An unexplained phenomenon revealed in photographs taken on our parish pilgrimage
On Divine Mercy Sunday our parish organized a walking pilgrimage across town to our local Holy Door. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny afternoon as the cars began arriving. Groups from all the local parishes were there with a range of ages and ethnic backgrounds. Nearly 500 people turned up, and this was in Greenville, South Carolina — the heart of America’s Bible Belt.
After the pilgrimage walk we gathered for prayer and then went into church where the Divine Mercy chaplet was chanted, and we heard an inspiring talk on St. Faustina and the Divine Mercy. It was a great afternoon of fellowship, prayer and public witness to our Catholic faith.
That afternoon a couple of our parishioners began circulating the photos they had taken of the event. Only then did we notice something remarkable. In one set of pictures taken outside the Holy Door there is a ray of light beaming down from the sky right onto the heart of Jesus. Then on Monday morning another photograph came in with a strong beam of light radiating out of the totally blue sky onto the Divine Mercy image as it was being carried in procession.
The people were abuzz with excitement. The sky that afternoon was bright and blue. There were no clouds that might part allowing a shaft of light to shine through. The pictures looked like a beam of light was falling from heaven on the very rays radiating from the heart of Jesus. Were the photographs a sign from heaven? Did God smile on our pilgrimage of mercy and bless us with those rays of light? Were the photographs evidence of a miracle?
Maybe. Or then again maybe not. There is a wise teaching about paranormal experiences and supposed miracles. When confronted with an extraordinary religious experience we are supposed to look first for the natural explanation. In fact, we’re supposed to look hard for the natural explanation. However, while we look for the natural explanation we are never to rule out the possibility of a supernatural occurrence. This is where the Catholic teaching (like most Catholic teaching) is full of both common sense and uncommon sense.
What I mean is that the totally scientific and pragmatic person would rule out miracles altogether. The 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, for example, said that miracles could not happen because miracles are impossible. The Catholic would not presume to be so very dogmatic as that. We believe that weird things happen.
Rather than reality being bound by unchanging laws of physics, reality is rubbery. There is a flexibility and unpredictability to the created order. Nature is not a closed system because there are beings and especially one great Being outside the natural system and greater than the natural system because he created it in the first place. Catholics therefore look for the natural explanation to miracles, but we also leave room for God to act.
So did we experience a miracle on Divine Mercy Sunday? Those who know more about physics and photography assure me that such phenomena as light beams appearing in photographs is commonplace. It’s called “lens flare,” and it occurs when the lens of the camera is either smeared or damaged and the light (especially on a bright day) refracts through the lens and is distorted, creating the light beams we saw on the pictures.
However, as soon as one photographer informed me all about lens flares, another photographer e-mailed me to say that the type of beams on the photographs could not have been caused by lens flare because of the way they were angled and because there was too hard an edge on them.
As usual with alleged miracles, the more you investigate the stranger they become. One natural explanation seems to work, and then someone comes along to debunk it. The best answer is that yes, there was not just one miracle on our Divine Mercy pilgrimage, there were many. When I began to listen to the stories from our people they told me how blessed they were by the day, how God had spoken to them about what they needed to get right in their lives, how their lives had turned a corner and how they were full of joy and hope again after our pilgrimage of mercy.
Miracles remind us that God is not done with us or with our world just yet. He’s intimately involved in our lives day by day and moment by moment. The most powerful beam of light from heaven is the one that opens our hearts and minds to the wonders of his work, and the beams of mercy we saw in the pictures were a memorable image of that greater truth.