You may wonder why a non-theist is writing to endorse the idea of miracles. Simply, miracles are as available to me as to anyone else. The difference is that I do not interpret them as other-worldly or ascribe them to imaginary forces.
“Miracle” is a word we use to describe a result that is so unexpectedly good that it seemed to have been impossible to attain. It is a way of looking at things, not an objective statement about the universe.
Faith changed my life. Or, you could say, I changed my life through Faith. Either way, it was a miracle.
A young, nearly blind woman named Annie Sullivan traveled from Boston to Alabama with a Faith that she could teach language to a barely controlled six-year-old child who had been blind and deaf since she was only a year old. There was no evidence that she could succeed. The undertaking seemed hopeless. No one had ever done it before. Then, through dogged effort, Ms. Sullivan succeeded. Her pupil, Helen Keller, went on to become a scholar, writer and inspiration to the world. That was a miracle too.
Einstein said that there are two ways of looking at things. One is that nothing is a miracle. The other is that everything is. I cannot explain the universe, or life, or why I am here apart from the biological processes and their predicates, which I cannot explain in any sense. It is not that I believe in miracles but that I see things that make me grateful to be alive, and call them miracles.
Film and Stage
- The Music Man: Harold Hill travels the salesman’s circuit into a sleepy Iowa town one summer, planning to dupe the bumpkins with a phony scheme for a boys’ band. He tells the boys that if they “think” the music, they can play it. Everywhere he goes, he preaches his cynical gospel. By the sheer force of putting one foot in front of the other, cynicism is transformed into creative Faith, both for the town and for “Professor” Hill, and a miracle happens.
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
When our daughter was born, we purchased our first video camera. The first recording on that camera is of our newborn daughter in her mother's arms, as the resolution theme from Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 (1877) plays in the background. For me, nothing could better express the meaning of miracles than that little scene. I did not plan it this way, but if I could choose one scene from my life to represent my joy - my triumph of patience and Faith - this would be it. That I have it on tape is dumb luck. The reward for Faith is rarely immediate. Fittingly, Brahms took at least fourteen years to complete the symphony.
- Throughout the first three movements, the protagonist struggles, trying on a new theme each time. The first movement is the unrest and agitation of youth. The second movement tells of sustained (andante sostenuto) loneliness and longing - for comfort and companionship. In the third movement, undertones of self-pity have vanished and become grace (un poco allegretto gracioso). The protagonist has arrived at a tenuous inner peace. But wait - at the end of this brief movement, touches of loneliness and longing return. The protagonist has adjusted, his star perhaps having escaped his grasp (Paul Simon, "Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy" from the album "Still Crazy After All These Years"), and is for the most part, but not entirely, content.
- The fourth movement opens deeply unsettled. Emotions stir from within. What seemed tentatively resolved is not. The inner truce is broken. What is happening? The storm mounts from within, then quiets. Then suddenly, like an angel of salvation, a solo trombone sounds the theme announcing resolution. A flute picks up the theme, then is accompanied by the trombone. Disparate voices have one message and one aim. More brass join, followed by the solo trombone again. The storm returns. Something is about to happen, but what? The brass are now still. Then, after a moment of silence, a chorus of cellos announces the final, joyful resolution, followed by a chorus of woodwinds, then the violins like an army of angels. The protagonist never knew such joy, or thought it possible. The symphony concludes with the protagonist rushing joyfully from one thing to another, like the giddy Ebenezer Scrooge awoken from his dream and so enamored of the newly remade world that he does not know what to hug first. Near the end of the movement and symphony, the resolution theme reappears. The protagonist is at last truly content. The symphony ends with a cacophonous rush of joy.
Great recordings of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1:
- Weingartner, London Symphony Orchestra, 1939, is noted for its vigorous but steady tempi choices, which are vibrant throughout.
- Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1978, features the orchestra’s exceptional power and Karajan’s masterful conducting.
- Abbado, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, 1991, is similar to Karajan’s recording, with better sound.
- Klemperer, Philharmonia Orchestra, 1956, “is made of granite, implacable and grimly powerful”.
- Jochum, London Philharmonic Orchestra, 1976, is impulsive and convincing.
- Sanderling, Staatskapelle Dresden, 1971, is clean and deeply emotive.
- Gardiner, Orchestre Revolutonnaire et Romantique, 2007, is intensely dramatic and unmanicured.
- Fischer, Budapest Festival Orchestra, 2009: vibrant and alert;
- Blomstedt, Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig, 2022: detailed and controlled, yet emotionally engaging.
A similarly stirring theme serves as the denoument of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 82 (1919). A flock of swans flying overhead inspired Sibelius’ musical idea. Top performances were conducted by Kajanus in 1932, Rodzinski in 1941, Koussevitsky in 1945, Ormandy in 1954, Collins in 1955, Karajan in 1965, Barbirolli in 1966, Davis in 1974, Rattle in 1983, Berglund in 1996, Vänskä in 1996 and Mäkelä in 2021. Here are live performances conducted by Bernstein, Sasarte and Wolf.
- Alexander Scriabin, Piano Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19, “Sonata-fantasy” (1898): the dreams and aspirations of the first movement (Andante) are transformed from fantasy to reality in the ebullient second movement (Presto). Scriabin wrote that the first movement evokes “the calm of a night by the seashore”. One critic observes that “the sea is an ancient symbol for the psyche, and the Sonata represents an early example of Scriabin’s later tendency to equate the phenomena around him with his own interior life”. The second movement represents a sudden advancement into another state of Being.
- William Goldstein, “The Miracle Worker”, original soundtrack recording for the film about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan
Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.
[Tupac Shakur, “The Rose that Grew from Concrete”]