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Thomas Jefferson, the Loretto Staircase, and the Forgotten Miracle
An 'impersonal God'-well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads-better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap-best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, King, husband-that is quite another matter.
—C.S. Lewis, Miracles
At 77 years of age, in the twilight of his life, Thomas Jefferson began his project to create a version of the Gospels that excised any hint of the miraculous or divine. He simply cut them out. Quite literally in fact: he used a razor and glue to cut and paste his way to a Frankenstein version of Jesus. For Jefferson, the miracles wrought by Jesus, and His claims of divinity, that is to say, the intervention of God in a specific time and place, is simply incompatible with his deist beliefs. Under the hand of Jefferson’s razor we are left, in the end, with a gospel devoid of any trace of the miraculous.
Or perhaps not.
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Christians of the true faith rightly condemn Jefferson’s heterodox views, but if we believe that he was ultimately successful in his quest to remove every hint of the miraculous from the gospels, then we will have fallen into the same trap as Jefferson. For, Jefferson had a preconceived notion about what the miraculous looks like. What he failed to see, and what many of us believers fail to see, is the miraculous is far more common—and marvelous—than we ever imagine.
The Loretto Staircase
In 1878, the Sisters of Loretto were to begin using their newly built chapel. There was just one problem: there was no way for the sisters to reach the choir loft. The original architect of the chapel died shortly before its completion and left no plan behind indicating a way into the loft. Any sort of traditional staircase would take a significant amount of space in the tiny chapel, leaving seating to a minimum. Multiple builders confirmed to the sisters that given the spatial constraints and the height of the loft—22 feet— the problem seemed like it would take a miracle to solve.
So, the sisters prayed. And why should they not? Had they not heard Our Lord’s words? “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.”
One wonders whether the sisters were even surprised when, on the final day of their novena, a carpenter arrived, carrying nothing but a hammer and a square, and offered to help.
When he finished the staircase, the carpenter vanished as suddenly as he arrived, taking neither payment, nor credit for his work. All that was left was an exquisitely designed piece of art.
Wrapping around approximately 760 degrees, the stairs contain no center structural support. Nearly 150 years later, architects, carpenters, and engineers marvel at the structure. It is universally acclaimed as the work of a master craftsman. A craftsman who, we must remember, did not have the benefit of electricity, modern tools, a crew, or modern design software.
Based on the fact that the wood is of unknown origin, the masterful design of the staircase, and the mysterious identity of the master carpenter, many pious souls regard the staircase as the handywork of St. Joseph himself. Others though have pointed to the fact that, while the design is highly unusual, and masterfully executed, it does not, however, defy the laws of physics. One well known Catholic author recently remarked that “there is nothing miraculous about the construction.”
Except of course, I believe it is miraculous.
Proving that the construction is not miraculous does not prove the staircase isn’t miraculous. This was Jefferson’s mistake. He looked for one kind of miracle, and having removed it, declared his cobbled together scripture “miracle free.” But of course, it wasn’t. And even were we to know every last detail about the wood, the carpenter, and construction of the staircase, it would not make the staircase “miracle free.” In fact, knowing each of these details would likely make us more in awe of the staircase, not less.
Miracles and the miraculous
The mistake that we all tend to make is failing to distinguish the ways that something may be miraculous. A thing may be said to be miraculous in two different ways: in itself, or in its coming to be. For example, the blood of St. Januarius, which liquifies on his feast day, 1700 years after his death, is miraculous in itself, because it possesses miraculous properties that normal blood does not. On the other hand, something like the Shroud of Turin is not miraculous in itself, because the cloth does not possesses any miraculous properties per se. However, we can say that the Shroud is miraculous in that the image on it came about through miraculous means. In Aristotelian terms, we can say that an item may be said to be miraculous if one or more of its four causes—formal, material, efficient, final—are miraculous. St. Januarius’ blood is miraculous in its material cause, whereas the image of the Shroud is miraculous through its efficient cause.
Further, we can distinguish multiple efficient causes. As St. Thomas notes, “in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause…” There is a chain of intermediate causes leading to a final cause. Since this is the case, even if the ultimate efficient cause is not miraculous per se, it does not thereby follow that no cause in this chain was miraculous. If it is the case that any cause in the chain of efficient causes is miraculous, then the final effect can be said to be miraculous. For, without the miraculous cause, the effect could not exist.
The Divine Hunter
Sometimes, God acts in a way where we can see that a thing itself is miraculous. Far more often, he performs miracles through a series of efficient causes. How do we know this? Our Lord tells us. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” This is one of those verses that we’ve heard hundreds of times, and if we’re not careful, we may fail to experience a sense of awe for this claim of Our Lord. Notice that Jesus is not describing the providence of God as a kind of vague awareness or interest in us. On the contrary, the example given by Our Lord here is very purposeful. To wit, He wants us to realize that God loves us so much that He knows and cares for things that we do not even take notice of ourselves. No one knows the number of hairs on their own head, let alone someone else’s. And why not? Because we consider it utterly insignificant.
It is not insignificant for God.
There is nothing—nothing—that He finds insignificant about us.
Our problem is that we find this truth hard to believe. And yet, he never tires of trying to prove it to us. St. Paul tells us that “in everything God works for good with those who love him…”
Why does God normally not perform the kind of miracle that breaks the laws of physics? I think the answer is because He is trying to show us that He is not a Deus ex machina. Were God to simply show up only occasionally and dramatically in this way, we may well believe that God cares but little for us. This is the gods of the Greeks and Romans—gods who are primarily concerned with themselves, but have little care about humanity. Occasionally, they may become involved in the lives of men, primarily from a sense of boredom, but certainly not from a sense of love.
No, St. Paul and Our Lord are telling us something else: that God constantly makes everything work to bring about the good. Yes, even the small things.
Even something as simple as a staircase.
Consider the number of factors that had to be just so for such an astonishing event to take place. In the year the staircase was built, the entire population of Santa Fe was 6,700. That’s every man, woman, and child. If we are to assume that the staircase is not miraculous per se, then it means that among those 6,700 people was one of the only people in the world who had the technical acumen and artistry necessary to build the precise work of art that was required. And he happened to live in Santa Fe, not exactly known as a bastion for the world’s greatest artisans. And yet, that is what this man was, as universally testified by the master craftsmen who have hailed his work these past hundred plus years. What kind of training must he have had? What led him to be at exactly the right place at exactly the right time? How was he even able to discover the need of the sisters—after all, this was before the days of the internet. The chain of causes, going back years, maybe decades, is astonishing to consider. “In everything God works for good.”
This is why the sisters were confident in their prayers: because they didn’t know the number of hairs on their own heads, but they knew Who did. In the grand scheme of the universe, perhaps a staircase is insignificant. But they knew it was not insignificant to Him. They trusted that He knew of their need before the chapel was built. Yes, before they were even born. Before the day when, perhaps, a young boy was first given the inspiration to see a piece of wood and think, “I wonder if I could make something beautiful from this?”
The sisters remembered something we too often forget, that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” But more than this, He never tires of proving it: by reminding us that nothing of us is insignificant to him. He has counted out each hair, and every winding step in our ascent to Him.
If we are diligent, we will remember what the sisters remembered, and what Thomas Jefferson forgot. Jefferson attempted to remove every miracle from the Gospels, but he missed the greatest one. Jefferson never showed his bible to anyone else—he kept it to read for himself.
And I hope he did.
Because the one miracle he needed to read, over and over again, was fortunately spared from his razor. Fortunately, or perhaps, we ought to believe, providentially. I hope that sometime before he passed from this life, his eyes once more rested on the words his razor had missed, and that he finally believed those astonishing words of Our Lord, “But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid.”