Friday, September 12, 2008

The marvelous and the miraculous

In the first volume of Robertson Davies' The Deptford Trilogy, the narrator, the Canadian schoolmaster Dunstan Ramsay, visits the shrine of the Virgin of Guadeloupe in Mexico. As he sits at the side of the basilica observing the pilgrims who come to see the cloak with the miraculous image of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, he muses: "Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable fact? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real?"

As Ramsay suggests, our need for marvels would seem to be a very deep part of human nature, into which magicians and miracle-mongers play. But his last question implies that our taste for the marvelous is not all folly, and that we share a wise -- perhaps innate -- intuition that behind the humdrum of the everyday there is a mystery that is deep beyond our knowing.

The trick, I would suppose, is to wean ourselves from supposed miracles -- such as the image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe -- and learn to see the marvelous in the everyday. And, as a matter of fact, earlier in the novel a grizzled old Jesuit suggests just this to Ramsay. Life itself is too great a miracle, says Father Blazon, to make so much of a fuss about "potty little reversals" of the natural order.

The old Jesuit recognizes the bogus dualism of natural and supernatural. It is time to recognize that the life of the spirit and the life of the flesh are one, says Blazon. "Then perhaps we shall make some sense of this life of marvels, cruel circumstances, obscenities, and commonplaces."