Of Images and Imagination

March 17, 2010

I remember a “Peanuts” cartoon from a long time ago in which Charlie Brown, Linus, and Schroeder are lying on the side of a hill looking up into the sky at clouds. It went something like this. Linus starts off by saying, “Those clouds over there look just like John Trumbull’s painting of the Declaration of Independence 1776 with Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison all front and center.” Schroeder says, “I can see the notes of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Eroica in those clouds over there. Pause. Then Linus asks, “What do you see, Charlie Brown?” “Well,” Charlie Brown replies, “I was going to say I saw a cloud that looked like butterfly over there but it seems somewhat insignificant now.” With a little imagination and time, one can often see many things in the natural patterns of the world around us: clouds that look like animals or plants or people or even ‘historic’ paintings, patterns in the sand on a beach that look like particular countries or rivers or images, the whorls on wood or lumber that resemble something else. With all the millions and patterns around us, it’s no wonder that every once in a while something that occurs naturally by chance is going to look like something else.

A few years ago when I was the spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Boston, a story broke in the media concerning the appearance of an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a window at a hospital in Milton, MA. At some point, someone had looked up at a third floor window on the side of the hospital and seen the image. They mentioned it to someone else who mentioned it to someone else and eventually it became a news story. Suddenly, hundreds of people were flocking to look at the window, a makeshift shrine was set up at the base of the wall, people were praying the rosary and everyone had an opinion on what the image was or wasn’t. Archbishop Sean wisely directed me to say that we had no comment on the image or say in the matter. Eventually, though, we were asked for some help and guidance from the hospital administration as to what to do. So early one morning before anyone else was there, myself and a few other ‘experts’ drove over to Milton Hospital meet with a representative of the hospital and see the window. We all agreed that the image really did look like a somewhat out of focus image of the Blessed Mother, which one we weren’t sure. It was kind of a cross between Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe but it was fairly distinct whatever. I asked the hospital representative if anyone had looked at the window from the inside or outside to see what may be going on. He said that it was pretty clear that a crack had developed at the top of the window frame and that moisture on the surrounding cement sill had percolated between the double panes and then condensed with some sediment from the cement. He pointed out a few other windows on the building where the same had happened, although none looked like the BVM or anything else. So, clearly there was a natural explanation for what had happened – a leak in the window frame that by happenstance formed the image, nothing miraculous. At the end of the day, the image of Mary on the hospital window was not a miracle, just an incident of nature. Today, the window is still there with the image of Mary visited by a few now and then and considered more a curiosity than anything else.

A few months ago there were a number of news stories about a woman in Methuen, MA who saw an image of Jesus on the scorched bottom of her iron. If you look at pictures of the iron, it kind of looks like Jesus, but if you want to push it, it kind of looks like other things as well. Like gazing at clouds, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. The woman who owns the iron seems to have things in good perspective. She showed it to others because she thought they “might want to see an image that surprised and cheered her.” She makes no miraculous claims, has no intention of putting it on display and doesn’t plan on selling it on Ebay. The image made her smile. I can remember standing in the parking lot at Milton Hospital and looking at the image of Mary in the window and smiling too at nature and God’s whimsy. God has given us the gift of human imagination which allows us to perceive his hand in many things, both by happenstance and by human design. It is also allows us to be surprised and even cheered when we find those images in the strangest of places and things.