As I explained last month in the first installment of this series, many serious Catholics today live, at least at times, as what I call “lapsed secularists,” assenting with the intellect to the truths of the faith but hardly believing that grace could ever break into our lives in any but the most ordinary ways. Yet the Catholic imagination is precisely one that sees the world as meaningful, a universe, as Hopkins famously put it, “charged with the grandeur of God.” Unfortunately, modernity all too often seems like a conspiracy to dull our imaginations, to erase the signs of God’s presence from our vision of the world, even when they are all around us, even when we have seen them with our own eyes. That’s why I’m writing this series. ,I want to share stories of what I am calling “family miracles” to remind myself, and share with others, moments in which God’s grace has broken into the lives of the people closest to me in extraordinary ways.
For this second installment, I want to recount something that happened to my parents about three years ago—April 22, 2015, to be precise—when they went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The book of Kings talks of God speaking in “a still, small voice,” and that is most often true. But then there are other times in which He really doesn’t seem to care for subtlety. This is that kind of story.
Several days into an amazing pilgrimage, my parents had the chance to visit the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. This site is often skipped by tour groups because it is located in the country of Jordan itself, in favor of a more touristy location within Israel that is much easier to access. Recently, however, Israel opened an access road that allows pilgrims to view the site in Jordan from the Israeli bank of the river, though the fact that the way is flanked by fenced-in fields with signs warning about the presence of landmines probably puts a damper on the crowds.
When they arrived, despite the signs clearly stating that the water is not clean, my parents and some other pilgrims in the group couldn’t resist the urge to roll up their pants and at least wet their feet in same river in which Jesus had entered to be baptized by John. You can see them below. The structures behind them are on the Jordan side of the river, and you can see a baptismal font to the left of my mom’s head. Other than that, there was almost nothing around, expect a few scraggly trees on the Jordanian bank, mined fields on the side of Israel, and a cloudless sky above.
A priest was travelling with the group, so after they finished the preliminary looking around, they gathered together for a prayer service by the bank of the river. The priest stood with his back to the river, while the rest of the group looked towards it and the baptismal font on the other side. My mom could hardly believe she was actually praying on Jordan’s literal bank, the very place where Jesus’ public ministry had begun, where the Holy Spirit had descended on Him like a dove. She was trying to hold on to every second of this first amazing visit to the land where God walked on Earth, so she was perhaps overly attached to her camera. Despite feeling a bit guilty about not giving her full attention to the prayers, she kept her cell phone out and tried to discreetly film the service. When the priest began to read the Gospel, however, she thought it would be too disrespectful to keep filming, so she turned the camera off but kept the phone out with the intention of continuing her video once the reading was over. The priest began reading from Matthew, chapter 3:
Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sad’ducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. . . .”I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove . . .
And that’s when it happened.
I mean at that exact moment, just as the priest was saying “descending like a dove”—on that point my parents are adamant. Out of the empty, clear blue sky, a white dove appeared, flew down, and alighted for a moment on the baptismal font on the other side of the river. A shocked gasp escaped the group, loud enough to startle the priest out of his reading of the Gospel.
“What happened?” he asked in alarm.
The confused group tried to explain, but by the time the priest looked behind his back the dove had flown away and was nowhere to be seen. “I can’t believe I missed that,” he said. He could see in the faces of the pilgrims that something big had happened. My mom was by no means the only one whose eyes were full of tears.
Still, she had kept her wits about her. And as I mentioned earlier, her phone. The dove had only touched down on the baptismal font for a second, but it had been enough for my mom to snap a picture as it began to fly away.
Pics or it didn’t happen, goes the Internet meme.
Well, it happened:
Sometimes, God does things with reality that no writer of realist fiction could ever get away with. Critics would immediately decry the work as cheesy, overly neat, implausible. Yet somehow, when God does the same things, the effect is entirely other. He is the Great Artist, who knows exactly when the rules of good realism need to be broken. Pay attention to the universe and you’ll see this pattern everywhere. I mean the everyday universe, not just events that verge on the supernatural. How plausible is an elephant? A squid?
Certainly, some will say that the fact that a white dove (where none were to be seen) alighted on a baptismal font at the site of Jesus’ baptism on the Jordan river, exactly as a group of pilgrims listened to a priest read a line from the Bible about a white dove landing on Jesus in that same river to mark his baptism, is . . . errr . . . a coincidence.
To that I say, sure, they’re entitled to that response. But if it is a coincidence, it is an embarrassing coincidence.
Some people seem sure that the universe is really just a bunch random, meaningless events happening one after another. That could be. But what a weird conspiracy that same universe would appear to be orchestrating to trick us into believing the opposite.