THE HOLY TOMATOES
(not to mention other fruit and veg and a nice line in sacred stains...)
1 JUNE THIS
YEAR, a cleaner in a
Mexico Ci under ground station discovered an apparently miraculous image of the country's patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, in a patch of damp on the pavement.
At the time the reaction of the Archbishop of Mexico City was, of course, distinctly roomtemperature. "There are no theological elements that lead 'us to consider this a divine presence through these lines that have formed due to a water leak," said his office.
But his comments failed to cool the religious ardour of ordinary Mexicans — 2,000 people an hour flocked to nidalgo Station to view Mexico's newest icon, the "Virgin of the Metro". And a few weeks ago the paving stone bearing the holy puddle was moved above ground and blessed by clerics.
This discernment, through 'eyes of faith, of a holy likeness or "simulacrum" in an unlikely medium is just one example among hundreds of Catholic images reported. Many have appeared in the accounts of the 'Fortean Times, the "Journal of Strange Phenomena".
The face of Christ, for instance, was thought to have appeared on the wall of a football stadium in Guatemala City. It was later found to be a whitewashed poster of the country and western singer Willie Nelson.
Closer to home, in August 1976, poultry workers, not all of them Catholic, at a farm in St Ives claimed that they could "plainly see" the head and shoulders of the crucified Christ on the stained asbestos wall of a hen house. Jack Griffin, a partner in the farm, said at the time that they kept quiet about it because "we didn't want people to think we were religious nut cases."
But they didn't keep too quiet: the Sunday Peopk printed a large photograph of the wall and invited readers to send in their thoughts about what the image was. One suggested four angels, another Christ reclining on a sofa, and another Boris Karloff.
MBEANWHILE, in Nashville, Tennessee, the ongo Java coffee shop has become a lucrative centre of pilgrimage for its proprietor Bob Bernstein. On 15 October last year Ryan Finney, a local musician, was about to tuck in to a delicious cinnamon bun when he spotted the unmistakeable face of Mother Teresa on its wizened surface.
The NunBunTm, glazed to preserve it, is now proudly displayed on a bed of purple velveteen inside a glass case and Mr Bernstein gives five per cent of the money he makes from merchandising to the Missionaries of Charity.
Stories of Christian revela
tions are widely disseminated in the Western media, often with a knowing sneer.
But what is less well known is that simulacra like these are by no means confined to Christian cultures. In his new book on the unusual, Borderlands, Mike Dash, the publisher of Fortean Times, devotes several pages to the intriguing
phenomenon of the "holy aubergine".
In the spring of 1990, newspapers reported that Hussain Bhatti, a Muslim accountant from Nottingham, sliced open an aubergine to reveal the word "Allah" spelt out in arabic script in the pattern of the seeds. Luckily his son,who was studying A-level chemistry, had the presence of mind to preserve the vegetable in saline.
In the same year Farida Kassam of Leicester found the words "Yah-Allah", meaning "Allah is everywhere", in an aubergine. "We were really shocked," said her husband, Zahid. "We couldn't believe our eyes. Our insurance man was the first non-Muslim we showed it to and even he could match the writing [with a plate inscribed with the same wordsr 5,000 pilgrims visited Leicester in 1990. And there have been numerous other cases since there was one in Bolton (the message this time was "Ya-Allah" Allah exists) in March of this year.
Other fruits and vegetables are jumping on the band wagon. Thousands of Hindus Lumpur last February to view a Papaya shaped like the elephant god Ganesh. And this year Muslims in their hundreds have been making pilgrimages to a terraced house in Huddersfield to witness a tomato, although only 10 pilgrims can fit in the kitchen at once.
Tb) THE casual observer the tomato resembles any other, ut on closer examination the seeds and fibres of the bisected salad fruit spell out the words "There is no God but Allah" on one half, and "Mohammed is the messenger" on the other. The local Nadni Mosque said "We don't consider it a miracle, but it is certainly a blessing".
Thousands of Muslims in the remote north-east of India are even now flocking to see a sliced potato on which the words "Allah" and "Mohammed" appeared. Momina Ahmed was preparing lunch on Wednesday 20 August when she found the words inscribed in orange lettering on the freshly cut surface.
Buddhism too has its own signs and wonders. Among the Chinese communities of Malaysia a Fortean Times researcher reports finding many copies, displayed in temples and private houses, of what is claimed to be a photograph taken from an aeroplane window of the Buddhist goddess Kwanyin in the clouds. Simulacra are by their nature nebulous, and so clouds, endlessly protean, are an especially fertile source.
In fact, simulacra can be as plastic in interpretation as the famous Rorschach ink-blot tests that used to be given to psychiatric patients. Not that these private revelations are necessarily pathological. Sometimes a mixture of culture and psychology leads the eye and the mind to transmute the ordinary into the numinous. Occasionally the explanation is defective eyesight. Or perhaps the supernatural is at work. "I love this stuff," says Mike Dash, an agnostic. "I think it's a great testament to the powers of the human imagination."
As for Catholics, the faithful do not hate to believe anything outside what the Church' teaches, which is a relief to many. Extra sigis and wonders are, if you like, devotional luxuries. But, clearly, unabashed acceptance of the supernatural is at the centre of the Catholic faith. Fr Wilfrid McGreal, a Carmelite and director of the shrine of St Simon Stock in Aylesford, who organises the annual Medgegorje festival there, when asked about private revelations, said last week: "If you're looking for miracles in Christianity, you have the Real Presence in the Mass. You need look no further."
Books: Page 6