Tag Archives: plague

17 July, Review: Something nobody can explain.

The Catholic Guide to Miracles: Separating the: Adam Blai

Fifteen minutes walk from my home in England is a gallery in stained glass of healings at the tomb of  Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral. Many miracle stories can still be traced there, almost 500 years since the martyr’s shrine was destroyed under Henry VIII. 

In 2020 a shrine was reinstated in Saint Thomas’s Catholic church, a hundred yards away, but I have not yet heard of any miracles there. On the other hand, there have been occasions when each of my children came close enough to accidental death for me to be immediately and eternally grateful to God for their preservation. Divine intervention? It felt like it!

This is a review of Adam Blai: The Catholic Guide to Miracles – Separating the Authentic from the Counterfeit. Manchester New Hampshire, SOPHIA INSTITUTE PRESS, 2012.

So what is a miracle? Adam Blai starts with Thomas Aquinas’s definition: ‘a true miracle is something that has a cause that is absolutely hidden from everyone, and that nobody, no matter how knowledgeable, can explain’. (p 2) Creation was the first miracle, the Universe made out of nothing. 

Adam Blai takes us through Old Testament Miracles: for example, the healing miracles brought about through the prayer of Elisha and Elijah before him, each restoring to life the son of a woman benefactor. Strangely though, Blai does not acknowledge that many of the Plagues of Egypt have plausibly been ascribed to natural causes.

It is the New Testament that tells of the greatest miracle:

And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. (1 Cor. 15:14) 

In the years before the cross and resurrection, Christ performed many miracles, miracles that Blai tells us ‘were proofs beyond His words of who He was’ (p13). Those who see the Church’s preaching as empty will explain them away, and many of the healings at Thomas’s shrine could now be attributed to natural causes. The Church is well aware of this, which is why so few – 60 or 70 – healings at Lourdes in 260 years have been verified as miraculous, a minute proportion of the pilgrims who visit in hope of healing. Blai, like the Church herself, is not naive in the face of healing miracles, but he points out that they are the miracles most open to investigation and so are resorted to in the process of canonisation of saints.

There are, of course, other miracles – he cites the appearances of Mary through the ages, and the healings and other phenomena that people other than the visionaries themselves have witnessed. There are also apparently supernatural events recorded around certain saints: stigmata, levitation, bodily incorruption, and miracles deriving from the Eucharistic elements. Although many such stories were reverently told in my Catholic school, a more mature faith leaves them open to question. Adam Blai accepts God’s interventions but he would not build his faith on these accounts. 

In fact Blai is at pains to point out that there are counterfeit miracles. Discerning the difference between supernatural miracles, counterfeits brought about by demons, and mental illness is an important part of his work for the Church (p129); for example, once correctly diagnosed the mentally ill person may be led to accept appropriate help. Yet there are those whose delusions are deep-rooted but also have the charisma to attract others to what becomes a dangerous cult.

Counterfeit, charismatic faith healers are another dangerous group who use people’s fascination – or gullibility – around miracles to line their own pockets, dividing families in the process. 

A greater concern for Blai in his work, if not for the average believer who may live a lifetime without coming across such people, is demonic possession and fake miracles. A devil cannot produce a real miracle, but can set up counterfeits, and during exorcism may cry out in protest at being evicted.

I knew someone who was using a ouija board which went silent when, unknown to her, the local priest called on her parents; another young woman was greatly distressed to be told that her boyfriend was soon to die horribly in a road accident. The spirit that may be conjured up in such seances cannot be relied on to be truthful, as I told her; the accident did not happen, but the distress was real and hurtful. The reader will find a full exposé of the ouija board in this volume.

If miracles and the supernatural interest you, this book will give substance to your enquiries. It’s important not to get carried away by miracles that add nothing to the revelation of God’s love for all women and men in Christ Jesus. See them as a new expression of his love, for one person or for many, often for a limited time, like the miracles at Becket’s tomb in Canterbury.

I was glad to read this wise paragraph from Adam Blai’s conclusion (p164).

Real miracles are proofs of God, but we cannot build a faith based only on them. We need a living relationship with God through His Church. The main vehicles of grace are the Word of God and the sacraments, instituted by Christ. The center and goal of Christian faith is a living relationship with Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.

MMB

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10 July: Going viral LXXXIII, PPE and bad science.

Mrs Turnstone was talking about a neighbour who cannot visit elderly friends because her partner refuses to take the Covid-19 vaccine in any form, yet they are the products of good science and hygienic manufacturing.

The picture above shows a 17th Century plague doctor in full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). It was not realised that the black rats around his feet were beset with fleas which passed the plague onto humans. The Doctor was well protected against airborne diseases, not against fleas. Note the poppies at hand to prepare opiate drugs, still very much in use today.

Another disease that was thought to come from bad air was the ague, a Northern European strain of mal – aria, that is bad – air. 150 years after the plague doctor appeared in Canterbury (you can see him on the mural in the subway by St George’s and the bus station), WIlliam Hutton wrote An History of Birmingham (1783). He attributed the absence of ague to the air of Birmingham, which stands on red sandstone, a free-draining rock. Hutton wrote:

Thus eminently situated, the sun can exercise his full powers of exhalation. The foundation upon which this mistress of the arts is erected, is one solid mass of dry reddish sand. The vapours that rise from the earth are the great promoters of disease; but here, instead of the moisture ascending to the prejudice of the inhabitant, the contrary is evident; for the water descends through the pores of the sand, so that even our very cellars are habitable. This accounts for the almost total extinction of the ague among us:–During a residence of thirty years, I have never seen one person afflicted with it, though, by the opportunities of office, I have frequently visited the repositories of the sick.

Thus peculiarly favoured, this happy spot, enjoys four of the greatest benefits that can attend human existence–water, air, the sun, and a situation free from damps.

Like tropical malaria, the ague depends on mosquitoes to spread among humans. Mosquitoes need still water to breathe, perhaps especially drainage ditches and ponds, less and less common in what was becoming a major built up area. And there was plenty of pollution in the air from factories great and small burning coal, but still Hutton was jumping to conclusions.

. . . . .

We have much to be grateful for. Thirteen years after Hutton’s history, Edward Jenner gave the first cowpox vaccination, which would eventually lead to the abolition of smallpox, and inspired so much progress in public health. Now to get at the covid virus around the world!

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9 March, Gates II: Kampala’s Gate of Heaven, 1934.

Yersinia pestis, the plague bacteria

We have been living with the covid pandemic for more than a year but treatments are on the horizon. In 1934, before antibiotics were set to work in medicine, the Pneumonic Plague was ravaging Uganda. This appeal by Fr Arthur Hughes, M.Afr appeared in The Tablet, 10 February 1934.

By miracles of temporal healing Our Lord frequently awakened yearnings for eternal remedies: is it, then, surprising that our hospital should be for many the anteroom to the Baptistery and the Gate of Heaven? Generously sacrificing many other cherished projects, the mission has concentrated on the establishment of a very satisfactory and properly equipped hospital, where in circumstances of hygienic perfection and comfort pagans and Muslims, as well as our own Christians, receive medical attention and the services of trained nurses … the hospital is absolutely necessary to the spiritual welfare of the mission. Were we deprived of it, we would risk losing many souls as well as many lives … 

I write this in the room occupied by Father Wolters, who, only last September, returned from administering the Sacraments to five plague-stricken members of the same family, and died of the plague within two days*…Yet our own hospital can neither be recognized nor maintained without the permanent services of a doctor. At present the sisters urgently need £120 per annum for this purpose. So far an Indian doctor comes regularly, although he has not yet been paid … here is a necessity real, urgent, concerning the glory of God, the salvation of souls, the preservation of life, the care and comfort of suffering being very dear to us in the heart of Christ. Dare we hope? 

Illness was certainly the Gate of Heaven for Fr Wolters, though he received no miracle cure from his plague. But Fr Hughes was thinking more of patients and relatives who would hear the Gospel, in perhaps a new way, when faced with serious illness or potentially dangerous surgery. It can concentrate the mind if you know you might not wake up from the anaesthetic: Prepare to meet thy God! A motto good for any and every day, but a crisis can indeed concentrate the mind.

There is also the experience of skilled, loving nursing care which, of course, can also be administered by Muslim, Hindu or Atheist. Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found, as we will sing in person or in our hearts, on Maundy Thursday. Let us pray for those who have been putting their lives and well-being at risk in caring for others, and for those who cannot obtain life-saving medicines or vaccines.

The Missionaries of Africa still work in Uganda. You can support them this Lent by sending completed cheques, postal orders and gift aid forms to the following address: The Superior Missionaries of Africa 15 Corfton Road London W5 2HP …

* One of the patients was sick in his face. Fr Wolters came home, sorted his affairs, and prepared himself for death.

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2 March: Saint Chad

St Chad, window by Christopher Whall and photo by Junho Jung. At V&A, London.

Chad, as patron, unites Lichfield Anglican Diocese and the Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham. He was the first Bishop of Lichfield in Mercia, the Kingdom of the English Midlands. He died on this day in 672. It is fitting to remember him more widely this year, as he died of a plague, having received a heavenly warning that his death was near.

Bishop Chad’s nature was to go everywhere on foot – again a parallel with our own times – but Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury ordered him to ride on horseback for long journeys. His diocese covered much of England so to visit all of it made a horse a tool of the Good News rather than a symbol of his status as bishop. 

We pray that the work of vaccination may go ahead safely and surely in Lichfield Cathedral, and we pray too for the discernment to know when we should walk, not ride a short journey, and so help to protect God’s earth and our home.

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June 1: Heart I, Pharaoh’s hard heart.

Someone would have reminded me that June is the month of the Sacred Heart, beloved of Christina, who is much more eloquent on the subject than I could be. My evangelical acquaintances would frown on the devotion as unbiblical, so I wondered, what does the Bible say about the heart?

Unsurprisingly, there are hundreds of references to heart in the Bible. For example, the Book of Exodus, during the story of the Plagues of Egypt, keeps on coming back to the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. You could see this as a chorus device, keeping listeners alert when they have to come in on cue: But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Wait a minute though: Is the Bible saying God influenced Pharaoh on purpose to make him obstinate and unjust? Is that a god I want to believe in?

Dig out my commentary, which tells me that the editors who gave us the accepted version of Exodus were inspired by the idea that the Lord God is the Creator of all things, as Genesis makes clear. It follows that God created Pharaoh, that hard-hearted man. And it’s plainly said that after the seventh plague, that of storms, Pharaoh ‘sinned yet again and hardened his heart, he and his servants (9.34).

I think today we would be more careful not to attribute evil to our Creator God, but we do have to face the fact that there is evil in the world, and that it has its insidious effect on our thoughts, words and actions: we too can be selfish and hard-hearted.

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