The Conviction of Things Unseen: on Mystery Priests and Modern Miracles — Erin Wathen






The mystery priest came out of the closet. I mean…not that closet. But he came out of hiding, anyway. So, I stand corrected. I never thought we’d hear from him.

Last week, a young woman in Missouri was hit head on by a drunk driver. Her vital signs were dropping quickly, and some of the rescue equipment was malfunctioning. In the midst of this grim scene, the girl asked the first-responders to pray with her. According to witnesses, a priest then appeared out of nowhere and anointed her with oil. They say a feeling of peace descended upon the whole scene.

Then, a second rescue team appeared with working equipment. The girl was saved. And  just as quickly as he came, the priest seemed to vanish. In the considerable footage of the accident scene, there were no images of him. None of the many witnesses from the small community recognized him from town. The local diocese had not follow up information.

There was nothing for it but to call ‘miracle.’ And many people heard and believed…

I said in my sermon on Sunday that, if I were that priest, I would never come forward. This priest got more people believing by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, than any of us will ever hope to do with our preaching. No religious leader in his right mind would come forward after that and be like, “Oh hey, guys, it was me. Happened by, had some anointing oil on me… just doing my thang for Jesus. Glad the kid’s ok.”

And yet, here he is. A real live man. Mortal, flesh and blood. Apparently, he went to visit the young woman in the hospital and introduced himself. Upon meeting her ‘angel,’ she wept. Father Patrick assumed them to be tears of disappointment. Maybe they were. Maybe the whole world is feeling a little disappointed that the ‘miracle’ turned out to be just a guy in a collar.

But hold up. Who says that’s not a miracle?

The widespread, viral reaction to this story proves what religious leaders everywhere know to be true: the world is hungry for a real, authentic encounter with the holy. People are desperate to encounter something supernatural in the midst of their despair, their boredom, their fatigue. They ache for a glimpse of something deeply spiritual that will affirm their very existence, and the shed some hope on all that is bleak and stagnant.

They want to have their faith resurrected in a way that cannot be ignored or denied. And they are watching for the burning bush, the parting sea, the Gabriel moment that will make believing easy.

We try to deliver that sacred glimpse in worship each week but, you know, we’re only human. We cannot call out people’s faith as Lazarus from the tomb. It can’t always be the good news as interpreted by Pixar. Sometimes it takes…well, faith.

So yeah, at first I couldn’t believe that he came forward. But I’m sure glad he did.

Because, now that we know who he is, we can talk about real miracle. Not the movie kind that defies all doubt–but the truly life-giving kind that emerges in spite of doubt. Far too often, religious leaders are tempted to point people toward an other-worldly Creator, a far-off heaven, the promise of a later and someday eternity that will make sense of all this worldly madness. It’s an invitation to escape–just like any fantasy movie or book or video game–and it diminishes the real and present good news that lives among and between us, every day. It ignores the gospel story that we are called to embody, and maybe even co-author, for the world around us. Here’s a priest, though, who said, enough: here I am. I’m a person. But God was still there.

I’m hearing this story today as a gentle reminder to glimpse the sacred in the world, rather than seek a glimpse of beyond. God may not be entirely OF the world, but the world is certainly of God. And full of the Holy Spirit. Why do we need the special effects department–the supernatural visitation of biblical proportions–to point us to the miracle?

Take the angel out of this story, and tell it again: A young woman was sure she was dying; and so were the people who were trying to save her. She requested prayer. A priest–the Rev. Patrick Dowling–stepped out of the void at exactly that moment. He was a real live, flesh and blood, mortal person. He was Irish. Who knows what long and winding road led him to faith; to priesthood; to America; to just that spot, at just that moment, where a frightened girl lay dying, and seeking the voice of God… But whatever led him there–and whatever might have tried to prevent him– he showed up in the flesh, and touched her and blessed her; and she was made well. And many people heard and saw, and believed.

Isn’t that good news?

Photo by Lindy Scavo, via flickr. With thanks!


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