Saturday, August 16, 2008

Los Pequeños Milagros

[Note: This was originally written in 2000 in response to some friends who accused me of being a "materialist" because I didn't agree with their views on spirituality.]

I've been thinking about miracles lately because of an interesting linguistic oddity. The Spanish word for miracle is "milagro", and in Mexican Spanish milagro also means gift or blessing.

The reason this makes me think is because I've noticed that you have to be very careful about miracles. Did you ever notice that those who perform them are very private about it and don't want word to get around? Jesus was always telling people not to tell what He'd done for them, but instead to repent and sin no more. There was a follower of Muhammad who tallied up a whole book's worth of tales of Muhammad's miracles - Muhammad made the believer hand over the book, which He promptly tore up and threw in a well, telling the believer that physical miracles had no meaning except for the person they happened to; the real, important miracles were the ones resulting from the power of the Holy Spirit on the individual soul. The physical stuff was just window-dressing for the ignorant and illiterate.

Jesus was also always telling His followers that miracles only had meaning for the individual they happened to, and meant absolutely nothing for anybody else. And Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl,an early Bahá'í scholar, wrote in his book Miracles and Metaphors (I'm paraphrasing, because I don't have access to the book at the moment): Sometimes what looks like a miracle isn't, and is in fact totally useless and meaningless. A person gets sick and calls a doctor. When the doctor arrives, the sick person asks, "Are you any good?" And the doctor says "Yes, and to prove it, I'm going to fly around the room." But how does flying around the room prove how good a doctor is at practicing healing? It doesn't - all it proves is that you're probably better off looking for another doctor.

I've been looking at some of the recent writing on miracles lately, and they all look a bit too much like the doctor flying around the room. People are being wowed by the flashy stuff, and totally missing the point. And really getting the true point is where the concept of "gift" comes in.

A classic example of people missing the true miracle because they got hung up on the physical manifestation is the old story of the loaves and fishes. Here you have all these people gathered on this big old hill, some of whom have travelled for days, to listen to Jesus give His best sermon - the Beatitudes, where He tells everybody that it's the small, and the oppressed, and the poor, who will inherit the earth. And afterwards there are all these people, and the disciples are worried about how all these people are going to be fed, because they're far from any town where they might go and buy some food from a food-stall in the marketplace.

Now the traditional interpretation of what happened next is a classic example of getting misled by appearances and missing the point. Because the traditional interpretation is that Jesus grabbed a passing group of fishermen and turned their collective lunch of 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread into a full meal with leftovers for 5,000 people. Excuse me???? Who are we watching here, Jesus or Doug Henning? C'mon, now! In the miracle business, making fish and bread expand is on the level of pulling a quarter out of the mark's ear, or forcing him to pick the card you want out of the deck. Any dime-a-dozen Nostradamus can pull a stunt like that!

No, here's the real miracle. You've got close to 5,000 people on this hillside. Roughly half of them have come out from the nearest town, and they've each brought along the equivalent of a picnic lunch. The other half are people who have come a long way to see Jesus and hear Him speak, and they have nothing with them at this point but the clothes on their backs. Now when the people from town see how things look when they get there, they put 2 and 2 together and figure they're gonna be called on to feed all these other people, so they surreptitiously slip the food under their robes and pretend they're as foodless as the others - it's their food; why should they have to share it with a bunch of dusty, smelly strangers? But in the course of talking to them, Jesus opens up their hearts, His words investing the power of the Holy Spirit on their souls, so that when the sermon is over and it's time to settle down and think about what to do for lunch, the people from town have been so opened up by the influence of the Holy Spirit laid on them by Jesus that they just naturally pull all that food out from under their robes and start divvying it up with the people around them. Meanwhile the Disciples have grabbed the fishermen and comandeered their lunch, and when they see all the food left over, they think Jesus pulled a fast one and passed His hands over the fish and the loaves and multiplied them. No, what Jesus did was far more meaningful than that - He opened the hearts of those people and taught them to share. That's far more meaningful than what amounts to a simple magic trick akin to pulling a rabbit out of a hat!

And that's the problem with miracles -we're too apt to be distracted and wowed by the big, flashy, physical stuff,and miss the little things that happen every day, los pequeños milagros, the little blessings, little gifts, little miracles. Down in Mexico, the Aztecs and Mixtecs and Zapatecas, etc. inhabited the land. They often wore lots of jewelry - carved jade, little molded or carved bits of gold or silver, or pieces of ceramic or stone - representing various gods and goddesses. When the Spanish came and conquered the land and forced the people to abandon their previous religions and accept Christianity, they confiscated all that jewelry and threw it away, and destroyed the temples and plowed them and their contents under the soil. Now, centuries later, these little bits of sacred jewelry pop up from beneath the ground - after a rain, while plowing, when digging a grave, etc. And now the people see them as little gifts, little blessings left by this Saint or that one, to be found unexpectedly and thus bless the life of the finder. Los pequeños milagros.

Our lives are full of these little blessings, little things we collect throughout the course of every day, which affect our lives in a small but significant way. Let the foolish be wowed by the big dramatic stuff. It's the little, undramatic things which mean the most and effect the most lasting change. Los pequeños milagros.

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