In an era that regards miracles as events that are yet to succumb to a rational explanation, the Jewish festival of Channucha celebrates the miracle of oil.
Before July 1999, most people would also have said that miracles had no place in cycle sport. Long hours of training, a carefully balanced diet, a carbon fibre bike with big gears, and, for some, blood-doping, were the only way to achieve success on two wheels. That was before Lance Armstrong won the first of seven consecutive Tours de France.
Drugs certainly played their part in Armstrong’s success. Etoposide, ifosfamide, and cisplatin (VIP) made up the cocktail of tablets that, together with chemotherapy, and surgery saved his life. All these treatments were employed between October and December 1996, to treat cancer which had started in his testicles, and spread to his brain, lungs and abdomen. He was given a 40% chance of survival by his doctors that year. Only Armstrong himself was thinking about a return to professional bike racing.
Having recaptured the ramsacked Temple in Jerusalem the Jews found only a single cruse of oil to light the seven-branched candelabra – a single day’s supply. This oil lasted eight days until fresh supplies could be found and delivered to the Temple. Thus the eight branched candelabra that we light throughout the festival to mark the miraculous tenacity of this meagre supply of oil.
Lance Armstrong shared his experiences as a professional cyclist surviving cancer in a book called ‘It’s Not About The Bike’. Although I am happy to admit a strong emotional connection to the bicycles I have owned over the past ten years, and have never been ashamed to rely on their gears to help me up the hills, I recognise that it’s what happens under the plastic hat (or balaclava in the cold weather) that makes me continue to turn the pedals, mile after mile.
But is there something about miracles that spurs the search for rational explanation? Lance Armstrong has successfully defended himself in the courts against numerous attempts to discredit his achievements in the saddle. Sceptics might say that this is the real miracle; however, are rational explanations and miracles mutually exclusive? Why shouldn’t an all-powerful, all-knowing Deity pander to the rational part of His (or Her) creation by allowing for the possibility of rational, that is to say, sceptical explanation? By doing so, S/He allows for the possibility of faith. Yes, so the argument goes, Lance Armstrong was very, very ill in 1996, however, he responded well to the best treatment avaliable, and early enough, for the cancer to be beaten. Just because medical treatments were successful with an athlete with unusually large heart and lung capacity, couldn’t this simply mean that a) The Almighty gave Armstrong those physical attributes for a reason – and he has used them to good effect, and b) of course we can view the success of his treatment rationally, as being just the work of specialists using the best possible treatments early enough on a particularly robust patient; but isn’t part of viewing his recovery, and later stellar cycling career as a miracle, a choice? The Almighty allows for the possibility of the sceptics view to permit the argument from faith based on the same evidence, and thus giving this approach some credit. For people of faith, this simply extends the miracle. Instead of being limited to Lance Armstrong’s personal qualities, physical and mental to overcome such challenges, the exsistence and deployment of medical treatments are also part of the miracle. Why exclude the possibilty of the divine from the medical arena?
In George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Saint Joan’, the French soldier, inspired by seeing visions of St. Michael urging her to lead French troops in battle to defeat the English invaders, is challenged at her trial for heresy, in 1430, that these visions were the mere workings of an over-active imagination. The teenager does not hesitate in her reply: Of course, that is how God’s messages come to us. Her zeal only leads the court to condemn her for heresy, and she is burnt at the stake. Small comfort, then, that she made an effective defence of her visions. Part of me wonders whether modern French psychiatrists would also dismiss their national heroine claiming that she was psychotic.
Whatever complaints we may have about conditions in psychiatric wards today, one can only wonder what they must have been like in the nineteenth century, when the ‘Northamptonshire Peasant Poet’, John Clare was a patient in an Essex asylum between 1837-41. He once claimed, “I’m John Clare now, I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly.” Whichever voice he uses here, he reminds me that we’re not here for very long.
All Nature Has A Feeling
All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks
Are life eternal: and in silence they
Speak happiness beyond the reach of books;
There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay
Is the green life of change; to pass away
And come again in blooms revivified.
Its birth was heaven, eternal in its stay,
And with the sun and moon shall still abide
Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.
John Clare (1793-1864)