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In science-fiction and “action” movies, one has to suspend disbelief.  No one can hop hundreds of feet between multi-storied buildings, let alone loop over city streets like Spiderman, hobnob with dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or survive those devastating computer-generated explosions or spectacular crashes of planes and automobiles.  To enjoy such movies we are ready to put our reason on hold and to suspend disbelief.  To accept miracles we must likewise suspend disbelief.  The difference is that we know movies’ special effects are illusions.  People who believe in miracles think they really happened.

France’s favorite teenage saint firmly believed in the miraculous voices and visions she experienced.  She incarnated credulity, like so many others in the 15th century and in the centuries before and after the brief saga that was her life.  “Miracles” were commonplace and a vital element in Christian faith as well as the economy in medieval Europe : a brisk trade in Saints’ relics brought pilgrims flocking to cities’ cathedrals (bringing business to their market-places), hoping for the miraculous cures so many other believers had supposedly experienced.

Joan of Arc was special, as was the message of the voices she heard.  The illiterate peasant girl led the Dauphin’s army to victory over the English and assured his coronation as King of France.  In Luc Besson’s 1999 movie she is portrayed as a bipolar mystic caught up in a whirlwind drama that would end with her being burned at the stake and, five hundred years later, though it was the Church which had condemned her to death, with her canonization.  Whatever about the historical liberties Besson took in telling her story, the tragic figure of Joan comes across as a mentally deranged charismatic whose faith and conviction captivated the oppressed French and inspired them to resistance and to victory.  She has become the symbol of French nationalism.

Throughout the diabolically engineered fiasco of her “trial” by Bishops, nobody questioned the possibility of her miraculously hearing voices from God.  None of her accusers doubted that such voices were possible; they questioned only the fact of her having really heard them.  Today Catholics do not doubt that miracles happen.  Confronted with the claim of a divine intervention, Church authorities systematically examine the “facts” and are wary of both fraud and illusion.  But they are quite prepared to suspend their disbelief and decree that at Lourdes a pilgrim has been miraculously cured of cancer or that at Fatima the Sun stood still (or course it did; it always does), or that after His Resurrection from the dead (!), Jesus ascended physically into Heaven, to be followed later by His Mother who, lacking His power, needed to be hoisted into Heaven in what is called her Assumption.  People know that things like that simply cannot happen.  But many are quite prepared to suspend their disbelief.

The Gospels tell us that Thomas, the sceptical Apostle, dared to doubt.  Jesus famously “proved” to him that He had truly risen from the dead.  If you are prepared to accept that story and that “proof”, you have suspended your rational disbelief.

RIDENDA   RELIGIO

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