Bertram Coghill Alan Windle.

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the other laws we have been speaking of. But it is a law
in the spiritual world first of all and not, like the other laws,


first of all in the physical world. And that being the case, it
relates first of all to our spiritual nature as to which the
law is unvarying. It is in its secondary or natural aspect
that it seems to vary. Let us look at this a little more
closely. No one who studies revelation even in a cursory
manner can doubt that it teaches us that if we approach
our Maker in the way which He has laid down for us, we
shall receive an answer to our prayers, for it is by prayer
that we have been instructed to approach Him. Further,
it is a very remarkable thing that, apart from Revelation,
the instinct of prayer is found to exist in all races and in
all ages. It seems to be — can there be any doubt that it
is ? — a fundamental part of human nature as much as
any of the natural needs of food and sleep. It may be said
that there are many highly cultured persons who get on
without it. That this is so would certainly appear to be
the case, but it may at least be argued that as the body
can be made to do with very little food and dies if it is
entirely deprived of it, so the invisible soul, which is deprived
of its proper nutriment, may be in a very parlous condition
and one which would excite our sincerest sympathy were it
visible. This, however, is a subject for a treatise on Moral
Theology and is out of place here. There are two points
briefly to be considered.

Can prayer alter the ordinary course of nature ? Is it
any good praying for fine weather, for example ? What is
the nature of God's special dealings with natural phenomena
which we commonly ask for in prayer ? God's ordinary
co-operation is not enough, for this is essential quite apart
from prayer. Of His extraordinary or special providence
there would seem to be three possible explanations, which
can, of course, all operate together.

(i.) There is the significant fact that human wills can alter
and direct the operations of nature. No amount of meta-
physical quibbling or scientific theorising can alter our
intense conviction that we have an initiative of our own, a
power of controlling our actions.

So long as this fact of human freedom remains to baffle
psychologist and physiologist alike, it is absurd to seek an
impossible clarity concerning God's direction of nature.


Does it not seem clear that our scientific analysis of nature
is incomplete and imperfect ? And is not this proved by
the simple fact that science is utterly at a loss to account
or allow for Free Will and its operations ? This is the funda-
mental contention of Bergson's philosophy and, however
disputable the details of his theory may be, the widespread
popularity of his system is a sign that men are growing
tired of the narrow pretentious claims of a scientific scheme
which is baffled by the really vital factors of existence.
This being so, can we wonder that God's Will also eludes
our scientific scheme ? We must have patience. Science
is as yet in the go-cart. It cannot explain the free action
of men, much less those mysterious psychic phenomena
which (in spite of the opposition of science) have of recent
years come more and more into prominence. One thing is
certain : human minds provide centres of action, open
windows for God's light and influence. Just as our souls
can act on matter and yet somehow not break " natural
laws," so surely God can act on our souls and thus indirectly
influence the course of earthly events. Thus when we pray
for the conversion of a friend, it does not follow that our
request in any way involves an abrogation of the laws
known to science.

(ii.) It is a prejudice of mechanistic science to regard the
universe en bloc as a rigidly connected system. Were we to
interpret physics with minute literalness we should be
compelled to admit that a man taking off his hat in London
physically disturbs me writing here in Cork. Yet that is
literally what determinism amounts to : everything is deter-
mined by everything else. Further, the taking off of his
hat by the man in London was predetermined by the
peculiarities of the nebula of which this earth was originally
composed ; nor could he have acted otherwise than take it
off and thus incidentally and unknowingly produce a
physical disturbance in Cork and elsewhere, however
desirous he might have been of leaving his headgear undis-
turbed. Physics, like other domains of science, must be
accepted as a first clumsy approximation to reality. The
ordinary mathematical treatment of light, for instance,
always presupposes that the light -source has been shining


for all eternity ! The ordinary student, conscious that the
light has just been started in the laboratory, does not per-
ceive this assumption. But it is there nevertheless, and
similar artificial simplifications occur everywhere in science
for him who looks below the surface. The assumption
that the effect of every new event — whether it be the shuffling
of our feet or the switching on of the electric light — is pro-
pagated everywhere in space and upsets the universe, is
merely a na'ive interpretation which is unavoidable in the
present state of scientific methodology. In reality events
happen in causal chains. One set of events takes place
without the slightest influence on another set. In fact,
when two such disconnected streams of events cross, we
regard the occurrence as a fortuitous coincidence. When a
man is accidentally run over by a motor-car there is no
causal nexus between the histories of the motor-car and the
human being. The motor and the man, each moving on
its own course of action, happened to arrive at the same
point of space at the same instant of time. That is all.

If we now regard the physical world as a network of more
or less discontinuous causal threads, it is obvious that the
crossing or intertwining of such threads is not predetermined
by the threads themselves. The resultant pattern which
they weave is either due to what we call chance or else is
intelligently directed. Chance, however, is not an ultimate
explanation ; and inevitably our analysis travels back to
the initial conditions, i.e. unless Free Will intervenes. In
the case of intelligent beings, we can only say that choice
is the determinant. It was the man's free decision to cross
the road which brought him within the physical range of
the motor-car.

This discussion, however cursory, is sufficient to make
us realise that the world is by no means so rigidly pre-
determined as many enthusiastic votaries of science would
have us believe. There is room for free play ; chance
has a real objective significance, viz. the intercrossing of
independent causal chains, and is not a mere cloak for
ignorance. Not alone is a large part of natural occurrences
within our own control, but there is opportunity for God's
special direction of events without any contravention of


the laws of science. We cannot see far ahead ; for aught
we know, a small change of present plans may result in far-
reaching future consequences. And many present realities
were once frail possibilities hanging on slender causal
threads ; did not England's present mineral wealth and
insular position originate in some chance-formed hetero-
geneity in a nebula ? All these life-histories of countries
and individuals stand spread out to God's eternal gaze.
At each stage He sees the possibilities foreclosed or initiated ;
He influences development by the primal distribution in
the past and by direction and inspiration in the present.

(hi.) Laws are but the ordinary modes of God's action
laboriously inferred by us from slow and patient observation
of nature. To erect these laws into final boundaries of
thought is to deify our own puny discoveries. The question
as to whether breaches of these laws occur is entirely one
of patient investigation. That miracles do occur will be
shown later on. At present miracles are presented simply
as a third possible mode of God's answer to prayer.

It is only fair to admit that, with the advance of science,
men have become more chary in asking for miracles. When
meteorites, comets, animal monstrosities and such-like
were regarded as prodigies, when physical and chemical
phenomena were as yet vague and uncertain, it was but
natural for men to enlarge unduly the sphere of God's
miraculous intervention. It is worth noting, however,
that men were never so foolish and credulous as to pray for
the miracle of " a centaur." 1 They merely asked for God's
miraculous succour in circumstances where we should now
rely more on God's ordinary providence. It may be true
that nowadays the outbreak of pestilence sends men to
the drains ; but even apart from the question of miracles,
it would be well if it also sent them to the churches. 2

1 See p. 147.

2 For a very interesting and suggestive discussion of the subject of
prayer the reader may be referred to the Rev. Ronald Knox's little book
" Bread or Stone," published by the Society of SS. Peter and Paul,
London, 1915.


WE have now to pass to the consideration of the sub-
ject of Miracles, and with certain points in respect
to those occurrences we must now proceed to deal, referring
readers desirous of following the question further to the
various Catholic treatises on the subject. 1

First of all, what is a Miracle ? St. Thomas Aquinas says
that " miracles are effects wrought by the power of God
alone in things which have a natural tendency to a contrary
effect, or to a contrary way of producing it." And again,
" Those effects are rightly to be termed miracles which are
wrought by divine power apart from the order usually
observed in nature."

It takes place by the power of God : no doubt, but so do
all positive effects come about. That is true, but in the case
of the miracle the effect is one " which, considered in the
concrete with all its circumstances, is manifestly propor-
tioned to the Divine Power alone. ... By the words ' in
things which have a natural tendency to a contrary effect,
or to a contrary way of producing it,' St. Thomas implies
that the effect of a miracle is either something which in the
ordinary course of nature never happens, or something
which in the ordinary course of nature does not happen in
this way. Of the first kind is the raising of a dead man to
life again, of the second kind the cure of a very serious
disease by a simple command," 2 or, it may be added,

1 Those who desire to find the matter briefly but fully discussed may
be referred to the article " Miracles " in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, to
which the present writer acknowledges his indebtedness. The reader may
also be referred to Fr. Joyce's excellent little book " The Question of
Miracles," Manresa Press, London, 1914.

» Boedder, " Natural Theology," p. 414, 5.



suddenly instead of slowly as would be the normal
method of cure. Or again, it is defined by theologians
as Opus sensible, divinitus factum, insolitum, super-
natural ; a sensible, unusual, divine, and supernatural

It is sensible : appreciable by the senses, therefore does
not extend to matters like the creation of the human soul
or the Blessed Sacrament.

It is unusual : because it is opposed to the ordinary
course of nature.

It is divine : because it is the special work of God. We
hear and speak of the miracles of the Saints, but that is a
loose way of putting the matter. What is really meant is
a miracle worked by God at the intercession of or by the
instrumentality or ministrations of a Saint.

It is supernatural as well as divine : because it is not
one of those works of God, such as the creation of an in-
dividual soul which completes the natural existence of
corporeal things in the case of man.

At this point it may be well to take notice of the very
loose way in which the term " miracle " is used, not only in
common speech but even in what are supposed to be grave
discussions on this question. We are all accustomed to
hearing such and such an object spoken of as a " miracle
of beauty," or a " miracle of ingenuity," and we under-
stand such phrases in the sense in which they are meant,
namely, as very outstanding examples of beauty or in-
genuity. No real confusion arises here, but it may do so in
the case of what would be more properly called a " special
grace," though often loosely spoken of as a " miracle." A
very remarkable and a very sudden cure of a disease may
not be in any kind of way a miracle in the strict sense
of that word, yet it may be a very special grace and one
given in direct answer to prayer.

There is a further matter which may perhaps be noted
at this point and that is the curious frame of mind of many
outside the Church, yet sincere Christians according to
their lights, who, whilst accepting the miracles recounted
in the Bible, completely refuse to believe in any of a later
date than those of which we read in the Acts of the Apostles.


This frame of mind is perhaps rarer than it was a few
years ago. So also — and with thankfulness we may admit it
— is the often associated frame of mind which did not
hesitate to assert that Catholic ecclesiastics had invented
these stories, and disseminated them to delude the un-
fortunate dupes who formed their flocks. This dreadful
accusation, once common in the mouths of really respectable
persons, is now confined, so far as public utterance at any
rate is concerned, to individuals whose opinion on any
subject is worthy of but little attention. 1 Yet there are
others outside our body who in increasing numbers do not
hesitate to give in their adhesion to the truth of miracles
which were laughed to scorn but a few years ago, such as
the stigmata of St. Francis. We must distinguish from
those whose view about the matter in question in no way
differs from our own, those who, convinced by evidence
which it is admitted cannot be gainsaid, that St. Francis
really had the stigmata, explain the fact by " suggestion "
or " hysteria," or some solution making out the occurrence
to be purely natural in its character. As an example of the
former class, a recent writer 2 does not hesitate to say, " We
believe that it was Jesus Christ who gave St. Francis the
stigmata, because we are Christians. If we were not Chris-
tians, we might equally well attribute it to Allah, or to
Zeus, or to any conceivable agency — beneficent, malevolent,
or merely neutral — which may exist in the unknown
world that lies behind and beyond material phenomena."

1 A good example of the change of opinion in this direction may be
found in the treatment of the question in the book entitled " Medicine and
the Church [of England] — Being a Series of Studies on the Relationship
between the Practice of Medicine and the Church's Ministry to the Sick,"
London, Kegan Paul, iqio. In this inter alia are quoted the remarkable
utterances of the late Henry Butlin, an ex-President of the Royal College
of Surgeons, in which he rebukes those who would impute wilful deceit
to the clergy and others associated with the manifestations which take
place at Lourdes. See also " British Medical Journal " for June 18, 1910,
and " The Corner of Harley Street." Unquestionably the general attitude
of Christians outside the Catholic Church towards post- Apostolic miracles
is one of complete incredulity. This is the attitude, for example, of Colonel
Turton in his very interesting and valuable book " The Truth of Chris-
tianity," of which mention has already been made. See also " Medicine
and the Church," p. 202. To what this leads will appear in the course
of this chapter.

a The Rev. R. A. Knox, Fellow and Chaplain of Trinity College,
Oxford, in " Some Loose Stones," Longmans, 1914, p. 183.


These very striking changes of opinion are in large part
due to the remarkable occurrences associated with Lourdes
and elsewhere during late years, and the careful study which
has been devoted to them and, it may be added, to various
nervous conditions which cannot be left out of count when
we are investigating the truth of a given miracle. From
all this study certain very definite facts appear to emerge
which will be dealt with as occasion arises in this chapter
The first of these is that a number of very remarkable things
do occur at Lourdes and that they are honest occurrences —
not, as would have been asserted at one time, " faked " by
artful and designing clerics. Further that similar things
happen at other places under religious influences and that
all these things must be accounted for in some way or
another, since their occurrence can no longer be disputed
nor can they be summed up as frauds. How are they to be
accounted for ? The Catholic attitude is that they, or some
of them, are, or may be, those direct operations of Divine
Omnipotence which may properly be called miracles. " May
be " ; it is necessary to repeat and to accentuate these
words ; for nothing is more remarkable than the ignorance
of persons outside the Catholic Church as to the atti-
tude of that Church with regard to this very matter of

The common idea is that the Church is ready to claim any
triviality, one might even say any absurdity, as a miracle,
whereas the real truth is that when it comes to making a
pronouncement on such a matter — and how rarely is any
pronouncement made ! — the evidence required must be
overwhelming and conclusive. Further, it is commonly
believed that priests and bishops welcome the news of
supposed apparitions, such as that of Our Lady at Lourdes,
because of the vast sums of money which they expect will
follow to the favoured spot ; whereas nothing is clearer than
the fact that Bernadette and other seers have had to submit
to the most severe examination, not to say snubbing, on
the part of their ecclesiastical superiors before even a
mitigated credence was given to the occurrences which they
professed to have witnessed. The direct opposite to our
position is the strange and unphilosophical view that miracles


do not occur. 1 Such, it seems, was the attitude of Zola,
who visited Lourdes, made a study of what occurred there,
and then wrote what cannot be considered other than a
very dishonest book upon the subject. In the book in
question there is, for example, a character named La
Grivotte, who, it is generally admitted, was intended for a
real person still alive, or alive until recently, named Marie
Lebranchu. Marie Lebranchu was diagnosed as suffering
from an advanced condition of pulmonary tuberculosis and,
as far as the present writer is aware, the diagnosis has never
been disputed. She was cured at Lourdes, subsequently
married, became a widow and lived for many years — may
even be alive to-day — without any relapse, a sufficiently
remarkable cure to put it at its lowest. Now mark what
Zola makes of it. La Grivotte is permitted to be miracu-
lously cured at Lourdes, but on her return home relapses
and not long afterwards dies of the same disease. 2 There
is no doubt that Zola took the trouble, when writing the book,
to hunt up the prototype of La Grivotte, and that he found
her alive and well, as she remained for many years after the
novelist's dreadful end. When taxed by Dr. Boissarie — the
chief physician at Lourdes, who had been Zola's host at
that place and had given him every opportunity for making
a complete examination into the events taking place there,
with his treatment of this case — the novelist cried out in
tones of annoyance, " I suppose I am master of the persons
in my own books, and can let them live or die as I choose."
And then he added these words, " And besides, I don't
believe in miracles : even if all the sick in Lourdes were
cured in one moment I would not believe in them ! "

Midway between these two views is the view which would
perhaps be described by its holders as the " common-
sense attitude " of Hume and Huxley, men too philo-
sophically minded to adopt the attitude of Zola, yet far too
materialistic to credit anything of a supernatural character.

1 Some of the pages which follow have been taken, in large part
verbatim, from an article on this subject by the present writer which
appeared in the Jubilee Number of the " Catholic World," April, 1915.

2 See *' Lourdes," by J. J6rgensen, Longmans, Green & Co., 1914,
p. 179. Also R. H. Benson, " Lourdes," London, Herder, 1914-


This view may be roughly summed up as stating that
of course, if there be a God, there may be miracles, but that
the amount of evidence which would be required to establish
a miracle is so great that it is never likely to be reached and
certainly has never yet been reached. This attitude really
amounts to this : " I am so certain that there are no such
things as miracles, that I cannot conceive of such evidence
being brought before me as would convince me that I am
wrong in this conviction." Huxley in his work on Hume, 1
for example, discusses what amount of evidence would
induce him to believe that a live centaur had recently been
seen. If Johannes Muller, whom he describes as " the
greatest anatomist and physiologist among my contem-
poraries," 2 were to assert that he had seen a centaur,
Huxley admits he would have felt staggered and would have
suspended judgement. Nothing less, however, than a care-
ful monograph from a noted anatomist, with full descrip-
tion and plates, would suffice to make him believe in a
centaur. Mutato nomine, the Catholic would and will
thoroughly agree with Huxley, however much it might have
surprised that eminent man to hear it, with regard to
miracles. No Catholic would for a moment deny that the
most rigid and irrefragable proof should be, as it is, required
by the Church before any event is finally and definitely
declared to be miraculous. Hume's attitude to the question
is exhibited by the following well-known passage : " There
is not to be found in all history any miracle attested by a
sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned goodness,
education, and learning as to secure us against all delusion
in themselves ; of such undoubted integrity as to place
them beyond all suspicion of any design to deceive others ;
of such credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind as to
have a great deal to lose in case of their being detected in
any falsehood ; and at the same time attesting facts, per-
formed in the public manner, and in so celebrated a part of
the world, as to render the detection unavoidable : all
which circumstances are requisite to give us a full assurance
of the testimony of men."

1 Great Writers Series, New York, The Macmillan Co., 1881.

2 Who, by the way, was a Catholic. See his life published in " Twelve
Catholic Men of Science " by the Catholic Truth Society.


We may freely admit that with regard to a number of
" miracles " related by the earlier and less responsible
hagiologists — miracles on which the Church has never set
her seal — there is no real proof forthcoming, nor is any
likely to be produced. But much evidence of occurrences
claimed to be miraculous has been forthcoming, and has
been carefully sifted, since the time of Huxley, not to say
that of Hume ; and it would be difficult to show that some
at least of this evidence does not comply with Hume's re-
quirements. The result of all this has been to cause the
sceptic to shift his ground and, instead of denying, as
Hume would have done, the occurrence of the events, to
state that they occur but are not miraculous. In this, as
in other matters, we have to come back to human testi-
mony. The solipsist denies any importance to anything
not appreciated by his own sense, and thus commits in-
tellectual suicide. The world at large judges otherwise,
and it would be difficult to find more water-tight evidence
than is available in connection with certain modern occur-
rences claimed to be miracles, explain them how we may.
It is not too much to say that evidence equally strong, but
in another direction, would certainly send the most re-
spected of the Archbishops of Canterbury to the gallows
for murder.

If miraculous occurrences take place, they must be
explained. Our explanation is well known : some of them
are miracles, some of them are, at least, very special graces.
The other explanation is that they are the result of " sugges-
tion." Suggestion no doubt may and perhaps does account

Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 14 of 38)