This appeared this week in an online Orthodox parish bulletin in a friend’s parish. She knows the people to whom this happened. It has to do with a Greek Orthodox saint Nektarios of Aegina. I’ve slightly edited this to protect the privacy of the people to whom this happened. Read:

Over the summer, OCF [Orthodox Christian Fellowship -- RD] members MS and ND traveled to Aegina to visit the monastery and to pray at the tomb of St. Nektarios. Following the customary practice of pilgrims, the two members prayed with their ear against the tomb. This practice originates in the commonly manifested wonder of pilgrims hearing the sound of the Saint’s feet tapping or shuffling within the tomb.

ND and MS both listened intently with their ears to the tomb… and heard nothing. ND decided to continue walking the premises, while MS stayed a bit longer with the Saint. MS prayed some more and pressed her ear against the tomb. This second time, she heard the sound of tapping. The sound was strong. She pulled away from the tomb, and noticed that the sound was continuing, within her. She placed her hand on the ear which had been on the tomb, and realized that there was oil on it; the tomb of St. Nektarios had streamed a miraculous oil. This was a special encounter indeed with [their] OCF [chapter] patron, St. Nektarios.

While this was happening, another OCF student, MR, was here in [state]. She knew that MS and ND were visiting Aegina, but she had never heard of the custom of pilgrims praying with their ears to the tomb. While ND and MS were at the tomb physically, MR was at the tomb with them… in a dream. She remembers it vividly. The three of them were standing together, ears pressed to the tomb. MR asked the Saint how she could have stronger faith. The Saint rose up and told her “if you can see me and hear me, then you have strong faith”. MR’s mother had fallen asleep in the Lord about a year earlier, and prayer for her had become a struggle. Her encounter with the Saint greatly comforted her.

Both of these miracles occurred the day before Dormition, which is MS’ and MR’s feast day.

MR didn’t find out about the miracle that occurred to MS and ND until their priest mentioned it in his homily the following Sunday.

What do you make of that? As an Orthodox Christian, I believe this account. Or, to be specific, I believe this sort of thing can happen, and does happen; I believe this specific event happened because I trust the friend who related it to me.

I’m wondering a couple of things. First, what do Christians from other traditions make of this story? Catholics, I should think, would have no problem with it. Protestants? I don’t know.

Second, what do people of non-Christian religions, or no religious belief at all, make of it? I wonder this myself about apparent miracles, or at least supernatural events, in other faiths. I believe they can and do happen, but I don’t know what they mean. False miracles — that is, apparent miracles worked by malignant spiritual entities — occur. But does God work miracles outside the Christian faith? I think He can — He is God, after all, and He loves all his people — but I strongly hesitate to pronounce that an apparent miracle outside of the bounds of Biblical religion (Christianity and Judaism) is valid. This, not because I think God doesn’t work miracles in the lives of non-Jews and non-Christians, but because I lack the competence to discern what they might mean, or even if they are valid.

(I wish to draw a sharp distinction between “miracle” and “supernatural activity.” A miracle, in the sense I mean, is an event that contradicts the received laws of the material universe, and cannot be rationally explained. It has an objective quality, in the sense that it can be verified by others, or at least it was something the person experiencing it observed with their senses, not their imagination. By “supernatural activity,” I mean things like poltergeists and other spirits, which I have encountered on more than one occasion, in the presence of others who experienced them as well.)

From an Orthodox Christian point of view, we are not obliged to believe in any apparent miracle outside of the deposit of faith. That is, someone can come home from a trip with a story about a miracle at St. Nektarios’s tomb, and we are not less of a Christian if we choose not to believe their story. But I think it’s worth considering the point Prof. Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University makes in his strange and challenging book Authors Of The Impossiblewhich I reviewed once upon a time for Real Clear Religion. I began my mentioning a paranormal experience I had, and that my family shared, but that most of my secular materialist friends dismiss as impossible, because it does not fit the way they understand the world to work. Excerpt:

And yet, countless people — of all faiths, and of no faith at all — have paranormal experiences, and know they are not crazy. “Just how long can we go on like this until we admit that there is real data, and that we haven’t the slightest idea where to put it?” asks Jeffrey Kripal, head of Rice University’s religious studies department. Kripal poses the question in his provocative new book “Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred,” in which he contends that both orthodox religion and orthodox science foolishly deny things like ghosts, UFOs, telepathy and suchlike because manifestations of the paranormal may violate both religious dogma and what Max Weber (quoted by Kripal) calls “the iron cage of modern rationalism, order, and routinization.”

Kripal’s personal viewpoint on all this is slippery. He says he neither believes nor disbelieves –  not because he’s trying to avoid taking a position, but because of his theory about what the mind and human personality are. This requires some unpacking. In Kripal’s view, the mind and consciousness are far more complex than science and religion think, which renders our various interpretive models inadequate to explain reality. Kripal doesn’t propose a clear alternative, though he does propose that in some way, human consciousness helps create reality through its interaction with the material world, much as we have learned from quantum physics the fantastical lesson that a conscious observer helps determine physical outcomes at the quantum level. He doesn’t believe UFOs are hallucinations or creatures from outer space, for example, but theorizes that UFOs are a a real phenomenon that is, in some dimly understood way, a result of human consciousness interacting with the universe.

If this sounds impossibly New Age, well, it kind of is. But this is precisely where Kripal wants to take the reader by the collar and say, “Not so fast!” The kind of characters we dismiss as kooks may in fact be kooky — but their very distance from the mainstream may help them to see things as they are more clearly, or at least to ask questions that are important, but embarrassing to the right-minded. This is why he turns to a handful of outsider figures, both historical and contemporary, in his search for forgotten insights. One of them, the 20th century American eccentric Charles Fort, described as “damned” information and phenomena discarded by dominant intellectual paradigms. Fort was a legendary curator of the damned, and though he entertained some thoroughly crackpot notions, Kripal values him for paying attention to things respectable intellectuals ignored.

So, what do you think happened to these people at the tomb of St. Nektarios? Why do you interpret this as you do?

UPDATE: Let me explain a little more what I’m after here. I’m asking about epistemology — how do we know what we know? Is there truly an objective way of knowing, one accessible to everyone?

Let’s say that our friend Jim Bob goes on a trip to India, finds himself in an ashram, and has a mystical experience involving a sexual encounter with the goddess Kali — one that is witnessed by a fellow visitor to the ashram. What happened?

1) Nothing happened. Goddesses don’t exist. Jim Bob and his roommate had a hallucination, or someone in a costume played a hell of a trick on them. (Scientific materialist)

2) Jim Bob was sexually assaulted by a noncorporeal entity of indeterminate nature in the guise of a Hindu goddess. (New Age/Pagan)

3) Jim Bob was sexually assaulted by a demon. (traditional Christian)

4) Jim Bob had sex with Kali. (Hindu)

5) Your guess is as good as anybody’s.

There are other interpretations, of course. What would a believing Jew make of such a tale? A Muslim? A Mainline Protestant?

For me, as an Orthodox Christian, two options are open to me: Nothing happened, and Jim Bob and roommate hallucinated the whole thing, or was the victim of an elaborate prank; or Jim Bob was assaulted by a demon. My interpretive framework by definition excludes that he had sex with Kali (I don’t believe Kali exists) or was assaulted by a spiritual entity that might not be evil. I can’t think of another explanation within the framework I believe to be true.

But how do I know that my way of interpreting these things is true, or at least more true than the Hindu, or Wiccan, or scientific materialist? Each epistemology draws lines that exclude other possibilities. Scientific materialism cannot accept a religious interpretation. But what if a religious interpretation (Hindu, Christian, Jewish, etc.) is closer to what the phenomenon actually is?

This is what I’m getting at. I don’t have an answer, but I think about this stuff a lot.