I asked Justin a variety of questions, mostly revolving around his search for faith, how he feels about miracles, and the trouble that Americans have with faith because of their stubborn pragmatism. He wrote this piece just for us in response.
I am very happy to offer this guest post today. I am also grateful for the review of My Cousin the Saint that was posted here on October 17. Not only because the reviewer enjoyed the book (always a plus for the writer!), but also because of the obvious care and precision that went into writing it. Thank you.Please feel free to consider this subject or anything else you want to ask Justin, in the comments box below.
So let's jump into the deep end here. I've had the opportunity to talk with a variety of groups over the last several months about my book, and invariably, someone asks: do you believe in miracles? Several years ago before I began the process of learning just who this canonized cousin of mine truly was, before I returned to church in an attempt to ignite the Catholic faith I was born into I would have said, "No, I don't think so." I would have answered the question that way because I had never given it much thought.
But I've thought a lot about miracles over the last several years. I interviewed Vatican priests in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints about the church's definition of miracles and just what it takes to declare one. I listened to story after story from my Italian relatives, whose belief in St. Gaetano is deep and unrelenting, who are certain he has blessed them, and answered prayers. I spent a morning with an extraordinary peasant woman in a remote Calabrian village who was the recipient of the miracle that led to St. Gaetano's canonization on Oct. 23, 2005. In all these cases, I have been moved and fascinated by the depths of faith and the belief in the supernatural that I have witnessed. Please keep in mind: I am a newspaper journalist. I am skeptical by profession. I am not easily persuaded. Yet with each conversation, with each moment of reflection on what I was hearing, I found myself letting go, ever so slightly, of my ever-present doubts.
But not entirely. In Part II of my book, I write about my older brother Alan who was stricken with inoperable cancer in 2004. For months, my mother, and my brother, prayed for a miracle from our family saint. It was really Alan's only hope. When he died, I was left with the thought that those prayers went unheard, and that having a saint in the family was of little tangible value when we needed him the most.
I see that response now as formed mostly through grief. I have come to believe that the cause-and-effect notion of prayer-and-miracles is too rigid. A certain rigidity might be necessary for the Vatican when determining who among us gets to be recognized in the communion of saints, but it excludes a host of remarkable, joyous, momentous and comforting things that happen in our lives that are simply inexplicable. As a journalist, I ask questions and expect answers. But I am coming to see that faith simply doesn't work that way. Faith is hard. Faith is frustrating. Faith defies answers. So, too, do miracles.
A couple of summers ago, I asked an Italian doctor if he believed in miracles. He had given a patient of his up for dead after she lapsed into a coma with a particularly deadly case of bacterial meningitis. His professional training told him he was making the right decision. But the woman recovered, there was no medical explanation, and her healing was deemed a miracle by the Vatican. The doctor's answer to my question?
"Miracles are simply incredible, and the fact that they are incredible make them impossible to rationalize," he told me. "There is a line that is incredible and unexplainable, and when you cross it, there is nothing else left but faith." Regarding his patient, when she left the hospital as healthy as if she had never been sick, his faith provided him with the answer to how she was cured: it was a miracle.
I have since grown to admire that kind of faith, not sneer at it, or try to undermine it with my pragmatism and journalistic instincts. For a long-lapsed Catholic and professional skeptic, that's progress. Sometimes I even manage to think that some things that happen in my life (like the continued love of my wife of 24 years, like the sheer pleasure we derive from being parents of three extraordinary daughters, like getting the opportunity to introduce America to a little-known Italian saint!) might actually be genuine blessings from above.
Yet if I still can't quite bring myself to say I believe in miracles, I don't have any doubts about this: a departed Italian priest, a lovely and loving man who occupies an honored place in heaven as well as in my own family tree, has led me to an incredible extended family in Italy and brought me closer than I ever thought I'd come to genuine faith and all that it entails. That's not a miracle. It's simply the truth
We'll have an autographed copy of the book to raffle for those who comment so don't be shy! Speak up!
Justin got tied up today and can't drop in to answer questions as originally planned. However, he'll have them up in a day or two at his blog ... and I will have a link as soon as he does that!
In the meantime keep the questions coming. I'm not putting off the book giveaway for one thing, and that way you are sure he'll see your questions!