I once heard a story of two monks motoring a small boat one evening through a stormy bay. The fog around them was such that the monks quickly lost their bearings, making it impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction. Reaching shore, no longer a certainty, became their prayer. In desperation, the men cried out, “Mother of God, save us!” Hearing their prayers, the Theotokos* guided the monks safely to land. Not only were the men safely out of the storm, but the Holy Mother had delivered them to their destination, the very dock at which they needed to arrive.
Other such stories have made their way to me in conversation and reading, and I’ve wanted to believe them all. I would even admit to longing for such an encounter—perhaps to meet an angel, or receive a message from a saint, to see the image of Christ Himself. Such things have always been attractive from the time I was a child. And I have heard it said by many individuals that Orthodoxy is what they always wanted to believe, but never knew it was okay to do so, for precisely such reasons.
The anecdote above was relayed to me by a friend of a friend, who incidentally was one of the monks on the bay that evening. I would never presume to call either man a liar, yet I face the difficulties of my western sensibilities. Many of you, I’m sure, can relate. Today, belief in such supernatural occurrences is often considered unfashionable at best and medieval, superstitious, primitive at worst.
Why are such tales so difficult to believe? My feeling is that many of us settle for what is to be safely believed about God and His interactions with humankind—it is reductionism for protection; minimalism to avoid foolishness, false teaching and supposed delusion. Our faith has suffered blows from the scientific method and rationalism. The supernatural has been abused by tele-charlatans, theatrical swindlers and false prophets. Those promising the extraordinary were unable to deliver. We find it harder and harder to believe anything at all.
A few years ago, some friends and I endeavored to read books together and meet to discuss their contents. One such book, The Heavenly Man, cataloged the experiences of an underground church leader in China—a man whose day-to-day existence was nothing if not miraculous. Leaping over walls impossibly too high for humans to leap, covering miles of ground in mere seconds—these and many other events fill the biography’s pages.
In all honesty, I couldn’t finish the book. I found it unbelievable, deciding that the author must have exaggerated or fabricated the accounts of this pastor’s life. I couldn’t allow myself to believe something so fantastic. I couldn’t stand the idea of being duped.
In the weeks that followed, in conversations with friends, it struck me that my skepticism about the pastor’s life amounted to unbelief. I realized that beneath my initial question, Why are such stories so difficult to believe? was yet another: What do I believe about God?
What do I believe about God? Is He capable of sending His saints to us for assistance, guidance? Could He assign to each of us a guardian angel? I can come to no other conclusion that God is capable to do whatever He chooses. There is no wall too high, no fog too dense. Yet, in my heart, difficulties remain.
I’m beginning to see all the more that my struggle not only lies within what I believe about God, but also what I believe about Tradition.
*For my Protestant readers, Theotokos is the name ascribed to Mary. Its meaning in Greek is the God-bearer.