Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Is this an honest apparition of the Virgin Mary or is it a mere water stain? My inner skeptic is going with water stain. Father Ernest Belinda of Norfolk Virginia’s Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception was passing by the baptismal fount one day when he noticed an odd water stain. The water stain looks eerily similar to the veiled statuary of the Virgin Mary, head tilted forward and cockled to one side, arms spread open in an invitation for a motherly embrace that I grew up around. But, my skeptical nature reminds me that I have seen water stains such as this before and in my own bathroom.

I am pretty sure that the mother of God was not personally appearing to me, and, as Father Belinda remarks, she is showing up everywhere nowadays including on pieces of toast (paraphrase). Occasionally stories from Mexico or South America surface telling how people have seen the Blessed Virgin’s image on the side of buildings or on cinnamon buns. All of these cases have one thing in common – credulous people willing to see what they want to see and nothing more.

That these occur in Latin America where religion and superstition share the same bed does not surprise me. The vast majority of people who choose to believe seem to have not had the benefit of modern education and illiteracy seems to create an open invitation for credulity. However, I would be remiss in forgetting to mention that there are educated and intelligent people among the ranks of the superstitious. Studies increasingly indicate that the United States – the most modern of the modern world – is one of the most religious. There seems to be something in many of us that craves the supernatural.

I am one of those people myself. The entire story of my inner life might be well summed up by calling it the war of reason vs. the supernatural. Even as a small child I did not easily accept the teachings of my church. Oddly Santa Claus was no problem. Perhaps, the evidence of presents under the tree and a stocking stuffed with goodies Christmas morning made it more plausible then the churches “reason for the season.” I irked my elders with questions. I was often accused of challenging my betters and told to sit down and shut up.

This accelerated my skepticism. If so many people were telling me to shut up or “that’s the way it is” or, my personal favorite, “that is what the church teaches” then something might well be up. The need to survive with some level of tranquility taught me how to convincingly tell people what they wanted to hear. But, it didn’t prevent the seething storm going on inside me. While I didn’t learn anything about free inquiry and intellectual integrity as I child I did learn how to be a skilled liar with near pathological precision. Perhaps it is no small accident that I grew up to be a story teller.

But, why superstition? Why religion? Why can’t this life with its joys, sorrows, sublime moments and despair be enough? Is every day life so mundane that we need to create an escape rather than creating better ways for us to live our life in the present moment? Is it because we look around and see how much cruelty and injustice exists? I am often overwhelmed at how much trouble the world seems to be in and how, despite our collective intellect, humanity seems unable to solve its problems – problems that we have created.

Perhaps, this is why our most powerful image of god is often of divine judge. It is even more powerful than our concepts of God as love. We want the god of the end days to sweep down and bring terrible justice to those who we perceive as evil or who have caused us personal pain. This image of God seems to be part and parcel of why religion often seems so violent.

This despair over the injustice causes many to question their faith and their purpose in life. No wonder they need water stains to be the Blessed Mother of God. As one woman being interviewed in the video suggested it doesn’t really matter if it’s just a stain if it helps people renew their faith. Religious people may find themselves agreeing with that sentiment. I believe it is horrible.

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