Friday, September 10, 2010

Miraculum

If this blog has a theme, it is this: Maintaining one's sense of the miraculous in a world without miracles.

Funny word, "miracle." The dictionary has as its primary definition "marvelous event due to some supernatural agency," which is how most people understand the word. To be canonized a saint, for example, one must be credited with three interventions (from the beyond) that cannot be explained by natural means. The agent of the intervention is God, who sets aside the laws of nature at the request of the saint, in answer to an earthly petition. The history of religions is pretty much a history of miracles in this sense, of a deity's interventions in the world. Never mind that for the skeptic not a single one of these supposed transgressions of the natural course of events stands up to scrutiny.

Enough! Let's don't beat that dead horse. Let those who want miracles in the supernatural sense have them.

It is the second dictionary definition that concerns me here: "remarkable occurrence." The word "miracle" derives from the Latin for "wonder." And that has been my goal in life: learning to stand astonished. Astonished at the ordinary. The commonplace. The everyday.

Carved into the pediment over the doorway of the Physics Building at UCLA when I was a graduate student there were words of Michael Faraday: "Nothing is too wonderful to be true." By which I take him to mean "miracles in the first sense don't happen." One could equally reverse the words: "Nothing is too true to be wonderful." The meaning is more or less the same, but now the difficulty is more apparent: How do we maintain a sense of wonder in the face of the commonplace? How do we learn to see the most ordinary of events shot through with mystery?

Many years ago, before I started writing for the Boston Globe, I had a column in the college newspaper called "Under a Skeptical Star." The phrase came from a line of the Scots poet/scholar William MacNeile Dixon: "If there be a skeptical star I was born under it, yet I have lived all my days in complete astonishment." Let others have their miracles in the first, supernatural sense. To my dying hour I will struggle to keep alive my sense of astonishment at the "remarkable occurrence " of the ordinary.