The miraculous, the mundane

From chocolate to tortillas, people claim to see religious faces in the strangest of things

December 17, 2006|By David Haldane | David Haldane,Los Angeles Times

The wonder, believers said, appeared in a chunk of chocolate.

A worker arriving at a Fountain Valley, Calif., candy factory saw it in a sugary glob at the mixing vat's spout: an amazing likeness of the Virgin Mary standing in prayer.

"It's absolutely a miracle," said Jacinto Santacruz, a 26-year-old Roman Catholic who in August discovered the 2 1/2 -inch-tall apparition at Bodega Chocolates.

All over the world, people like Santacruz have been finding religion in odd places.

Holy figures have been perceived in bricks, logs, the gritty underpass of a Chicago expressway, a Tennessee coffee shop called Bongo Java and, last month, a tiny gold nugget found in the Arizona desert. In 1977, a woman making burritos in Lake Arthur, N.M., saw the face of Jesus in the pattern of skillet burns on a tortilla. She built a shrine for the Jesus tortilla, which was blessed by a priest, and thousands of people from across the country came to gaze and pray for its divine assistance in healing their ailments.

Christians aren't the only ones to find the holy in the ordinary: Followers of Islam have said they've seen the Arabic script for "Allah" or "Muhammad" on fish scales, chicken eggs, lambs and beans.

The phenomenon is so common that scientists have given it a name: pareidolia, the perception of patterns where none is intended. And according to Stewart Guthrie, one of a handful of professors who have studied it, such perceptions are part of the way human beings are "hard-wired."

"It's really part of our basic perceptual and cognitive situation," said Guthrie, a cultural anthropologist, retired Fordham University professor and author of the book Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion.

"It has to do with all kinds of misapprehensions that there is something human-like in one's environment, when really there's not."

The feelings generated by these perceptions can be powerful. At Bodega Chocolates, Santacruz and her co-workers quickly placed the chocolate Madonna in a small plastic case, and as news of the apparition spread, a stream of the curious and devout began making pilgrimages to the shop, where they prayed, crossed themselves and knelt in veneration.

"It's really emotional," Santacruz said later. "I can't describe the feeling. The emotions make me cry."

Other purported miracles have proved profitable: A 10-year-old grilled-cheese sandwich with a pattern resembling the Virgin Mary sold on eBay in 2004 for $28,000; a pretzel in the shape of Mary cradling the infant Jesus fetched $10,600; and a water-stained piece of plaster cut from a shower wall bearing what looked like the face of Jesus brought in nearly $2,000.

On Dec. 12, Roman Catholics celebrate the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who they believe was first seen by a Mexican Indian named Juan Diego in 1531. Similar apparitions of a woman speaking soothing words have been noted worldwide.

But a divine presence gracing a grilled-cheese sandwich?

Church officials say they don't encourage such interpretations.

"Imagine showing up on your judgment day in front of God, and he says, `Where did you see me? Did you see me in the poor and the immigrant and the homeless?' And you say, `Well, no, but I did see you in a piece of chocolate once.' Doesn't sound so good, does it?" said Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

David Haldane writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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