The Virgin Mary appears

Unfortunately, Blogger was down for "scheduled maintenance" last night in my prime blogging time, meaning I couldn't access the drafts couple of posts inspired by my recent trip to AACR and finish one of them. By the time Blogger was back up, it was too late to let me finish one of them in a manner that would meet Orac's usual standards. Fortunately, I had started this on the plane on the way home, meaning I had a copy of it in Word, not Blogger. All I had to do is to add the links, clean it up, and I was good to go.

I've been made aware of a rather interesting apparition that has appeared in my favorite city (and here and here), Chicago, not too far from where I used to live. On a freeway underpass for the Kennedy Expressway at W. Fullerton Avenue, there is a stain that has appeared, a stain that is said to bear an uncanny resemblance to the Virgin Mary (more is here and a slideshow is here). Given that I know exactly which underpass this is, having driven by there many times during my three year sojourn in Chicago, I just had to check the story out, even though its entry into the blogosphere is a few days old. Better late than never, I guess (not to mention that, just because several other bloggers have already commented on this story never stopped me from adding my two cents).

Checking out pictures of the supposed apparition, I have a hard time seeing that much of a resemblance. Certainly, not having ever heard of it before or seen it before, I probably wouldn't have looked at that stain and said to myself, "Gee, that looks like the Virgin Mary." (Other things come to mind, unfortunately, which probably says more about me than I'd like to admit.) However, now that the suggestion has been planted by all the stories on the "apparition," I can see a resemblance. But I have to mention that others have pointed out equally plausible things that the stain looks like, one of them quite artistic and another of them quite rock 'n' roll. This particular apparition reminds me of one that happened a few years ago that got a fair amount of play in the media. In the fall of 2000, hundreds flocked to a house in Perth Amboy, NJ, in which a second floor window appeared to show an image of the Virgin Mary. This image, unfortunately, disappeared when the window was cleaned, but that didn't bother the owner of the house, who said, "Cleaning the window didn't remove her. She left when she was ready to leave." Another example is Our Lady of Watsonville, in which an image of the Virgin Mary was reportedly seen in a tree, and a more recent example occurred at a Boston hospital in 2003.

Clearly, as Skeptico points out, this is yet another instance of pareidolia, the tendency of people to see distinct objects in response to a vague stimulus. Pareidolia is usually the explanation for these phenomenon, and psychologists even try to harness this psychological tendency to see distinct objects in vague stimuli as a psychological test, the Rorschach ink blot test (although the validity of this test has been questioned). Having grown up Catholic myself, I never quite understood why Catholics as a religion seem to be particularly susceptible to paredolia, especially to seeing visions of the Virgin Mary in stains, windows, and other objects (although I have seen an amusing story of one who saw a vision of Lenin in his shower, which tells me that anyone can be susceptible to this experience). It seems that, all too often, all it takes is one imaginative person who "sees" the Virgin Mary or Jesus or what-have-you in a window, who then tells others. Add the power of suggestion plus religion and suddenly everybody is seeing the vision!

Not even all religious people think that much of them. For example:

Does it matter? Does it matter what people see, or what they think they see?

The Rev. Al Boyce of the First Unitarian Society on Plainfield doesn't think so.

"I do believe that we are body, soul and spirit, and spirituality is a part of our lives," he said. "But I do not take much stock in apparitions and this type of thing. If someone imagines or sees something through their mind's eye, that's fine with me. . . But if we would only live like Jesus lived instead of looking at images of him, we would be far better off."

Indeed we probably would. However, whatever the source of these "visions," they must be recognized for what they are, not for what we wish they were.

Personally, I consider these "visions" to be no different than looking at the clouds and seeing different objects in them. I myself have seen clouds that have borne resemblances to faces, animals, trees, and a variety of other objects. Sometimes, if I let my imagination go a bit, I can even convince myself that the resemblance is quite uncanny. And, yes, I've even seen clouds that have on occasion reminded me of the face of Jesus or of the Virgin Mary. These "visions" are no different. They would be nothing more than fun diversions if they didn't have the potential to cause so much trouble when used to convince people that it's a "sign from God." Of course, these "signs from God" can then used as a tool for control, a means to convince people that the "sign" means whatever the leader wants to tell them it means. That's one big reason to be skeptical of them, particularly the religious-based ones. Another is that they are often used to "prove" the existence of ghosts, UFOs, the Face on Mars, etc., in the absence of hard evidence.

The bottom line is that we have to understand the psychological tendency to see concrete objects in response to vague shapes and not let it serve as "proof" of anything. It can be fun to let your imagination wander and see what sorts of objects you can "see" in stains, clouds, condensation on windows, or whatever, but don't accept such "visions" as "proof" of anything.


  1. live like jesus-wander around like a vag, relying on charity for food, etc?

  2. Need I mention the grilled cheese sandwich incident which played out so loudly in the news just a few months ago?

  3. The answer to that is NO, Lord R...

    That damned cheese sandwich... heard the latest?

  4. While driving home last week, I saw a pickup truck on a side street, waiting to enter the highway. A german shepherd was driving it. Of course, it was not a dog. It was a man who didn't even vaguely resemble a dog. But when I first looked, I saw a dog. I did not see something that looked like a dog; I saw a dog. Now I do not consider that a miracle (either a dog driving, or a dog turning into a man), but I do consider it a good example of how we see: we see with our brains, not our eyes. Our brains decide what those nerve signals from our eyes represent in the real world, and sometimes it is nothing like what actually exists in the real world. The human brain-eye system is an extremely good mechanism for seeing patterns. We see them even when they are not there. I saw a pattern of color, light and dark, and my brain said it was a dog, even helpfully filling in all the missing details (color and length of fur, erect ears, all very Rin-Tin-Tin). And, so with Mary.

  5. So, ready to make the move away from Blogger yet? :)

  6. A german shepherd was driving it.


    A couple of weeks ago, I went outside for my morning smoke and, glancing towards a movement out of the corner of my eye, I saw a racoon foaming at the mouth. I shook my head a bit and saw that it was only my s-daughter's calico cat staring me down as is her wont.

    LOL! I love that stuff.

  7. So all it takes is a vaguely penguin-like shape or a silent film star to resemble the Virgin Mary? I'm going to be rich!


    PS - Anyone wanna buy a used bar of soap? The pattern of hair stuck to it was moved by the Lord to give a comforting image of our Savior. Such a holy relic is surely priceless.
    (Reserve set at $5000.)

  8. I don't know. How could your Holy Bar of Soap be as priceless as the Sacred Frying Pan that produced the Holy Grilled Cheese Sandwich, as mentioned by outeast above?

  9. You just have to Believe, Orac.


  10. Orac,

    What you see in the image is exactly what I see in the image. I see the image of the "holiest of holies" but not of the Virgin Mary at all....


    An image of the famous naturalist Charles Darwin recently appeared on the bottom of a frying pan. The happy owner of the pan discovered the image of Darwin earlier this week. “I had just finished washing up the dinner dishes, and I went to hang the pan above the stove where I store it and I was amazed to see the image of Darwin.” The pan's owner does not know why Darwin appeared on her pan although she does have some spec! ulations. “So I’ve been wondering why Darwin would show up on my frying pan and I have a pretty good guess. I think it happened because this pan was really cheaply made. I mean, it shouldn’t have burned up like this. It should be able to withstand the heat of a stove, you know? It’s obviously a piece of crap.” The owner intends to sell the item on ebay.

    Item description and history:

    The frying pan has a teflon coating on the inside and green paint on the outside. Both sides show damage, but only the outside damage (pictured) resembles Darwin. The seller bought the pan for about £5 at a store on Camden Road in London in early October. The store owners are unaware of what has since happened to the pan. On the night of November 15th, 2005, the seller discovered that Darwin's image had appeared on the underside of the pan. The seller (pictured below with the pan), a great fan of Darwin's work, has decided to sell the pan and donate the proceeds to the American Civil Liberti! es Union. The seller guarantees that the photo of the pan was not photoshopped and the pan itself was not drawn on or otherwise modified. Also, the image is not too complex to have appeared by chance.

    The pan is not under warranty and probably should no longer be used for cooking. Instead, the buyer can proudly display it, perhaps in a glass case.


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