In the coffee shop, as we are leaving, S gets chatting to a woman she knew in the prison. Donna is a shrine co-ordinator. Oh, what’s that then? A great deal of work and difficulty she says. I press her.
She tells me of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. In 1531, the BVM appeared to Juan Diego, a poor man whose clothes were woven from cactus fibres. She told him to start a shrine to her, but the bishop said no. So she told him to go to the top of a hill, and pick flowers there. It was December, but he found Castilian roses, native to Spain rather than Mexico. As instructed he wrapped them in cactus cloth, and took them to the bishop. When they unwrapped the flowers, there was this image on the cloth.
The image is miraculous. There are no brush strokes visible, and no identifiable pigment. It has been analysed by NASA. Cactus cloth would normally break down in fifty years, but nearly five centuries later it is pristine. In 1910 there was a bomb taken into the chapel where it is kept, in a bunch of flowers (Mexican revolution, I presume) which blew out the windows but did not hurt anyone or damage the relic at all. In 1979 the Pope ordered two hundred digital copies, one for each country in the world. They are- I am not sure of the technical term she used, something like “effective relics”- looking on the copy gives the same blessing as looking on the original. She hands me a small piece of card with the image on it. They also have prayer cards and banners. She could send me one.
The small piece of card is enough for me, I say. I am not into devotional objects. My Angels at Mamre icon is quite enough. I find the card, on my side-table as I type, disturbing.
Her friend talks of the nuns at Nupton: they ran a care home, but have just been disbanded and sent to other communities all over the country. She shows a photo on her phone of the Bishop in full garb standing in front of a group of nuns at their last mass together. She then was guided to the death-bed of a woman, who was able to reach out from under the covers and take her hand. Anyone would find this moving, but she finds it Providential. She has just been to Medjugorge, where the BVM appeared in 1981, prophesying a terrible war.
I say I know S from the Quaker meeting, but have no interest in devotional objects, and a Richard Dawkins objection to talk of miracles. This shuts her down, and is too strong- I am interested in people’s beliefs, and can see that the relic may give someone reassurance or consolation- but is a measure of how disturbing I find talk of such things, as if they were true.
Her absolute certainty of the miraculous provenance of the relic is like the absolute certainty some Catholics have of the wrongness of LGBT. I hear the certainty of the relic, and wonder at its spiritual value for her; but such certainty can be poison.