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A hunger to see the holy

The devout can see religious images in the ordinary: chocolate, tortillas, a sandwich. One theory ascribes it to perceptual hard-wiring.

December 15, 2006|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

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

A worker arriving at a Fountain Valley 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 statue at Bodega Chocolates.

All over the world, people such as Santacruz have been finding religion in very odd places.

Holy images have been perceived in bricks, wooden 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 to house 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.

From a scientific perspective, the phenomenon is so common that it has been given a name: pareidolia, the perception of patterns where none are 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."

At the root of the phenomenon, he said, is is the survival instinct.

"It's a built-in perceptual strategy," Guthrie said, "of better safe than sorry. In a situation of uncertainty, we guess that something is caused by the most important possibility."

Hence, if you're alone and hear a strange sound -- even on a gusty night -- you're more likely to ask, "Who's there?" than think it's the wind. And if you happen to be religious, according to Guthrie, your answer to "Who's there?" may well be, in a broader context, God. More specifically, Jesus in a fried tortilla.

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 in awe and knelt in veneration.

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

Other supposed miracles have proved profitable: A 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich with a pattern said to resemble 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 some took to be the face of Jesus brought in nearly $2,000.

Some manifestations get worldwide attention.

In 1996, the owner of Bongo Java in Nashville said he discovered a cinnamon bun bearing the likeness of Mother Teresa.

Dubbed "the miracle nun bun," the pastry got so much notice worldwide that he parlayed it into a commercial venture, selling nun-bun T-shirts and coffee mugs on the Internet. The items were taken off the market when Mother Teresa complained, but he refused to stop exhibiting the renowned sweet even after she died.

Eventually the venerated bun was stolen during a 2005 Christmas Day break-in and, despite the offer of a $5,000 reward, only photographs of it were returned -- anonymously to a local newspaper.

Starting about the same time, an estimated 500,000 visitors flocked to see the glass facade of a home finance building in Clearwater, Fla., said to bear an iridescent image of a veiled Virgin Mary. Skeptics said it was merely a stain created by corrosion.

Eventually the building was bought by a Catholic revivalist group from Ohio, which dubbed it the Virgin Mary Building before replacing the miraculous windows, broken by vandals using slingshots, with a large picture of Jesus Christ.

But it was the famous Jesus tortilla of New Mexico that some believe set the world standard for claims of miracle sightings.

After discovering it one morning while making her husband's breakfast, Maria Rubio mounted a display of the tortilla, which, by 1979, had reportedly been visited by more than 35,000 people bearing flowers and photos of their ailing relatives.

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