Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Looking for the Miraculous

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I haven’t seen an angel in a water spot on my ceiling, or the Virgin Mary in the shape of a potato, or the face of Jesus on a scorch mark on the bottom of my iron, or the Son of God in the lines and wrinkles of a cinnamon bun. Maybe I lack the vision. Maybe I lack the creativity. Maybe I lack the faith. The truth of the matter is - and by that I mean matter literally, concrete existence - I’ve never looked out into the physical world and seen the Holy Family.

Other people have spotted them easily enough, Jesus and Mary and the Archangel Gabriel in the here and now. It’s a story that repeats itself like Christmas, resurfaces in news reports at least once a year, holy sightings in fruit and tree bark and paint chips, in the markings on calves and the forehead of horses.

My mother, Marjorie, was one of those people. When she was alive and I was younger, much younger, almost new, at least newly adult and questioning the beliefs given to me by family, my mother showed me a photograph. She presented it as proof of God. It also served as justification for her charismatic ways, the swayings and the utterings of Jeeesuuus, and the slayings in the spirit, a killing of sorts where the preacher puts his palm on the unsaved’s forehead and shoves, and the unsaved falls to the ground amidst Hallejuahs and Praise Gods, jolted by the Holy Spirit.

The photograph showed Jesus in the clouds, Jesus as cloud, vaporous molecules configuring themselves into the shape of a bearded, longhaired, flowing-gowned Saviour. It really was quite remarkable, even arguably glorious, considering it was pre Photoshop era. The Jesus in the Clouds picture was travelling the prayer group circuit. “It was snapped from the window of an airplane,” Mom said.

The photograph didn’t have the effect she had hoped – I didn’t become a born-again believer. I wasn’t slain in the spirit. I’m a hard cookie when it comes to the Divine, particularly the Divine in a water-spot spread of angel wings across a ceiling, or the burnt scorches on the bottom of the iron, or the shove of the preacher’s palm against a forehead, or Jesus cloud photography. Such holy communications are akin in my mind to email scams. I don’t believe in those either. I guess that makes me a non-believer of sorts.

It’s not that I don't think the holy permeates matter. I do think just that, that there is this union with, or arrangement between, or infusion of the miraculous into the physical world. I love the New Testament verse that found its way into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, where the rocks and stones themselves start to sing. Where geography vibrates in this mass-ive Hosanna-Heysanna, and the inanimate, or what human senses perceive as inanimate, the cliffs and boulders and mountain ranges, participate in the cosmic “rock” opera. I find it so much easier to believe a stone might sing, that a stone does sing on a level we humans can’t hear, than a sighting of Jesus in a charred piece of toast is a sign from God.

In deference to my dead mother, I must admit I do like the idea of Jesus riding the clouds. The story of the Transfiguration, where Christ is lifted directly into heaven as if riding an invisible elevator, is a favourite New Testament narrative of mine. I have had my own recurring dreams of flight, and in the waking world, often embark in flights of fancy, and I am never happier than those rare moments when my words and spirit soar. That swooping of the spirit that comes with elation is its own kind of music, and when I am kayaking, I sometimes find myself in a celestial state of elation in the midst of the physical world, the water and rock and sky. I know I’ve reached this celestial state here on earth when my subconscious mind starts hymn-ing/humming, “And to my listening ears, all nature sings around me rings the music of the spheres.”

I’ve also experienced the odd vision or two of my own, and they were indeed odd. One of those visions was inspired by low blood sugar. The Earth moved beneath my feet (another song, no less), and then I saw the physical world peel away, shift, to unveil the matrix or structure beneath it, and I knew there were many kinds of reality, and that this reality in which we find ourselves encased, this lovely physical world of the planet Earth, is a gift and not a given, is not guaranteed.

An hour or so later, the same bout of low blood sugar, no doubt, I saw Teilhard de Chardin’s Hymn of the Universe enacted in my living room, the flames of fire and life and mystery spread out against the desert of my wall. I wasn’t frightened, but felt blessed, and fascinated, and gently amused by the revelation, the fact that this revelation, this vision, existed in a very real way for me, as real as rock, and yet wasn’t there at all. Later, munching on a piece of chocolate, I wondered if the prophecies and visions of the likes of Joan of Arc were nothing more than a lack of sugar, and how history might have been changed if someone had just given her candy, if she might have avoided the stake.

Early one August morning, when dawn had arrived but had not yet been broken by the activities of the day, still unmarred and morning-fresh, I walked down to check my boats hidden within a grove of bushes and trees at the edge of Lake Simcoe, on the grounds of the retreat cottage I shared with two writer friends. I stopped dead in my tracks, as the saying goes, very much alive, but slain in the spirit, slain by nature. I didn’t know whether to trust my eyes, my human senses, and I shifted perspective to see if the vision would disperse, that it must be a trick of the eye lens. But it didn’t disperse. I saw golden threads, a thousand of them, joining the trees to form a shimmering matrix, laser-thin spider webs crisscrossing the small pathway through the woods. Perhaps it was the minuscule droplets of dew clinging to the webs that caught and held the morning sun and lit the webs in golden strands of fairytale. I don’t know, I just know it was magical, and unreal, and yet very real, more real than my Joan of Arc visions. It reminded me of the luminous filaments that Carlos Castaneda wrote about when describing the teachings of Don Juan, and I didn’t really believe those filaments existed either, but here they were before me, shimmering proof. It is hard to deny the connections that exist, these golden spider webs, both as a metaphor for what we don’t know and can’t usually see, but at the same time, not a metaphor at all, just hardcore physical matter, what is already there in the world, spider webs catching the light.

Right now, as I write, it is the day before Christmas, and soon it will be Christmas Eve. The crescent where I live is empty, peaceful, but I know the grocery stores and liquor stores and the main roadways and the malls are packed with shoppers. I know, because I was there an hour or so ago, doing last minute things, a bit of Baileys for our Christmas morning coffee, gravy for the turkey, dinner rolls. My husband is out there right now buying stocking stuffers for my Christmas stocking. This morning, I awoke to a dusting of snow covering the trees, and the sight is still beautiful outside my window, snow and ice clinging to the branches, and to a few stubborn leaves that refused to fall, to the flower stalks in my garden, giving the decayed flowers second life.

Humans seek the miraculous, the divine, want it so very badly, that we look for it in the oddities, a cross in the white markings on the forehead of a calf, the angel in the seeping of water to stain a ceiling, the face of Jesus in a food item, in the scorch patterns of an iron. I don’t think we need to work so hard to find the infusion of the divine in the physical world, to see the miraculous in the here and now. The divine is in the spider webs, in the dusting of the snow, in the “Silent Night, Holy Night” of Christmas, in the ordinary birth of the ordinary child, in hope.

Peace, goodwill, and golden spiderwebs to you and yours this Christmas season, and throughout 2010.

And perhaps, if you’re so inclined, may you see the outline of the miraculous in your Christmas dinner mashed potatoes...

~ Marianne Paul

1 comment

Thank you for this beautiful piece of writing. I feel blessed to have had the chance to read it!


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Marianne Paul

Marianne Paul's is the author of the novels Dead Girl Diaries (BookLand Press, 2009), Tending Memory (BookLand Press, 2007), Twice in a Blue Moon (BookLand Press, 2007) and The Shunning (Moonstone Press, 1994). Her fiction, non-fiction and poems have appeared in publications such as Vox Feminarum, Cahoots, Canadian Author, Western People and The New Quarterly.

Go to Marianne Paul’s Author Page