PARAMETERS OF THE MIRACLE

by Archbishop Stylianos of Australia

 

One of the most characteristic of human weaknesses is to see things partially, which means to see only one part of the truth, only one perspective rather than the others which, of course, always exist. This is why we say that a person is one-sided as he or she only consider one aspect at the expense of all others which would have given a more rounded view of the subject, thereby helping to achieve an impartial and just judgement.

We must admit, however, that this human weakness does not always derive from wrong intention. Neither do people always overlook things willingly, nor do they blind themself in order to be one-sided later. Very often, this weakness is really superficiality, a remnant of childhood. Children are usually very impressionable and their attention is drawn to a particular point, whereupon they inevitably remain on the surface of things, unable to penetrate more deeply. "Superficiality ... literally means to remain on the surface.

Regardless of the reasons for which we are normally unable to see the entire reality, it is a fact that the more details escape us in any observation or evaluation, the more we ourselves lose. For no one denies any more that knowledge is power. Moreover, the more exact the knowledge, the greater the power. The excessive importance placed upon information in recent years, with ever-improving technology, is the result of this conviction.

This brief introduction is necessary in order to examine more easily and more systematically a phenomenon which has serious consequences, not only for the daily life of each person, but also for the purely spiritual moments of exaltation of the believer. We are referring to the way in which we experience miracles in life and in the Church either directly (as eyewitnesses) or indirectly, after they occur (as hearers).

Of course, this is not the place to describe or define what a miracle is. We shall only point out very briefly the following axiomatic truths:

For the person of faith, everything around us and inside us is an integral and continuous miracle. This miracle began when everything was created out of nothing and which moves towards the transfiguration into "a new earth and new heaven" according to the grace of God (rather than the merits of this world). Yet, for as long as the conditions of this world remain, certain unusual, climactic and extra-ordinary phenomena intervene. These are normally called "miracles" because they surpass our knowledge, experience and expectations, thereby automatically creating wonder within us.

To call these phenomena "super-natural" is theologically incorrect or at least misleading. There are two reasons for this. Firstly because, as we have said, all of nature has from the very beginning been drenched in the grace and miraculous work of God. Secondly because even when God acts "beyond human means", He still only uses natural means, such as light, shape, voice, etc. Otherwise, it would be impossible for humanity to receive His special messages. Thus, we should only call these miraculous phenomena "extraordinary" and not "super-natural". This means that they remain within the broader framework of nature, but they show the natural elements operating in an extra-ordinary way, beyond the normal realm of nature. This is why we say that miracles "transcend" but do not "abolish", the laws of nature.

It is obvious to all that the extraordinary phenomenon, which me call a "miracle", seeks to wake us from our lethargy and routine, soften our hard-heartedness, or overcome our blindness. If these three wounds of fallen humanity had not gradually led to a "total eclipse" of God, so to speak, from the physical world, then we would of course be in a position to experience all the normal and daily things we see as Sunday surprises. In other words, all that is ordinary and routine would be seen as being extraordinary and festive, in which case there would be no need for anything extraordinary. At any rate, we would have to admit that the miracle, which occurs continuously and for all people is essentially far greater than that which occurs under exceptional circumstances and only for a few privileged individuals!

If these thoughts are correct, we should stand before the miraculous actions of God with increased awe, sacred unrest and extremely attentive senses in an effort to "grasp" and "record", if possible, even the smallest details and circumstances of the miracle. Only in this way will our "information" be fuller and our "inner conversion" deeper with every new miracle which the grace of God allows us to experience.

We are in no way permitted, therefore, to be charmed like little children by the external impressive quality which any miraculous event, as such, would have. Conversely, we must devoutly search for and penetrate, with fear of God, into the deeper and far-reaching reasons for which the unusual occurrence, "surpassing reason and understanding" takes place before our eyes. For, the main reason for the miraculous action of God is neither to "impress" nor "terrify" but to achieve purification, which is our sanctification and salvation.

These deeper and more substantial reasons are always "hidden" within the paradoxical event like mystical dimensions or even as "parameters" of miracles. We could say, further, that God is "pleased" to hide His deeper messages not in the "main phrases", so to speak, but in the "secondary phrases". God "gladly" does this, not in order to play "hide and seek" with us, of course, as some naively believe, but so that we are not "spoon fed" like babies. If the great literary minds of modern times demand — out of respect for their fellow human being — a 'sufficient reader' to cooperate in enjoying the rewards of their "discovery" of some hidden truth in a particular text, how much more justified is God in calling us to work together for our salvation in "synergy" since He honoured us by making us in His "image and likeness".

The above concerns are mentioned only days after we commemorated the miracle of "Axion Esti" on June 11, which this year was celebrated for the first time in our new monastery of the same name in Melbourne. We should look at the account of the miracle as it has been preserved in the tradition of Mt Athos, and as it has often been published in recent years in modem Greek translation. The relevant description is:

"Near the Skete of the Protaton, which is located in Karyes, at the location of the Monastery of the Pantocrator, there is a large pit with various cells. A virtuous elder who was a priest-monk lived together with his spiritual son in one of the cells dedicated to the Dormition of the Lady Theotokos. As it was the custom to have a vigil service every Sunday at that Skete of the Protaton, the elder wanted to go to the vigil one Saturday evening. Just before leaving he said, "My child, as usual I will go and listen to the vigil service. Stay in the cell and read the services".

When it was late at night, somebody knocked at the door of the cell. The monk ran immediately to open it. He saw another monk whom he did not recognize but who stayed the night.

They both woke up for the Matins service and began to chant. When they reached the part which begins with the hymn "More honourable than the Cherubim", written long before by St. Kosmas the poet, the monk chanted it as normal. The foreign monk, however, began the hymn with the words, "Truly it is proper to bless you the Theotokos, ever-blessed and all-pure mother of our God".

Then he continued with the "More honourable ..." until the end. When he heard the hymn sung this way, the monk expressed his amazement to the other monk as such:

"We only chant the part beginning with the words "More honourable". We have never heard the "Truly it is proper" (Axion Esti) part, nor have our forefathers. Nevertheless, I entreat you; kindy write this hymn for me so that I may also sing it to the Virgin Mary. The foreign monk then asked for paper and pen to write it. The monk, however, had neither pen nor paper. "Then bring me a piece of slate stone", said the visiting monk. The local monk found one and gave it to him. The other monk wrote the hymn of "Axion Esti" upon it with his finger. A miracle occurred. The letters were etched on the stone so deeply that it was as if they were written on very soft clay. Then the foreign monk said, "From now on' you and all other Orthodox should sing the hymn this way.

"As soon as he said these words, he disappeared. It was a holy Archangel Gabriel sent from God to reveal that angelic hymn, which was so appropriate for the Virgin Mary.

"When the elder returned to the cell from the vigil, his spiritual son started to chant the "Axion Esti" just as the angel had shown him. Then he showed him the stone with the letters made by the angel. Upon hearing of this miracle, the elder was beside himself. Both of them took the angelic engraving to the Protaton where they showed it to the most senior monk of Mt. Athos together with other elders of the community. They told them of all that had occurred. After they all gave glory to God and thanked our Lady the Theotokos for this miracle, they immediately sent the stone and a relevant letter to the Patriarch and King in Constantinople.

"Since then, that angelic hymn has spread throughout the world to be sung to the Virgin Mary by all Orthodox. The icon, which used to be in the chapel of the cell where the miracle occurred, was transferred by the monks of Mt. Athos to the Church of the Protaton, where it is kept until this day in the holy altar" (I. Hatzifotis, Axion Esti Katerini, 1988, p. 22).

In reading this extremely moving history of the fives of the Athonite Fathers, one could be led at "first sight" to see only two parts to the miracle. The first is that the Archangel appeared in the form and manner of a simple monk, and second is that he then wrote on the hard stone with his finger as if it was soft clay. However, if we do not get "stuck" on these two external points, we shall see emerging from a "second level", the whole truth that God wished to engrave on our souls through this miracle.

The deeper dimension which is hidden in the form of a 'parameter", and which is the most substantial message of the miracle, is formulated "without words" the two following conclusions which derive naturally from the incident we have looked at, provided that we are careful to reflect upon it.

One conclusion is that all human works in this world are only half-complete. Even prayer; the most sacred "work". In addition, they will remain incomplete unless God completes them by rewarding our pure intentions rather than the outcome, which is always defective.

Another conclusion is that when God fulfils and adds to that which we have made fragmentary and deficient, He never adds to the end. This is how people add and fulfil, since they move on the same level as their fellow human beings. God, on the other hand, always adds to the beginning, and only to the beginning. In this way, He secures an unshakeable foundation which only He, being infallible, can provide. Is it not He, in any case, who gave us everything from the beginning by making us 'out of non-being"?

These two conclusions then are the most compunctious teaching that we derive from this account of the miracle in the cell "of Song". These conclusions have eternal validity for all of our earthly endeavours, so that they do not degenerate into the trap of "seeking human praise" but remain always "open" to the grace and good will of God.

For surely only "Divine Grace" is the source of strength throughout our fives, as it "heals that which is weak and replenishes that which is deficient".

from Voice of Orthodoxy, vol 15/7, September 1994
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archbiocese of Australia

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