Miracles of Saints and Relics


A notable characteristic of the whole period was the ready assent accorded to reputed miracles of relics and of living saints. Distinguished monks, in particular, were credited with the wonder-working faculty. It was not merely the unthinking populace which reposed faith in the multitude of prodigies that were reported: eminent Fathers of the Church added the weight of their testimony in favor of the supernatural power exercised through relies and pious ascetics. This may be thought to establish a certain presumption on the side of the reality of the so-called miracles. But off-setting considerations of no little weight may be enumerated: (1) In so far as heathen tendencies had come into the Church with the masses formerly devoted to heathenism, the heathen predilection for the magical and the marvelous, as contrasted with the moral, was rife. There was a certain inordinate greed for the miraculous, and demand tends to create supply. (2) Catholics had a motive to make the most of reputed miracles, in order to outshine schismatics and heretics, who also laid claim to miracles. [The language of Augustine, Tract. in Joan., xiii. 17, indicatee that the Donatists appealed to miracles with an apologetic design.] That the more thoughtless would be influenced by such a motive, may properly be taken for granted. Especially would such be incited by personal affection and interest to exalt the deeds of an associate or leader whose glory was in a manner their own. (3) There is clear evidence that pious frauds were practised with relics for the sake of gain. The same temper which devised fraudulent relies could easily be incited to devise fraudulent miracles with relics. The age, even in its theories, was none too well braced against such an artifice. The casuistry of several of the Fathers, which openly justified a certain employment of falsehood, though far from being carried out by themselves into a habit of mendacity, was not helpful to the scruples of those having less of moral ballast.

[Jerome, Comm. in Epist. ad Gal., chap. ii.; Epist.,cxii.; Chrysostom, De Sacerdotio, i.; Cassianus, Coll., xvii. 17. Angustine, on the other hand, entered a strong protest against the mendacium officiosum, and worthily accented the claims of truthfulness (Epist., xxviii., xl., lxxxii.). "To me," he says, "it seems certain that every lie is a sin, though it makes a great difference with what intention and on what subject one lies " (Enchirid., xviii.).]

(4) To challenge reputed miracles, was to stem the current of the age. The doubter was quite certain to bring opprobrium upon himself. A ready assent to every indication of the supernatural within the hallowed precincts of the Catholic Church was reckoned a great virtue. Even men of the strongest mind were powerfully influenced by the spirit of the times, and in the main were more ready to believe than to make a searching examination of the grounds of belief. Criticism being thus held in abeyance, there was a great chance of deceiving even the intelligent and the sincere. (5) Many of the miracles reported bear evident traces of being products of a crude and superstitious fancy, instead of resulting from divine discretion and power. Taken in a mass, the miracles of this age lack the profound occasion and the lofty moral accompaniments which attest the genuineness of the gospel miracles and harmonize them with the noblest conceptions of the divine government. (6) There is much power in an ardent faith, viewed simply as an exercise of mind, and apart from ally objective agency. Certain mental disorders, or even certain bodily disorders, coming specially within the range of the mind's reaction, may have been actually cured by circumstances that were peculiarly stimulating to the faith of the afflicted.

The historian, in the exercise of a sound discretion, is compelled to adopt a critical attitude upon this subject. To accept the mass of reputed miracles, would be credulity rather than faith, a surrender of reason rather than its consecration, a disparagement of the Christian system rather than a tribute to its spirituality. At the same time, to affirm absolutely that there were no miracles in these centuries, is to indulge in sheer dogmatism.

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