WHAT A WOMAN!
St Augustine of Hippo, in his great work The City of God, scornfully contrasts with the true and amazing miracles that occur in the church, the lying wonders performed by demons. Nonetheless, he does not doubt that demons, by their own "force and power", do enable their devotees to perform prodigious feats. Thus he describes a number of "miracles", which he says that "history vouches for", such as
- Aeneas brought from Troy to Rome a collection of household gods called the Penates, which had the power to move themselves from one place to another;
- Tarquinius, an early king of Rome (circa 500 B.C.), established his royal authority by cutting a grindstone with a knife as if it were butter;
- a deadly serpent travelled with the physician Asclepius (who later became a god) on a journey from Epidaurus in Greece to Rome;
- a Vestal Virgin, accused of immoral conduct, proved her innocence by filling a sieve with water and carrying it from one place to another without losing a drop.
But the finest of all the exploits occurred when a large ship conveying to Rome the sacred image of a goddess hit a mud bank and was stuck fast. The vessel resisted all attempts by men, oxen, and machines to move it. Along came a virtuous maiden who tied her girdle to it, pulled it free, and hauled it down the river with ease! What a woman! She proved the invincibility of chastity and became a model that Greek and Roman matrons thereafter held admonishingly before their daughters.
Elsewhere, Augustine describes other wonders and supernatural events that were performed in the temples of the pagans. Some of them were mere trickery, like the iron image that floated in mid-air, suspended between two pieces of hidden loadstone. The gullible were persuaded that it was a miracle.
Others were more subtle, resulting from the skill of demons who were "able to enhance the works of the magicians to such a level of power" that they were seemingly able to "stop rivers from flowing, make the stars move in a different direction, call out ghosts from the grave at midnight, compel trees to uproot and walk along the ground, and to shake the very earth itself."
Against those phenomena spawned in hell Augustine set the greater and gracious gifts of God - miracles that were designed not to astound but to heal, not to amaze but deliver, not to induce grovelling servitude but to produce free sons and daughters of God.
What is the source of those divinely wrought signs and wonders? Paul says that they stem from the "charismata", the gifts of the Holy Spirit that have been set in the church by God. By those gifts Spirit-filled Christians are equipped to serve the Lord, and the church is enabled to be what Jesus himself would be if he were here in person. What would he do? He would heal the sick, deliver the oppressed, set the prisoners free, speak the oracles of God, and build the church. By the charismata we can do the same.