miracle has believers gathering in awe
A Madonna statue in Karantina has created a stir in the religious establishment
Amal Bouhabib reports
17.1.01: Everyday for the past two weeks, Dina Maniago is led trembling and sputtering from a milling crowd. Standing before an icon of the Virgin Mary in Karantina, Maniago undergoes what has become a daily seizure, in which she says she is being possessed by the Holy Spirit. The statue, about half a meter tall and perched in a glass case near the highway, apparently began to leak oil about two weeks ago. Since then hundreds of believers have crowded around the base of the icon, slipping money in through the cracks, or murmuring prayers. Maniago says the Holy Spirit is coming through me to reaffirm peoples belief in God. Other people havent experienced such visceral reactions, though most are just as moved by the glistening Madonna. In fact, the icon no longer leaks, as the Maronite bishop of Beirut Boulos Matar ordered it to be wiped down for further investigation. The dozens of people still gathering at the statue are taking faith in the knowledge that she dripped in the first place.
Meanwhile clerical authorities are not so eager to accept the phenomenon as miraculous. Father Sauvere Khoury a priest at Mar Mikhael, which owns the icon, refused to comment several times, insisting that there is nothing to say about it. And earlier this week, Matar announced on television that the oil was being tested for its chemical content. In the meantime, he urged the Maronite community to keep in mind that we dont need miracles to believe. We have the gospel and the Eucharist and we dont need anything else. Needless to say, the event, which has caused traffic jams over the past two weeks, has drawn the intrigue of observers, each with their own theories. Many shrug it off as ambiguous. Skeptics have suggested that a crack in the glass case, which occurred due to vandalism sometime between Christmas and New Years, allowed rain and condensation to seep through. The theory continues that the icon absorbed the water and then subsequently leaked the residue from a crack in the wrist. But believers are holding fast to their conviction.
Events like this just reaffirm our faith, said Odette Naimeh, who brought her niece along to see the now dry statue. Its a miracle from God. Whether or not the oil proves to be Heaven-sent or merely a quirk of absorbent material, the phenomenon and the gathering crowds seem to demand investigation. What repercussions do such phenomena have on faith and religion as a whole, particularly in a country so historically rooted in religious identity? Lebanon has had its fair share of miraculous events. Residents of Akkar remember when a Madonna leaked oil a few years ago. Everyone remembers the statue of the Virgin Mary that supposedly changed position during the war. An online listing of miracles includes a bleeding Virgin Mary in Rmaish in 1983. In the past few decades, weeping, bleeding and oiling icons have surfaced all over the world, prompting sociologists to label the epidemic as a kind of rekindling of faith, a modern age of miracles.
In 1991, Life magazine ran a cover story about the spreading epidemic called Do You Believe in Miracles?
Editor Peter Bonventre wrote that theres a worldwide spiritual revival and its one of the great stories of our time. The United States in particular has emerged as one of the foremost locations for such happenings. During the 1960s and 1970s the country underwent a rash of such incidents. From Tarpin Springs, Florida, to Northern California, believers crossed the country to glimpse bleeding Christ paintings and Virgin Mary statues standing in pools of their own tears. Both the Orthodox and Roman churches have been reluctant to admit such phenomena as bonafide acts of God, and ironically, a thorough scientific examination of the liquid and the duress of the phenomenon is required to prove that a miracle is actually taking place.
The church has earned a bad rap as having promoted superstition, said Joe Hoffmann, a sociology professor at the American University of Beirut. The fact is, since the Enlightenment, the church has been very reluctant to encourage any form of popular devotion. Even since the eighth century (during a split in the church regarding the worship of icons) the church has been very cautious and has stuck to sound doctrinal grounds. The reality is that the vast majority of these events go unverified by the official church. Instead, they are perpetuated in local folklore and passed on as eyewitness accounts as messages from God.
Many are never even approved by the local dioceses. They remain the miracles of the people, corner stones of faith that never quite make it to clerical authorization.
And although the latest event remains unverified by officials, people already have well-formed opinions as to the reason behind it. In a previous poll taken by The Daily Star, people were quoted as alternately saying it was a sign of brotherhood, peace or renewed faith. Hoffmann says these types of events have long been a part of religion, particularly Eastern Christianity, which, during the eighth-century dispute over the importance of icons, split from the Western church, maintaining that icons were valid forms of worship. Popular devotion has always been a part of the culture of Eastern Christianity. Thats why you see people kissing the cross or the feet of a statue, the professor said. Icons are considered to be connected to Heaven and so you do kiss them, you do light candles beneath them and venerate them. It borders on adoration. So a statue weeps for the same reason you kiss and venerate it.
In that sense the significance of the event lies not in its veracity, but in the reason for its occurrence. Piety creates (these phenomena), said Hoffmann. And how to explain it without reducing it to the scientific corrosion theories is what makes the phenomenon fascinating. In the end, will the scientist be satisfied with the rationale? These events, real or not, could have salutary effects in ones religious life. Why discourage it? The Maronite diocese seems to accommodating to the occurrence. Matar has little faith that this particular case is actually a miracle but he understands why people do have faith in this. We are always waiting for any signal from Heaven. Here we are in difficult times. Any kind of sign is encouraging. Personally, I dont know if it is special. But would I ever encourage people to stop praying?
The Maronite bishop sees no danger in the veneration, in spite of its golden-calf resemblance. We are always happy to see people renew their faith.