"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Unexplainable Events–Science, Miracle, Or Coincidence?

I was having breakfast at the Mille Collines Hotel in Kigali, served on the top floor terrace overlooking the hills beyond the city. Kigali is exactly a mile high and because of its latitude has a pleasant, temperate climate.  Bougainvillea is in bloom all year, flowering jacarandas shade the entrance to the hotel and cover the slopes of the Nyanza Hills. There is always a fresh breeze in the early morning, and breakfast was always the most pleasant meal of the day.

Image result for images lobby mille collines hotel kigali

On that day the tables had filled up quickly because a small tour group had arrived.  They wanted to stay in the hotel where Paul Rusesabagina, the Assistant Manager at the time of the genocide, had heroically negotiated the safety of many refugees; and then travel north to see the gorillas in the forests of the Virunga mountains. The two women who joined me, however, were not on the tour but with the Mt. Hope Baptist Church of Far Lake, Arkansas which ran a mission in Kigali; and Rose and Eileen had volunteered help out in the relief effort which the local church had organized in response to the recent drought and crop failures. The church ran a soup kitchen for mothers and children; and, like the evangelical missions in the Bowery in the early 20th Century, food was exchanged for prayer.

Image result for missionaries protestant serving the poor

The young women excitedly told me what had happened the day before. “We prepared the food – a stew of vegetables, rice, and meat – and were serving it when we realized that we had not prepared enough.  We had estimated a hundred mouths to feed, and judging by the long line out the courtyard into the street and into the neighborhood lanes nearby, there would never be enough.  We decided to serve the food until it ran out, and then pray with those who got none.

“Yet, no matter how many women and children held out their bowls for food, there was always enough.  The pots were always full, and everyone who had come to the mission was fed. It was a miracle.”

There is a wonderful scene in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita when two children who had been reported to have miraculous powers were brought to an exhibition ground so that the thousands of faithful who had gathered could see a vision of the Virgin Mary.  “There!”, shouted one of the children. “Over there! There she is!”, and both ran over to a corner of the field, followed by paparazzi and spectators who had broken through the crowd restraints to see the apparition.

Image result for images la dolce vita children visions virgin

As soon as the crowd gathered around them, they got up from their knees, pointed in the opposite direction and shouted, “I see her! She’s over there!”, and they ran in the rain to the spot where they had pointed.

The Virgin had indeed been there, the faithful had agreed; and some had seen her silhouetted against the lights or in the mist caused by the rain on the hot lights, or hovering above a far corner of the fairgrounds.

People see things they want to see all the time.  They interpret dreams according to their wishes and the toppling of the photograph of Aunt Maude the very morning after dreaming of her is nothing less than miraculous.

I spent the night once in the country estate of a close friend in Normandy. My bedroom was on the second floor, down a long hall, and looked out on the herb garden and pond. The next morning I recounted a particularly vivid dream I had had.  In my dream I was lying in bed and heard the slow, limping gait of someone walking down the hall.  I was afraid, but as often happens in dreams could neither yell out nor move.  The door knob turned, and someone walked in.  I could not make out who it was, but I was no longer afraid.  Just the opposite.  I felt calm, welcoming, and happy. Then I woke up.

Image result for images country estate normandy

My French friends listened, and when I had finished, they looked at each other and smiled. “He saw him”, Jeannette said.

“Who?”, I asked.

“The German Lieutenant.”

Apparently during the The Great War a company of German soldiers had commandeered the house and stayed there until the rest of their regiment had caught up.  The enlisted men slept in the barn while the officers stayed in the bedrooms of the main house. ‘The German Lieutenant’ had slept in my room.  The following day, the soldiers had heard cannon fire in the near distance and knew that enemy armies were close by.  They left quickly, but as they did, The German Lieutenant was thrown from his horse into the field. He was already lame from a previous wound, was unused to riding any horse but his own, and the excitable mare sensed his discomfort, reared, and threw him onto the rocks by the road.  

Madame Lavelle, the owner of the house, ran outside and shook her fist at the retreating boches; and as she did she saw The German Lieutenant lying on the ground bleeding and near death. He looked peaceful and young, and she felt sad. He started to whisper something, and she bent close to him. “I will be back”, he said, and then died.

“He visits the house from time to time”, said Madame Lucas, the current owner and a distant relative of Madame Lavelle, “especially the bedroom in which you spent the night and especially when there is a young man sleeping in it.”

It seemed too much of a coincidence not to be true, I thought at first; but of course the story of The German Lieutenant was now almost ninety years old and had been passed down through three generations of a large extended family. Had Madame Lucas told me about the German company that had stayed in the house before I had gone up to bed? Did I read about the German occupation of the house in one of the many journals in the estate library?

Was The German Lieutenant hers or mine? It didn’t take long for me to dismiss the experience regardless of its nature. It either was or wasn’t many things; but none of them made much difference to my life.

T.M. Luhrmann writing in the New York Times (3.5.15)

“The thing happened one summer afternoon, on the school cricket field, while I was sitting on the grass, waiting my turn to bat,” an anonymous Englishman recalled in a passage in an old anthology on mysticism. “Something invisible seemed to be drawn across the sky, transforming the world about me into a kind of tent of concentrated and enhanced significance.” But because the William James-like experience that followed didn’t fit into any of the philosophical or theological orientations he held as a 15-year-old boy, “it came to seem more and more anomalous, more and more irrelevant to ‘real life,’ and was finally forgotten.”

Homer ring

A close friend of mine in Mississippi, a very devout, prayerful woman told me that she had been visited by the Holy Ghost.  She had been very troubled and worried about her estranged son, but God had told her not to worry; that he still loved his mother, and would be in touch soon.  My friend had been as convinced of that Hallmark card visitation as the aphids on her rose bushes.

Grand Central

T.M. Luhrmann recounts a similar story about the Holy Ghost:

A young man gave me this account of his first encounter with the Holy Spirit at a retreat to which his girlfriend had dragged him. “So they started praying for me. ... It doesn’t feel necessarily like electricity, but it feels like your body would be, like, touched by some kind of extreme power and you’re just shaking, like you just can’t handle all this stuff that’s being poured into you, and all they’re saying is, ‘Come on, Holy Spirit, and fill him up to overflowing.’ ... I felt like there was somebody else in me, like, dwelling, trying to get out to this extreme degree, and I was just overwhelmed in it.” As one says in Christian circles, it convicted him and made him realize that God was real.


One day I was walking with my 3-year old niece when she pointed at a wooden fence and started to cry. I asked her what was wrong, but she only kept crying and pointing at the fence and streak of black paint on it.  “The mark”, she said. “I am afraid of the mark.”

When she was much older I reminded her of our walk and the mark and asked her what it was all about. “I can’t explain it”, she said, “but I will never forget it. “There was something horrible and terrifying about that mark.”

I asked her mother if she ever read her any stories or fairy tales that could have influenced her reaction.  “Nothing”, my sister said. “We tried to keep our stories happy.”

Luhrmann concludes this way:

I’ve talked to hundreds of people who have had remarkable, unexpected experiences that startled them profoundly. Some see them as clear evidence of the supernatural and others do not. And there are those who come to a conclusive view of what these events mean, and those who hold them as evidence of the mystery of the human imagination itself.

My niece who was afraid of the mark turned out to be a successful and well-known artist.  Her paintings are profoundly personal – humorous, engaging, and beautiful but with a mystery that attracted people who had never met her.

My friend who saw the Holy Ghost was an actress who for many years had played Christine Mannon, Blanche Dubois, and Hedda Gabler. Although she never made it to Broadway, she was acclaimed for her special insight into O’Neill’s, Williams’, and Ibsen’s women.

I write stories for a living.  I make up people and places; so perhaps I was subconsciously working on a story about a German lieutenant when the idea of him came to me in a dream.  I can live with that far more easily than I can with the idea of ghosts.


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