In western culture — by this I mean the first-world Americas and Europe — we have a tendency to be reductionist, pragmatic and thoroughly modern. There’s a reason Hemingway’s books are considered the classic literature of the 20th century, after all.

But this tendency also tends to bleed over into our faiths, and I’m not just talking about dry mainline Protestantism from the 1920s on. Aside from St. Faustina’s visions, present-day American Catholics don’t really have much of a devotion to mystical things, and even Pentecostals are more concerned with material miracles like faith healing and financial blessings.

The fact is, however, that for most of Church history the sort of things that modern man doesn’t like to think about — apparitions of saints, myrrh crying icons, miracle-working relics and the like — were not only accepted but kind of expected. Not expected to happen every day, the way Pentecostals expect miraculous things to happen, but expected in the a way that acknowledged that occasionally, these things happen.

Protestantism started shedding much of this belief very quickly during the Reformation in the name of getting rid of superstition. Cromwell destroyed the shrine to Our Lady of Waslingham, and Calvin whitewashed churches. But curiously, it did not shed the beliefs about evil apparitions as quickly as it did the belief in wonder-working material things – hence, supposed witches could be burned for funny looking birthmarks but reliquaries in monasteries had to be smashed.

Popular Catholicism in America is starting to veer in the same direction, because Americans have bought the lie that everything has to be both rational and naturalistic. But I’m not here to try to dissuade anyone from the idea that devotion to the Holy Child of Prague is anything other than otherworldly.

To be sure, many of the old beliefs and devotions of the patristic and middle ages can be attributed to superstition (the evil eye, anyone?), but I’m less and less inclined to think that some of those miracles based on what we think are goofy devotions weren’t true and also that they suddenly stopped happening circa 1917 (or at the death of the Apostles, if you’re a dry old Protestant fogey).

I know of one woman who — as an early teen with no prior religious training — claims she converted to Christianity after having a vision of Jesus and Mary. And if she is as serious about the Christian faith as she represents herself, she’s no flake. And if The Voice of the Martyrs (a Protestant publication) is telling the truth, that kind of story is not unheard of in traditionally non-Christian countries.

One group that doesn’t seem prone to the tendency to discount stories of miracles are converts to Orthodoxy. That’s not as much due to piousness, in my estimation, as it is to wanting to be un-Western in their convert fervor, though. I’m not saying it doesn’t eventually become genuine, but wait five years and we’ll have this conversation again.

In the interest of fairness, there does seem to be a renewed interest in this sort of thing among Catholic converts (despite the howls of their Orthodox counterparts that Guadalupe isn’t legitimate), but it’s usually among the kind of convert who becomes a capital-T traditionalist, or at least really likes the Latin mass.

In all of this, there is a truth that needs to be remembered — miraculous happenings and shrines are only as good as their purpose, which is to point our eyes to Christ. If they detract from Christ, your devotion endangers your soul.

As for me, if I knew where the miracle-working bones of Elijah were, I’d at least go have a look, and I’d probably make a few other stops along the way.

But I’m still very cautious about this sort of thing, moreso about stories of visions than miracle-working items. And that’s not the American in me.

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