The following is a reprint of a story I wrote about four
years ago and which was previously published on this discussion
board a couple of years ago. It is of a personal experience
I had concerning so-called "miracles" at a shrine
here in Western Australia. My personal position on this
question of miracles is that (a) I do believe God does intervene
in human affairs in extraordinary ways but (b) I do not
believe he does so in any ways that defy the laws of his
own creation. My own viewpoint was largely formed through
the experience related in this story as well as many years
of reflection on unsatisfied requests for Divine assistance
and reflections on the Book of Job. I believe this whole
matter of miracles has become a big distraction, particularly
in the educated, affluent, socially sophisticated Western
world, to what the core objective of our faith ought to
be really all about.
I had an experience years ago that might help those who
are having difficulty understanding where I am coming from
in understanding our communication difficulties to younger
people today. Here in Perth there is a Marian Shrine at
Bullsbrook where some of these miraculous-type events are
reputed to have taken place.
I first visited this Shrine back in the 1980s when I lived
in Melbourne and I had returned for a holiday to Perth with
my family in January. My 88-year-old Dad passionately believes
in the healing powers of the waters from Bullsbrook and
every few months or so I still drive him up there with a
great carton of empty milk containers and plastic cool drink
bottles and he religiously fills them up and we bring them
back to Perth. Every day he religiously drinks half a glass
of this water and before Mum died he religiously used to
get her to drink half a glass of the same water each day.
(Mum died still not being a believer but out of her tremendous
loyalty to and respect for Dad used to say the Rosary with
him probably two or three times a week and she'd drink this
water for him.) He also gives half the bottles of the stuff
we collect away to his mates and geriatric girlfriends at
the Hostel where he lives. I even have to confess I actually
have a couple of bottles here and can tell you it is some
of the nicest tasting water to be found in Perth. I think
that "stuff" (do you know what that word means
here?) is important for someone like my father. My kids
though think this is behaviour from the far reaches of another
planet and I certainly do not have the level of faith that
my father does that this water is going to cure me of any
illnesses or keep illness or sin at bay. Can you understand
that at the same time I can respect his belief even though
I happen to believe it is quasi-superstitious or possibly,
in this case, actually superstitious?
In one sense the foregoing is a digression from the story
I set out to tell but it will serve to perhaps get us to
the end point more quickly. When I returned to Perth all
those years ago the whole Bullsbrook phenomenon was still
quite new. One weekday my Dad and an Uncle of mine persuaded
me to drive them up to Bullsbrook. It was probably the first
time I went up there on this water-gathering mission or
Obviously they were enthusiastic to tell me all about the
wonderful things that had been happening at Bullsbrook.
And indeed I was eager to learn. The whole thing is really
impressive: an enormous Church has been built there and
a separate new shrine in the last few years. There is now
this great line of taps and on some weekends hundreds of
people front up there for the pilgrimages run by the SACRI
Association and they have to queue up to fill their water
bottles. If you go up there on any day of the week there
is this steady stream of people pulling into the carpark
and filling up water bottles from the taps connected to
an underground spring. The whole endeavour has the blessing
of the Archbishop and the Bishop and they encourage this
devotion and lead pilgrimages up there on a number of occasion
through the year or say the Sunday Mass at the Shrine.
When I went up there first though with my father and uncle
the Church was still being built and the really "miraculous"
events were still being talked about everyday in Catholic
circles in Perth. After we'd visited the Chapel and walked
around a bit they took me down to the area beside a small
stream or creek under some gum trees where the whole phenomenon
was reputed to have started -- if memory serves me correctly
by a member of the Italian family who owned the land.
It was possibly 12.30 or 1.00pm in the afternoon. Standing
down in this quite pleasant little picnic area (I wouldn't
call it a grotto in the strict meaning of that word but
that is the name some people give it) I can remember my
uncle rabbiting on explaining all about what was supposed
to have happened. He was saying how when the people said
the Rosary down in the Grotto and looked up at the sun through
the gum leaves the sun started to dance. I sort of casually
looked up at the sun through the gum leaves while he was
saying this and, if you'll excuse a line from the Vicar
of Dibley, bugger me, the sun started to dance around in
the sky for me too. I literally mean it. This was something
pretty phenomenal -- at least as awe-inspiring as the experience
I had had many years before when I used an illegal substance
and did inhale!!! This was an experience to literally "blow
you away". The sun literally was dancing in the sky
and the whole effect was mesmerising.
Naturally I was absolutely intrigued by what I had experienced
because, if you haven't already detected, like St Thomas
Aquinas I am sceptical that God actually breaks the laws
of Physics. (Physics is my formal discipline of learning.)
For the first time in my life I was seeming to experience
a phenomenon that did defy the laws of Physics and the sun
was moving in an irregular pattern in the sky. (Can you
remember the day this happened and the headlines that it
received in the papers in the Eastern States? Only joking
-- of course it didn't make the papers in the Eastern States
or in Perth on that day.)
I was torn between what I was actually experiencing and
my continuing scepticism for what my uncle was rabbiting
on about. Some ten or fifteen minutes later we had left
the grotto-type area and we were walking back across this
newly surfaced car park to our car in the far corner from
where we were. This car park was then brand new it had probably
only been finished a week or two before with a fine coating
of blue metal which, in the hot summer sun, appeared almost
blazingly white. It was as though we were walking on an
enormous sheet of white paper. The glare was intense. After
a minute or so of this I began to notice two funny brown
splodges that were flickering across the surface of the
car park as we walked. They just seemed to flick about in
a really random way. Very hard to describe. I asked my Dad
and Uncle if they could see them and they didn't have the
foggiest of what I was talking about. They also hadn't experienced
the sun dancing. Meanwhile my uncle who, God bless him,
is like this at the best of times, was still rabbiting on
like a non-stop dictaphone about all this miraculous stuff.
And just at about this point he said something like: "...and
after they'd been down in the grotto saying the Rosary and
watching the sun dance in the sky they'd look up at the
spire on the Church and it would be glowing in gold, and
their Rosary Beads would change colour too."
At the moment he said the word spire I naturally glanced
up towards the spire and, bugger me again, as I looked up
at the Cross on the Spire of the Church IT WAS GLOWING IN
A SORT OF GOLDEN LUSTRE.
It was at this point that the penny dropped in my mind
as to what had happened to me. When I was down in the grotto
and looked up at the sun the reason why the sun appeared
to dance in the sky is that my eye's went into an auto-reflex
protection mode to prevent the retinas being damaged. You
should never look directly at the sun, even through the
gum leaves as I was doing. It only takes a fraction of a
second and the lens of your eye focuses the sun rays on
your retina and starts to literally cook them. - just like
a kid making a piece of paper smoke with a magnifying glass.
To protect themselves the eyes go into a sort of automatic
fribulation to spread the damage that is happening in the
retina. Your eyes literally dance in your head to protect
themselves and to all intents and purposes you literally
feel as though the sun is appearing to dance in the sky.
It does not take any sophisticated medical science or physics
to work out what is going on.
Walking back across the carpark the two brown splodges
I saw flickering across the surface of the car park was
an optical illusion caused by the areas that had been burned
in each of my retinas. When I looked up at the cross on
the spire as my uncle said it of course the cross appeared
to glow gold. My retinas had been burned a golden-brown
by the sun in their most sensitive part and everything I
look at directly appeared to take on a golden hue. With
your peripheral vision the cross appears to have its normal
colour but as you really focus on it and the central part
of your retina comes into play the cross literally seems
to change colour and glow gold. Similarly if you look down
at your rosary beads.
Unlike the Australian Skeptics Society, I do not believe
my experience proves that miracles are a fake and that all
similar phenomenon can be explained away by a bit of elementary
physics or medical science. There are many things I do not
know the answers to and would not be game to write an entertaining
little story about like I have this one. I won't go into
those other debates here. Instead just come back and focus
on the story I have just told.
Here I was with my Dad and my Uncle. My Dad left school
at the age of 13. He only ever obtained a primary education.
Even today he has this enormously rich faith. His brother,
my uncle, standing there with him was always called the
"brains" in the family because before the war
he had actually got to Junior Standard in his education
(the equivalent of Year 10 today). Think of the poor Italian
immigrant who first discovered this phenomenon of the sun
dancing in the sky at Bullsbrook. He probably hadn't even
had the education that my Dad had had. (Despite his lack
of an education my father did go on to become a very successful
hotelkeeper and businessman in Western Australia and could
certainly count money in a mathematically correct way.)
But I had studied Physics at University level. Although
I had been initially hoodwinked by what was happening it
did not take long for my brain to work out what had actually
been happening from a logical and scientific perspective.
For a person without access to the knowledge I had of course
phenomenon like these appear to be "miraculous".
You look up at the sun while saying the Rosary and it starts
dancing in the sky what other conclusion could you be expected
to come to than that God or Our Lady has turned on a special
little show for you?
I am not trying to prove I am more clever than my Dad.
There are many phenomenon that I've read about and experienced
in my life which I cannot give you explanations for. I don't
know how they occur. Like my Dad though concerning this
Bullsbrook experience, just because I don't know how they
occur cannot lead me, ipso facto, to the conclusion that
God has broken any of the laws of science or of nature to
bring them about. Yet, and this is the difficult theological
and philosophical question, if there is a God is it not
unreasonable to conclude that when he caused that original
uneducated Italian labourer to look up through the gum leaves
and to see the sun dancing that this was a "supernatural
sign" within his (the Italian's) frame of reference?
Or, to use another example, my Dad's? In a sense to both
of them it is an event that occurs without any plausible
explanation within their realm of experience or reason.
As such are they not entitled to classify it as a miracle?
Who is to say that my version of reality is any more valid
than theirs is -- or does this lead us into the difficult
territory of relative vs absolute truth that PJPII constantly
warns us about?
At a higher level, if I was walking through a similar experience
with the likes of an Albert Einstein, he and I might come
across something happening which I could not explain but
to Einstein might have a perfectly feasible explanation
from his far deeper knowledge of Quantum Mechanics or the
Theory of Relativity than myself. To me this new experience
might be classifiable as a "miracle" but to Einstein
it would just be another interesting example of the Laws
of Physics at work.
What I am arguing in all of this is that the Church sometimes
runs around giving a whole lot of credence and reverence
to phenomenon that to older members of the population, or
those who do not think in a scientific paradigm, seem miraculous.
We tend to speak of these things in reverential tones --
I know my Dad does this. Literally he believes it is the
work of Our Lady manifesting itself in a very tangible and
direct way when he comes across these things. There is as
it were a "real presence" in what he is talking
about. I don't experience the same thing in the way he does
and my kids even less so. My kids think more like me. To
them all this reverence that has grown up around the phenomenon
going on at Bullsbrook is actually bizarre and superstitious.
Within their, and my frame of reference, I have no more
reason to believe there is a special intervention of God
or the BVM going on at Bullsbrook than is going on at St
Mary's Cathedral, in my own parish Church or when I say
my prayers at home.
Do you understand what I am trying to get across when I
say we have to be able to explain what is going on at Bullsbrook
so that, at one and the same time, it is comprehensible
to my Dad and it is comprehensible to my children? We have
to use one style and form of language when discussing it
with the likes of my Dad and the thousands of people like
him who hold Bullsbrook as a very Holy or at least special
place. We have to respect their reverence and their frame
of reference but, without being paternalistic or condescending,
the Church also has to educate them, that the sun dancing
in the sky and the glowing Rosary beads are not necessarily
proof of God's existence or his works. This can all be thought
through at another level of faith also. With people like
my kids, and probably about 95% of the 3,500 or so who graduate
from Catholic secondary colleges in Perth each year we have
to be discussing all this sort of stuff at an enormously
more sophisticated level but, at the same time, getting
them to respect that my Dad, and the Italian peasant labourer,
can't cope with life at my kid's level of comprehension
so their level of understanding also has to be respected.
Can you see the challenge that this provides to the Church?
When she tries to speak publicly in sophisticated language
to the "young things" those who are like my Dad
tend to get a bit upset. This is "the sky is falling
in territory" here's the priest or bishop trying to
belittle the idea that Mary is really present at Bullsbrook.
On the other hand if the priest or bishop speaks in language
which is reassuring to my Dad (e.g. yes there ARE miracles
occurring at Bullsbrook and they are the work of the BVM
and you should stand up firmly against anyone who says otherwise)
the likes of my children, and the overwhelming majority
of their mates simply "roll their eyes into the back
of their heads and forget to turn up again next Sunday".
Isn't that what has been going on for 30-40 years for a
significant part of the population in a community like ours?
(Not over Bullsbrook silly I am only using Bullsbrook
as an example of a whole class of similar "stuff".)