In everyday items, seeing the holy

Where the faithful find messages from God, skeptics find random patterns.

August 14, 2005|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,SUN STAFF

Lisa Quinn was just about to scrape the skillet clean when the odd-shaped bit of half-cooked pancake caught her eye.

Just the night before, the Harford County woman had asked her boys to get out of bed and onto the floor to say their prayers properly. Now her eyes widened at the uncanny rendering of a kneeling figure - hands folded, head bowed, mouth forming a little `O' - in the semi-cooked clump of Aunt Jemima pancake batter.

To Quinn, whose family had begun to worship in a nondenominational church in Joppa months earlier, the image was an affirmation from on high.

"I think it's definitely a sign," says the 34-year-old mother of three, nodding at the three-week-old artifact that rests next to a porcelain angel atop her bedroom dresser. "As much as we've brought the Lord into our lives the last couple of months, I think it's a miracle."

Anthony and Lisa Quinn, native Baltimoreans living in Forest Hill, are among the growing number of Americans who have seen the transcendent in objects of everyday life.

Including the portrait of the Virgin Mary in the partially eaten grilled-cheese sandwich that fetched a Florida woman thousands of dollars last year on eBay and the winking statue of Jesus drawing crowds to Hoboken, N.J., such apparitions - or, at least, the willingness of believers to discuss them openly - are on the rise.

The Rev. Johann Roten, director of the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, says the increasing reports of apparitions may suggest a spiritual hunger that is not being satisfied by organized religion.

In the past year, supposed images of Jesus have emerged on a fish stick in Ontario, plaster paneling near Pittsburgh and a potato chip in Florida. What some see as a portrait of Mary turned up in the spring in a stain on a concrete wall in Chicago. In recent years, believers have seen her in the windows of a hospital outside Boston and on a fence in Australia.

Roten calls the phenomenon an effect of spiritual revival.

"Rationalism has come to a certain end," he says. "Technology doesn't satisfy all personal needs. You have a kind of return to religion, not so much institutional, but personal or experiential. Whenever you have an experiential emphasis, you're going to have apparitions."

Visions of Christian images are as old as the religion. Pilgrims flock to shrines near Mexico City; Fatima, Portugal; and Medjugorje, Bosnia - sites where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have appeared decades or centuries ago.

Such apparitions are seen most commonly by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers, whose traditions place greater emphasis on images and icons than most Protestant denominations. While records are spotty, anecdotal evidence suggests that sightings increase during periods of trauma: Mary is said to have appeared in Fatima in 1917, as World War I raged across Europe.

Skeptics say the phenomena can be explained: a randomly occurring pattern on a piece of food, a spot of condensation on a statue, aided by an imagination eager to credit the divine. Anxiety about war and terrorism, they say, on top of the stresses of ordinary life, may be leading some to seek comfort in what seem to be signs.

"They're like Rorschach tests," says University of Kansas historian Sandra Zimdars-Swartz, author of a book on sightings of Mary. "A pattern of light and color, and people read their faith into it.

But to those who believe, the sudden appearances by Jesus, Mary and other figures are no mere optical illusions, but communiques from God - messages or warnings to be heard, understood and obeyed.

"They're trying to take prayer out of school," says Anthony Quinn, 36, a painting contractor. "They're trying to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Maybe this is a sign that we should leave those things in there."

Joe Nickell, the author of Looking for a Miracle, says such sightings amount to nothing more than "the human ability to make sense out of randomness."

"We've all looked at clouds and seen camels or whatever," says Nickell, a senior research fellow with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. "If you find an ordinary shape, you don't attach any significance to it. It's when we can imagine that it looks something like Jesus or Mary that it takes on this special significance. We are selecting."

Given media coverage and the speed of Internet communications, Nickell says, the phenomenon is likely to grow.

"The more people who have heard about it and are impressed by it, the more are going to be out looking," he says. "We know that when someone sees a flying saucer and talks about it, more people go out and look at the sky, which means more sightings of weather balloons or shooting stars."

Anthony Quinn remembers hearing about the grilled-cheese sandwich. But that was before he began worshiping at Mountain Christian Church.

"It has changed our lives," he says.

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