In Willa Cather’s western novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, there is a compelling scene in which two missionary priests discuss a miracle. They are contemplating the effect of miracles on faith:
“Doctrine is well enough for the wise, Jean,” says one priest, “but the miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love.”
“Where there is great love, there are miracles,” replies the other priest after a pause. “One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”
These words came to my mind as I was contemplating one of the miraculous places we visited on our Italian pilgrimage: Lanciano. It was a small town, with the same crooked Italian streets and lovely balcony windows that we had come across in almost every small Italian town we had visited that far; but Lanciano was not an ordinary town. It was not even an ordinary Italian town, because while almost every locality in Italy can claim at least one saint or famous building as their own, Lanciano can claim something far more marvelous than the shrine of saint or a magnificent cathedral.
In the heart of Lanciano, there is one, small church–which is beautiful but ordinary as Italian churches go. In this church, there is a tiny back-room where there took place, 1300 years ago, what may be the most earth-shaking miracle in all of Christendom; and this miracle continues to happen, every day, in sacred display behind the altar for all the faithful to see.
The story goes that in the 700’s A.D., a Basilian monk and priest was suffering a serious crisis of faith about the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He was going through the motions of the Mass but had painful doubts that Christ really came into the wafers of bread he consecrated–that the hosts truly ceased to exist and that he held, instead, God Himself in his hands. One day, when he said the words of consecration with these turbulent doubts weighing upon him, the bread and wine he consecrated turned visibly into flesh and blood. That thin section of heart flesh, and few dark drops of blood, are still venerated in the church Lanciano–miraculously preserved through the centuries without human aid.
It is called the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano; but the miracle is not that the host turned into flesh and blood in the hands of the priest. That is what happens at every Mass, as astounding as it is. The miracle, in this case, is that we can see it. Just as the priest says in Cather’s novel, our human vision is corrected by divine love, and we can suddenly perceive see what is around us always! At Lanciano, by God’s mercy we can physically see the spiritual reality that is within every tabernacle and at every daily Mass: the Flesh and Blood of God.
Lanciano, however, was not the only Eucharistic Miracle we were privileged to see. In Siena, hundreds of years ago, two thieves broke into the cathedral and stole everything of value they could lay their hands on–including a silver pyx containing several hundred consecrated hosts which had been laid aside in preparation for a special feast day. When the loss was discovered, the whole town was full of anxiety, terrified that the Eucharist would be desecrated or discarded by the thieves. A three day fast was declared and the people of Siena prayed fervently that the hosts would be returned. Then, shortly afterward, a priest found the hosts dumped in the dust at the bottom of a collection box. Since the priest believed they could not be used because they had touched dirt, he put them aside in a small box in the tabernacle where they remained for years. Later, when the box was reopened, the hosts were found to be fresh, white, and sweet–and still are, four hundred years later, now kept in a special glass vessel in the cathedral. It was a little miracle; God crying out in the Eucharist, See that I AM present here, and that I AM eternal.
As at Lanciano, the miracle in Siena is that we suddenly can see a truth, a reality, that is with us always. It strengthens our faith, gives us something to “hold in our hands and love,” as the priest said. In no instance, perhaps, is this perception of miracles more true than in the case of Eucharistic miracles, when our vision is “corrected by Divine love.” In the Eucharist, there is always more present than meets our flawed human vision. True God and True Man is there in double disguise within the appearances of bread; God makes Himself totally vulnerable there for us. How often we pass Him by or stare at Him blankly without recognizing the miracle before us, while our angels tremble and bow low before Him: Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, hidden in the little white host.