Thursday, March 13, 2008
Belief Turns to Blindness
According to this article from the BBC, Catholics in India have gone blind from looking – no staring, for extended periods of time – into the sun with the hope of espying the Virgin Mary. This article from the UK’s Telegraph claims that 48 people have lost their sight. The incidents have all taken place in Kerala, in the district of Kottayam, spurred by a rumor “that a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary could be seen in the sky.”
Since last month, hundreds of the devoted have gazed at the sun, prompting health officials to launch an advertising campaign about the dangers of staring directly at the sun. Local churches have denounced the miracle.” Ophthalmologist Dr. Annamma James Isaac says, “All our patients have similar history and symptoms…They have developed photochemical, not thermal, burns after continuously gazing at the sun.”
This bizarre story comes on the heels of another purported miracle in the region linked to a hotel and its Mary statues “crying honey and bleeding oils and perfumes.” It seems that the crying statues have spurred the rumor about being able to find Mary in the sun.
The assimilation of Christianity into indigenous belief systems is fascinating and well-documented. In Madonna of the Toast, I touch briefly on the subject when discussing Our Lady, or Virgin, of Guadalupe, and this story from India hinges on the same historical tendency. When European missionaries showed up in South Asia, Asia, Africa and the New World, they learned quickly that the best way to drive home the teachings of the Bible was to connect the lessons to already established spiritual and cultural traditions, as pagan as some of them might have been.
I have spent a very small amount of time in India, but even the shortest stay makes clear the very strong connections between religion/spirituality and everyday life, as festivals, temples, shrines and personal devotions cannot be missed, no matter where you are. These traditions have been going on far longer than Christianity, and so it makes perfect sense that they would infiltrate Christianity.
A story like this one originating out of the US is unlikely because religion – no matter your religion – is personalized to the point of being private, or internal, as you go through your day at work or school or running around doing errands; and then it is contained within various houses of worship. In a place like India, everything blends together and such lines of distinction are impossible to discern.
It would be utterly fascinating to read an interview, or conduct one, with one of these blinded people. Was it worth it? Did they see something? Anything?