By: Matthew Paul Turner

The Wonderment and Mystery of Miracles

“I remember this waiting room.”

Last November, Morgan Freeman walked into a vacant wing of Greenwood Leflore Hospital in Greenwood, Mississippi.

“It’s not exactly the same,” Freeman told the hospital administrators, “but it’s still very familiar.”

Sixty-two years ago, Freeman’s grandmother rushed the then 16-year-old future actor to this same Mississippi hospital because, as Freeman explained it, “I had a 103-degree temperature and, as the doctors here soon learned, a collapsed lung. I’m pretty sure everybody thought I was going to die. I thought that too.”

But Freeman survived the illness. One of his most vivid memories about the experience is how many members of his family called his recovery a miracle.

“Was God responsible for my healing?” Freeman asked. “I honestly don’t know.”

“Was God responsible for my healing?” Freeman asked. “I honestly don’t know.”

Are miracles real? In an effort to find the answer, Freeman set off on a journey to examine the wonderment of miracles, experiences or encounters that, by all accounts, break the laws of science and nature and defy the limitations of medicine.

On his global quest to encounter the miracles of God, Freeman met believers from many faiths — Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews and more — all of whom shared stories about events that included inexplicable circumstances — unexplained happenings that have often been referred to as miracles.

Miraculous tales show up in nearly every religious tradition: Moses parted the Red Sea. Jesus turned water into wine. Muhammad split the moon in two. Buddha walked on water.

In Rome, Freeman visited the Circus Maximus, one of the largest open spaces in the city and the onetime location of Ancient Rome’s great chariot races. Here, Freeman wanted to learn about the people of pre-Christian Rome’s relationship with their gods.

Valerie Higgins, a professor of archaeology at the American University of Rome, admits that Ancient Rome’s spirituality prior to Christianity’s legalization in 313 is difficult to grasp.

“It permeated the whole being of an ancient Roman,” she said. “But that’s not to say that the ancient Romans were all very pious people — far from it.”

But Higgins explained that, unlike today when most governments separate their functionality from any kind of religion, for Ancient Rome, “the gods controlled everything and that’s why we have temples and shrines everywhere,” she said.

According to Higgins, “The pagans did not have a written text on which to base their beliefs, like the Quran or the Bible or the Vedas, so they had to find other ways of interpreting the will of their gods. To that end, they often used nature.”

Nature was how the gods communicated their will to Ancient Romans. “For example, the flight of birds or episodes of thunder and lightning were often interpreted as messages from the gods.”

The gods’ interpreters were priests called “augurs.”

A painting of two augers laughing.

“These priests had a lot of power,” said Higgins. “For example, they could stop meetings of the senate. For this reason those posts were usually held by members of elite families.”

Rome employed two kinds of augurs: priests who handled “requested messages from the gods” and priests who handled “unrequested messages from the gods.”

Unrequested “messages” happened all the time without notice, Higgins explained. “Imagine what the scene must have been like in the Circus Maximus when the games were in full swing and a thunderstorm arrived! In addition to everyone trying to escape the rain, there is the added tension of ‘what does it mean?’”

When it comes to things dubbed by some as miraculous, “what does it mean?” seems like a valid question. In fact, a few short weeks earlier, while filming in New York City, Freeman and his guest, Alcides Moreno, pondered a similar question as the two discussed what happened to Moreno on Dec. 7, 2007.

The day started like any other workday: After kissing his wife and three kids goodbye, Moreno went to work along with his brother, Edgar. The Moreno brothers were professional window cleaners and on that day they rode their platform up to the very top of the skyscraper on 265 East 66th Street. While cleaning the windows at the 47th floor, Moreno remembers hearing a loud snap.

“And then we started falling,” he said.

Incredibly, Moreno survived the fall, likely because he was able to remain on the platform, which cushioned the impact. However, his brother lost his life that day.

According to Moreno, “Edgar lost his balance and fell off the platform.”

Immediately following the 500-foot fall, Moreno was sitting up and talking. However, by the time he was being pushed into the ambulance, he began to lose consciousness, and soon was clinging to life by a thread. Doctors gave him 24 pints of blood and 19 pints of plasma and, because they feared that moving him might worsen his condition, they operated on his abdomen in the emergency room. During the month that followed the accident, Moreno underwent nine orthopedic surgeries to fix numerous broken bones. Three weeks later, on Christmas Day, he moved his arm for the first time, and later the same day spoke for the first time since his accident.

By early January, doctors were so impressed by Moreno’s recovery that an update on his condition in The New York Times boasted “Miraculous” in the headline.

Was his survival a miracle? Had God really intervened that day and spared his life? And if so, why didn’t Edgar get a miracle on that day, too?

As he stood alongside Freeman and, for the first time since that terrible day, looked up at the skyscraper from which he and his brother fell, Moreno admitted that he still wrestled with how to process his “miracle.”

Throughout his exploration of miracles, an experience that included visits to a Muslim hospital in Cairo, a Passover feast in Jerusalem, a holy celebration in Mexico City and a Buddhist temple in Bodh Gaya, India, Freeman learned that most so-called miracles, much like the one that his family said he experienced at age 16, are difficult to grasp or comprehend.

“I think that’s especially true for the recipient,” Freeman said. “Because on the one hand, you’re grateful to be alive or healed or unharmed, but when you consider how many people pray and hope and don’t live or get better — that can be a complicated reality to process.”

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