Sunday, September 30, 2007

Not Much to See, but Something to Read

Last week I passed along the story out of Miami, Florida, about the Holy Family shadow in the church. Well, it’s gone. Vanished. But the people still come, according to this Miami Herald article. The faithful seemed impressed just to be in St. Brendan Catholic Church, the fleeting manifestation some sort of holy-status booster.

The article closes with an image I can’t help but relay to you: a crowd of 12 gathered around a woman’s cell phone looking at the image of the image from a few days earlier. Apparently, Julie Verdeja saw the shadow last weekend and captured it on her phone, which she had with her last Tuesday. Didn’t they know that could see a perfectly good image of the image right here?!?

Father Fernando Heria, the church's priest, has it right, though, what matters is the "impact the image had on its believers."

Across the pond, in Bilston, in the middle of the United Kingdom, factory worker and born-again Christian Malcolm Jones discovered what he perceives at the face of Jesus on his workbench, the very workbench where he reads his bibles during breaks. I haven’t been able to grab a still-shot anywhere, but if you read this Express and Star report, you can also watch a quick video that shows the face.

In Madonna of the Toast, I included a couple of stories from the UK, including this Michelin Man carrot. Where there is faith, there is the potential for an iconographic face to show up unexpectedly, even if you can’t see it.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

“M” is for Mary and the Places She Appears

Last Wednesday in Miami, Florida, a flash of light caught the attention of parishioners at the St. Brendan Catholic Church’s Adoration Chapel. What happened after the flash is what’s made the news, however. According to this Miami Herald article, a shadow cast by a candle “unmistakenly formed the silhouette of the Holy Family – Joseph and the Virgin Mary standing over the baby Jesus.”

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two holy shadows in as many weeks. There was the Minersville Mary (not to be confused with the Milford Mary) and now this Miami Mary. The article doesn’t account for what happened other than the “flash of light” that can explain why the shadow appeared. Does it really matter? Lines form daily of those eager to see the cloth and its sacred shadow; typically, people queue up around supper-time during the week. With rosary beads in hand, people pray, contemplate, cry and, of course, take pictures . . .

. . . with their cell phones.

I’d be more impressed by the image if it remained visible on the cloth if someone moved the candle. I doubt anyone is going to move the candle. This manifestation pushes it more than most in terms of the “What’s everyone getting so excited about?” factor, but the fact is, the Miami Herald ran a piece on it, as has local TV. Once the story breaks, people flock. Some find the shadow inspirational, while others are just out to take a gander.

Here is another “M”: Media.

Oh, and one more: Madonna (of the Toast)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Rind, Pith, Mary

Sam Nance’s son Marty was slicing lemons at Texas Billiards in Watauga, Texas, when he noticed the face of Mary across the pith and rind of this lemon. According to this Star Telegram report, when Marty brought it home, Sam claims the face didn’t really show itself to him until he snapped a photograph, but then he saw Her.

This is interesting since certain of these examples of pareidolia, both in Madonna of the Toast and on this blog, strike the people that first see the recognizable forms, but often leave viewers of photographs squinting, saying, “What is it supposed to be?” Without straying too far afield with a discussion of mimesis, pareidolia is linked intimately to the difference between an object and an image. Looking at this lemon, we are of course not really looking at the lemon, but a representation of the lemon. The idea becomes even more complex when it comes to religious iconography since the images of Jesus and Mary spotted on all sorts of unusual surfaces are based on images, created and recreated over and over again. All of the stories collected here and in the book are about images of images.

For Sam Nance, however, the proof is in the lemon. He’s a member of the Watauga police force; in his words, “I’m a detective, and I believe in facts.” It would be hard to argue the fact that Marty and Sam Nance claim to see the Virgin Mary here. The reddish discoloring can't be missed, and it does have that semblance of a face so common here on the Toast.

Nance and his wife are religious, though not regular churchgoers. The lemon is in the freezer though, ready to be showed off this weekend. What do you think the congregation will see?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Blinded by the Light

This is Adrian Datte; he’s nine and has this to say about the splotch of light above: “It’s like, like it’s weird that it’s here . . . Like it’s really interesting to see. I think it’s something like a ghost or a spirit of Jesus.”

Light has always intrigued me: it’s ability to alter moods, indicate the change of seasons, illuminate or obscure a scene, provide warmth, serve as the counterpoint to shadow. Light does it all, and now it has projected a Virgin Mary image on a garage door in Minersville, Pennsylvania. Reported by The Morning Call on August 31, this Mary has been appearing every day around 6:00 p.m. since August 15, the day of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. This day marks the ascension of Mary’s body to Heaven, her body and soul united.

Seems that this Earthly appearance has been drawing around 400 people every day, from believers to the curious to journalists, and even Tim Heckman, founder of the Coal Region Ghost Hunters. Heckman confirmed “spikes in electromagnetic fields and energy that spirits use to manifest themselves.” That may very well be, though the article does not indicate how such spikes are documented.

Many are skeptical about this particular Mary manifestation, especially since a statue of the Virgin Mary stands in the second-floor window of a house across the street! So it’s just a shadow, right? The hundreds of people congregating every day obviously think it’s something more than an easily explained shadow of a statue. One 11th-grader answered his phone saying, “Yeah, we’re waiting for Jesus.” Joan Bettinger was not as hyperbolic in her assessment of the situation: “It makes you think about your faith.” I guess it’s made more than just one person think about faith.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


As I’ve mentioned here before, I don’t live with cable television. For the most part, this is a good thing, as I am one that succumbs easily to many lost hours on the couch channel surfing, watching everything and absolutely nothing all at once. With that said, I do miss keeping up with some of our most revered televised cultural critics and polemicists, like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Another personality that fits this category is Bill Maher. Whether talking about war, politics, sex or just about anything else you can imagine, he champions, as far as I can tell, the importance of staunch critics, even if that means not fitting neatly into a category, or at times being contradictory. You can imagine how my curiosity was piqued when I caught wind of this forthcoming documentary called Religulous, a collaboration between Maher and writer/producer, funny-man Larry Charles.

After a twenty-minute screening this past weekend at the Toronto Film Festival, the two filmmakers discussed the unfinished project, which clearly is meant to poke fun at the current religious climates of the world (especially in Judaism, Islam and Christianity). The YouTube clip below pretty much sums up the movie’s approach.

In my explorations of the visual manifestations of religious and secular icons, both in Madonna of the Toast and on this here blog, I have never sought to discredit these phenomena or the people that make them public. I have been critical of certain of their ramifications and I do think the prevalence of 21st century media (cell phone cameras, eBay, etc.) in many of these stories says quite a bit about culture at large. In the above clip, Maher tells Larry King that he cannot stomach people telling him what happens when we die. And of course, no one truly has this answer, regardless of religion or lack thereof. Maher takes issue with the proselytizers and zealots that try to convert everyone in their path to agree with a specific doctrine. I take issue with this, too. What I don’t agree with is how Maher isolates a specific breed of believer in order to mock all believers. It strikes me as too easy, a distraction from the more relevant issues at hand, like how we as individuals understand our respective places in this shared world.

Belief, the same as how people decipher the shape of a water stain, is subjective. The real questions are these: What do you see? What do you believe? The emphasis must be placed on the individual so the “you” does not get crammed unfairly into the “them.”

Perhaps I’ll get the chance to discuss this with Bill Maher one of these days, as I have reported on the visual manifestations of icons from Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Doubtless, the frequency of such events plays into the film’s assessment of contemporary religion being Religulous, if the poster is any indicator.

Friday, September 7, 2007

I Told You There Would be a Forest

I didn’t know it would be in the Ukraine, though. According to this Interfax report, near the village of Dobryany two poplar trees (one of them split by a bolt of lightning) feature the likenesses of Jesus and Mary respectively. The two trees stand about 100 meters away from one another and were first discovered by a first-grade schoolgirl. News of the trees spread quickly after the girl’s father documented them with his cell phone’s camera.

Apparently, the images become more visible during the golden hour, when the light slices through the stand of trees: “At sunset, the head of Christ is clearly seen at a certain angle, the faithful maintain. The other poplar shows clearly at its trunk clear of dry bark a figure with the bent head and hands folded in a prayer.”

Since the discovery, the village’s church choir has paid a visit, as have priests from the city of Lvov. It sounds like the priests from the city are a bit more skeptical than their rural brethren, as they photographed the trees but refused to comment.

There’s definitely something to be said for country living, although I don't know if you're truly in the country if there is cell phone reception.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Milford Mary

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This is the upstairs bathroom in my girlfriend’s childhood home. It was a suburban Massachusetts open-window summer night loud with crickets. “Buzz, come see this,” she shouted from the stairs. Crawling out of the couch, I heeded her call. On the stairs she stood, pointing at the bathroom. “It’s a Virgin Mary,” she said, devilishly. “Where?” “On the screen.”

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Sure enough, the belled shape I have seen on all sorts of substrates stood before me on the screen in the bathroom window. News of the discovery ran rampant through the house and the image’s story emerged. My lady’s sister’s fiancĂ© had killed an insect with some sort of laundry spray, out of spite I suppose. This Mary’s head is where the close-proximity spray hit, her body the stain left in the wake of the chemical drip. Appropriate, if you consider that Mary bore a son whose purpose was to die.

An eternal story, really, one that gets reinterpreted time and again. Another type of story that gets told over and over, especially over the last 20 years or so, is the story of the unexpected visual manifestation of a religious or secular icon. On this very blog and in Madonna of the Toast you can find mentions of The Simpsons, films about a Jesus screen door and a tortilla, and a play about a Jesus hickey!

Of late, two new fictional homages to these phenomena have come to my attention. The first is older but totally new to me: the Seinfeld episode “The Merv Griffin Show.” A new sidling co-worker of Elaine’s startles her and she spills coffee on her sleeve. Another co-worker thinks it looks like Fidel Castro. When she shows up at Monk’s and scooches into the booth next to George, he sees Art Garfunkel. I laughed my ass off watching this one. Leave it to the Seinfeld writing crew to identify a surprisingly relevant, if not oft ignored, cultural topic with great significance, even if its impact may be lost on most.

The second riff comes in book form, Jesus in the Mist by Paul Ruffin. I have not read this book. I don’t even own it. I stumbled upon it here in the cyber ether. Apparently the title story “tells of a man who leaves his wife and home because he sees Jesus' image in the foggy mirror of a Holiday Inn. He's able to re-create the image with a vaporizer in the back of his truck and travels the South collecting monetary tributes for the miraculous vision,” according to this review from the South Bend Tribune. I can’t say anything about Ruffin’s writerly chops, but I give him props for shaping a story around this topic. I’ve often thought about blending a few of the people and objects I’ve encountered in these parts into a short story, if not a novel.

No one has ever accused Madonna of the Toast of being a bad idea. Because it involves faith, belief and identity, some folks feel differently about it than others, but on the whole, most people have a frame of reference for the subject. That alone validates it, but all of these echoes created by writers, filmmakers and visual artists really drive home for me the extent to which these stories have cultural traction. We read about them and think about them, are reminded of them when we walk home and stare up at the clouds. When it comes across in a self-aware form (a short story, a screenplay, a cast iron pan) it works because it doesn’t come off an unbelievable. These things happen all the time.