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  1. Life & Culture

A message in the clouds boosts a weary soul

Just when he needed peace, an angel was there.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I scheduled my dentist appointment the day after a presidential election. So much stress and emotional pain, why not get it all out of the way. The following day, I got an MRI on my left shoulder and arm. That meant 45 minutes of claustrophobia and the sound of a jackhammer on my brain.

By Thursday evening I was a wreck. The election had not yet been called, coronavirus numbers were soaring and a November hurricane was headed our way.

It was almost sunset. I stepped outside for some air. We live near the southern tip of St. Pete, walking distance from where the Gulf of Mexico flows into Tampa Bay.

I looked to the west and saw a beautiful vista, wispy pink clouds spreading across a darkening blue sky. Sunlight faded on the horizon. I called my wife outside for a look. I grabbed my iPhone. The breeze had put the clouds in motion. I took a couple of photos.

I looked up again and the pink tableaux was gone with the wind, replaced by a single grumpy gray cloud. Back inside I looked at the photo. “Oh my goodness,” I said to Karen. “It’s an angel.”

We all do it

There is a name for it: pareidolia, pronounced para-DO-lee-uh. It refers to the human capacity to see meaningful shapes out of the accidental stimuli of everyday life. The night sky is decorated by single stars imagined as constellations, revealing the shapes of scorpion, big dippers and a hunter named Orion.

It goes back to the dawn of human experience. How about that face in the moon?

Even Shakespeare got into the act. In a scene between Hamlet and Polonius, the Danish prince feigns his emotional instability by looking up at a cloud and arguing that it has taken the shape of a camel, a weasel and then a whale.

I do it every day. I sit at a stoplight, and there is a cute automobile staring at me, a VW, I think. It’s a face! The headlights are eyes. The grille a nose. The bumper a mouth. To emphasize the effect, my daughter Lauren has glued rubber eyelashes on the headlights of her Corolla.

We were well into the pandemic on June 4, and I began my day with a delicious breakfast: Cheerios, mixed with Oatmeal Squares, flavored with some ripe raspberries. I looked down into my spoon. Two Cheerios served as ears. An Oatmeal Square presented itself as nose and mouth. On top, a berry provided a spectacular head of red hair. A perfect, cartoony face. Cereal Man!

Roy Peter Clark saw this face during a simple breakfast. It's Cereal Man.
Roy Peter Clark saw this face during a simple breakfast. It's Cereal Man. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

My friends on Facebook ate him up.

Our Lady of Clearwater

One of the most spectacular examples of pareidolia occurred around Christmas in 1996, when stains on the window of an office building in Clearwater created a multicolored image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I saw it myself. It was not a vision from a religious fanatic high on holy mushrooms. The likeness to the Mary icon was unmistakable.

A likeness of the Virgin Mary on the windows of the Seminole Finance building in Clearwater attracted large crowds of curious onlookers before Christmas 1996.
A likeness of the Virgin Mary on the windows of the Seminole Finance building in Clearwater attracted large crowds of curious onlookers before Christmas 1996. [ BOB FALCETTI | Tampa Bay Times ]

The bank building sat near the corner of U.S. 19 and Drew Street, a busy intersection, with a parking lot nearby. News of the “apparition” spread far and wide, inviting curious tourists and religious pilgrims by the thousands. People brought flowers to lay before the image. They left prayer notes and messages. They cried and collapsed in ecstasy. It wasn’t Fatima or Lourdes, but it was real, and even skeptics, who recognized pareidolia when they saw it, were respectful.

Not so much the teenage boy who took a slingshot and ball bearings and shattered the top of the two-story image, ending the short but remarkable reign of the Rainbow Madonna.

Some of us make fun of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of burnt toast. I well remember in 1991 how I rolled my eyes at the news that a woman from Georgia had seen Jesus staring out at her from a forkful of spaghetti on a Pizza Hut billboard. I felt ashamed of myself when I heard her interviewed by National Public Radio.

Here was a most respectable lady, a fashion designer, who sang religious music in a church choir. Like many performers, she was attracted to more lucrative opportunities in popular music. Hymns or pop? She felt she had reached a creative and spiritual turning point in her life, so she prayed for a sign, looked up, and there was a sign — a big one.

A message in the heavens

I think my glorious pink angel was a sign for me. I am not saying it came from God, or that angels are real. But when I walked outside that evening dreading what might become a dark night of the soul, the beauty of nature, of creation if you will, made me feel like things were going to turn out all right.

Will the acid in our political system be neutralized? Will the planet be healed? Will desperate people find jobs? Will we achieve racial justice and peace? Will the vaccine work, and will people take it? My angel did not have the answer to those questions. That would be too much work for a single celestial messenger. She might need the help of a superhero like Cereal Man.

But there is something in the image the pink angel left behind that offers consolation in the spirit of the 23rd Psalm. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.” And that’s what we are doing in a global pandemic, even in the local coffee shop. We are walking, for the moment, through a valley of shadows — headed to a quarter of a million Americans dead from the virus.

So where and what is the “thou” in the Psalm. Is it the God of Israel or another expression of the divine presence? Is it Darwin describing how we must work together to survive as a species? Is it family? Is it love?

Whatever it is, I needed it at the moment. And I got it, first in the sky, then in a photo, and, then, dare I say, somewhere deep inside.

In less enlightened times, people thought pareidolia was a mental illness, a distorted view of the world, like paranoia. Now it’s considered quite normal. To me it feels like a gift, the ability to confront the random and chaotic and find meaning.

Has this ever happened to you?

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