…a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Pearls were clutched throughout the magic world when Penn and Teller began showing audiences how tricks were done. This gambit didn’t ruin everything because, counterintuitively, when audiences saw what was really happening, they were as amazed by the reality as by the illusion.
I believe that miracles work mostly in the same way: God allows us to see the depth behind the everyday existence of which we usually see only the surface. And the reality is more astonishing than the illusion.
And it came about when the LORD was about to take up Elijah by a whirlwind to heaven…Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken from you.’ And Elisha said, ‘Please, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.’ He said, ‘You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.’ As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. Elisha saw it and cried out, ‘My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw Elijah no more. —2 Kings 2:6-12
Elijah told Elisha that he would become his spiritual heir if he saw him—the clear implication being that Elisha might well not have seen a chariot and horses of fire come to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. If Elijah would have been taken up that way whether Elisha saw it or not, the miracle is not in the occurrence, but in the seeing. Like Penn and Teller, God allowed Elisha to see the way it was actually done.
So when we read some pious legend about a friar surprising Saint Francis at his prayers and finding him levitating or whatnot, the relevant question is not ‘what actually happened?’ but ‘what did the informant actually experience, and what does it mean that they experienced it?’ The spiritual reality is always active behind the visible reality; a miracle is when we’re allowed to peek behind the curtain.
And what we can actually see every day is pretty miraculous. In E.B. White’s beloved Charlotte’s Web, Dr. Dorian gives Mrs. Arable his take on the “miraculous” writing in the spider’s web.
‘I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.’
The web is White’s symbol for the miraculous within the everyday. But what exactly is a ‘symbol’? Well, the word symbol comes from two Greek words meaning ‘thrown together.’
Imagine two friends about to part ways. They might break an animal bone with each of them keeping one half as a symbol of the other. In other words, the symbol you hold in your hand is only half of a reality, the other half of which is elsewhere—and the two halves symbolically throw the two of you together.
I think the phenomenal world is sown with symbols of the spiritual world–effulgences of the hidden reality that burst forth into the visible one. Why else should there be music? Or flowers? Notwithstanding all the valid evolutionary explanations about bees and pollination, I believe the amazing blue of delphiniums is here for us because God just couldn’t resist. And the other half of that symbol is with God, and can throw us together with God if we let it.
(I believe this is also why the word translated as “miracle” in John’s gospel is semioi—“signs”—rather than dynamai—’deeds of power’ as in the synoptic gospels.)
So we needn’t be on the watch for something overtly extraordinary. A spider’s web or bird’s nest, photosynthesis, azaleas, and the wonders of the human brain—we can explain them all to an extent, but we can never explain them away. ‘Tha knew how to build a nest afore tha wast born,’ said Dickon in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. And no amount of valid explanation can rob that knowledge of its miraculousness.
The Zen master Hakuin said, ‘Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away. We are like one who, in the midst of water, cries out in thirst so piteously; we are like the children of a rich man who wandered away among the poor.’ We miss the miracles because we are looking for magic. The web itself is a miracle.