Tuesday, July 21, 2009


There was a bit of a flap in the Irish press last week when an image of the Virgin Mary showed up on a tree stump in Rathkeale, County Limerick. It seems workmen removed some aging trees in the parish churchyard, and someone noticed that one of the stumps bore a vague likeness to the mother of Jesus -- as if anyone knows what the mother of Jesus looked like. Soon people were flocking from miles around to hold vigils and pray, this in spite of the protests of the parish priest who insisted "Catholics don't worship tree stumps," or something to that effect. He was ignored.

One would think this sort of thing would be on the wane in post-Ryan-Report Ireland. Some commentators blamed the tanking economy for a resurgence of superstition.

Oh well, nothing new here. People have a tendency to see religious images in grilled cheese sandwiches, water-stained walls, and cosmic nebulae. In fact, any old accidental likeness that bears a resemblance to a human face will attract attention. Face recognition undoubtedly evolved early in the game. In a dog-eat-dog world, telling friend from foe would be a crucial skill.

The American artist Matthew Day Jackson currently has an exhibit in Dublin's Douglas Hyde Gallery that "uses icons from pop culture and from nature to explore our quest for the miraculous, in particular our tendency to see faces in the most improbable places." (I quote a review by Gerry McCarthy in the Sunday Times.) Jackson suggests that we are creatures in search of meaning and are quick to mistake coincidence for purpose.

Seeing the Virgin Mary in a tree stump is only a somewhat sillier version of projecting a human face onto the gods. Zeus had a gray beard, and so did Michaelangelo's Christian God. Most believers these days properly scorn the notion of God as a wise old man, but they still project. "Person," "love," "graciousness" and "justice" are no less human qualities than eyes, nose, ears and a gray beard.