Damascus and Fatima
by Philip Trower
My purpose in writing this article is to show how a knowledge of the Church’s ascetical theology and history can throw light on or help to resolve problems in Holy Scripture. I am giving two examples, one based on an incident in the New Testament, the other taken from the Old. Ascetical theology is defined in the dictionary I mostly use as the ‘science of the saints based on the study of their lives,’ and that includes supernatural phenomena.
The two incidents I am using are the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus and the passage in the book of Joshua where God extends the length of the day by keeping the sun from setting so that Joshua can win a battle.
There are three accounts of St Paul’s conversion in the Acts of the Apostles. In the first St Luke is describing the event, which he must often have heard from St Paul’s own lips, where it naturally comes in the course of his narrative. Here he tells us that suddenly a light from heaven flashed about St Paul and that ‘he fell to the ground and heard a voice’. Then he says that St Paul’s companions stood speechless, ‘hearing the voice but seeing no one.’ (Acts 9:3-7)
In the second account St Luke quotes St Paul directly. St Paul, who has just completed his 3rd missionary journey, is addressing the rioting Jews outside the Roman barracks in Jerusalem. After being arrested in the Temple, he has been telling them the story of his life and conversion. This time he says that his companions ‘saw a light but did not hear the voice.’ (Acts 22:6-9)
In the third account a year to a year and a half later (Acts 26:12-15), St Paul, still a prisoner, is describing the event to King Agrippa in Caesarea while waiting to be sent to Rome. This time he says nothing about what his companions did or didn’t see.
How then are we to explain the disparity between the first two accounts; one saying the companions did hear a voice, the second saying they didn’t? Is this a case of Scripture contradicting itself, or St Paul making a mistake and forgetting what had happened in one of them? It would surely be expecting too much to imagine there had never been any Scripture scholar to have drawn such a conclusion.
However a little reflection reveals that it need not necessarily be so.
St Paul’s companions were employees of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem and therefore, when the incident occurred, not sympathetic to Christians. Indeed together with St Paul they were on their way to arrest some of them. However in the light of what happened, and they experienced, it is surely not impossible or even unlikely that one or more of them subsequently became Christians themselves, whom St Luke was able to question. Here is the relevant passage from the account to King Agrippa.
“At midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language ‘Saul, Saul., why do you persecute me?...... And I said ‘Who are you, Lord? And the Lord said; ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
This, surely, is an experience St Pauls’s companions were not easily going to forget or would leave little or no impression on them. Suddenly a light brighter than the sun shining all round them, then being thrown off their horses onto the ground and finally hearing, or some of them hearing, a mysterious voice claiming to be the very Jesus whose followers they were about to arrest.
Moreover, unless some of them later became Christians, how could anyone have known what they saw, heard or felt at the time. St Paul wasn’t in a condition or state of mind to question them, and since no further reference is made to them they presumably returned to Jerusalem, leaving St Paul in the ‘house of Judas’, where, so we are told, he was initially taken.
Assuming then that some of the companions did later become Christians it also seems to me more than likely that St Luke, being the natural historian he was, while relying mainly on St Paul, would have contacted them so as to question them about their experience too. Which brings us back to the question whether or not they heard the voice. Here, it seems to me we can explain the apparent contradiction by the fact that some did and some didn’t.
It is a well recognized fact in the lives of saints that when supernatural phenomena occur which are witnessed by more than one person, some are often privileged to see or hear more than others. We can cite numerous instances in the life of Padre Pio when he was seen in two places at once (the phenomenon known as bilocation). But not everyone present always saw him in the second of the two places. Similarly at Fatima. The two younger children did not always see or hear as much as Lucia, the eldest.
My second episode also has to do with a supposed error in Holy Scripture, but one greater in size and with more far reaching implications.
I refer to the passage in the book of Joshua where God extends the day by keeping the sun from setting so that Joshua has time to finish a battle. Here is the text.
“Then spoke Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the men of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel, ‘Sun, stand thou still over Gibeon, and thou moon in the valley of Aijalon.’ And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.” (Joshua 10:12,13)
Clearly down the ages our forbears, Jewish and Christian, would have seen this as a miracle. But starting with Copernicus, the new heliocentric astronomy seemed to require a miracle of such fantastic proportions as to make it seem highly unlikely. Not only would the sun have had to be stopped in its tracks. So would all the planets revolving round it, our earth included. There was no evidence in Scripture or anywhere else that God had ever worked a physical miracle on such a staggeringly vast scale. As a result, by the time Galileo came along with his more sophisticated heliocentrism, his theories seemed to involve a direct challenge to the book of Joshua. For some at least of the clerics involved in the Galileo case, this alone would have been enough to make his theories worthy of condemnation.
What of course the clerics in question did not consider was the possibility that God had worked a miracle with physical appearances rather than physical bodies.
Is there any evidence that God has ever done such a thing either before or afterwards? Yes. Where? At Fatima in Portugal in October 1917.
Our Lady, you will remember, had promised the three children she had been appearing to since May 1917 that before she finally left them she would ask God to work a miracle of sufficient proportions to convince everybody that what they had been telling them was true.
The miracle was fixed for 13th Oct and not only Fatima locals witnessed it. A crowd of several thousand gathered to see what happened, mainly from Lisbon, journalists included. They were not all pious believers, and they had been waiting in the rain for several hours. At last at the time foretold, the sky cleared, the sun half emerged, and seeming to detach itself from the sky appeared to plunge towards the earth.
There were shouts and shrieks and people threw themselves on the ground. Then the miracle was over, and the sun was back in its proper place --- or rather it ceased to appear being out of its proper place. Meanwhile, in addition to giving the sign Our Lady had promised the children, it had confirmed the veracity of the book of Joshua, demonstrating at the same time that the new heliocentrism was no danger to it. God can and apparently will manipulate appearances without resorting to mass hallucination, though needless to say there were people who, against all the evidence, have resorted to that explanation of the Fatima miracle.
One can only speculate as to how the Galileo case would have been affected, had something comparable to the Fatima miracle occurred near Rome in, say, 1616 or thereabouts.
That it didn’t is surely a sign of God’s wisdom and mercy. It would have confused the already confused clerics taking part in the case still further, making them even more stubbornly resistant to the new heliocentrism than they were already. They would have assumed the miracle was a physical one and that it therefore supported their position. The sun could literally drop towards the earth without disturbing the moon or any other heavenly bodies. However, by 1917 heliocentrism was so solidly established that no one was going to doubt the Fatima miracle was a miracle of appearance. Meanwhile Fatima has confirmed the miracle of the prolonged day in the Book of Joshua, a miracle of appearance, it would seem, likewise.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2016
Version: 28th February 2016