I was e-mailing with a friend this week, talking about the final scene in the novel Laurus (see my interview today with its author here). My friend wrote:

The final lines brought home to me that one of his purposes in the book was to show how people can be in the presence of such miracles and remain numb to them in any but the most self-serving ways. It’s a theme he touches on several times.
It’s something that has always perplexed me, actually–how people can see miracles and blessings and enjoy them, then just shrug off the implications, fail to form any relationship with God, fail to amend their lives. I see people do that, but don’t understand it.

It happened to my late father. Back in 1994, my father witnessed the reality of life after death, and the power of forgiveness, and of the Church’s spiritual power, to resolve this brokenness — a story I recount in How Dante Can Save Your Life. And yet he remained unmoved personally. He believed everything that happened, that he, in fact, was at the center of, was real. And yet, because the implications of those things being real meant that he had to change his life in ways he found challenging, he chose to live with the cognitive dissonance. I don’t get it. Evgeny Vodolazkin does, though.

Many people find comfort in telling themselves that they would believe in God if only they would have an experience of the numinous. But this is not true, or at least is true far less often than you might suspect. If the heart is unwilling to believe — or, to be more precise, is unwilling to follow through with the implications of that belief, as in my dad’s case — then miracle is useless. My correspondent sent me the following passage from the second part of the autobiography of the great English art historian Sir Kenneth Clark:

I lived in solitude, surrounded by books on the history of religion, which have always been my favorite reading. This may help to account for curious episode that took place on one of my stays in the villino. I had a religious experience. It took place in the church of San Lorenzo, but did not seem to be connected with the harmonious beauty of the architecture. I can only say that for a few minutes my whole being was irradiated by kind of heavenly joy, far more intense than anything I had known before. This state of mind lasted for several months, and, wonderful though it was, it posed an awkward problem in terms of action. My life was far from blameless: I would have to reform. My family would think I was going mad, and perhaps after all, it was a delusion, for I was in every way unworthy of receiving such a flood of grace. Gradually the effect wore off, and I made no effort to retain it. I think I was right; I was too deeply embedded in the world to change course. But that I had “felt the finger of God” I’m quite sure, and, although the memory of this experience has faded, it still helps me to understand the joys of the saints.

“I would have to reform,” he conceded, but finding that too difficult, he chose to turn his back on the treasure of this extraordinary grace. I find this so hard to understand. It happens to the protagonist of Houellebecq’s Submission: he is given an experience of the divine, but dismisses it to return to his miserable ordinary life.