Reflecting on Light

Now that we’re approaching the winter solstice, light is pretty much on the minds of those of us in the northern hemisphere.  Or lights.  The use of Christmas lights and Hanukkah lights may have symbolic value to the religions that promote them, but both also reflect the pagan use of sympathetic magic to bring back the light.  Human beings tend to be visually oriented, and many of us feel the increasing darkness deeply.  Days are brief enough to be awake for the entirety of daylight’s duration, and then you still have to get home after work.  After dark.  All our enlightened hours are spent for the benefit of the company.  It takes its toll.  And so we string holiday lights, bringing cheer into the preternaturally long hours starved for illumination.

Although the snow hasn’t stayed around here, I did notice an interesting reflection of light outdoors the other day.  The windows of a house were casting a light-shadow on a fence that had the look of a cross.   It took some convincing to assure me that this was pareidolia—the assigning of intentionality to random “signal.”  We see faces where they don’t really exist, and when we see crosses in this evangelical haven of America we have to assume they’re intentional.  Sometimes, however, they’re simply a trick of the light.  The sun has a low angle this time of year, and the light that is otherwise scattered back into what is wonderfully termed airglow—the natural illumination caused by sunlight as its luminosity brightens the daytime sky—is focused lower.  Light takes shape and sometimes it seems religious.

 

In New York City, where repeated patterns are pervasive, such reflections often appear on neighboring buildings as “X-Files” symbols of Xs in circles, giving the city a mysterious look.  Out here, however, they appear as crosses.  You see what you want to see.  Or, sometimes you can’t help seeing what appears utterly obvious to credulous eyes.  I’ve had people insist that crosses like this are intentional.  In reality, they’re a natural result of rectangles reflecting the morning light when the sun follows its low profile ecliptic during the waning of the year.  That doesn’t mean that it can’t be read for something else, of course,  Religion is all about interpretation.  Light forms patterns and seems strong enough to banish darkness.  And given how many hours it’s dark these days, I’m willing to take what help I can get.  The solstice will soon be here.

Fair Weather

“I just saw God up on your ridge.”  (Kudos to anyone who can name the source of that quote!)  Many years ago I read Stewart Guthrie’s remarkable Faces in the Clouds.  The idea that he presents is that pareidolia—seeing faces or people where they don’t actually exist—may account for the belief in God.  Early people, not knowing any way to interpret such obvious examples of humans writ everywhere thought they were gods or spirits.  Since reading this book, I’ve taken to trying to capture incidents of pareidolia where I can.  The other day as I was working away in my home office, I noticed a literal face in the clouds.  I thought “I just saw God outside my window.”

Now I know this isn’t really what I saw.  I know matrixing (mistaking noise for signal) when I experience it.  I hope.  Nevertheless, the resemblance was detailed—brow ridge, nose, distinct lips, chin.  The lighting in the fair weather cumulus will likely make this difficult for you to make out, and you might see a face other than the one I saw.  Not everyone thinks of the Almighty in the same way.  Looking at the picture I snapped I can see at least two faces stacked on top of one another—the council of the gods?  Who am I to tell deities what they can or can’t do?   Or to prevent imagination from going where it will?  Religion seems to be an evolved characteristic of our biological makeup—our eyes show us what to believe about the world around us.  The rest is hermeneutics.

Gods and the skies naturally go together.  We can’t reach the heavens nor can we control them.  We can increase greenhouse gases in them, though, threatening the very illusion we see in the clouds.  The glimpse of the divine we once saw there can easily dissolve into acid rain.  Heaven and Hell, according to the story of Dives and Lazarus, aren’t very far apart.  Even as we gaze into the cerulean sky seeking serenity, others are bending laws to allow them to destroy it for profit.  There’s a reason Dives is simply called “the rich man.”  Does Scripture defend the practice of environmental destruction?  Dives’ friends claim the planet was given to us to use and use up and Jesus will swoop out of those clouds we’re manipulating at the last minute and rescue us from the mess we’ve made.  Looking into God’s face in the clouds, I interpret this all as a mere excuse.  To destroy the environment is to side with Dives as he makes his flaming bed of nails in Hell. This is why windows in an office are divine.

Seeing Thinks

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a dude! What what is it? It’s actually a cloud. I enjoy the entries on Mysterious Universe, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It seems like decades since I laid down on the ground and looked at the clouds, seeking shapes. The sky is nature’s cerulean canvas and although they’re just water vapor, clouds take on endlessly fascinating shapes. Since religion has historically been projected onto the sky, many people take signs in the sky as somehow divine. The photo on Mysterious Universe is of a cloud that some thought was Jesus and others thought was Mary. Herein lies the rub of pareidolia. You see what you want to see.

There is, in traditional Christian thought, a world of difference between Jesus and Mary. You really don’t want to mix the two up. I mean one is divine and the other is only venerated. Don’t want to cross that line into worship because idolatry leads to all kinds of trouble. So who’s in the sky? Someone that we should perhaps think sacred: water. In a world quickly running out of fresh water (of course since now, officially, there is no global warming we’ll have to find another way of explaining our disappearing ice caps) we should all perhaps worship our clouds. The harbingers of fresh water. It won’t last forever.

I, for one, complain when it rains too much. I suppose that’s because I’ve lived most of my life in the rainy climates of the eastern United States and Scotland. Days can pass without a glimmer of sunshine. I get depressed and truculent. Yet the freshwater falls. Water tables are replenished. In much of the world—indeed, in much of the United States—it is not so. Water shortages are bad and are growing worse. We use far too much and when the ice caps are gone, the largest reserves of freshwater on the planet will be empty. Then again, capitalists have never been too keen on saving up for the future. Most of us alive today, at least in the rainy climes, will have our lifetime supply. The future, however, looks pretty hot and thirsty. So who is it in the sky? Could be either gender—wearing robes makes it hard to tell at this level of detail—but whoever it is, let’s hope they’ve brought plenty of friends with them.

Look like anybody you know?

Look like anybody you know?

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.

Private Miracles

Despite rumors to the contrary, the Roman Catholic Church is skeptical of miracles. Quick to point out pareidolia where it occurs, looking like the Blessed Virgin in a tree stump or highway underpass, this is no credulous organization. Everyday miracles, doctrinal ones, of course are accepted. Transubstantiation is a quotidian miracle as the mass is no mere ritual. Flashier miracles—even some very impressive ones—are treated with suspicion and the rigor of Scotland Yard. When one of my regular readers pointed out the bleeding communion host in Kearns, Utah, I knew I had to check it out. As is to be expected in such cases, the Catholic Church does not disappoint. Some are calling it a miracle, but those who are do not speak for the Diocese.

Keeping in mind that my source for the story is Fox (Fox news seems more interested than most in this incident), apparently what happened is that a parishioner returned a host to the priest during communion. The priest put the host in a glass of water to dissolve it, but instead it began to “bleed.” Church officials were called in to investigate. There are several things odd here, although I’m no inquisitor, that make me wonder about the veracity of the story. First: Fox news. There are other outlets as well, so I’ll let that go at the moment. When a person was given a wafer at Nashotah House and for whatever reason turned it back in, the celebrant simply ate it. Priests, by definition believers in miracles, need not worry about germs. Protecting the host from desecration was the main thing. Putting it in a glass of water? I suppose that’s acceptable in some places, but even an Episcopalian would be shocked. And why was the host returned? Surely it wasn’t defective.

The Eucharist is the central rite of the liturgical churches, and it isn’t taken lightly. Although it is a miracle-laced event, it is expected that the transformation will follow the prescribed rite. I sometimes ponder what priests would do in the face of a genuine, unexplainable wonder. The side of the believer that yearns for validation would surely want to put it on Fox news for all the world to see. The private side would want to let it happen without any need to say anything about it. Keep it a private miracle. In a year when Starbucks red is a sign of an impending war, I wonder if a bleeding host is the most apt way to get the attention of the unfaithful when a simple cup of coffee will do.

800px-Última_Cena_-_Juan_de_Juanes

Angels We Have Seen on High

Humans have always ascribed significance to what they see in the sky. Evolution, I suspect, has a great deal to do with it, but so does religion. As I suggest in Weathering the Psalms, the sky is the barometer where we seek the temperament of the divine. The weather is an indication of what God might be feeling, in the pious mind. Of course, as a child I used to lay back and look at the clouds to see what messages I might find there. Pareidolia makes the process good fun, and lots of random “noise” can be interpreted as “signal.” It’s all done in a light spirit. Still, if the internet is to be believed, many people take images in the clouds much more seriously. Apropos of the holiday season, a story in The Telegraph tells of a woman from Lincolnshire who, on her way to a Christmas gathering, saw an angel in the clouds. Or more properly, an angel of clouds. Being the anniversary of her father’s death, she saw this as a sign from above that left her in tears. Others would call it matrixing.

The photo the woman’s daughter took as they were driving is impressive (click the link above to take a look; I’ll wait). I understand how it could be interpreted as an angel. Or even a bird. The feathering on the left wing, along with the wing structure itself, is stunning. And of course, given the time of year, angels are much on the minds of many. What would any manger scene be without them? Although pareidolia is not a religious phenomenon by nature, it nevertheless is frequently interpreted that way. We certainly don’t take much personal comfort in a mechanistic universe. When a loved one is gone, we would rather consider the more human (and perhaps supernatural) aspects.

430px-Bernhard_Plockhorst_-_Schutzengel

Interpretation of information is a constant activity of sentient beings. We don’t want to miss anything that will be of survival value. In the case of the angel in the clouds, the survival is beyond that of every day. We are constantly reminded that death is the final word, and yet we can’t quite bring ourselves to believe it. Whether it is shepherds on a Palestinian hill in the first century or a woman motoring along A17, the sight of an angel is something that stops the viewer and inspires an openness that we otherwise have been taught to deny. It may be that all she saw was a pattern of water vapor in a December sky. But even water vapor can mean much more than two hydrogen atoms binding to one of oxygen. It can be part of the breath of life itself.

Pierogdolia

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.

IMG_1454

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?

JesusToaster

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.

Jesus, My Foot

A story going around the internet features pictures of Paula Osuna’s bruised second toe. According to the YouTube story, Osuna fell down the stairs then had her boyfriend rub some sacred dirt from the shrine of El Santuario de Chimayó in New Mexico over the injury. As part of the healing process, an icon of Jesus appeared on her injured toe. Now, New Mexico has a reputation for hiding some potent sites of paranormal import (at least 51 of them), but I had never heard of Chimayó before. It is apparently one of the most visited shrines in the country. Like Holy Hill, a local shrine I used to visit once in a while back in Wisconsin, the site itself is supposed to lead to healing. Healing sites sometimes hold their own irony.

When we lived in Wisconsin, my family used to be avid geocachers. We still go out once in a while to find the little boxes hidden in the woods, but in Wisconsin there were plenty of day trips to be had with minimal traffic (unlike our current setting). One day we drove to Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians, a discalced Carmelite community built atop a glacial moraine that gives spectacular views of the southeastern corner of the state. Inside there were many abandoned crutches, as I knew from previous visits, but this time we were present to find a small ammo box filled with trinkets, hidden in the wooded grounds. As our GPS narrowed us in on the coordinates, I made the typical error of watching my device rather than my feet. I slipped on a pile of rocks and my left hand slid onto a broken beer bottle, slicing open my little finger. Fortunately our geocaching bag held a small first aid kit, but no amount of gauze and holding my hand over my head could stop the bleeding. After we’d logged our find, we drove to a local emergency room where I received about ten stitches. Although the injury took place on the grounds of a healing shrine, no Jesus appeared on my shredded pinkie. Nor did miraculous healing come because of the location.

DoYouSeeWhatISee

Pareidolia is a most fascinating evolutionary development. One of the first things imprinted on a newborn person is the image of a human face. In remarkably short time the infant can register the intent of various expressions on a human face and will soon learn to mirror them. That desire to find a friendly face never leaves us. We see faces everywhere. There are entire websites dedicated to pareidolia. We like to think there is a watchful parent ensuring that we won’t stumble and fall. Life, however, is full of accidents and injuries. Some of them are even the results of visiting healing shrines. Belief is what makes the difference. Ironically, even when Osuna’s bruise lost the shape of Jesus, she still believed in the healing power of the dirt. Her story has been covered on television and is easily found on the web. It is a fame born of faith. Miracles are always there for the taking.

Devil’s Advocate

At fives and sixes, the Pope who gave us the devil's advocate.

At fives and sixes, the Pope who gave us the devil’s advocate.

When two people in completely isolated incidents tell me the origins of the term “Devil’s advocate” within a week, I figure it’s time to do a post about it. We’re all familiar with the term, and we know that it means taking the point of view of the “bad guy,” just for argument’s sake. In fact, the Devil’s advocate may not believe his (usually it is a he) own arguments, presents them to make sure the results are correct. The Devil’s advocate was an official office in Roman Catholicism beginning in the late 16th century. The actual title was Promoter of the Faith and the reason such an office was necessary was that so many people had been put forth as potential saints that the church experienced an embarrassment of riches. Canonization, the process of becoming a saint, has a number of hurdles to clear for the would-be paragon. Claims, often extraordinary, were made for miracles associated with the favored ones and the Devil’s advocate was intended to research and present contrary evidence. This made it more difficult to achieve sainthood, but in theory, at least, kept the number of candidates down to only the most deserving. There was no literal devil involved.

Those of us who grew up Protestant often had recourse to only faulty knowledge of Catholicism. We were sometimes taught that it was based on magic, what with the priest speaking in Latin and making mysterious motions with his hands. That meant, for some, that Catholics seemed particularly gullible and would believe things the rest of us wouldn’t. The Catholic Church, however, has often providing its own policing. Not as eager as Pentecostals to accept mundane miracles, when a pareidolia-inspired leakage of water or an anomalous burning of toast occurs, the Catholic Church is quick to debunk claims of miracles just because an underpass stain or a bit of bread looks like a famous religious figure. If you squint enough. The Devil’s advocate was a similar safeguard.

On the opposite side of the equation, I’ve often heard sermons among some evangelical groups claiming that we’re all saints. (Their membership, that is.) Who shouldn’t claim the name when they walk the walk? Many of these saints fail to inspire in the way of those of yore. Some of the beloved cultural heroes that keep coming back in various forms have saintly origins: Santa Claus and Saint Valentine are two that come to mind at this time of year. Some Protestants who may not have been perfect, however, should somehow qualify. Martin Luther King, Jr., another figure of the winter season, by his contributions to justice issues, might be one who would qualify. I’m sure there are many others. The fact is that making a principled stand against the wickedness that sometimes passes for the status quo is difficult and leaves one open to criticism and resentment. A Devil’s advocate might be just what society needs when looking to make saints out of mere mortals.

Flying None?

RoughGuidesWhile reading about a saint or two recently, I once again came across the concept of levitation. Long dismissed as overly gullible piety of superstitious pre-moderns, the practice has been relegated to the scratched and damaged basement of religious thought. Or so it would seem. While examining a World Religions textbook at work, I came across a picture of a young person in meditation who was, to all appearances, levitating. The caption simply noted that levitation is a component of some religious practitioners’ discipline and then quietly moved on. No scare quotes or allegedlys to be seen. The publisher of the text was one of the major textbook moguls. Curious, I found a reference to The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena by Bob Rickard and John Michell. This intriguing book, in its second edition, bears the Penguin imprimatur, and therefore should be taken seriously. While I am certain that any number of skeptical readers will declare me hopelessly naive, I found the book full of interesting anomalies, and many of them, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, tied the paranormal to religion.

While I can’t accept everything I read in The Rough Guide, there remain, even after healthy doubt, a number of weird things that persist in our reductionistic world. Strange phenomena do not necessarily validate religion, of course, and many of those “revelations” people claim must be simple pareidolia. These are entertaining, no doubt, but hardly newsworthy. It is rather those phenomena that refuse to play by the rules that raise questions about our demon-haunted world. If even just a handful, or even one of the cases of levitation actually occurred, it would mean some serious rethinking concerning the nature of gravity. Do saints levitate? I’m no saint, so perhaps it’s best not to ask me. If one lies about it, then s/he is hardly a saint.

As uncomfortable as the unexplained may make us, these reports do serve as a reminder that our scientific worldview is, in many ways, still in its infancy. A few years back, sitting in on the lecture of a friend concerning the science of the Mesopotamians, it was clear that rational thought has very early origins in human civilization. At the same time, the Mesopotamians had plenty of room for gods and the supernatural in their worldview as well. Here in our electronic twenty-first century, it might seem that reason will see us through just about any crisis. Even a glance at the headlines reveals we’re not there yet. Some will blame the religious, the “superstitious,” the irrational for our problems. Meanwhile far from the eyes of scientists and authorities of secular power, maybe, just maybe, a religious practitioner may be hovering a few inches off the ground.

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…”

Mary in the Sky with Sequins?

Shortly before Easter in the district of Yopougon in the Ivory Coast, a large group of Christians saw the Virgin Mary against the sun. UFO enthusiasts saw an alien in the same event. Several eyewitnesses ended up blind after staring into the sun. The video of this purported miracle is available on YouTube, but even watching the “miracle” on a dim computer monitor hurt my eyes. If you want to see Mary, I suggest a good pair of Ray-Bans. The alleged vision occurs a couple of minutes into the video – let the audience reaction be your guide if you decide to watch. All that I saw was what may be categorized as an optical illusion or pareidolia, although it does look a bit like a walking person. Objective information on this miracle is decidedly lacking on the web.

I never pretend to have the answers on unexplained phenomena. I find human arrogance amazingly resilient despite all that we still don’t comprehend. In the midst of all that might exist out there in the 99.99 percent of the universe we haven’t explored, I remain skeptical that we know all there is to know. One thing is certain, however; if something unknown appears in the skies some will call it Mary, others Jesus, and yet others an angel. (Conspiracy theorists claim it is Project Bluebeam.) Religious belief and paranormal belief are close cousins. Both involve explaining something that science cannot yet comprehend. If the figure were moving any faster, I might be inclined to accept that it is Carl Lewis.

In an unrelated story, it seems that the Allen Telescope Array of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), Frank Drake and Paul Allen’s baby (anticipated by Carl Sagan), is being shut down. Earth-based governments are reassessing spending priorities and finding a cosmic big sibling who might help us out of our mess down here has become a luxury we can’t afford. ET may phone from home, but on this end the receiver will be off the hook.

Religions tend to bolster the self-importance of human beings. While I believe we are ethically and morally bound to help one another, I find it difficult to believe, when looking at the way governors are operating today (Christie one of Time’s 100 most important people? Christie eleison!) that Homo sapiens are anywhere near the top of the cosmic intelligence scale. I just hope that if it is Mary in the sky with sequins that she remembered to bring her SPF 2012 sunscreen along.

Mummery and Divinity

The human psyche is a fascinating study. As an undergrad I stopped just shy of a psychology minor (partially this was due to the place, but also to a haunting feeling that psychologists are often attempting to resolve their own problems). Even as an armchair psychologist there are plenty of human tendencies to note. One that I occasionally mention in this blog is pareidolia, the attribution of significance to random information. Pareidolia often comes in the form of seeing faces, entire people, or even animals, where they don’t actually exist. This has been proffered as the source of belief in everything from ghosts and aliens to God himself. No doubt pareidolia is a strong tendency in the human mind. When my family recently saw Mummenschanz this was again confirmed.

This Swiss mime troupe – pioneers in experimental theater – makes simple objects come to life. The illusion works because of pareidolia. When we saw the show, even the youngest audience members could be heard exclaiming what obviously non-human tubes, slinky-like characters, and shapeless blobs were trying to do. “It wants the balloon!” “It likes that other one!” “It feels sad.” As the various abstract pieces moved about the stage, a laugh was guaranteed if they flashed a simple round orifice at the audience that clearly perceived it as an eye. We attribute intentionality and purpose to objects unvivified without the soul of Mummenschanz inside them.

Prior to the current tour, the last time my wife and I saw Mummenschanz was about two decades ago in Edinburgh. This was long before I’d been introduced to the concept of pareidolia, and, although I enjoyed the show, the more recent experience was more profound for it. Some of the adults present without children left at intermission, perhaps not finding the abstract personalities engaging. Children, however, seemed to comprehend what was going on. This does lend credence to the power of pareidolia to make sense of a bewildering world. When faced with the unfamiliar, we put a human face on it, ascribe it intention, and call it either a deity or Mummenschanz.

Seeing God

My daughter reminded me that one further aspect that stood out at the Red Mill Museum in Clinton was the persistence of pareidolia. Pareidolia, or matrixing, is the tendency to interpret “random” data as meaningful. More specifically, it is often used to refer to seeing a person (or entity) where it is not. As I wrote in an earlier entry, it has been suggested that pareidolia is the ultimate origin of religion.

For my purposes here, however, I wonder if the sheer amount of false faces we encountered while at the Red Mill might have some connection with the idea that the property is haunted. Somewhat of a skeptic, I am somewhat swayed by ghost accounts since they are so plentiful and since many of those who report them are reputable persons with good observation skills. Ghosts are, however, impossible to separate from some form of religious thought since they are the ultimate examples of the intangible, unmeasurable phenomenon. If there are ghosts in the laboratory, they haven’t been quantified yet.

Old buildings, which abound at sites like the Red Mill, are full of knotholes or other apertures whose original hardware has long since disappeared. Round holes, or spots, as many insects and fish “know” are easily interpreted as eyes. Add a horizontal line beneath your “eyes” and you have a basic face.

Perhaps my favorite example of pareidolia at Red Mill is an old sycamore tree. A large burl on the trunk bears a striking resemblance to a human profile. This is more easily seen in real life where the mind more easily filters out the distracting coloration and focuses on the shape. Since pareidolia is such a fascinating aspect of the human experience of the world, and since it might, conveniently, be tied to religion, this seemed to be as appropriate a venue as any other to share some great examples.