miracle An act often seen as caused by divine intervention. The word miracle comes from the Latin term miraculum, which comes from mirari, or “to wonder.” Miracles are “wonderful things.” There is no one, all-encompassing definition of a miracle; rather, the meaning of what is miraculous is shaded by perspective and worldview. There are differences between Western and Eastern ideas of what constitutes a miracle and what distinguishes a miracle from Magic.
To most Westerners, a miracle is an event that has no natural explanation according to the known laws of science and nature. Without a natural explanation, miracles then can only be possible by divine intervention: the reaching out of the hand of God.
Miracles play an important role in Judaism and Christianity. Both religions trace their origins to events viewed as both historical and miraculous: the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt in Judaism, and the Resurrection of Jesus in Christianity. Of all the great religions, Christianity, especially in the Catholic tradition, has developed the most systematic account of miracles.
In the Judeo-Christian traditions, miracles are seen especially as acts of God that signal his presence in the world and Demonstrate his covenant with humanity. As creator of the world, it is expected that God will intervene in it when it suits his purpose.
There is no Hebrew word equivalent to miracle. The Old Testament tells many stories of “signs and wonders” by which God reveals his intentions. A pagan perspective on such signs and wonders would be as OMENS appearing in the natural world that are in need of Divination by skilled priests. In the Old Testament, God’s signs and wonders are almost all public events that are witnessed by many and are executed directly by God or by certain prophets of great holiness.
The most important wonder-worker of the Old Testament is Moses. God speaks to him initially through a burning bush. The book of Exodus, the liberation of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt, is full of magical acts called miracles performed by Moses and also his brother Aaron. They turn their staffs into snakes to defeat the magicians of the pharaoh. They turn the waters of the Nile into blood. Moses brings on plagues to force the pharaoh to set his people free. In the exodus he parts the waters of the Red Sea.
Perhaps most dramatic is the miracle of the revelation of the Ten Commandments directly to Moses on Mount Sinai, amid a formidable display of the elements. The people are awestruck by thunder, lightning, smoke, fire, and blasts of a divine trumpet. Moses speaks, and God answers him in thunder.
Other Old Testament prophets also are wonder-workers acting under the instructions of God. Joshua is instrumental in bringing down the walls of Jericho. On another occasion—a battle—he causes hailstones to rain down on the enemies and causes the Sun and the Moon to stand still. Elijah multiplies food and restores a dead child to life. Elisha cheats death and ascends directly to heaven.
In the New Testament, the central wonder-worker is Jesus, born of a miraculous virgin conception, who performs public and personal miracles. Among them are numerous healings by word and touch and also the casting out of DemonS. At a gathering of 5,000 people, he multiplies a small amount of fishes and loaves of bread to feed to the entire crowd. He walks on water and shows his disciple Peter how to do it; Peter’s fear causes him to sink. Jesus turns water into wine and raises the dead. Lazarus has been dead three days when Jesus calls him forth from his tomb. The greatest miracle of Jesus is his resurrection from the dead by God and his ascent into heaven.
Jesus performed his miracles to Demonstrate the power of God in the world and also to show that this power flows through all of us if we but have the faith to accept it and use it. “According to your faith, be it done to you,” he is quoted in Matthew 9:29. And “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do,” he is quoted in John 14:12.
Following his resurrection, his apostles take up wonderworking as a way of spreading the gospel. The masses, however, do not take the mantle from them. The role of wonder-working is left to the holy.
Both Judaism and Christianity have strong traditions of miracles performed by persons of holiness. In Judaism, rabbis, sages, rebbes (itinerant preachers), and other pious persons perform miracles as a the result of leading righteous lives. In Catholic Christianity, saints are the primary wonder-workers—they are able to perform their miracles because of their purity and holiness. Saints act as intercessor figures who form a bridge between humanity and the awesomeness of God. Their relics—their body parts, clothing, and personal belongings—as well as objects that come into contact with relics become imbued with a mediating power for the manifestation of miracles. More about the miracles of saints will be explored in the next chapter.
Protestantism rejects the community of saints but allows for miracles to be performed both by God and certain persons whose holiness enables them to channel the power of God: evangelists, preachers, and spiritual healers.
Western religions accept the idea of a natural order of things and the laws of nature, which are considered the work of God; they hold that God can suspend or otherwise intervene in the natural order. Miracles always have a religious purpose. The New Testament miracles are presented as providing a divine sanction of the person and message of Christ. This stress on the meaning of the miracle sets the Judeo-Christian concept of miracle apart from miracle stories in other religious traditions. Miracles occur not because they can but because God manifests them specifically for the purpose of teaching and Demonstration.
To someone from the Eastern part of the world, miracles are seen differently. They are part of the natural and magical world—simply part of the way things are. The gods of Hinduism do perform miracles as a way of intervening in the affairs of people. The most significant of these is Krishna, an avatar (incarnation) of the creator god Vishnu who descends into human form to battle the forces of chaos. His miracles have the twofold purpose of maintaining the right order of things and inspiring human faith and devotion. He successfully battles Demons and lifts a mountain aloft for seven days and nights.
Like Jesus, Buddha had a miraculous birth: he entered his mother in a dream in which her belly was pierced by a sacred elephant. Inside he had a special enclosure that protected him from the taint of flesh, and he emerged from his mother’s right side possessing full memory and knowledge. Seven days later, his mother died.
Buddha develops miraculous abilities in the course of his spiritual development. These are considered a natural part of the spiritualization process. As he instructs his disciples, miracles are not to be performed for vanity or gain or for their own sake. To do so is to show that you are still attached to the material world.
In Eastern traditions, stories abound of holy persons who perform miracles similar to those of Western saints and holy ones.
Miracles through Yoga
The way of yoga enables a person to become godlike. Most Westerners are familiar with only one school of yoga, hatha yoga which features breathing techniques and body stretches and postures. Yoga is much more complex and consists of different schools of practices that involve meditation, mental disciplines, and the training of consciousness to experience union with the Absolute. Along the way, one naturally acquires miraculous abilities and powers. The Eastern adept strives to get past them. Miraculous abilities are distractions on the path to union with the Absolute.
Miraculous powers are called siddhi in Sanskrit, which means “perfect abilities” and “miraculous powers.” According to the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, the siddhi include such abilities as: Clairvoyance (the ability to know the mental states of others); knowledge of one’s previous lives; Levitation; miraculous transport (covering great distances in an instant); knowledge of and control over all bodily functions; shrinking and expanding the body; rendering one’s self and other things invisible; projecting one’s consciousness out-of-body; projecting one’s consciousness into another body; possessing superhuman strength; knowledge of all languages; knowledge of the sounds of animals; and knowledge of the moment when one will die.
The Buddhist traditions of yoga are similar. The extraordinary powers are called iddhi in Pali, meaning “wondrous gifts.” The iddhi are the eight powers of mastery over the body and nature: invincibility, invisibility, fleetness in running, ability to see the gods, control over spirits and Demons, the ability to fly, the preservation of youth, and the ability to make certain pills (such as for immortality).
The development of the iddhi is not considered harmful, but it is not encouraged, either. The iddhi are potential pitfalls that will turn the student away from the path to enlightenment. Attitudes toward iddhi have varied among schools of Buddhism. Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, forbade the use and display of iddhi, especially to people who were not initiates. The same powers are possible through the use of magic—the manipulation of natural forces—and thus might not be a true Demonstration of spiritual transformation. Some schools of Buddhism have continued that tradition.
One of the most famous Adepts of Tibetan Buddhism was Milarepa, who lived from 1052 to 1135. According to tradition, Milarepa learned black magical arts and then renounced them in favor of a spiritual path. He undertook intense training in yoga and developed the iddhi. He was witnessed flying. He traveled out-of-body at will not only anywhere on Earth but also to other planes and worlds where he would hold discussions with spiritual masters. He could shape-shift into a flame, a bird, or a running stream. Others wanted him to teach the powers to use them for material gain, but Milarepa stayed focused on his spiritual teachings.
Another adept is Sathya Sai Baba of India, who is regarded as a living avatar, an incarnation of God. His siddhi feats have attracted a huge following of devotees around the world. Sai Baba is renowned for his healing; materializations of precious gems, jewelry, devotional objects, and even hot foods and liquids; bilocation; mystical transport, or teleportation; Levitation; precognition; and luminous phenomena.
Born in 1926, he began to exhibit miraculous gifts in his teens after being stung by a black scorpion. He lapsed into a coma for several hours and awoke a different person. On May 23, 1940, shortly after the scorpion incident, he left school and announced to his family that he was the reborn Sai Baba. Sai is a Muslim term for “saint,” and Baba is a Hindi term of respect for “father.” The original Sai Baba had been a middle class Brahmin fakir of the turn of the century, who had settled in Shirdi, about 120 miles northeast of Bombay, and had produced astounding miracles. Now reborn, he materialized for his parents flowers, sugar candy, and rice cooked in milk, all with a wave of his hand.
Although he quickly attracted devotees, not everyone loved him, and some denounced him as a fraud. miracle 197 For decades, Sai Baba has used his miraculous abilities and has not been detected of fraud, even when studied by Western psychical researchers, albeit on a restricted basis.
Sai Baba materializes huge quantities of vibuti, holy ash made from burnt cow dung, which is smeared on the body; foods and liquids; religious statues and objects made of gold; precious jewelry; photographs; business cards; even stamps bearing his likeness that have not been officially issued by the government. He reportedly fills empty bowls with hot, steaming Indian food of most unusual flavors and produces enough to feed hundreds of people at a time. He opens his fist and drops sticky sweets into the palms of others; yet his own hands are dry. He also produces amrith, a honeylike substance. He has reached into sand and pulled out food free of sand. He has plucked apples, pomegranates, mangoes, and other fruits from a tamarind tree. All nonfood objects materialized are bright, fresh, and new. Jewelry includes valuable precious gems. Rings requested by followers fit them perfectly; if a person does not like a particular ring, Sai Baba takes it back and changes it instantly. Business cards bearing his name appear to be freshly printed. Many objects are inscribed with his name.
In his earlier days, he frequently fell into sudden, often convulsive, trances that lasted as long as one-and-a-half days and during which his body would be very cold to the touch. His explanation was that he had been called to another, often distant, location to help people in distress or illness. In these other locations he reportedly appeared as if in the flesh. If he had gone out of body to heal, he sometimes would return showing symptoms of the illness.
People who prayed to him for healing reported miraculous recoveries and sometimes said that he visited them in their dreams or came to their bedside.
In one reported instance during a trance, Sai Baba levitated. While in the air, the sole of his right foot split open, and an estimated two kilograms of vibuti poured out. In another trance incident he opened his mouth and out fell vibuti and golden plates that were a half-inch in width.
Sai Baba also appeared to teleport himself up a hill, disappearing at its base and appearing at the top of the hill within seconds. From the hilltop, he would produce luminosities so brilliant and blinding that others had to shade their eyes. Some witnesses collapsed from the brightness.
Other phenomena attributed to him include: the instant changing of the color of his loose robes; his appearance in the dreams of others, seemingly in answer to needs; weather control; unusual smells, often produced at a distance; the appearance of vibuti and amrith on pictures of him and on his apports; psychic surgery; the changing of water into gasoline and into other beverages; mind reading; and clairvoyance. Some of those who touched him experienced a mild electrical shock. During his early days, he forbade photographs and films to be taken of him. Those who attempted to do so surreptitiously found their film to be blank when developed.
Sai Baba is called a miracle worker, but in another era he might well have been called a magician or a magus.
Islam and the Sufi Tradition
Islam, which evolved from Christianity, has both Western and Eastern views about miracles. Islam acknowledges miracles as signs of the presence and the action of Allah in the world. The prophet Muhammad refused to perform them, however, reminding his followers that all things that were being made by Allah are signs of His power and goodness. Nonetheless, miracle stories are recounted of Sufi holy men, and some of the orders are known for extraordinary achievements, such as swallowing coals. Sufi saints perform miracles as a way of teaching people about spirituality. Some masters reject miracles as magical acts or tricks and teach that true mystics pursue a higher path.
Miracles in Other Traditions
In pantheistic religions, the divine is not separate from the world of nature. Magical or miraculous events are part of the broad spectrum of things that exist in the natural world. Access to that part of the natural world requires special skill or training, such as in shamanism. The shaman learns how to alter consciousness so as to perform miraculous tasks like those performed by saints and holy persons in other spiritual traditions.
The shaman has the power to see spirits and souls and to communicate with them—to know the language of other creatures. He is able to take magical mystical flights to the heavens where he can serve as intermediary between the gods and his people; he can descend to the underworld to the land of the dead. The flights are done by Shapeshifting, by riding mythical horses or the spirits of sacrificed horses, by traveling in spirit boats, and the like.
The shaman’s primary function is to heal and to restore the individual’s connectedness to the universe. Shamans make no distinction among body, mind, and spirit; they are all part of the whole. Another important function is control of the Elements, especially the ability to make rain, for the life of the community may depend upon it. Shamans also prophesy.
Miracles versus Magic
Magic is an art or process that can produce the same things as miracles. Few people, however, consider magic to be an act of God or a grace of God. Miracles are perceived as happening when they need to, at God’s discretion. Magic is performed by humans to bend the laws of nature according to their own WILL.
The difference between miracles and magic often is a matter of perspective. In the Bible the supernatural feats performed by the prophets are miracles, but when the same feats are done by those who worship other gods these actions are called magic. In the stories, the miracles of God always triumph over the magic of the heathen gods.
Moses and Aaron follow God’s instructions to “perform all the wonders” that he has empowered them to do before the pharaoh to persuade the ruler to release the Israelites. Exodus tells how Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a snake. The pharaoh summons his wise men and sorcerers. “They also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs.” (Exodus 7:11–12)
The simplest definition of magic is that it is the art of effecting change with the help of higher forces. Higher forces can include spirit beings, such as Angels; intercessory figures such as saints; God; goddess; and a host of personifications of the godhead represented by various deities. Higher forces also include the inner powers within us as well: intuition; guidance from the Higher Self; WILL and determination; the creative power of IMAGINATION, THOUGHT and belief; and the power of love, which brings everything into balance.
Miracles and magic are facets of the movement of cosmic power. Personal, cultural, and religious beliefs provide unique and subjective frameworks for relating to this power. Attitudes shift with time. For example, 19th-century cultural anthropologists tended to classify all claims of miraculous events under the heading of magic.
Modern Personal Views of Miracles
In modern Western culture, miracles have acquired a wider popular definition than found in religious thought. A miracle is any unlikely, unusual, or unexplained event that has a significant impact on life. They do not need to happen on a grand scale, such as the parting of the Red Sea by Moses. Miracles can happen quietly and be intensely personal. In fact, most modern miracles are likely to be personal and not public. Most involve healing—any PRAYER service or circle receives more prayers for miraculous healing than any other situation. A personal miracle occurs any time life takes an unexpected turn and a crisis or disaster is avoided, or fortunes suddenly improve in unforseen ways.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. A Miracle in Your Pocket. London: Thorsons/HarperCollins, 2001.
- Miller, Carolyn. Creating Miracles: Understanding the Experience of Divine Intervention. Tiburon, Calif.: HJ Kramer, 1995.
- Woodward, Kenneth L. The Book of Miracles. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.