Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle, Lourdes, Heaven, Virgin Mary, Madonna,
These odds don’t prove that miracles don’t exist. Instead, it makes us ask a different question. If miracles exist, and Lourdes' 69 miracles are real, what was wrong with the tens of millions of pious pleas for a miracle… that failed?
A miracle should have tough requirements, but with an exceptionally pious population and an exceptional history of miracles, why are so many of these pleas ignored? If almost no one is worth of a miracle, what does that tell us about our worthiness to go to heaven and other spiritual questions. Perhaps we're just asking the wrong question? Perhaps the miracles at Lourdes are not just miracles, they are mega-miracles?
Let's look at the 69 miracles.In 1862, 8 miracles were recognized. The first was a woman who fell down, resulting in paralysis of her hand. After a visit to Lourdes, her paralysis was cured. The next miracle was a man who lost his sight 2 years earlier, and it returned while he was at Lourdes. Then, in 1907 through 1910 another 27 miracles were recognized. Pierre de Rudder was the first of these miracles, which happened on 1875 but was not recognized until 1908. Pierre fell and shattered a leg, but it would no heal. Eight years later, Pierre visited Lourdes and his leg was cured.
Looking at these cases, I noticed a few patterns. Seekers had all been treated by physicians, often many different treatments and physicians, over a period of years. The earliest miracles occurred decades before X-ray machines, or blood tests were invented to confirm that a disease was actually a specific disease and not a similar but not fatal affliction. Interestingly, there were no cases of a severed arm (or leg, or finger) reattaching or growing back.
Instead, most of the diseases around the turn of the 20th century involve Tuberculosis, with some cases of blindness, inability to walk, and "internal" ailments. Doctors had few reliable tools to directly observe these ailments. After all, even the most basic test to "prove" that a blood stain was actually blood, wasn't developed until the mid-1930’s. As technology improved and definitive tests were developed, the number of miracles significantly slowed. Today, there are virtually no miracles to cure Tuberculosis. Then again, there are virtually no cases of Tuberculosis.
In the early 20th century, 1 out of every 170 Americans was so ill with Tuberculosis, that they needed to live in a sanitorium. Today, less than 1 in 200,000 Americans have any trace of Tuberculosis. Tens of millions of seekers went to Lourdes in search of a miracle cure for Tuberculosis, yet only a handful received that miracle. But if all Tuberculosis has been cured, maybe miracles are not all that rare? They might occur with amazing frequency... in hospitals.
Our image of a miracle is irrevocably set in Biblical times: Jesus healing lepers, making the lame walk, giving sight to the blind. These were incredible, impossible events. At the time. Only Jesus could cure a leper. Until today, when the treatment is just taking a pill.
One hundred years ago, many Americans were crippled by birth defects, polio, vitamin deficiencies, calcium deficiencies, and thousands of other diseases. Today, a lame child is a rarity. Science cured Polio. Returning sight to a cataracts victim doesn't even require a hospital stay. While it's beyond the healing powers of Lourdes, hospitals regularly reattach missing limbs. Cancer is treatable. Leukemia used to be nearly 100% fatal, now it is 57% survive, and getting better al the time. That's a lot better
than the 0.00001% cure rate at Lourdes.
Every year, thousands of people die on the operating table, or on the way to a hospital, and are brought back to life. A couple of thousand times every year, damaged hearts are cut out of patients and replaced with healthy hearts, returning the patient to the land of the living. No matter your belief system, that’s pretty miraculous.
The bar for 21st-century miracles is set very high. A child with a smartphone is able to make a call to anyone in the world, or they could have a talk with Siri, an artificial intelligence that mimics human behavior. Not long ago, these would have been high-level miracles. As would television, airplanes, DVD’s, computers, air conditioning, plastic, synthetic cloth and a multitude of other innovations that we take for granted.
Modern miracles are everywhere, but they're different from the old miracles. A miracle used to be supernatural, but today's miracles come from science. Our new miracles are reliable, more frequent and... unlike the supernatural kind... non-denominational. New miracles help believers and atheists alike and don't favor the faithful. Besides, with scientific kind, you don't need million to one odds to get a miracle!