Sunday, 29 May 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 17

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

It is interesting is that while Balleine is a religious man, he is also a man of the scientific age. Where there are miracles, he looks for what are essentially scientific explanations, in terms of biology or psychology, and for historical parallels. Faith can heal, and even apparently restore from the dead - but there are good reasons for that. His use of comparative religions is also interesting, as he uses that to explain that healing it itself does not validate the theology of the healer.

Most of the illustrations and icons depict Tabitha as a young woman, but there is no indication of that in the text. Rather as Balleine describes her - a "lady bountiful", giving to the early Christian movement, and a widow, she might well have been an older woman, so I have managed to find a suitable picture.

More Visits To Philip's Converts by G.R. Balleine

WHEN Philip left Samaria, he travelled south to the Plain of Sharon, the old land of the Philistines, which Jesus does not seem to have visited. In a wayside pool, near the ruins of Gaza, he baptized a negro, `a man of Ethiopia', who was treasurer of the black Queen of a Nubian kingdom south of Egypt. Apparently Philip already seems to have thought of Christianity as a world-wide religion. By this baptism he defied one of the Mosaic laws. Slaves in the women's quarters of a palace had to be castrated; and the Law excluded all eunuchs from `the congregation of the Lord'.

Philip then turned north along the coast road, `preaching in every town, till he reached Caesarea', the Roman capital of Judea, where twenty years later we find him still living. At Lydda and Joppa he formed groups of disciples.

When Peter heard this, he hurried to the district. Baptizing negroes! Baptizing eunuchs! What next would this young man be doing? Clearly his work needed supervision. Peter did not want the Church to be saddled with another Simon Magus. His journey raises again the problem of miracles. An outbreak of miracles had apparently followed the healing of the cripple in the Temple. `Many signs and marvels,' we are told, `were done by the Apostles; the sick were laid on mats in the streets, that the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on one or other of them.' But no particulars of cures are given, and this excitement seems to have died away.

But now on his journey to the West we are told of his healing a bedridden man who was paralysed and restoring to life a woman who seemed to be dead. If these stories are late legends, we lose faith in the rest of Luke's record.

But a little acquaintance with similar movements restores our confidence in Acts. Precisely analogous statements are made by early Quakers, sober seventeenth-century Englishmen, who made it a point of conscience, even to the verge of crankiness, never to stray a hair's-breadth from the truth. George Fox writes in his journal: `I lighted at a Friend's house, and the lass made a fire, her master and dame being gone to market. And there was a boy lying in a cradle, about three years old, who was grown almost double. The Lord moved me to lay my hands on him; and we passed away. Some time after, I met his mother. "Oh," she said, "the country is convinced by the miracle you did on my son. We had carried him to Wells and Bath, and all doctors had given him over. But, after you was gone, we came home, and found him playing in the street." This was about three years ago, and he was grown a straight youth.'

There is even a case in which a Quaker is said to have raised the dead. Next to Fox no leader was better loved than Nayler. In 1656 he was confined with other Quakers in Exeter Jail. One of them, a widow named Dorcas Erbury, fell ill, and appeared to die. For two days her body lay waiting for burial. Then Nayler visited her. Her name prompted him to lay his hand on her head and say, `Dorcas, arise.' And she stood up, and lived for years. There can be no doubt that this happened. It was widely discussed at the time.

Quakers claimed it as a miracle, and, though it took place in a public jail, the authorities could not deny it. Dorcas was examined before a Committee of the House of Commons. `He laid his hand on my head,' she said, `when I had been dead two days, and I arose and live, as thou seest.' `What witnesses hast thou for this?' She answered, `My mother.' Probably this was one of those cases of catalepsy, which even today are hard to distinguish from actual death. The prostrate persons seem unconscious, but they hear all that is said, and one way to rouse them is to call them by name, and tell them to do something.

These modern examples make it easier to accept the story of Peter's miracles. He came to Lydda, a village on the road which ran from Babylon to Egypt. Among Philip's converts was a paralysed man named Aeneas, who for eight years had been bedridden. The mention of his name and the length of his helplessness shows that this was no vague rumour. Peter visited him, and felt moved to say: `Jesus, the Messiah, heals you. Get up and make your bed.' He tried, and found he could obey.

Similar things still happen at times of religious fervour. In sceptical, nineteenth-century France the peasants of Ars near Lyons began to believe that their Cure was a Saint. The sick grew well when he blessed them. As the rumour spread, special buses brought the sick from other villages. The Cure loathed this notoriety. He declared that whatever cures took place had nothing to do with him. They must be the work of St. Philomena, to whom he had built a chapel. But the rush continued.

In France this was bound to be challenged. Militant Atheism could not allow the Church so great a triumph. Swarms of Parisian reporters descended on the little village, eager to detect imposture. Catholics rallied in defence. The result is a mass of evidence, doctors' certificates, declarations before mayors, affidavits by eye-witnesses, that leave no doubt that scores of people were restored to health.

Here is one typical story. Charles Blazy, a lad of nineteen, was brought to Ars with both legs paralysed. After Mass he suddenly found that he could stand. He carried his crutches over his head, and left them at the foot of the altar. He walked home fifteen miles, and ever after had perfect use of his legs.

In 1872 the Cure was given by Rome the title Venerable, in 1905 the title Blessed, in 1925 he was canonized, and acknowledged as a Saint. But by the rules of his Church each promotion had to be preceded by a searching investigation; but at each `Process' the advocatus diaboli failed to shake the evidence for the cures. If Blazy was healed, why not Aeneas?

But, to return to Peter. At Joppa, the ancient port of Jerusalem, one of Philip's converts fell ill. Her name was Gazelle: in Greek Dorcas and in Aramaic Tabitha. She was the local Lady Bountiful, whose gifts supported the poor, and whose needle supplied them with clothes. An urgent summons reached Peter, `Come without delay.' But Joppa was ten miles from Lydda, and when he arrived she was laid out in an upper room apparently dead. Widows surrounded him weeping and showing the clothes she had made for them-a vivid touch suggesting the report of an eye-witness. Tabithal The name reminded him of another scene he had witnessed-Jesus standing by a girl's bed, and saying, `Talitha, cumi.'

Some impulse urged him to call on Jeus to repeat what then had happened. He put the widows out of the room, and knelt by the bed in prayer. Then he said to the silent form, `Tabitha, cumi', and she opened her eyes and sat up, and he called in her friends and gave her back to them alive.

Perhaps she had never been technically dead; but the appearance of death was so convincing, that she would certainly have been buried, had not Peter recalled her to life. The Canterbury monk, who recorded the miracles at Becket's shrine, says of a woman who claimed that Becket had raised her from the dead, `Through sickness she had completely surceased-I do not say "deceased", though she says "deceased"-but she had lost all bodily feeling and seemed lifeless.' Perhaps we can say the same about Tabitha. Peter no doubt believed that Jesus had raised her from the dead in answer to his prayer. But his head was not turned. He showed no wish to win fame as a wonder-worker. Apart from Munchausenish yarns in the Apocryphal Acts, we never hear of his performing another miracle.

The attitude of thoughtful men to miracles has changed in recent years. Once they were considered the great bulwark of the Faith. These wonderful cures seemed clear proof that Christianity was true. Then they suddenly became a grave stumbling-block. A religion that told such incredible yarns became an object of ridicule. Today we have learnt to recognize that miracles are a fairly frequent occurrence, whenever religious fervour reaches a certain temperature. And this seems true, whatever the religion may be.

There is a mound in Egypt, where the sick have been healed for more than three thousand years. In pagan days it was a shrine of the goddess Miritskro, and hundreds of tablets are found in the sand inscribed with thanks for recovery. In Christian days a chapel was built there in honour of a local Saint, and the miracles continued. When the Moslems came, a holy man was buried at this spot, and the sick are still healed at his tomb. Once that hummock became associated with the thought of healing, any religion that could kindle enough faith could secure cures. So Peter's miracles were no proof that his theology was true; but they did prove that his teaching could inspire strong faith in God.

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