Kay Ryan, "Backward Miracle"

I’m still not entirely comfortable with calling answered prayers for parking spaces or relief of everyday anxieties “miraculous.”

Kay Ryan, "Backward Miracle"

Thank you for reading! Your support is invaluable.

Andrew Marantz's "Are We Entering a New Political Era?" is making the rounds, and it is an excellent read. It might feel like too much of a puff-piece at times, but it is so difficult to do justice to the feeling that massive political change is needed for many to have a future. Moreover, it captures beautifully that having a thoughtful, rigorous analysis of the larger forces shaping politics is not a dorm-room debate or a game. It is a problem when organizations which are needed to advocate for others are fundraising all the time and only discussing tactics. One thing I've noticed about people in helping professions (teachers, counselors, activists, etc.) who are devoted and serious about what they do: they do have real theories about change and ideas about how things work informed by their willingness to be wrong.

If you want to read something different, Lindsey Heatherly's "Walk for Hope" (h/t Kyla Houbolt) is a powerful statement about how some mornings just do not work out. A lot of things we're struggling with can hit us if we're not ready.

Kay Ryan, "Backward Miracle"

What do miracles do?

Too large a question. Anything can be miraculous. There are the official miracles, such as the Exodus. Freedom, escape, and a new land. An achievement, a work of incredible sacrifice and hardship, which must be regarded by the generations as divine.

And then there are smaller ones, which are not so small. I’m still not entirely comfortable with calling answered prayers for parking spaces or relief of everyday anxieties “miraculous.” But they may mark a change in people’s lives, sometimes transformational change for the greater good. (They may also collapse into justification of anything, as the morality involved is all too personal.)

Too personal a question. How is a miracle known in the first place? Through a perceiver. Here’s Dickinson:

Like Some Old fashioned Miracle
When Summertime is done —
Seems Summer's Recollection
And the Affairs of June

Summer is finished, but the days recollect “the Affairs of June.” Natural beauty seen is “Like Some Old Fashioned Miracle.” Divine happenings are witnessed by mankind, and the witness takes precedence. The miracle lies in the privileged glimpse of cosmic order, which can convince us morally, emotionally, and even to a degree intellectually. The trouble, of course, is understanding why, if there is a cosmic order wherein all ends well, divine action in history is warranted.

Too much a question. Ask too much of the delicate or wondrous, and it will vanish.


Backward Miracle (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

Every once in a while
we need a
backward miracle
that will strip language,
make it hold for
a minute: just the
vessel with the
wine in it—
a sacramental
refusal to multiply,
reclaiming the
single loaf
and the single
fish thereby.

What do miracles do?

I need an answer to this in order to understand Ryan’s request. “Every once in a while / we need a / backward miracle / that will strip language, / make it hold for / a minute.”

Photo by Gregor Moser / Unsplash

She posits that miracles load language, give a weight that it may not be able to bear. Perhaps some of that weight can give words inertia, allow them to travel to their proper end. But they might also sink.

Where I’m stuck: “Every once in a while / we need a / backward miracle.” We need this miracle, she says. Language is loaded with unbearable weight all the time. She has more in mind than those who continually see signs or symbolism. Each one of us, no matter how religious or secular, does not let words stay. This costs us.

I’m lost. It’s a good “lost”—Ryan reports a glimpse of a much larger occurrence. Something we see partially, but have not yet begun to cognize. With few clues, I have to guess the whole in order to understand a part. And it is likely I will mistake the whole itself, the part will be confidently misunderstood, and this confused process will somehow yield knowledge.

My guess is that language doesn’t stay because we don’t really devote ourselves to every word. Even before social media arrived, we couldn’t. We guess at what’s expected of us through a combination of someone’s tone, what’s generally expected, and what we think we’re here to do. If we pay close attention to words, it’s not to grasp a meaning but to argue. So: the way we communicate at work is the way we think communication should be. “Work ethic,” one might say, does not really convey that we can’t conceive what life means beyond the framework of a career.

You might say that’s too vague and too narrow for Ryan’s point. Don’t all ages need a backward miracle, a moment where words simply hold? I agree with these criticisms, but I think I’m close to the proper path. Some principle or god to which we’ve unconsciously devoted ourselves lives within our language. We believe it an unmixed blessing; we’re going places we don’t know.


With the “backward miracle,” the miracle that undoes the miracle, there are words, objects, and images. And only those: “just the / vessel with the / wine in it— / a sacramental / refusal to multiply.”

Underneath unchecked, unstripped language are assumptions. Many of them can be reduced to the providential belief that our effort, virtue, or selection carries us, makes our day.

Photo by Thomas Franke / Unsplash

That we can’t be happy otherwise. This is exaggerated in Ned Flanders of “The Simpsons,” but I need to admit that I myself have schemes to which I’ve attached my feelings. It’d be nice to have the courage to appreciate just the vessel and the wine, the moment itself.

It’s not an abusive hedonism, I don’t think. It’s not the imperative to “seize the day while you can” or “abuse your privilege if you have it.” I don’t even know that the ethic could qualify as hedonism, as the problem has more nuance.

The “backward miracle,” the “sacramental / refusal to multiply,” would be “reclaiming the / single loaf / and the single / fish thereby.” This is a tricky story to place oneself against, because no one sensible will say Jesus feeding the five thousand is bad. (There are idiots who will: people who don’t read the Bible but have strong opinions about “social justice warriors;” New Atheists nursing their grudges and little else.)

I get what Ryan’s doing. In order for the fish and bread to be good, they have to be recognized as good. That doesn’t mean you don’t distribute them—of course you do—but it’s the moment God Himself sees simple nourishment as good that something special is happening. That moment is what we need, and to get to it is not quite a miracle, but a “backward miracle.” How can you strip your assumptions from your experience? An openness is needed that makes us greater than ourselves.