Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jesus wept

A small religious library in Reading, Ohio is reporting that their statue of the Virgin Mary is crying.

One visitor said, "I believe it's true. They were there. I saw them. It's true. I would imagine it's a miracle."

The library has been flooded with visitors, some of whom have been so moved by the phenomenon that they've cried, too.

Cameras are not allowed in the library, so there are no images of the statue.  And as you might expect, explanations of the phenomenon vary.  Of the ones who believe this to be a genuine miracle, most believe that the statue began to weep when a rosary that had belonged to Reverend James Willig, a Reading priest who died ten years ago, was put into her hands.  Most, however, don't seem to worry about what started it; one Reading resident who viewed the crying statue said, "You hear about it in other countries and then it's here in Reading of all places. It is a miracle."

Well, maybe.

Weeping statues, usually of Jesus or Mary, have been reported in hundreds of locations.  Sometimes these statues are weeping what appear to be tears; others weep scented oil, or (in a number of cases) blood.  When the church has allowed skeptics to investigate the phenomenon, all of them have turned out to be frauds.

One of the easiest ways to fake a crying statue was explained, and later demonstrated, by Italian skeptic Luigi Garlaschelli.  If the statue is glazed hollow ceramic or plaster (which many of them are), all you have to do is to fill the internal cavity of the statue with water or oil, usually through a small hole drilled through the back of the head.  Then, you take a sharp knife and you nick the glaze at the corner of each eye.  The porous ceramic or plaster will absorb the liquid, which will then leak out at the only point it can -- the unglazed bit near the eyes.  When Garlaschelli demonstrated this, it created absolutely convincing tears.

What about the blood?  Well, in the cases where the statues have wept blood, some of them have been kept from the prying eyes of skeptics, like our crying Madonna in Ohio.  The church, however, is becoming a little more careful, ever since the case in 2008 in which a statue of Mary in Italy seemed to weep blood, and a bit of the blood was taken and DNA tested, and was found to match the blood of the church's custodian.

Besides the likelihood of fakery, there remains the simple question of why a deity (or saint) who is presumably capable of doing anything (s)he wants to do, would choose this method to communicate with us.  It's the same objection I had to the people who claim that crop circles are Mother Earth attempting to talk to us; it's a mighty obscure message.  Even if you buy that it's a message from heaven, what does the message mean?  If a statue of Jesus cries, is he crying because we're sinful?  Because attendance at church is down?  Because we're destroying the environment?  Because the Saints didn't make it to the Superbowl this year?  Oh, for the days when god spoke to you, out loud, directly, and unequivocally, from a burning bush...

In any case, I'm skeptical, which I'm sure doesn't surprise anyone.  I suppose as religious experiences go, it's pretty harmless, and if it makes you happy to believe that Mary is crying tears of joy because she's got Father James' rosary, then that's okay with me.  If you go there, however, take a close look and see if there's a tiny hole drilled in the back of her head -- which still seems to me to be the likeliest explanation.

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