For those who don’t know, this summer I’m working at University Townhouses Cooperative (UTC), a subsidized housing complex where I build fences and move appliances. Today was a particularly humid day, with an official temperature in the 80s but a heat index that felt well into the 100s. Most of the day was spent taking breaks from the heat, or filling water bottles, or wondering if a breeze will pick up, or wondering if it won’t.
At long last, the inevitable thrust of the day led us inside into the much more forgiving world of air conditioning. Under the shady branches of a cool electric fan, we spread our weary selves upon the oasis of swivel chairs that was my supervisor’s office.
My supervisor’s name is Mandel, or… Mandle, or some other spelling of what phonetically sounds like a man-candle. He’s the one who gave me the job; my dad was the UTC grounds supervisor (back in the day, before they had lawn mowers or electricity), so he put in a good word and nepotism did the rest. Mandel is a huge mass of a man who surrounds his swively throne with boards on boards covered with photos of game he or someone else caught. The man likes his pictures.
Anyway, today while my coworker and I were shooting the shit in Mandel’s office, he beckons me over like he’s got some secret. He pulls out a photograph of a sliding door window from a special drawer in his desk. Imprinted on the window is what looks like a fluttering dove. Mandel informs me that the picture is of an imprint that a bird left when it flew into his window. The bird itself fell to the deck and died, but a fuzzy white shadow was left on the window. When Mandel told me his wife had a prayer group over to pray near the image, I was a little weirded out.
Mandel then proceeds to pull out three more photos, all taken by himself. The first is at Mt. Tabor in Israel. It is a photo of his wife in the foreground, with a white “dove”-shaped artifact covering the picture. It kinda looks like the chalk bat symbol from The Dark Knight Rises.
The second photograph is some other dove-related photographic weirdness, but apparently it didn’t impress me since I can’t remember it. The third is of a snow formation around Christmas time that looked vaguely (once he pointed it out) like the Virgin Mary and a manger.
His explanation is that all these are manifestations of his guardian angel. He goes on to tell me that at some time two letters appeared in his yard, one addressed to him and signed by his guardian angel, and another addressed to his wife informing her that her mother is excited because she is spending her first Christmas in Heaven with Jesus.
Now, I’ve always been wary – nay, incredulous – about the classic blurry photographic evidence for the paranormal. Whyyyyy is it always blurry?
On the other hand I know Mandel, and he is completely sincere, and the photographs are real. If there’s anything wrong with the picture, so to speak, it is how he assigns meaning to probably random lens flares.
But then I couldn’t help think: why shouldn’t Mandel have a special relationship with his guardian angel? Why couldn’t this be God’s not-so-subtle way of keeping Mandel close to His heart? I then thought of a passage from G. K. Chesterton:
As a common-sense conclusion, such as those to which we come about sex or about midnight (well knowing that many details must in their own nature be concealed) I conclude that miracles do happen. I am forced to it by a conspiracy of facts: the fact that the men who encounter elves or angels are not the mystics and the morbid dreamers, but fishermen, farmers, and all men at once coarse and cautious; the fact that we all know men who testify to spiritualistic incidents but are not spiritualists…
I really cannot comment too much on the specific validity of the pictures Mandel showed me, but the fact of the matter is that I am a much less trustworthy person regarding the supernatural than Mandel. And yet, it is people like Mandel who carry the case for the supernatural. People like me (the “academics” and “educated” and “worldly”) who are full of ideologies, obsessed with fitting things into a worldview, set on conforming our experiences to a logos, we are the one who cannot be trusted to see what is to be seen. As Chesterton puts it elsewhere:
Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both… If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism— the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist.
The fact that Mandel sees an angel in every lens flare does not disprove the supernatural; if anything, it proves it! The fact that I submit it to inquiry whereas Mandel submits it only to memory does not mean that I see clearer. I may think clearer, but my clear thinking clouds my vision. Mandel may or may not think too much about what he sees, but he sees. There’s something compelling about this argument from simplicity. The fact that normal, practical, down-to-earth, empirical human beings like Mandel regularly experience the supernatural, and the fact that it takes several thousand years of academic vanity for us academics to come up with sufficient excuses to call him into doubt – there’s something to be said for it. It may not be a logical argument for the supernatural, but we’ve had enough of logic. We’ve logicked ourselves out of logic, “proceeded well to stop all good proceeding” (Love’s Labour’s Lost), used our supernatural faculty of reason to prove that there is no supernatural faculty. Maybe it’s time to tear down the ivory tower and focus on the cement foundation. Simple, clean.
It has been good for me to be around people like Mandel, because it was people like him who Christ called. It was the practical fisherman, the practical money counter, the practical prostitute and tent maker that Christ called to witness his miracles. And witness they did, while the academics and scribes and Pharisees soberly explained it all away. I can only pray to be like John the Evangelist, reading Plato and Isaiah with Gamaliel in the evening, but fishing and swearing with real people in the morning.