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Travel : Miracle in Lebanon

Travel : Miracle in Lebanon
In one of the northern suburbs of Beirut there stands an ugly little Armenian church, to which, in the ordinary course of events, no tourist would ever dream of going. But in this month of May, 1954, the course of events had not been ordinary. The sight we had come to see was a miracle.



Miracle in Lebanon


            In one of the northern suburbs of Beirut there stands an ugly little Armenian church, to which, in the ordinary course of events, no tourist would ever dream of going. But in this month of May, 1954, the course of events had not been ordinary. The sight we had come to see was a miracle.

            It had happened two or three days before. In the niche where, between services, the communion chalice was kept, a patch of light had appeared on the stone. There was no sunbeam to account for it, no indication, so we were assured, that the stone contained any phosphorescent or fluorescent substance. And yet the fact remained that, for the last few days, a soft glow had appeared every morning, persisted all day and faded out at night. For the Armenians, I suppose, the miracle clearly demonstrated how right their fathers had been to reject the competing orthodoxies of Rome and Byzantium in favor of the doctrine that, after his baptism (but not before), Christ's flesh consisted of ethereal fire and "was not subject to the ordinary phenomena of digestion, secretions and evacuations." For the rest of us, it was either a hoax, or an ordinary event in an unusual context, or else one of those delightful anomalies which distress the right-thinking scientist by actually turning up, every now and then, in all their mysterious pointlessness, and refusing to be explained away.

            The church, when we arrived, was thronged, I was going to say, with pilgrims - but the word (at least in this present age of unfaith and, therefore, religious earnestness) calls up ideas of devotion; and of devotion, or even of decorum, there were no signs. But if these people were no pilgrims, in our non-Chaucerian sense of the term, neither were they mere sightseers. Curiosity was certainly one of their motives, but not, it was clear, the only or strongest one. What had brought most of them to the church was a form of self-interest. They had come there, as the forty-niners came to California, in search of sudden profit - a horde of spiritual prospectors looking for nuggets of mana, veins of twenty-two-carat good luck, something, in a word, for nothing.

            Something for nothing - but, concretely, what? When crowds close in on a movie star, they can beg autographs, steal handkerchiefs and fountain pens, tear off pieces of his or her garments as relics. Similarly, in the Middle Ages persons dying in the odor of sanctity ran the risk, when their bodies lay in state, of being stripped naked or even dismembered by the faithful. Clothing would be cut to ribbons, ears cropped, hair pulled out, toes and fingers amputated, nipples snipped off and carried home as amulets. But here, unfortunately, there was no corpse; there was only light, and light is intangible. You cannot slice off an inch of the spectrum and put it in your pocket. The people who had come to exploit this Comstock Lode of the miraculous found themselves painfully frustrated; there was nothing here that they could take away with them. For all practical purposes, the glow in the niche was immaterial. Then, happily for all concerned, a young woman noticed that, for some reason or other, one of the chandeliers, suspended from the ceiling of the church, was wet. Drops of rather dirty water were slowly forming and, at lengthening intervals, falling. Nobody supposed that there was anything supernatural about the phenomenon; but at least it was taking place in a supernatural context. Moreover the water on the chandelier possessed one immense advantage over the light in the niche: it was tangible as well as merely visible. A boy was hoisted onto the shoulders of a tall man. Handkerchiefs were passed up to him, moistened in the oozings of the lamp and then returned to their owners, made happy now by the possession of a charged fetish, capable, no doubt, of curing minor ailments, restoring lost potency and mediating prayers for success in love or business.

            But "the search for the miraculous" (to use Ouspensky's phrase) is not invariably motived by self-interest. There are people who love truth for its own sake and are ready, like the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, to seek it at the bottom of even the muddiest, smelliest wells. Much more widespread than the love of truth is the appetite for marvels, the love of the Phony an sich, in itself and for its own sweet sake. There is also a curious psychological derangement, a kind of neurosis, sometimes mild, sometimes severe, which might be called "The Cryptogram-Secret Society Syndrome." What fun to be an initiate! How delicious to feel the paranoid glow which accompanies the consciousness of belonging to the innermost circle, of being one of the superior and privileged few who know, for example, that all history, past, present and future, is written into the stones of the Great Pyramid; that Jesus, like Madame Blavatsky, spent seven years in Tibet; that Bacon wrote all the works of Shakespeare and never died, merely vanished, to reappear a century later as the Comte de Saint-Germain, who is still living either (as Mrs. Annie Besant was convinced) in a Central European castle, or else, more probably, in a cave, with a large party of Lemurians, near the top of Mount Shasta; alternatively, that Bacon did die and was buried, not (needless to say) in what the vulgar regard as his tomb, but at Williamsburg, Virginia, or, better still, on an island off the coast of California, near Santa Barbara. To be privy to such secrets is a high, rare privilege, a distinction equivalent to that of being Mr. Rockefeller or a Knight of the Garter.

            Esoteric phantasies about Fourth Dynasty monuments, sixteenth-century lawyers and eighteenth-century adventurers are harmless. But when practical politicians and power seekers go in for esotericism, the results are apt to be dangerous. Whether Fascist or revolutionary, every conspiratorial group has its quota of men and women afflicted by the Cryptogram-Secret Society Syndrome. Nor is this all. The intelligence services of every government are largely staffed by persons who (in happier circumstances or if their temperament were a little different), would be inoffensively engaged in hunting for Tibetan Masters, proving that the English are the Lost Ten Tribes, celebrating Black Masses or (the favorite occupation of Charles Williams's more eccentric characters) intoning the Tetragrammaton backwards. If these neurotics could be content to play the cloak-and-dagger game according to the rules of patriotism, all would be, relatively speaking, well. But the history of espionage demonstrates very clearly that many compulsive esotericists are not content to belong to only one Secret Society. To intensify their strange fun, they surreptitiously work for the enemy as well as their own gang, and end, in a delirium of duplicity, by doublecrossing everyone. The born secret agent, the man who positively enjoys spying, can never, because he is a neurotic, be relied upon. It may well be that a nation's actual security is in inverse ratio to the size of its security forces. The greater the number of its secret agents and hush-hush men, the more chances there are of betrayal.

            But let us get back to our miracle. "What do you think of it?" I asked our Lebanese companion. He stroked his black beard, he smiled, he shrugged his shoulders in expressive silence. Being himself a professional thaumaturge - trained by the dervishes to lie on beds of nails, to go into catalepsy, to perform feats of telepathy, to send people into hypnotic trance by simply touching a point on the neck or back - he knew how hard a man must work if he would acquire even the most trifling of paranormal powers. His skepticism in regard to amateur wonder-workers and spontaneous miracles was complete and unshakable.

            A queue had formed at the foot of the altar steps. We got into line and shuffled slowly forward to get our peep, in due course, into the niche. That I personally saw nothing was the fault, not of the chalice, but of my own poor eyesight. To my companions and everyone else the glow was manifest. It was an Armenian miracle; but even Maronites, even Uniats, even Moslems and Druses had to admit that something had happened.

            We made our way toward the door. Perched on the tall man's shoulders, the boy was still busy at his task of turning handkerchiefs into relics. In the sacristy picture postcards of the chalice and the illuminated niche were already on sale.

            In Edward Conze's admirable account of Buddhism* there is a striking passage on the historical, and perhaps psychologically inevitable relationship between spirituality and superstition, between the highest form of religion and the lowest. "Historically," Conze notes, "the display of supernatural powers and the working of miracles were among the most potent causes of the conversion of tribes and individuals to Buddhism." Even the most "refined and intellectual" of Buddhists "would be inclined to think that a belief in miracles is indispensable to the survival of any spiritual life. In Europe, from the eighteenth century onwards, the conviction that spiritual forces can act on material events has given way to a belief in the inexorable rule of natural law. The result is that the experience of the spiritual has become more and more inaccessible to modern society. No known religion has become mature without embracing both the spiritual and the magical. If it rejects the spiritual, religion becomes a mere weapon to dominate the world. . . Such was the case in Nazism and in modern Japan. If, however, religion rejects the magical side of life, it cuts itself off from the living forces of the world to such an extent that it cannot bring even the spiritual side of man to maturity." Buddhism (like Christianity in its heyday) has combined "lofty metaphysics with adherence to the most commonly accepted superstitions of mankind. The Prajnaparamita text tells us that 'perfect wisdom can be attained only by the complete and total extinction of self-interest.' And yet, in the same texts, this supreme spiritual wisdom is 'recommended as a sort of magical talisman or lucky amulet.'. . . Among all the paradoxes with which the history of Buddhism presents us this combination of spiritual negation of self-interest with magical subservience to self-interest is perhaps one of the most striking."

           The same paradox is to be found in Christianity. The mystical spirituality of the fourteenth century had as its background and context the system of ideas which called into existence such men as Chaucer's Pardoner and the preacher who, in the Decameron, tours the country exhibiting a tail feather of the Holy Ghost. Or consider the flowering, three centuries later, of French spirituality in Charles de Condren and Olier, in Lallemant and Surin and Mme. de Chantal. These worshipers in spirit of a God who is Spirit were contemporary with and, in Surin's case, deeply involved in the most hideous manifestations of devil-centered superstition. White sand is clean, but sterile. If you want a herbaceous border, you must mulch your soil with dead leaves and, if possible, dig in a load of dung. Shall we ever see, in religion, the equivalent of hydroponics - spiritual flowers growing, without benefit of excrement or decay, in a solution of pure love and understanding? I devoutly hope so, but, alas, have my doubts. Like dirtless farming, dirtless spirituality is likely to remain, for a long time, an exception. The rule will be dirt and plenty of it. Occult dirt, bringing forth, as usual, a few mystical flowers and a whole crop of magicians, priests and fanatics. Anti-occult dirt - the dirt of ideological and technological superstition - in which personal frustrations grow like toadstools in the dark thickets of political tyranny. Or else (and this will be the ultimate horror) a mixture of both kinds of dirt, fertile in such monstrosities as mediumistic commissars, clairvoyant engineers, NKVD's and FBI's equipped with ESP as well as walky-talkies and concealed microphones.

(From "Miracle in Lebanon," Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow)


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