Albert Einstein/Gilbert Fowler White
A young woman hobbles to the shrine at Lourdes, throws away her crutches and walks. A middle-aged man is diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer and six months later, it’s gone. A 5-month-old baby is discovered alive in the rubble of an earthquake in Nepal, having survived against all odds for nearly a day. Nineteen golfers in Colorado suffer a direct lightning strike and live.
In our culture, we think about miracles in events like these; potentially-dire situations that turn out in ways that far exceed reasonable expectations or rational explanations. Sometimes we embrace them, sometimes we are skeptical. Almost always, they are cause for celebration.
But spiritually, the idea of miracles runs deeper. Everything is a miracle.
Word origins are often revealing. Our modern word “miracle” has its roots in the Latin miraculum/mirari/mirus; referring to an “object of wonder,” a “marvel,” and inspiring “awe and admiration.” The Latin, in turn, has origins in the earlier smeiros/sméyros, to “smile or laugh.”
With this broader understanding, miracles are not so much mysterious deviations from what we think is possible. Rather, they are things that are all around us, that we hold in wonder and awe, and make us smile.
You cut your finger chopping kale. You clean it up and do the usual first aid care, and a week later, there is absolutely no indication at all that anything happened to your finger. Your infant daughter crawls one day and joyfully takes halting steps the next. Your infant daughter grows up, and you smile as you see her marry a person that she loves.
A letter travels across the country with such accuracy that neither you nor anyone you know has ever experienced a postal error. A military cargo plane with a takeoff weight of almost 175 tons, flies. Somehow, there is enough water for millions of people in Tucson and Phoenix, the principal populated areas of the Sonoran Desert, where I live seasonally. With scattered clouds on a summer day, the sunset lights up the sky with vibrant shades of red and orange. You are alive, and you have the ability to choose the kind of person you want to be as you live your life.
Are these not “objects of wonder?” Do they (some of them… you might have your doubts about the postal service and you might not think much about cargo planes) make you smile? Are they not miracles?
- What difference might it make for you if you were to view everything as a miracle?
- What has there been in your everyday life this week that has been “an object of wonder” and has made you smile?
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a world-renowned physicist who profoundly changed our understanding of time and space. It is noteworthy, for this particular reflection, that four of his seminal papers were produced in one year, 1905, that has been described as his annus mirabilis (miracle year).
The provenance of this familiar quotation is not clear. I find no direct record of Einstein having said it, although he did write often about the relationship of science and his spiritual views. He did famously say, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.”
The “miracles” quotation was documented (attributing it to Einstein) in the 1940s by Gilbert Fowler White (1911-2006). White was an American geographer with special interests in flooding and water management. Active in the Society of Friends, he was a conscientious objector in World War II, working with refugees in France. He was also a distinguished academic, serving for several years as president of Haverford College and teaching at the University of Chicago and University of Colorado. His New York Times obituary comments that his “philosophy of accommodating nature instead of trying to master it had profound effects on policy and environmental thought.”