One Sweet Lady

December 19, 2006


What you see in this photo is a lump of chocolate that dripped out of the spigot of a vat a few weeks ago at Bodega Chocolates, a candy-making company in California. It is being hailed as an apparition of the Virgin Mary. I read an article about the Chocolate Virgin in the L.A. Times. Quoted extensively in the article is some guy who is a supposed *expert* on such apparitions, Stewart Guthrie. I will excerpt the parts of the article in which Prof. Guthrie explains why people see the Blessed Mother in this chocolate.


From a scientific perspective, the phenomenon is so common that it has been given a name: pareidolia, the perception of patterns where none are intended. And according to Stewart Guthrie, one of a handful of professors who have studied it, such perceptions are part of the way human beings are “hard-wired.”

“It’s really part of our basic perceptual and cognitive situation,” said Guthrie, a cultural anthropologist, retired Fordham University professor and author of the book “Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion.”

“It has to do with all kinds of misapprehensions that there is something human-like in one’s environment, when really there’s not.”

At the root of the phenomenon, he said, is is the survival instinct.

“It’s a built-in perceptual strategy,” Guthrie said, “of better safe than sorry. In a situation of uncertainty, we guess that something is caused by the most important possibility.”

Hence, if you’re alone and hear a strange sound — even on a gusty night — you’re more likely to ask, “Who’s there?” than think it’s the wind. And if you happen to be religious, according to Guthrie, your answer to “Who’s there?” may well be, in a broader context, God.


To me, this is crazy talk. It’s ridiculously speculative to say that, given a choice of responses to an odd-shaped lump of chocolate, people will first assume it’s the Virgin so as to assure their own personal safety.


People see the face of their Savior and of his mother, or of whatever deity, in their foodstuffs, windows, and treebark because most people believe that they are not alone, no matter how alienating the world is. They see signs and wonders because they know that the world in which they live is not so easily explained.

4 Responses to “One Sweet Lady”

  1. Dave Bonta Says:

    I have a quartz crystal, found lying in a field near here, that looks way more like the Virgin than that lump of chocolate!

    I wrestle quite a bit with this question about whether the human tendency to see faces everywhere is helpful or not. Mostly I think it is, because as you suggest it makes an otherwise indifferent universe feel like home. (I would add that it’s not just the faces of deities, though.) But sometimes there’s value in seeing radical strangeness and indifference in the nonhuman world, too.

  2. sheepdays Says:

    You could start a for-profit devotional center with your quartz!

    Seriously, I appreciate your comment. This indifference we encounter in the world, from a theological perspective, might be classified as part of the forsakenness and fallenness of the world (I am a Calvinist!). Or, it could be interpreted as something much more mysterious and wild–neither friend nor enemy.
    Luther called God “totaliter aliter,” “totally other.” Definitely nonhuman.

  3. annulla Says:

    I’m looking at that photo and not seeing anything other than a lump of chocolate. Of course, I haven’t had dinner yet, so that might be the reason, but I’ve seen a lot of the images where people see Jesus in a bowl of spaghetti and in a tortilla (not to mention the infamous Vigin Mary Grilled Cheese sandwich) and all I ever see is the food, not the figure.

  4. sheepdays Says:

    Welcome, Annulla. Yeah, some of those images can be pretty hard to make out. This one, though, has the general posture of Guadalupe, if not her actual features.

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