Sunday, February 03, 2008

Clear thinking: Suarez and the signs

Reading the following news article brought to mind pre-scientific animistic tribes. It reports a collection of supposed signs and omens that followers have seen in connection with Fr. Fernando Suarez's activities. Signs and omens? The anachronism was jarring at first but ultimately comical.

So what are the said signs that accompanied Suarez's plans and activities? The article begins with the following:
Last Christmas eve, the security guard at Montemaria in Batangas saw from afar a bright glow on the makeshift altar-stage. He thought the electricity had been installed. But then, he thought, why now in the middle of the night, on the eve of Christmas? When he went out to check, the light was gone. The guard sent a text message reporting the incident to Paz Monteclaro of the Mary Mother of the Poor Foundation (MMPF), which supports Fr. Fernando Suarez, the now famous healer of the blind, deaf, mute and lame. Both Suarez and the MMPF wondered: Was this mysterious light, which came at the time of the birth of Jesus, perhaps n omen of His coming to this remote hillside?
If in the middle of the night if I see a light where there's supposed to be none my first reaction would be fear. Why? Because among the members of Homo sapiens are those commonly referred to as thieves. Paranormal concerns are way way down my list of possibilities. Now if I had been the security guard I would've reported what I'd seen before checking out the premises, since presumably I'd been hired to protect property from being stolen/vandalized/trespassed upon by someone.

So consider the following possible explanations:

* Thieves had been on the prowl for possible valuables such as chalices.
* The guard had experienced a hallucination
* The guard had glasses on and had seen on the lens a reflection of a light source behind him
* Someone had lit a candle within the vicinity of the said altar
* Mischievous teens illuminated the altar, perhaps with a flashlight.
* He had mistaken a firefly much closer for a light in the altar located much further away.
* The guard had had a couple of shots or was drowsy from being lulled by the crickets and saw a light but in a different area altogether.
* Sparklers or a type of fireworks had been used in the area (there are those in the Philippines who celebrate Christmas by setting off fireworks and firecrackers)
* There had been a ball lightning lasting several seconds in the vicinity of the altar.
* Orbiting high above the Earth, a cloaked flying saucer had directed a high-powered laser beam (operating in the visible spectrum) at the altar.
* Loki, the trickster god, had zapped the guard's optic nerves and made him see a light (when none in fact existed)

There are a number of mundane explanations (each of which can potentially be ruled out given more details about the event). There are also less parsimonious and less probable explanations such as ball lightning. And then there are any number of wacky (though strictly speaking not impossible or falsifiable) explanations as the last two above illustrate.

As for the light being a sign from Yahweh or Christ, it sits right next to the Loki hypothesis.

We are told then told of the other signs.
During the groundbreaking and blessing of the altar-stage in January 2007, just as Suarez was beginning his homily, the calm was broken by a violent wind. When others, including a bishop, spoke, everything became calm once more.... Just as Suarez began sprinkling holy water on the altar-stage, an eerie drizzle of fine raindrops descended on the 500-odd people attending the ceremony. It was as if the heavens were joining him in blessing the place.
I don't know how the weather is over in Montemaria, Batangas, but where I am--some hundred or so kilometers from Batangas--some types of rain are preceded by high winds.

We need to ask: During the week/month when the fine drizzle was said to have occurred, had there also been other instances when such fine drizzle did occur, regardless of whether there was a mass or prayer service? Is this meteorological event unique? Has it never occurred at all in this area? Given that it's already happened twice (the second in October 2007 during a Mass celebrated by a different priest), it's a good bet drizzling of the type reported is normal for the area. Similar questions can be asked of the so-called violent gust of wind. Perhaps local weatherpersons and records can shed light on this.

To add to the list of portents from the heavens, even clouds apparently were communicating something:
Some of those present reported an odd, circular cloud hovering above them.... Suarez himself said he saw a cloud in the form of a hand.
Looking for faces in the clouds would normally be just an entertaining past time activity. But throw in a religious setting and it becomes quasi-divination, akin to reading tea leaves and animal entrails. So when one fluff of water vapor turns out to resemble a human hand (even if only for a few seconds/minutes before shapeshifting into something else) it is enlisted as yet another sign. I am actually surprised why they didn't continue to look for more shapes to add to their collection of omens since it is rather easy to do.

My own omen from heaven: On a bright sunny day several years ago while waiting for the light to turn green I gazed up and watched the white cumulus clouds as they slowly crossed the sky. One caught my eye and upon closer inspection it turned out to be in the shape of a robed and hooded woman. Ah! the Virgin Mary I chuckled to myself. If only I had a camera. But even before the traffic light changed color she had gradually changed and shape shifted into Dick Tracy, who not long thereafter transformed into something my unenviable faculties of imagination and creativity could no longer apprehend and interpret.

While Suarez may not have come across the term pareidolia, I hope he doesn't tell us he's not heard of the childhood game of looking for shapes in the clouds. Gazing upwards, perceiving a simulacrum in the clouds, and then interpreting it as a sign from heaven is, frankly, plain superstition.

Finally, in the collection of signs, there are the stones from Montemaria collected by Fr. Nap Baltazar which purportedly have healing powers and have cured those with diabetes and cancer. (I'll have more to say about these healing pebbles in a later post.)

The problem with Suarez and his band of believers is that they so dearly want to believe that all this supernatural healing stuff is real, that he/they have somehow been been blessed or even specially chosen by their deity, and that Montemaria is the place that's been prophesied to be the next miracle healing shrine of the world, so much so that they're highlighting trivial phenomena and making a big fuss out of them. I suspect this is a simple case of selective attention and confirmation bias of sorts. It's an overzealous attentiveness to or even search for eerie, synchronistic events and coincidences to bolster the significance of Montemaria and Suarez's supposed superpowers (perhaps not unlike the frantic search for miracles when Catholics embark on a quest to have some beloved and popular individual of theirs canonized).


Anonymous said...

My husband, a patient with kidney disease, has recently attended Father Suarez's healing mass. I am a skeptic myself, but if he is healed, I will happily throw clear thinking out the window.

Edwardson said...

non causa pro causa
post hoc ergo propter hoc

Do be careful. Tossing your brain out is hazardous to your health.