Miracles, Pious Frauds, and Everyday Religion

In an article about pious frauds in India, the Pakistani Tribune Express (a partner of the International Herald Tribune) describes the scene like this:

[S]everal hundred believers crowded around a crucifix that lay hanging in front of the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni in Vile Parle, Mumbai, in April this year. With delight in their eyes and hope in their hearts, they almost stepped on each other’s feet to catch a peep of the tiny droplets of water dripping from the feet of the crucifix. According to the Church, this was a miracle and the water was divine.

The New Scientist has a brief interview with Sanal Edamaruku about his investigations into the purported miracles at the church, for which he is facing possible jail time for “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community.”  (For the completely separate story of Our Lady of Velankanni, see here).  His findings about the crucifix that led to his current legal troubles were:

It was very simple: Water from the washroom, which had been blocked in the clogged drainage system, had been transmitted via capillary action into the adjacent walls and the base of the cross as well as into the wooden cross itself. The water came out through a nail hole and ran down over the statue’s feet.

This immediately made me think of the eminent historian Robert Orsi’s work on the “everyday religion” of American Catholics.  Orsi first got famous for his excellent book the Madonna 115th St.: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950, now in its third edition, and his two follow up books (one on popular devotions to St. Jude and a recent one on the study of religion) were also very well received.   What I thought of, though, was his chapter “Everyday Miracles” in the edited volume Lived Religion in America, which more than anything else I’ve read shows the complexity of people, perception, and miracles.  In the chapter, Orsi goes to the “Bronx Lourdes”, a not particularly famous devotional site in New York modeled after Lourdes in France, a site that since 1858 has been a major pilgrimage spot known for its healing waters:

Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, the Bronx//Flickr user imjustwakin

A woman beside me noticed that I did not have anything with me to drink from and offered me her own pink plastic container. (To sip directly from the stream as it tumbles over the rocks means getting drenched.  Many people do this, but I did not want to spend the afternoon wet.) The woman urged me to drink. “It’s sweeter than regular water,” she said, better than “water-fountain water.”  She watched me fill the cup and drink the water down and then prodded me, “See what I mean?” The water was indeed refreshing on the hot, humid day.

“Where does the water come from?” I asked her.

At the time the grotto was constructed (and the water pipe fitted out in the rocks), a rumor went around the among some local devout that builders had—miraculously—discovered a spring of fresh water under the Bronx pavement.  This was clearly an effort to establish a literal parallel with Lourdes, but it was also a bid to raise the stakes of reproduction so high as to deny it: if there was indeed a miraculous spring here in the Bronx clay, then this was a holy site in its own right.  I was wondering when I asked her about the water’s source if the woman I was talking with would mention this belief.

“What do you mean, where does the water come from?” She look at me sharply, apprehensively, as if she were suddenly afraid that I was sort of excessively, perhaps dangerously, pious man who believed in such crazy rumors and discussed them with women at shrines.  “It’s city water—it comes from the reservoir, I guess,” wherever city water comes from, she added.  But wasn’t it the sweetest water I’d ever tasted?  Later, I was told by one of the caretakers at the grotto that no one really believed the story about the underground spring; everyone knows exactly where the water comes from and everyone maintains the water is holy and powerful.

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  1. […] I recently had a long, drunken debate with a colleague (a post on that to come, likely).  Instead, as always, I defer to Robert Orsi and call this “everyday religion” (or what some other call […]



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