How to perform miracles

Propter incredulitatem vestram, “because of your unbelief.” This is why, Christ patiently explained to his disciples, they were unable to cure the little boy of epilepsy. “If you will have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, Move: from here, to there. And it will move.” But then, on the little matter of demon removal, He explains nonchalantly: “This kind is cast out by prayer and fasting.”

Mad, totally mad, I can remember once thinking. And if He hadn’t just cured the little boy, no one would have taken him seriously.

A fortnight ago, NASA released the sharpest pictures yet of the Andromeda Galaxy, only a few hundred kiloparsecs away: the nearest spiral to our native Milky Way. Four hundred and some high-resolution snapshots from the Hubble telescope were assembled in a mosaic presenting nearly one-third of Andromeda — from part of its galactic bulge at the left, to the outskirts of the disc at the right. About one hundred million stars are in the frame, a representative sample of the brightest. (What can you expect with less than two billion pixels?) Gentle reader is invited to go look, on the Internet. I especially like the dark passages: the intricate “dust lanes” that reveal structure, within structure, within structure.

Children love to ask how many stars there are, and tend to press until you tell them, “Forget it, kid.” We cannot even count the galaxies: perhaps half a trillion? Not that galaxies are the only things we see. But this is large, and travelling around the speed of light, only to the next galaxy, we would need about two-and-a-half million years. “No need to hurry,” I once told a dear little boy. “We’re going to collide with it in another four billion. You’re young yet, you have to be patient.”

Now, all of this exploded from a single cosmic egg, infinitesimally smaller than any grain of mustard seed. Or rather, that is the most plausible current account, consistent with what we can measure. Again, I refer to that Hubble mosaic for some context. (And wonder what could explode from a cosmic egg the size of the full grain.)

No human brain can possibly wrap around this; the nearest I’ve seen come is that of Saint Thomas Aquinas who, as gentle reader may know, signed off on trying to describe what had been shown him, saying, “All that I have written now appears as so much straw.”

Straw: blowing from the tomb of Lazarus.

The older I grow, the less I know; but the better I understand that Christ was not exaggerating.


Domine, salva nos, perimus. The little fishing boat, awash in the tempest, and Christ is sleeping through the whole thing. With these words the fishermen awoke him: “Lord, save us, we are perishing.” To which Jesus yawned, “O ye of little faith,” then rose and calmed the sea: Tunc surgens, imperavit ventis, et mari, et facta est tranquillitas magna. (Everything is better in Latin.)

I haven’t met anyone else who could do this; I would have remembered if I had. There have been saints, however, who have performed miracles. The explanation is obvious: it would be their great faith. In moments I have imagined how it might be possible; in dreams I have even hovered above the ground. In waking life, I have not faith enough to make the pot pour me another cup of tea. This is inept, and I confess it.

We are constrained within the various mechanical “laws,” I would suggest, only because of our bad living. We are right to feel a certain frustration with them; wrong not even to try busting out, from this abject condition of slavery. But what it will take is not an organized rebellion.

Sanctity alone can lift us out of this place; sanctity alone by Grace, in faith receiving — it is the only way out. In this, it seems, we may begin to see, that in a perfect faith would be a perfect freedom.