Atheists and agnostics surround me.

They pop up at unexpected moments, tempering their doubt and disbelief with a generous dollop of pity for the naïve believer. Secure in my faith, I reciprocate, feeling a touch of sorrow, a twinge of incomprehension. How can a person not believe? I don't get it.

It was with that familiar feeling of comfortable faith that I drove to the Shroud Center of Southern California. My knowledge about the Shroud of Turin was about as deep as that of most Catholics': I knew that the cloth has an image of unexplainable media and origin showing a crucified male corpse, and that many believe the ancient sheet to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. I was also well aware that, a few years ago, a carbon-14 test claimed to prove that the cloth was only a few hundred years old, not 2,000, meaning it was nothing more than some kind of medieval artistry.

If I want to believe it's the burial cloth of Christ, I said to myself as I turned off the freeway, that's what I'm going to do — science or no. At the same time, though, I wondered what I would encounter. Would my firmness of faith be validated or shaken?

My first visit to the Shroud Center of Southern California — one of two shroud centers in the state, and more than a dozen across the country — was a private one. Volunteers Steve and Nancy Bolettieri led me through the two exhibit rooms, readily answering my questions and explaining their own fascination with the Shroud of Turin. Steve told me that his interest in the artifact began when, at nine years old, he received a holy card of the Holy Face that had been touched to the shroud.

For the purposes of a standard visit, the Bolettieris condense hundreds of thousands of hours of scientific research into about two hours. They begin in the smaller of the two rooms with a history of the shroud, emphasizing those aspects of its travels that have been supported by scientific research as well as by Scripture.

Eyes of Faith

It quickly became clear to me that the Bolettieris are, at once, scholars and believers. Pollen and flowers found in the fibers of the cloth, they explained, come from Jerusalem, France, Spain and Iran. Iran? I asked. It turns out that, according to tradition, the apostle Jude Thaddeus carried it there to heal a king of leprosy.

The “three-in-one” weave found in the shroud, Steve pointed out, is not typical for a burial cloth of the first century. It would have been much more costly than the usual fabric. His explanation? Simple. Just read Matthew 27:57-60. The cloth, along with the grave in which Jesus was laid, was donated by Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy man.

The Bolettieris are not above asking exam-style questions that can put a cradle Catholic — you know, the kind who occasionally takes her faith for granted — on the spot. Who is shown in this picture? What feast is on August 15? What does St. Jude Thaddeus wear around his neck? Their enthusiasm is part of what makes the Shroud Center experience so affecting.

And then there's the photo of the cloth itself. The Bolettieris showed me how the image is not two-dimensional, like a painting, but three-dimensional, like an impression made from the radiation of a real body. They also showed me how the image on the cloth is the equivalent of a photographic negative, reminding me that photography was not invented until the 19th century. And they encouraged me to look closely to see that the image is skeletal, revealing teeth behind a closed mouth, and the bones of thumbs that are hidden by hands.

Once we reached the second room, the quizzing fell by the wayside. It was here that I felt overwhelmed by a sense of wonder.

This room — dark and chilly, bringing to mind the sepulcher the women entered Easter morning, only to find Jesus' body was missing — exhibits transparencies of the cloth set permanently against lightboxes. Here you can see a life-size image of the cloth, showing not only the face of Christ but also his body, front and back (he was laid on the cloth, which was twice as long as his body, and then the top half of the cloth was pulled over him). You can see the blood stains from the wrists and from the heart, and the patches of linen that were burned in fires over the centuries.

A ‘Fifth Gospel’

The longer I stood in the center, the more breathless I felt. Despite the carbon-14 tests (and knowing that carbon-14 testing is not always reliable), I felt totally confident in believing the image was not a painting. Still, though, my ignorant faith could not see exactly what the big deal was. Of course it's Christ, I thought to myself.

Perhaps, though, I was more doubtful than I realized.

The final transparency in that second room is of the shroud with light shining behind it. You would expect the image to block light, so that at least the outlines of the face and body would stand out against the brilliantly lit fabric.

But when light shines through the Shroud of Turin, there is no image. The blood stains are there, blocking the light, the holes are still evident. But there is no image: It is not on the cloth; it's in the cloth.

“The Gospels are the perfect written word,” said the Bolettieris. “This is the perfect visual Word. It's the Fifth Gospel.”

My faith may still be ignorant, but I am more knowledgeable than I was; my feelings about the Shroud of Turin are no longer of the “You can't tell me what to believe, you crazy scientists” variety, and my reaction to the atheists I bump into will, I think, be changed by my visit to the Shroud Center of Southern California.

I won't feel incomprehension anymore, but dis-belief in their disbelief. When faced with a miracle like the Shroud of Turin, how could anyone doubt the existence of God? How could they doubt that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God?

I blithely believed at first, but now I know better — I've seen and heard the evidence for myself. And my faith, thanks to the experience, is nothing short of unshakeable.

Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.