Virgin-Haunted World

One of the most frequent accusations of “idolatry” I heard as a child was leveled at Roman Catholic devotion to the virgin Mary.  Lessons learned during childhood are difficult to displace, especially when they concern your eternal destination.  I overcame this particular objection, a bit, during my sojourn among the Episcopalians, but I have to confess I never felt right praying to Mary.  In my Protestant-steeped mind, there were two classes of entities involved: gods (of which, properly, there was only one) and human beings.  Only the former received prayers.  The rest of us simply had to contend with non-supernatural powers and do the best we could.  Still, I met many believers devoted to Mary, and honestly, some accounts of Marian apparitions are pretty impressive.

A local source for inexpensive advertising in our area is essentially a weekly set of want ads.  For a small fee you can advertise just about anything you want to buy or have to sell.  Spiritual or physical.  A few weeks ago, someone ran a magnanimous piece on a prayer to the virgin never known to fail.  The words of the prayer were printed, along with the instructions, for nothing is quite as simple as “ask and you shall receive.”  The prayer must be recited thrice, and thanksgiving publicly proclaimed.  A number of questions occurred to me, regarding not only this, but all prayers for divine action.  One is the rather simple query of how you can know if a prayer has never failed.  I suspect this is known by faith alone.

There are any number of things most of us would like to change about our lives, and the larger issue of prayer is the daisy-chaining of causality.  One change causes another, causes another, and often that for which we pray will impact another person in a negative way.  This is the classic “contradictory prayer” conundrum—one person prays for sunny skies while another prays for rain.  Neither is evil, both have their reasons, perhaps equally important.  (The weekday is a workday for many, and that’s non-negotiable in a capitalist society, so I suspect prayers for sunny skies tend to be weekend prayers, but still…)  The prayer never known to fail is either a rock or a hard place.  It’s that certitude that does it.  I don’t begrudge anyone a prayer that works.  Faith alone can test the results.  And although we could use a little less rain around here, we could all benefit from a little more faith, I suspect.  And for that there’s no fee.

Seeing Things

SchwebelWe have to learn to see the world. Traditionally religion and science both had roles to play, but as science grew better at explaining physical causes, many consigned religion to mere superstition. In such a paradigmatic world, Lisa J. Schwebel’s Apparitions, Healings, and Weeping Madonnas is something of an anomaly. Schwebel begins by noting that the Catholic Church has long accepted the reality of psi. As the branch of Christianity with the strongest commitment to furthering science, this itself might seem unusual. We are taught to see the world in a binary way: either this or that, not both. Books such as this challenge that convention, asking us to look at a world that doesn’t always conform to expectations. Parapsychology has made inroads from superstition to science because of testable hypotheses and statistically significant results. What it might mean is up for grabs.

Some claim that Catholicism is credulous. Actually, as Schwebel adequately demonstrates, criteria for declaring even spectacular events as miracles are amazingly high. Merely paranormal events seem common in comparison. In many ways, this is a disorienting book: the supernatural is assumed to exist, but miracles are treated as less common than the everyday supernatural. Those of us raised in a rationalist scholarly world might find the acceptance of that which we’ve learned is impossible just a bit unexpected. No doubt, visions of Mary are reported. Crowds often visit trees or highway underpasses where pareidolia impresses an image on the faithful. Schwebel, however, is discussing visions of another sort, and finds that they may involve the power of suggestion rather than the miraculous.

Faith healing, on the other hand, is something for which empirical evidence exists. Doctors still disagree about whether prayer speeds healing, but there have been many instances of unexpected healings that have occurred, apparently in relation to a person noted for bringing wellness about. Causality, of course, can’t be proven, but many people find themselves believing in a spiritual world after such an encounter. Perhaps that is what is so intriguing about books like this; they make readers uncomfortable in a world that is purely material. Finding a credentialed author who actually believes and has evidence to back her up is a rarity. Challenging conventions is part of the territory in most religions. Schwebel is simply straightforward about it.

M Is for Mary

While pre-celebrating Christmas with some friends recently, the topic of cats came up. This really isn’t surprising since two of the families present had been members of the local 4-H cats club. For a while cats were ubiquitous on the internet, but since I have so little time to browse the web anymore, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. Nevertheless, being near Christmas, someone narrated a story I’d never heard before. Tabby cats (like many jungle cats) have a distinctive marking in the form of an “M” on their foreheads. The legend suggests that on the first Christmas a tabby cat was in the manger. Seeing a mouse trying to crawl into the trough were baby Jesus lay, the cat killed the mouse, earning the thanks of Mary, who kissed it on the forehead, bestowing her characteristic M. It is a nice story (apart from the point of view of the mouse, I suppose)—an etiology to explain an evolutionary development in fur patterns.

Blessed is M...

Blessed is M…

Shortly after that my wife sent me a story on the BBC about the oldest inscribed human artifact. Zigzag marking found on a fossilized clam shell from Indonesia suggest that Homo erectus was an abstract thinker, I’m told. The markings, which must at least be 430,000 years old, predate the earliest known human markings by 300,000 years. If accepted by anthropologists this evidence could rewrite all of human history. We had no idea that Homo erectus had time to doodle on shells. Looking at the photos accompanying the BBC article, I couldn’t help but notice they’re in the shape of an M. Perhaps Mary kissed these shells too? So etiologies begin.

If you’ll pardon me for attempting to brush off my training in ancient languages, Mary of Nazareth was likely born into an Aramaic-speaking family. Her name, Mariam, would have been spelled with mem, which, although representing water is some scripts, took roughly this form: מ (assuming the Imperial Aramaic alphabet). If Mary were both historical and literate (the latter, at least, is doubtful) she would not have recognized the tabby’s distinctive mark as part of her name. It would have been an abstract symbol. Of course, God, being a natural lover of cats, may have had the Greek alphabet in mind, where the letter mu gives us our classical capital M. Mary, however, would probably still not have known what to make of it. We love to attribute significances to perceived patterns. The tabby’s distinctive M, as well as Homo erectus’s early exercises in penmanship present us with opportunities to continue making myths. And we should keep the myths in Christmas.


One of the memorable scenes from Men in Black is when the Arquillian takes Gentle Rosenburg to a restaurant for pierogi. One need not be an alien, or even Polish, to appreciate these dumplings, and a few weeks ago I found myself at a restaurant that offered pierogi on the menu, and I had to bring the leftovers home. When I was reheating them the next day an epiphany of sorts transpired. Now, when I prepare pierogi, I use the more healthy boiling method. The restaurant, however, fried them, leaving characteristic browning. As I flipped the reheating dumplings, a case of pareidolia occurred (prompting the title to this piece by both my wife and daughter, on separate occasions). A discussion of whose face this was ensued. Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln, and Charles Dickens were all suggested, but those attuned to religious thinking know that when a face appears, it must be that of Jesus. Well, a man’s face with a beard, in any case. If it’s female, it must be Mary.


Pareidolia was always a winner with students, in my teaching days. Our brains are so attuned to finding faces that we actually design them into houses and cars and appliances. We like to see a friendly face. Now in my brain I know this is just fried dough, but my eyes are telling me this is a face on my dinner plate. The tendency is so closely tied to religious sensibilities that we can safely rule out any number of candidates. Of course, if I were to see this same phenomenon in a different culture, my referent would likely be completely different. Still, we seldom see news stories of Buddhists, say, finding Siddhartha Gautama’s image in foodstuffs. (Although, in all honesty I once found a water stain on a saucepan that looked very much like I imagine Confucius appearing.) Is there a deep-set need in our religious culture to find assurance in unlikely places? Are we that insecure?

Apart from the perennial favorites of breads (toast, tortillas, and now pierogi), images of “Jesus” show up in garden shrubs, water stains under highways, clouds, and even stingrays, prompting, a few years back, a website entitled “Stuff that Looks Like Jesus.” Now, I seriously doubt that some kind of transubstantiation has taken place on my dinner plate, but the appearance of a face on my food is always cause for reflection. Food is so essential to animal survival that it is perhaps strange that such images don’t occur more often. It is perhaps ironic that we hear most about it from a leisure-based culture with a cult of food fetishes. I don’t know who showed up on my pierogi, but the evidence is now long gone so it will have to remain a matter of faith.

Bread Line

“Her smoke rises up forever,” apart from describing the fall of Babylon the Great, can also describe our toaster. The thing has been with us for many years now and the lifespan of a toaster is often measured in months rather than decades. I suppose I could go to the store, but the internet is right here, so when I began searching for toasters I found, yes indeed, The Jesus Toaster. I’m sorely tempted. Of course, I haven’t had breakfast yet, but I wonder whether this device is diabolical or devotional. Often it is difficult to tell the difference. Pareidolia, the tendency to see human faces and forms where they don’t exist (false positives), seems to be an evolutionary device to get us to pay attention for possible dangers in our environment. Now that we live hermetically sealed lives, our minds still find faces, and often attribute religious significance to them. We’ve all read of cases of Jesus casting his divine face upon a humble piece of toast, or a tortilla. Or a bruised toe or a garden shrub—the holy visage is not just for breakfast any more. So some clever wag decided to engineer a toaster that puts Jesus right on your bread. A private sacramental, still, you might want to go lightly with the jam. But is Jesus toast used for good or evil? What is your houseguest is Hindu or Jewish? Will they awake to conversion or controversy?


The association of Jesus with bread is deep and abiding. Seminary students everywhere learn that Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born according to Matthew, means “house of bread” in Hebrew. We know that Jesus had a reputation for feeding vast crowds with a few loaves of bread. By the time we get to the Gospel of John he is lingering long over the matzah at the last supper after claiming that he is the bread. In many churches he is weekly served in pressed little wafers without much flavor, but, we are told, with infinite substance. Jesus and bread go together like, well, bread and butter.

So, should I buy the Jesus Toaster, as seen on TV, or just some regular box of hot coils to warm my mornings? I’m not sure there’s ever any going back once you’ve seen the other side. But wait, there’s more! You can buy a Poe toaster, or a Virgin Mary toaster. They may have a surfeit of meaning, but do they satisfy as toast? As I sit here the time for work draws inexorably closer, and I haven’t decided on my toast yet. Does the Jesus Toaster do bagels? Will my English muffin include Joseph of Arimathea? Does whole wheat toast suggest an African Jesus? My morning has suddenly become too full of options. Besides, the day is usually downhill from here. I think maybe I’ll just have cereal instead.

Lady Madonna


Among the paintings and prints in the Edvard Munch collection on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a rendition of his famous Madonna. I first saw a reproduction of this piece in a discussion of Christian art. The question, of course, was whether it could be considered Christian art or not. Munch was not known for creating religious-themed art. Angst was his more natural home. While not the only Madonna to pose naked, Munch predated the aging pop star by a fair number of decades, and named this piece after an icon of Catholic orthodoxy. The problem is the female body. Religion in the western world has pretty much always had difficulty dealing with embodiment. My generation grew up with Charlton Heston and any number of bare-chested, sculpted idols of manhood playing such characters as Tarzan, Ben-Hur, and Moses. Moses? Yes, even Cecil B. DeMille knew the draw of having a biblical hero bathed by a bunch of young, Egyptian women. We are used to seeing Jesus nearly naked on the cross—but Mary?

The issues tied to embodiment, although they effect every person who has a body, fall more heavily upon females. While there is little agreement as to the why, the excuse is often given that “man” is in the image of God and “woman” is derivative. In actual fact it seems more likely to me that men prefer an easy excuse for bad behavior. Biology sends a pretty strong reproductive message to most males, but, in the human realm at least, the larger burden rests with the females. By blaming the victims the male hierarchy—undeniable in the case of the church, as in many religions—insists that the female body is the problem. Males perform as God intended, thank you. But the reasoning is all backward here. Munch, if he intended this to be the Madonna, is problematizing the discourse.

Art, like holy writ, is open to interpretation. Munch did not explain his enigmatic Madonna, but like Leonardo da Vinci, lets the silent woman speak for herself. Scholars have long noted the multiplicity of Marys in Jesus’ life. At some points the Gospel writers leave a little too much inference up to the reader. It is pretty clear that Jesus had no trouble with women. But he was a singular visionary in a time when cheap blame was easily found. So Edvard Munch may have been following in the footsteps of the master when he portrayed the Madonna who accuses the world of double-dealing and false standards. It is an arresting artwork, and not for prurient reasons. What is being exposed here is a soul. She may be called the blessed virgin or the mother of God, but her gender is still castigated even by those who mouth such holy epithets. We may never know who Munch intended this to be, but we know she is every woman who has been repressed by the religion of men, yearning to be free.

Tree Goddess

If you’re missing a virgin, I suggest you might try West New York. According to the local section of Friday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger an alleged image of the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared in “an unusual tree” in West New York. The local diocese, no doubt correctly, suggests that the “image” is probably “just some discoloration that resembles Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Those inclined to accept pareidolia as fact, however, have already made up their minds. The tree has been barricaded off and flowers have been laid at its base and cell phone shutters are making their electronically fabricated snapping noises. A Google image search of “Virgin Mary West New York” brought up more than a million hits. People are desperate for a miracle.

Back when I was working on my dissertation, the tree goddess was inevitably Asherah. One of my unspoken speculations from those days was that trees are evocative plants, easily playing to the human imagination. In the right conditions a young tree can be mistaken for a person at a distance. The branches, particularly in late autumn and winter, resemble gnarled fingers reaching for the sky or any unwary passer by. And the natural knots and scars on tree trunks (such as in the current example) readily fire unlikely associations. They can be eyes, mouths, faces, or other anatomical bits—as people we project ourselves onto any likely (sometimes unlikely) avatars in the natural world. If images are to be believed, hundreds of people are devoutly weeping and praying at an entirely natural formation in the wood less than two miles from the most sophisticated city in the country.

Even with the Roman Catholic Church urging caution, blind belief is not dissuaded. What does it say about us that we so deeply desire a sign from above? This is the kind of question those who claim that a reasoned materialism will inevitably trump superstition must ask themselves in profound reflection. The fact is that people always have (and always will) assigned meaning to what they see. It is the gift and curse of evolution. “I think I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree,” Joyce Kilmer famously wrote before being killed in World War One. This New Brunswick, New Jersey native, who died at 31 in the killing fields of France, might wonder that so many stop at that first famous stanza. To those thronging in West New York, I would recommend a little Kilmer with their miracle. Let’s leave the last word to the poet: “A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray…”

O Pomona!

Ancient goddesses have long been a fascination with me. After writing my Edinburgh dissertation on Asherah, and taking employment at an Anglo-Catholic seminary that venerated the BVM – Blessed Virgin Mary, and not some underwear brand, as I had supposed – I realized that male-dominated religions still recognize the need for the sacred feminine. In my recent post on Halloween, I mentioned the Roman goddess Pomona. Roman religion is generally not treated with the finesse of classical Greek mythology, but it represents an important part of our western heritage. Pomona is an etiological goddess. Etiologies are stories of origins, and like other goddesses of the ancient world Pomona was used to explain the mysterious ways of nature.

The story that best describes Pomona is preserved by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Pomona is one of the virgin goddesses, specifically the goddess of fruit. She has no known Greek antecedents. The myth involves her devoted chastity and her commitment to ripening fruit, particularly apples (and sometimes pears). Shunning all lovers, she was eventually wooed by Vertumnus, the god of changing seasons. Disguising himself as an old woman, Vertumnus visits Pomona and tells her of the wonders of love and of the attributes of Vertumnus especially. Eventually Vertumnus reveals himself, and Pomona, delighted at what she sees, loves him. Of course, apples ripen and seasons change. Winter is soon to come once the apples fall from the tree. The goddess has been subdued by masculine designs.

So it often is with goddesses. Men recognize the need for the divine feminine, but fear it and attempt to tame it. Pomona, however, survives. One of the memorable objets d’art at Nashotah House, where I sat in that chapel for over a dozen long years, was a frieze of the BVM. More technically, a Madonna and Child. The frieze hung over an altar in a side chapel behind the choir, so most people didn’t spend much time looking at it. Mary, holding Jesus, was surrounded by a frame of fruit rendered in plaster. Apples were prominent among them. There are those who suggest that apples show how Mary overcame the heinous sin of Eve. I believe, however, that the fruits surrounding the virgin demonstrate that Pomona, the virgin goddess who eventually succumbs to the advances of the male deity, still has a place in the patriarchal world of Christendom.