‘The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the miraculous also.’ Perhaps Dostoyevsky was on to something… why does the world find it so hard to believe in miracles?
Miracles and the miraculous come hand in hand with being Catholic. I grew up draped in miraculous medals, believing in miraculous cures. Einstein reckoned there are two ways to live a life: One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. I lean towards the latter. And my miracles have all been pretty minor, in the grand scheme of things, but happen they have and happen they do, even if I sometimes take them for granted.
I was reminded of this lately when working on a translation from the Polish – a beautiful book with photographs by Janusz Rosikon and text by Grzegorz Górny. I’ve known Janusz since 2007 and have had the pleasure of working on a number of titles with him. I’m a great fan of his photography, an admirer of his faith, and while we might agree to disagree on politics, I have a lot of time for him and what he does. I met Grzegorz for the first time a couple of weeks ago and was suitably impressed. It’s easy to see why they work so well together – both similar yet different, complementary yet individual – a good team. And it’s always nice to meet the voice behind the words, particularly when those words actually say something.
In Witnesses to Mystery, the pair delve deep into the relics of Jesus Christ, asking the time-old question that every believer and non-believer alike must have asked themselves at one stage – Are they real? Could they be real? They travelled the world over, discovering along the way that these relics were attracting attention not just from Christian pilgrims but also from academics: historians, archaeologists, philologists, anthropologists, palaeographers, chemists, physicists, anatomists…all curious to prove one way or another whether the relics on display in various churches from Krakow to Rome are genuine.
Relics were two a penny in the Middle Ages when myriad fakes were sold to those who needed something to believe in. And as the author wonders – Does not the presence of numerous forgeries, however, suggest the existence of an original? Are mass reproductions evidence of attempts at imitating a genuine relic? The term simulacrum in postmodernist use indicates a copy without an original. Could Christ’s relics be regarded as simulacra, as reproductions of things that don’t exist? Or are they in fact real objects, with which Jesus of Nazareth once had contact? – hundreds of thousands of believers regularly turn out to see relics on display around the world and the faith of millions is vested in touching something that Jesus Himself is thought to have touched. The Shroud of Turin is on my bucket list and I still remember the feeling I had when I got to touch Padre Pio’s glove. I’m a believer.
I have long debates with two friends in particular about religion: one is a scientist, the other a realist; neither lay claim to having faith in a god. And the argument always falls back on me saying ‘I don’t need to know; it’s enough to believe.’ For many this is a cop-out and to each their own. I believe in God – a God independent of any man-made religion – and He and I have a good thing going. It works for me.
So perhaps, in my case, the boys were preaching to the choir – I didn’t need much convincing. And although I knew about the Shroud of Turin, and the Longinus Spear, and the Veil of Manoppello, I found myself turning each page with a growing interest in what the scientists discovered when they ran their tests, a mounting curiosity about what the various expert investigative teams found when they crunched their numbers. And as one chapter led seamlessly into another, I became more and more convinced that faith is about believing. That some things are beyond explanation. And that just because we can’t explain them, that doesn’t mean they are any less real.
It’s a beautiful book that transcends belief and asks questions that sometimes cannot be answered. The photographs are stunning, the text insightful, and the overall effect leaves a lasting impression.
This week, after relocating my ‘office’ temporarily to Croatia, I’m grateful that not alone can I work from anywhere with an Internet connection, what I do is interesting and varied. I get to work my own hours, to travel, to meet people like Janusz and Grzegorz and to work on projects like Witnesses. And it pays the bills! Now, if that’s not a minor miracle…
Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52