Friday, September 29, 2006

Heaven and Earth, Horatio

I've always been an empiricist, skeptical about mysticism, miracles, and anything that can't be verified, quantified, and reproduced under laboratory conditions. It's not that I don't want to believe in such things, but until I'm given convincing evidence to the contrary, I'll almost always assume that any given "divine intervention" is really the product of individual imagination and wishful thinking. This doesn't lessen its power one iota for the person who experiences it, but it does mean that most so-called "miracles" don't shake my faith in a universe governed by the laws of physics. Sure, I write fantasy, but that's fiction.

My religious conversion was a very long and winding process, but part of it involved a good six months of impossible things happening to me every day, encounters and coincidences so wildly improbable and grace-filled that the laws of physics couldn't even begin to explain them. Most of these events were small -- for instance, I'd dream about a very specific object that would then arrive on my doorstep, a gift from a friend I hadn't told about the dream -- but when several of them happen to you every day, over a period of months, you begin to have a healthy respect for the fact that there's something at work in the universe other than the laws of physics.

During this surreal interlude, I came to believe that these small daily miracles were God's way of breaking through my intellectual defenses. It worked. I'd been given empirical proof of grace and divine love, evidence I couldn't possibly ignore. Once the lesson had gotten through my thick skull, things gradually went back to normal. On the whole, this was a relief. The surreal interlude had been a bit too much like living in The Twilight Zone; it was wonderful, but also scary, exhausting, and isolating, because I couldn't talk to most people about what was happening to me. They'd either look at me like I was crazy or try to rationalize and dismiss my experiences, so I quickly learned to stay quiet.

Having gone through the surreal interlude, I now believe in miracles. But I'm still fairly allergic to conventionally pious religious language about prayer, angels, and divine providence. Although I can quote the famous definition of faith as "the evidence of things not seen," my preferred route to faith is still evidence.

This is one reason I like volunteering in an ER. Emergency-medicine people are the ultimate empiricists: they trust numbers and believe in results. There's very little time or space in an ER for sentimental pieties. Time and time again, I've seen empirical proof that prayer comforts patients and makes them feel better, but because I'm liable to be shoved aside at any moment by the medical team, there's no room in my prayers for fluff or cliches. (A few medical caregivers will wait for me to finish a prayer, but most won't; nor do I believe they should. In an ER, physical medicine takes precedence.) I have to get to the meat of the matter, to pray for the patient's deepest needs and desires, and to do so in the most authentic language I can muster. Prayer in the ER isn't about Sunday-school platitudes. It's about reminding patients that a real, loving God is present to and with them even when -- especially when -- they're ill, in pain, terrified, angry, bleeding, smelly, and otherwise in no shape to attend a church service.

The stories patients share with me tend, likewise, to be about their bedrock beliefs and experiences.

And many of these stories are about mysticism, miracles, and divine interventions.

I've heard more ghost stories and near-death narratives than I can count. There's the guy who died and saw his dead aunt waiting to welcome him. Okay, so that could just be wishful thinking. But what about the woman who almost perished in a fire and described to her rescuers exactly what they'd been doing while she was unconscious without a heartbeat? What about the patient, driving a long distance to meet her best friend, who felt her friend's soul pass over and through her like a gust of wind, and arrived at her destination to learn that indeed, her friend had unexpectedly died? What about the person who died, came back, and now can't walk through a hospital without feeling the pains and illnesses of the patients? Who'll call a friend and say, "Is your foot better?" without having been told that the foot was injured? Who sees recently departed spirits and points them in the right direction, and who once woke from an exhausting dream of doing this for hundreds of lost, bewildered souls, only to turn on the television and discover that the Twin Towers had just collapsed?

The people who tell me these stories don't sound crazy. They're perfectly matter-of-fact about this stuff. They have everyday lives, jobs and families. Sometimes they'll say, "Well, I know a lot of people wouldn't believe this, but you're the chaplain, so I can talk to you about it."

Multiple patients have told me about difficult times in their lives when they were approached by strangers who said, "I have a message for you from God." This might sound nuts, except that these strangers proceeded to describe the patients' life situations in detail, and then assure them of happy endings. And the happy endings happened. And we aren't talking about finding the perfect dress on sale: we're talking about medically impossible cures from cancer.

And then there are the times when patients have had messages for me. Like the time when a gorked-out patient no one thought was even coherent opened her eyes, looked up at me, and said, "You're in pain, but it will be all right." And I was in pain, but nobody else had picked up on it, because I was keeping up a brave front. All right, so that could just be an uncannily sensitive patient. But then there was the time when a patient told me a long, beautiful story about a childhood mystical experience that ended in fear and darkness, until God's voice said, "Don't be afraid of the darkness; there's love there, too." And a few days later, something happened that sent me into one of the darkest times I've known, and it lasted for months, and one of the things that got me through it was repeating that mantra: "Don't be afraid of the darkness; there's love there, too."

Was that a message from God, or just coincidence?

There's no way to prove either theory. But I'll tell you this much: after spending several years talking to ER patients, I now believe in all kinds of things I once would have dismissed as impossible. My work in the small, cramped rooms of the emergency department has shown me a universe that is infinitely large, wild, and full of wonders.


  1. When I read this post my first thought was, Wow - what a beautiful post about, well, faith. And how some of us question and want proof in some concrete form that God's out there and that He's listening. And sometimes (or maybe typically) God let's us know He's listening when we aren't expecting it. Thank You for sharing.

  2. Thanks, JSD! One of the things I've noticed is that when I tell God I really need proof, I usually (not always) get it, usually in startling ways.

    In a way, this is a handicap; I'd be better at talking to people who are having doubts, or whose faith is purely intellectual or a matter of childhood habit, if my own long-growing and reluctant faith hadn't been clinched by so many bizarre physical occurrences. Patients can't use my experiences to bolster their faith: they need their own.

  3. David Harmon10:46 AM

    The thing to realize about such experiences is that they are essentially magical, and as such, they're subject to what I call the Zeroth Law of Magic: Plausible Deniability.

    That said, you may wish to investigate the practice of shamanism, which deals heavily in the sort of experiences you describe. The "modern school" of shamanism was founded by the anthropologist Michael Harner, whose organization is at They're quite well-behaved, and not at all grabby either spiritually or financially.

    The book you'll need is Harner's The Way Of The Shaman; for the various exercises, you'll need a pair of rattles, and one of his drumming tapes/CDs (plus a player with headphones).

    If you have some friends who are also interested, you can trade in the recording for an actual drum, and take turns drumming for each other (The sound is used to induce trance, but it's pretty hard to reach trance while you're busy drumming!) The group keeps a directory for people seeking to form or join such "shamanic circles". They also hold various workshops, but those are totally optional.


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