imageFrom the preface of a 2011 edition of “Miracles at the Jesus Oak: Histories of the Supernatural in Reformation Europe,” by Craig Harline (Yale University Press). The previous 2003 book was published by Random House. How to study the miracles of this very limited period of history in a very limited place, essentially the Spanish Netherlands of the 17th century and surrounding countryside, the author wondered?

I soon discovered that there were already plenty of models from which to choose, beginning with the four most venerable approaches to miracles over the centuries: (I) accept that the stories happened as told and simply recount them, for inspirational or commercial purposes, or both (2) accept the stories as told but then explain away any supposedly miraculous causes as natural or "demonic,” based on scientific or theological concepts from my own world: (3) dispute the stories as told on grounds that they are unbelievable, either in the events themselves or because all-too- fallible witnesses and scribes, deliberately and otherwise, distort things: and (4) use the stories to help establish the latest absolutely foolproof definition of miracle, good for all times and places, forever and ever, amen. There were more recent models too: I might don a white lab coat and start organizing stories by time, place, or motif, then subject them to the most excruciating sorts of statistical manipulation. Or I could use the endless physical ailments reported in the stories to assess the age’s medical understanding and problems.

The categorization of the miracles is perhaps useful as we continue to wonder how to evaluate the image of the shroud. The shroud, by-the-way, is not forgotten in this author’s attempt to understand miracles. Here is another quote from the book but it is not the miracle (if it is a miracle) of the shroud that we usually think about:

There are still events whose only explanation seems otherworldly. Nuns of a convent in New Mexico report the building of a miraculous unsupported staircase in their convent by someone they believe was Saint Joseph himself, and modern engineers struggle to explain what holds it up Books and dramas called Miraculous World, It’s a Miracle, and Expect Miracles document thousands of rationally unexplainable incidents. A Pennsylvania girl diagnosed with incurable deafness begins to hear after praying for intercession from Katharine Drexel, who soon afterward is officially declared a saint of the Catholic Church. A newborn boy in Michigan, presumed dead, comes to life after his parents hold him close for three hours, and no one can explain why. The reliquary holding the shroud of Turin is trapped in a fire in the church of Turin, Italy (under four layers of bulletproof glass), but the linen itself remains intact: “It’s a miracle” says the archbishop.