Sometimes, a grilled cheese sandwich is just a grilled cheese sandwich.
But don’t tell that to the woman who saw the Virgin Mary on her grilled cheese and sold it for $28,000. Or the man who saw Jesus Christ’s mom in the hamburger grease that dripped off his George Foreman Grill.
Maybe it’s a transcendent religious experience. Maybe it’s a crass attempt to get 15 minutes of fame, or profit off someone else’s gullibility. Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking.
“It’s a search for novelty, what is new, what is unusual,” said the Rev. Harvey Egan, a Jesuit priest and professor of theology at Boston College.
In the past two weeks alone, devotees of the Virgin Mary have found her in chocolate drippings in a Southern California candy factory, the belly of a pet turtle named Mary and, of course, in a pan that catches grease drippings from a George Foreman Grill.
Chocolate workers called the candy Mary a “sign” that gave one of them “renewed faith.” The St. Louis man who found Mary in hamburger grease preserved it in his refrigerator and wanted to show it to the makers of the George Foreman Grill. The company did not respond to the man, according to a press report.
The Virgin Mary isn’t the only New Testament figure showing up at mealtime. Last year, a Texas man was cooking his mother breakfast when he saw the face of Jesus scratched into his frying pan. Christ famously appeared on a flour tortilla in 1977.
Jesus and food go together in the Christian tradition in which the body of Christ is eaten in the form of a communion wafer.
Ask a cleric, though, and you’ll likely be told that if Jesus comes back to Earth he won’t be staring up at you from a bowl of Froot Loops.
“When he does come, the whole world is going to know when he comes, not just one person,” said the Rev. Leary Dominy, pastor at Church of Jesus Christ, the Living God in Framingham.
Psychologists have a simple way of describing these religious sightings. It’s called “projection.” It’s like seeing shapes in clouds, but produces an emotional response because the people finding the Virgin Mary are “searching for some kind of a sign,” said Douglas Bloomquist, professor of psychology at Framingham State College.
“We draw upon what’s stored in our memories…when we impose this organization to make sense of what otherwise might be nonsense,” Bloomquist said.
Massachusetts had its own Mary sighting in June 2003 when people saw an image of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child on a window at Milton Hospital.
This phenomenon is usually not a case of doubting Christians looking for evidence to justify their faith, said John Budz, a Southborough psychologist and part-time Framingham State College professor.
The people who find Jesus and the Virgin Mary in odd places do not doubt the existence of God, he said. A sighting “just supports their strong religious beliefs.”
Sightings reported in the American press seem to be a solely Christian enterprise. Jews aren’t seeing Moses in a plate of latkes. Muslims haven’t reported seeing Muhammad in falafel.
This makes sense from a religious standpoint. The Second Commandment tells Jews not to make “graven images.” Many Muslim teachings forbid making likenesses of Muhammad and other prophets, even though the Quran contains no specific ban.
Iconography is “more important in Christianity because of the incarnation of Jesus as the son of God, he is the image of God,” Egan said.
Egan sees the many sightings of the Virgin Mary as a Rorschach test, in which people look for images in ink blots. It is not confined to Christians, he said. Some Buddhists have reported sightings of Kannon, the goddess of mercy and compassion, Egan said.
It’s hard to say why the recent sightings have focused on Mary instead of Jesus, Egan said.
“Some would say in difficult times people would seek their mother,” he said.
The Catholic Church has approved three apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the past 2,000 years, Egan said. But people reporting to see Mary in food are searching for religion in the wrong places, he said.
“At least for Catholicism, the places to find God would be in the liturgy, the sacraments,” he said. “But to look for the Virgin Mary in a chocolate bar or a cupcake or bread, I find that superstition in the most part.”