People faced with dire circumstances often pray to God for miracles. The patients in the hospitals I serve, along with their families and loved ones, frequently offer such prayers. In the church of St. Catherine of Siena, where I live and minister, we have a shrine to St. Jude, who is the patron hopeless cases and things despaired. People from the hospitals pray there often. I suppose they are praying for the desperate circumstances of their loved ones. I am sure that many are praying for miracles.

But what does it mean to pray for miracles? What are miracles? How should we pray for them? And how do we know when our prayers are answered? Many books could be written in answer to these questions. Here, I will be content with offering a few reflections.

“Miracle” is word with more than one meaning. It is derived from a Latin work meaning “wonder.” A miracle, according to the original sense of the word, is something that is wondrous, something that inspires wonder. When used in a Christian context, the word “miracle” usually means a wondrous work of God that may or may not be accomplished through an intermediary, an angel or a saint for example. In our western tradition, the word “miracle” has also taken on a more restrictive meaning. A miracle, in this more limited sense, is a wondrous work of God that defies scientific explanation. It is, we conclude, something that God must have done because it couldn’t have been done by natural means.

We use the more restrictive sense of the word “miracle” when we speak about miracles that must be approved by the Church as a prerequisite for a saint’s canonization. A miracle attesting to a saint’s intercessory power in heaven must be something naturally inexplicable. For example, when a Costa Rican woman was inexplicably cured of a deadly brain aneurism after praying to Pope John Paul II, a series of medical tests and a team of doctors were required to determine that there was no medical explanation before the reported miracle was confirmed by the Church. Miracles of this kind are certainly rare, but they do happen. They are signs of God’s presence and activity in the world.

When people in the hospitals pray for miracles of healing, however, they probably don’t care whether God answers their prayers in a way that defies scientific explanation. They just want God to answer their prayers. As Catholic Christians, we believe that God is present and active in the world all the time and in all sorts of ways. We do believe in miracles in the restricted sense, but that doesn’t mean we think God only acts in unusual ways. God is never absent from his creation. God acts all the time in ways that are most often mysterious and beyond our comprehension.

Sometimes God acts in ways that transcend the capabilities of His human creatures and defy their understanding. More often (it seems), God acts through the actions of His creatures, making use of the talent and skill that God Himself gave them. If your child is cured by the good work of doctors and the effective use of medical treatments, that doesn’t mean the child wasn’t also cured by God. God is active in and through His creatures, using them as His instruments in ways that respect and make use of the natural capacities God creates in them. In this way, God can act in and through human beings without in any way diminishing the free will that is proper to their nature.

When we pray for miracles, we pray that God will act wondrously in our lives or the lives of our loved ones, making use of His creatures in whatever way God sees fit. Often, we pray that God will do that in circumstances that seem hopeless or desperate. We believe that God, in the fullness of His wisdom and love, always hears and answers our prayer. We believe that God can answer our prayers by doing just what we ask, wondrously accomplishing the healing for which we pray. But we also believe that God can answer our prayers without doing just what we ask.

This is what happened when Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus asked the Father to let the “cup” of his Passion pass from him. But that is not what the Father did. The Father’s will – which is one with His wisdom and love – was that Jesus should submit to his Passion. Jesus, out of his human desire to avoid suffering and death, prayed for one thing, but the Father wanted something else, something that would be harder, but ultimately better for Jesus and for the whole world. Jesus, knowing that the Father’s will might be different from his own human desire, concluded his prayer by adding, “yet, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26: 39)

When we pray for miracles we seek to do with the faith and trust of Jesus. We believe that God is real and powerful and able to do what we ask. We believe God hears and answers our prayers. We also believe that God knows better than we know and wants what is better than what we want. So we conclude our prayers just as Jesus did: “Thy will be done.”