Philippe Petit and Jesus: A Meditation on Miracles

Christ walking on the sea, by Amédée Varint, from WikiCommons

The commuters a quarter mile below you inch along the plaza. No doubt their heads are cast down, buried under the anxieties of the new day, oblivious to the drama that is just beginning far above them. One foot is already out on the wire, but when you lift your back foot off the lip of the building and lean forward, placing all of your weight on the wire, there is no turning back. You may die this day.

The miracle starts after you’ve taken a few steps, after you’ve felt the tiny movements of your wire, and after you let your spine and your balance pole feel around for, and find, an anchorage in the steady wind. It hasn’t been a miracle before this point, because you’ve done this before. Many times you’ve pushed yourself. Many times you’ve fallen, and so the feeling you have there, walking in the air on a Wednesday morning in Manhattan, is familiar. It’s not a miracle — it’s the perfection of your work. It’s the fulfillment of your calling.

Let the Great World Spin. Let the miracle begin. As always, it begins with just one person, that very first person-whose name is lost to history-who was the first to look up, perhaps to get a sustaining glimpse of open sky before heading into one of the towers for the rest of the day. You are that person. You look up for your final morning look at the sky, and you see something that will fix this day in your memory all the days of your life. You stop walking, because you want to be sure what you are seeing: someone is walking in the sky, between the towers! You glance down quickly — is anyone else seeing this? And for just a moment, you are the only one in all that multitude in the plaza that knows someone is walking in the sky.

PHOTO: VIC DELUCA / NEW YORK PO

The miracle gathers as others see you, stopped, looking upwards, and they soon join you in open mouthed astonishment. A sound grows in the plaza as the shouts begin, and you shout along with the others, calling to the few who have not yet seen, and who don’t yet know that it’s possible to walk in the sky. The miracle begins with one person’s astonishment, and then it spreads to the plaza. In just a few moments the sound of the multitude becomes loud enough for Philippe to hear. Others will hear of this. Even now, phone calls are being made to radio stations, and by this time tomorrow, Philippe — the wire walker — will be spoken of more than anyone else in the world. Richard Nixon — on the day he became the first President to resign his office — felt compelled to mention him.

A miracle is not an act — it’s a forest fire in our shared awareness. The sight of something that was never imagined becomes an ember, setting fire to the dead certainties that weigh on us, the dead wood that explodes in light and flies upward, clearing away space in the earth for the bloom of new life.

I was part of the fire that day. I heard about Philippe on the radio that morning, and I still remember my astonishment at the audacity and the bravery it must have taken. All day long I heard people talk about it, and all the while I was imagining his experience, considering what it felt like for him — whose name I did not yet know — to walk out on the wire. I considered his willingness to trade his life for a sort of long-lived notoriety.

The fire was still raging that night when my brother —a NYC cop — told me what he heard from the police that were there that day. He didn’t just take a single hurried walk — no, he lingered on the wire for more than a half hour, even laying down at one point. And I remember thinking as my brother told me the stories: if someone could do this, and be so daring, then what else is possible for us?

I look back on the experience of that day as a gateway to understand the experience that the apostles had of Jesus. Now I don’t for a moment mean to compare a mere man, no matter how brave, daring and audacious, with one of the persons of God. Rather I’m considering the experience of men when they confront the plain evidence that something impossible has happened, and considering the similarities — and differences — between learning of Phllippe and learning of Jesus.

Watching Philippe: still from the film Man on Wire

You see the man high above you, and in just a moment you know it’s not an illusion: there are others stopped now, looking up open-mouthed just like you are. You notice the thin thread of the rope, and it makes the act even more frightening, because now you know the walker is not some angel native to the air, but a man just like yourself that always needs contact, however tenuous, with the earth.

When the walk is over, you, like all the others in the plaza, resume your walk to work, many of you oddly considering your steps on the hard expanse of payment, and measuring yourselves against that man that walked far above you all, on just the thinnest umbilical stretched across the vast sky.

All day long, at work and on the train home, you hear others speak of what happened that morning, and you hear his name. But you feel somehow different than the others, because you were there. You saw, you watched him cross again and again, wondering if he would fall out of the sky.

By morning the next day, the miracle has run its course. The story of Philippe’s walk was told in many languages, and those that couldn’t believe it were convinced by the front-page pictures of him, smiling as he held his balance pole, a quarter mile high in the sky. Billions of souls considered what it felt like, to cast your life on the pull of a single thread.

After a miracle, almost everyone settles back into the routine of their lives, only occasionally turning inwards towards the ember that still carries the burn of that first sight, or the first time they believed a story they were told. And then there are some, the few, that tend that internal flame, holding it like an inner hearth around which they turn their lives. Philippe inspired many risk takers, many learned the thrill, and the freedom, of risking your life on the perfect execution of a dare.

A miracle of Jesus started with a walk, not in the morning but at night, not in the sky, but on the Sea of Galilee. Philippe’s audience looked up to avoid the dread of a new working day; the Apostles were terrified of the night storm, until they saw Jesus. Philippe’s audience were dumbfounded at the powers of the man above them; the Apostles grew even more fearful, until Jesus spoke and said “Be not afraid.”

Jesus Walks on Water, by Ivan Aivazosky, from WikiCommons

The miracle began with Peter’s sudden belief that Jesus was calling him to step out of the boat. When he did, he too walked on the water. For a few steps he too was free of the dead earth, until his inner doubts rushed back into him. He started to sink, and Jesus reached for him, and pulled him up onto the surface of the sea. So this miracle wasn’t just about the sight of Jesus on the water — it was about hearing a call. It wasn’t a challenge to work hard, to believe in our own possibility of perfection. What the apostles saw, and believed in for the remainder of their lives, was that Jesus called them that day, and only faith was needed to walk with Him on the water.

Philippe’s miracle burned fiercely for a full day, aided by the speed of modern communications, and a certain plausibility: no law of nature was violated. The miracles of Jesus took many centuries to saturate the world, perhaps cresting only now. Philippe’s miracle needed only words and pictures for fuel, but the miracles of Jesus needed martyrs — only the example of belief held in the face of death could convince skeptical hearers that eternal life had been purchased for them.

Many years after Philippe’s walk, at about the same time in the morning, another walk began. The towers were burning, and brave men were climbing up the stairwells, risking death, sustained by a sense of duty, discipline and self-sacrifice. In a dark and agonizing day, the heroism of these men triggered another miracle, a new example of the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice. Twenty centuries after Jesus, there are new Pentecosts, and the flames of His miracles still speak to us.

Retired software developer, husband, father. Student of history. Met Fan

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