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[The following is the introduction to “In the Realm of Miracles,” the fifth and final section of Reader’s Digest, Mysteries of the Unexplained, 1982.]

Sooner or later everyone prays—or perhaps just hopes—for a miracle. And since time and disease subdue, and finally destroy, all living things, the miracles most in demand are those that reverse the course of a fatal or crippling illness or confer immunity from some perilous conspiracy of the elements.

Prayers sometimes seem to be answered, and hopes fulfilled, in hopeless circumstances. Or, putting it in a way less offensive to hardened sceptics, a desperate need and the circumstances that relieve it sometimes come together in a context of prayer, ritual, or hope. The victims of a shipwreck, for example, dying of thirst, drift into an area of fresh water in the middle of the ocean. The rope around a condemned man’s neck breaks unaccountably before he hangs. A fire walker prays, waves a wand of leaves, and walks safely on a bed of red-hot stones. A tumour bathed in water from Lourdes gradually disappears.

From the sceptic’s point of view, such events are simply matters of coincidence. But this is little more than a semantic shuffle, for one man’s coincidence is another’s miracle. As Dr. William Temple, the late archbishop of Canterbury, is said to have noted: When I pray, coincidences tend to happen; when I don’t, they don’t.

The sceptic, of course, has a more frontal attack at his disposal. Where miraculous cures are concerned, he can say the initial diagnosis was wrong (the condition was something other than terminal); or that the illness was functional rather than organic (it was produced by hysteria and was therefore subject to cure by suggestion); or that the disease was naturally subject to spontaneous remission (as is sometimes the case with cancer and tuberculosis, for example).

To these undoubtedly valid observations the believer can only reply that there are cases where these things seem not to apply and that, in a religious context, the revelation of a diagnosis as inaccurate, the alleviation of hysterical symptoms, or the remission of a deadly complaint constitutes a miraculous coincidence. To which the sceptic may reply that this would be more convincing if the percentage of recoveries attributable to such causes in a large hospital were not much the same as at Lourdes. And the sceptic’s motivation may well be of the most humane kind.

Advocates of miraculous healing rarely keep records of their failures, but both sceptic and believer will probably agree that for every paralytic who leaps from his wheelchair at a revival meeting, there are numerous unrecorded others who must be wheeled away without cure. For these, and their loved ones—for the parents of the incurably ill child as well as for the paralytic who must return to his wheelchair a few days after the healing service—the fallacious hope of recovery fostered by healers may be a grave disservice, especially if it prevents the patient from seeking orthodox medical help. But where there is desperate need there will always be charlatans and hypocrites willing to offer promise for a price or self-deluded saviours asking no more in return than a token offering and respect for their skill.

All this is true. And yet there is a residuum of cases where none of these things seem to apply, and they occur in a field—medicine—where honest practitioners freely admit the narrow scope of their knowledge. Above all is the incontrovertible truth that the capacities of the body and mind are still deeply and confoundingly mysterious.

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