O Me of Little Faith

I’m pretty entrenched as a Protestant, but I try to keep an open mind. I really do. I love many aspects of the Catholic liturgy, and most of my favorite devotional writers have been Roman Catholics. I’m a big fan of great Catholics past like St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Patrick, and Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa. I don’t generally think it’s a good idea to start coming up with rules to follow — grace and freedom being fairly important parts of the New Testament — but I can even see the value behind the Church’s newly updated list of “deadly sins.” (If you hadn’t heard, there’s talk of supersizing the Big 7, adding things like “polluting the environment” and “causing poverty” to the old stand-bys like sloth, greed, and gluttony.)

But what keeps my feet firmly rooted on this side of the Protestant-Catholic divide is the weird stuff. We evangelicals certainly have our share of goofballs, and super-smiley frequent-blinking prosperity preachers, and too many hypocrites to list, but you have to hand it to the Catholics for some really strange behavior and beliefs.

For instance, St. Catherine of Alexandria was a third-century martyr — and take that “was” with a grain of salt, because she probably didn’t exist to begin with — who claimed to have been mystically transported to heaven where she was mystically wed to Jesus in a lovely ceremony presided over by the Virgin Mary. Then there’s English martyr and hero St. Thomas Becket, the 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury. He was once so enraged that the men of Strood, Kent, sided with the king instead of him that he mystically decreed that all the future inhabitants of Kent be born with tails. Like horsey tails. And apparently, this curse was believed to have come true (the nickname “kentish long-tails” persevered well into the 19th century). And you don’t have to venture very far into the fun world of Virgin Mary sightings on greasy pizza pans, grilled cheese sandwiches, salt stains on a Chicago underpass, and trees to begin to see a pattern of devout and well-meaning but weirdly superstitious and nonsensical behavior.

So, unfortunately, it’s not too surprising to run across a story like this one, reported by a newspaper in India, that as many as 50 people there have blinded themselves while trying to see a miraculous image of Mary that supposedly becomes visible when you stare into the sun. And they were staring pretty hard. “They have developed photochemical, not thermal, burns after continuously gazing at the sun,” according to a local ophthalmologist. Sounds about right.

Before engineering this solar appearance, perhaps the Virgin Mary should have first talked things over with St. Lucy, patron saint of the blind — who, according to legend, had her eyes gouged out during martyrdom but was granted the miraculous restoration of her sight anyway. Or at least the two of them could have asked local officials to make sure plenty of those cardboard-box pinhole eclipse viewers were available before starting the show.

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