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Getting this whole "miracles" thing in perspective

Posted by BrianC

Dear all,

The following is a reprint of a story I wrote about four years ago and which was previously published on this discussion board a couple of years ago. It is of a personal experience I had concerning so-called "miracles" at a shrine here in Western Australia. My personal position on this question of miracles is that (a) I do believe God does intervene in human affairs in extraordinary ways but (b) I do not believe he does so in any ways that defy the laws of his own creation. My own viewpoint was largely formed through the experience related in this story as well as many years of reflection on unsatisfied requests for Divine assistance and reflections on the Book of Job. I believe this whole matter of miracles has become a big distraction, particularly in the educated, affluent, socially sophisticated Western world, to what the core objective of our faith ought to be really all about.

I had an experience years ago that might help those who are having difficulty understanding where I am coming from in understanding our communication difficulties to younger people today. Here in Perth there is a Marian Shrine at Bullsbrook where some of these miraculous-type events are reputed to have taken place.

I first visited this Shrine back in the 1980s when I lived in Melbourne and I had returned for a holiday to Perth with my family in January. My 88-year-old Dad passionately believes in the healing powers of the waters from Bullsbrook and every few months or so I still drive him up there with a great carton of empty milk containers and plastic cool drink bottles and he religiously fills them up and we bring them back to Perth. Every day he religiously drinks half a glass of this water and before Mum died he religiously used to get her to drink half a glass of the same water each day. (Mum died still not being a believer but out of her tremendous loyalty to and respect for Dad used to say the Rosary with him probably two or three times a week and she'd drink this water for him.) He also gives half the bottles of the stuff we collect away to his mates and geriatric girlfriends at the Hostel where he lives. I even have to confess I actually have a couple of bottles here and can tell you it is some of the nicest tasting water to be found in Perth. I think that "stuff" (do you know what that word means here?) is important for someone like my father. My kids though think this is behaviour from the far reaches of another planet and I certainly do not have the level of faith that my father does that this water is going to cure me of any illnesses or keep illness or sin at bay. Can you understand that at the same time I can respect his belief even though I happen to believe it is quasi-superstitious or possibly, in this case, actually superstitious?

In one sense the foregoing is a digression from the story I set out to tell but it will serve to perhaps get us to the end point more quickly. When I returned to Perth all those years ago the whole Bullsbrook phenomenon was still quite new. One weekday my Dad and an Uncle of mine persuaded me to drive them up to Bullsbrook. It was probably the first time I went up there on this water-gathering mission or pilgrimage.

Obviously they were enthusiastic to tell me all about the wonderful things that had been happening at Bullsbrook. And indeed I was eager to learn. The whole thing is really impressive: an enormous Church has been built there and a separate new shrine in the last few years. There is now this great line of taps and on some weekends hundreds of people front up there for the pilgrimages run by the SACRI Association and they have to queue up to fill their water bottles. If you go up there on any day of the week there is this steady stream of people pulling into the carpark and filling up water bottles from the taps connected to an underground spring. The whole endeavour has the blessing of the Archbishop and the Bishop and they encourage this devotion and lead pilgrimages up there on a number of occasion through the year or say the Sunday Mass at the Shrine.

When I went up there first though with my father and uncle the Church was still being built and the really "miraculous" events were still being talked about everyday in Catholic circles in Perth. After we'd visited the Chapel and walked around a bit they took me down to the area beside a small stream or creek under some gum trees where the whole phenomenon was reputed to have started -- if memory serves me correctly by a member of the Italian family who owned the land.

It was possibly 12.30 or 1.00pm in the afternoon. Standing down in this quite pleasant little picnic area (I wouldn't call it a grotto in the strict meaning of that word but that is the name some people give it) I can remember my uncle rabbiting on explaining all about what was supposed to have happened. He was saying how when the people said the Rosary down in the Grotto and looked up at the sun through the gum leaves the sun started to dance. I sort of casually looked up at the sun through the gum leaves while he was saying this and, if you'll excuse a line from the Vicar of Dibley, bugger me, the sun started to dance around in the sky for me too. I literally mean it. This was something pretty phenomenal -- at least as awe-inspiring as the experience I had had many years before when I used an illegal substance and did inhale!!! This was an experience to literally "blow you away". The sun literally was dancing in the sky and the whole effect was mesmerising.

Naturally I was absolutely intrigued by what I had experienced because, if you haven't already detected, like St Thomas Aquinas I am sceptical that God actually breaks the laws of Physics. (Physics is my formal discipline of learning.) For the first time in my life I was seeming to experience a phenomenon that did defy the laws of Physics and the sun was moving in an irregular pattern in the sky. (Can you remember the day this happened and the headlines that it received in the papers in the Eastern States? Only joking -- of course it didn't make the papers in the Eastern States or in Perth on that day.)

I was torn between what I was actually experiencing and my continuing scepticism for what my uncle was rabbiting on about. Some ten or fifteen minutes later we had left the grotto-type area and we were walking back across this newly surfaced car park to our car in the far corner from where we were. This car park was then brand new it had probably only been finished a week or two before with a fine coating of blue metal which, in the hot summer sun, appeared almost blazingly white. It was as though we were walking on an enormous sheet of white paper. The glare was intense. After a minute or so of this I began to notice two funny brown splodges that were flickering across the surface of the car park as we walked. They just seemed to flick about in a really random way. Very hard to describe. I asked my Dad and Uncle if they could see them and they didn't have the foggiest of what I was talking about. They also hadn't experienced the sun dancing. Meanwhile my uncle who, God bless him, is like this at the best of times, was still rabbiting on like a non-stop dictaphone about all this miraculous stuff. And just at about this point he said something like: "...and after they'd been down in the grotto saying the Rosary and watching the sun dance in the sky they'd look up at the spire on the Church and it would be glowing in gold, and their Rosary Beads would change colour too."

At the moment he said the word spire I naturally glanced up towards the spire and, bugger me again, as I looked up at the Cross on the Spire of the Church IT WAS GLOWING IN A SORT OF GOLDEN LUSTRE.

It was at this point that the penny dropped in my mind as to what had happened to me. When I was down in the grotto and looked up at the sun the reason why the sun appeared to dance in the sky is that my eye's went into an auto-reflex protection mode to prevent the retinas being damaged. You should never look directly at the sun, even through the gum leaves as I was doing. It only takes a fraction of a second and the lens of your eye focuses the sun rays on your retina and starts to literally cook them. - just like a kid making a piece of paper smoke with a magnifying glass. To protect themselves the eyes go into a sort of automatic fribulation to spread the damage that is happening in the retina. Your eyes literally dance in your head to protect themselves and to all intents and purposes you literally feel as though the sun is appearing to dance in the sky. It does not take any sophisticated medical science or physics to work out what is going on.

Walking back across the carpark the two brown splodges I saw flickering across the surface of the car park was an optical illusion caused by the areas that had been burned in each of my retinas. When I looked up at the cross on the spire as my uncle said it of course the cross appeared to glow gold. My retinas had been burned a golden-brown by the sun in their most sensitive part and everything I look at directly appeared to take on a golden hue. With your peripheral vision the cross appears to have its normal colour but as you really focus on it and the central part of your retina comes into play the cross literally seems to change colour and glow gold. Similarly if you look down at your rosary beads.

Unlike the Australian Skeptics Society, I do not believe my experience proves that miracles are a fake and that all similar phenomenon can be explained away by a bit of elementary physics or medical science. There are many things I do not know the answers to and would not be game to write an entertaining little story about like I have this one. I won't go into those other debates here. Instead just come back and focus on the story I have just told.

Here I was with my Dad and my Uncle. My Dad left school at the age of 13. He only ever obtained a primary education. Even today he has this enormously rich faith. His brother, my uncle, standing there with him was always called the "brains" in the family because before the war he had actually got to Junior Standard in his education (the equivalent of Year 10 today). Think of the poor Italian immigrant who first discovered this phenomenon of the sun dancing in the sky at Bullsbrook. He probably hadn't even had the education that my Dad had had. (Despite his lack of an education my father did go on to become a very successful hotelkeeper and businessman in Western Australia and could certainly count money in a mathematically correct way.) But I had studied Physics at University level. Although I had been initially hoodwinked by what was happening it did not take long for my brain to work out what had actually been happening from a logical and scientific perspective. For a person without access to the knowledge I had of course phenomenon like these appear to be "miraculous". You look up at the sun while saying the Rosary and it starts dancing in the sky what other conclusion could you be expected to come to than that God or Our Lady has turned on a special little show for you?

I am not trying to prove I am more clever than my Dad. There are many phenomenon that I've read about and experienced in my life which I cannot give you explanations for. I don't know how they occur. Like my Dad though concerning this Bullsbrook experience, just because I don't know how they occur cannot lead me, ipso facto, to the conclusion that God has broken any of the laws of science or of nature to bring them about. Yet, and this is the difficult theological and philosophical question, if there is a God is it not unreasonable to conclude that when he caused that original uneducated Italian labourer to look up through the gum leaves and to see the sun dancing that this was a "supernatural sign" within his (the Italian's) frame of reference? Or, to use another example, my Dad's? In a sense to both of them it is an event that occurs without any plausible explanation within their realm of experience or reason. As such are they not entitled to classify it as a miracle? Who is to say that my version of reality is any more valid than theirs is -- or does this lead us into the difficult territory of relative vs absolute truth that PJPII constantly warns us about?

At a higher level, if I was walking through a similar experience with the likes of an Albert Einstein, he and I might come across something happening which I could not explain but to Einstein might have a perfectly feasible explanation from his far deeper knowledge of Quantum Mechanics or the Theory of Relativity than myself. To me this new experience might be classifiable as a "miracle" but to Einstein it would just be another interesting example of the Laws of Physics at work.

What I am arguing in all of this is that the Church sometimes runs around giving a whole lot of credence and reverence to phenomenon that to older members of the population, or those who do not think in a scientific paradigm, seem miraculous. We tend to speak of these things in reverential tones -- I know my Dad does this. Literally he believes it is the work of Our Lady manifesting itself in a very tangible and direct way when he comes across these things. There is as it were a "real presence" in what he is talking about. I don't experience the same thing in the way he does and my kids even less so. My kids think more like me. To them all this reverence that has grown up around the phenomenon going on at Bullsbrook is actually bizarre and superstitious. Within their, and my frame of reference, I have no more reason to believe there is a special intervention of God or the BVM going on at Bullsbrook than is going on at St Mary's Cathedral, in my own parish Church or when I say my prayers at home.

Do you understand what I am trying to get across when I say we have to be able to explain what is going on at Bullsbrook so that, at one and the same time, it is comprehensible to my Dad and it is comprehensible to my children? We have to use one style and form of language when discussing it with the likes of my Dad and the thousands of people like him who hold Bullsbrook as a very Holy or at least special place. We have to respect their reverence and their frame of reference but, without being paternalistic or condescending, the Church also has to educate them, that the sun dancing in the sky and the glowing Rosary beads are not necessarily proof of God's existence or his works. This can all be thought through at another level of faith also. With people like my kids, and probably about 95% of the 3,500 or so who graduate from Catholic secondary colleges in Perth each year we have to be discussing all this sort of stuff at an enormously more sophisticated level but, at the same time, getting them to respect that my Dad, and the Italian peasant labourer, can't cope with life at my kid's level of comprehension so their level of understanding also has to be respected.

Can you see the challenge that this provides to the Church? When she tries to speak publicly in sophisticated language to the "young things" those who are like my Dad tend to get a bit upset. This is "the sky is falling in territory" here's the priest or bishop trying to belittle the idea that Mary is really present at Bullsbrook. On the other hand if the priest or bishop speaks in language which is reassuring to my Dad (e.g. yes there ARE miracles occurring at Bullsbrook and they are the work of the BVM and you should stand up firmly against anyone who says otherwise) the likes of my children, and the overwhelming majority of their mates simply "roll their eyes into the back of their heads and forget to turn up again next Sunday". Isn't that what has been going on for 30-40 years for a significant part of the population in a community like ours? (Not over Bullsbrook silly – I am only using Bullsbrook as an example of a whole class of similar "stuff".)

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