I Was in a Car Crash in Burma, But Our Lady of Myanmar Helped Me

This was a moment of touching God and feeling His grace in my life in a visceral way.

Our Lady of Myanmar
Our Lady of Myanmar (photo: Photo by Angelo Stagnaro)

Considering it was my first car accident, I immediately thought it would be appropriate to write about it in the Catholic press.

Spoiler alert: It involved what I would deem a miracle. Not a “Quick! Get the Vatican on the phone!” grade miracle. More like a “Thank the merciful Lord” kind of thing.

There I was, innocently waiting to take my leave of my host and friend, Fr. Firmin, a priest of the Archdiocese of Mandalay, Burma, after two weeks of volunteering in Mandalay when I decided to pray for a safe trip. I sought out my favorite statue at the priest’s chapel―a magnificent teak statue of the Virgin and Child done in the traditional Burmese style in which the Blessed Virgin Mary is depicted in regal garb of 17th century Burma’s Bagan Empire and the Child holding up His hand in blessing.

My host, Fr. Firmin Thiha, a priest of the Archdiocese of Mandalay, quietly sidled up beside me.

“Do you like how Mary is depicted in such a local artistic style?” he asked.

“Absolutely!” I responded. I purposefully seek out Catholic art that is influenced by a native culture, whether European or otherwise.

“In that case, allow me to present it to you,” he said with a happy grim.

Before I could object, he plucked off the largish statue from its pedestal and handed it to me. I’m not one given to feelings of guilt but when poor priests start handing out teak statues, even I’m given pause.

“Good Lord!” I cried out. “Please, Father. I would feel uncomfortable taking this statue away from your chapel.” I knew Fr. Firmin had a great devotion to this statue and we often spoke about it in our time we worked together.

“Not at all!” he insisted. “You’ve admired it as much as I have.”

I was torn between a strong desire to possess a very beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Child and the horrendous, crushing Catholic guilt of knowing that I coveted a statue owned by a poor priest. There was no way I was going to get out of this spiritually intact.

I felt the Eyes of God upon me, and not in the good way.

“Father,” I began. “If you give this statue to me, you must immediately accept a donation.” Ah! Filthy lucre always is a keen way to assuage guilt!

“Not to worry!” he insisted again. “With the money you give me, I will commission another statue just like it!”

Father’s logic might have been dubious but I decided to ignore it because I was going to get a new statue of the Madonna and Child.

So, moments before I was to head out to the airport to fly back to Rangoon and see the Pope, Father and I wrapped up this precious bundle. I treated it like a baby expect that you can only rarely claim a baby as carry-on luggage and store it in an overhead compartment.

We jumped into car and I placed my new treasure beside me so we could both share my seatbelt. Images of where I would place this sacred image in my house feverishly danced in my head.

We sped along a crowded major street in Rangoon on our way to the airport and that’s all there was.

I had just readjusted my/our safety belt and was looking away from the traffic in front of us when I heard a screech and felt a lurch and a bang. And Bippity Boppity Boo! we crashed into the weaving open mini-bus with eight passengers immediately ahead us. I looked up just in enough time to see the spiderweb-like crack in the windshield spread rapidly from the driver’s side to my own.

Fr. Firmin had pulled away at the very last second confining the damage mostly to our car rather than to the mini-bus.

I must admit, I was stunned into silence and inaction which, if anyone knows me, is not really something that ever happens to me. I quickly shook off the shock and turned to the priest/friend/driver and asked if he was okay. We both jumped out amidst the gathering stunned crowds, the wailing children and frightened mini-bus riders.

I did what I could considering my Burmese is limited to such useful phrases as “Hello,” “Thank you,” “How much does this cost?” and the ever important, “Where is the bathroom?”

My autodidactic forays into the local language never prepared me for car accidents.

I immediately ran to a local store and bought water for everyone present and remained a focus of calm for all present including my priest friend who was a bit shaken by the experience.

And, after a generous doling out of some yin tai ka―monetary compensation due to the victims of a car accident―Fr. Firmin and I called for a pickup truck to deliver the much-abused car to the garage and a cab for me.

I returned to the truck and noted Our Lady of Myanmar hadn’t budged an inch from her place on the front seat. Thanks to her, no one was hurt and the damage was largely contained.

I attribute my survival and the survival of all ten people involved in the accident, including an elderly woman and two young mothers with infants, to Our Lady of Myanmar.

Burma had treated me very well ever since I got to the country and I will cherish my time there but this was a moment of touching God and feeling His grace in my life in a visceral way.

A person of no faith would say, “If Mary was responsible for our safety that day, she should have made sure the car steered clear of the accident.” This is a silly notion that even an atheist isn’t foolish enough to believe.

If we had driven effortlessly without an accident getting from point A to point B, and I attributed the safe ride to Mary or even to God Himself, the atheist would simply then say, “No! That’s just the result of good driving!”

Well, folks, the atheist can't have it both ways. There’s is a mish-mash of two logical errors known as, “Lack of Falsifiability” and “Moving the Goalposts.”

But the facts speak for themselves and I’m very grateful that everyone came out of the accident unscathed.

The cab Father called arrived and I was spirited away to the airport but, before I left, I asked him for his blessing.

He looked at me a bit self-consciously as, like any other Burmese, Father Firmin didn’t seek out a great deal of attention for himself. But, as we were friends and I’m a foreigner who doesn’t know better, he agreed to bless me there on the street corner.

As I lowered my head and he raised his hands in benediction over me, a crowd of Burmese lookie-loos formed around us of. Admittedly, being well over six feet, I get attention everywhere I go except for northern Europe, where men who are only six feet tall are consider “small for their age.”

We both ignored the growing crowd as Fr. Firmin laid hands upon me. I embraced him and got into my waiting cab.

But wait! There’s more to this story!

When I got back to Rangoon (Yangon), I received an email from Fr. Firmin telling me that though he was embarrassed to bless me on a busy street standing next to a waiting taxi, he wanted to report to me that after I left, the crowd asked him what he did to me.

Fr. Firmin explained that he was a Catholic priest and that he had blessed me before I took my leave.

At that, Fr. Firmin reported, everyone suddenly smiled and treated him with the utmost respect.

Catholics have a good reputation in Burma, as in most of the world when it comes to social justice, education, our commitment to spirituality and assisting the poor. When the Burmese who came to examine the wreck found out he was a priest, they no longer saw him as the perpetrator of a careless accident, but rather, as a holy man.

And thus, my devotion to Our Lady of Myanmar―Patroness of Safe Car Rides. She munificently provides miracles―even ones we didn’t realize we needed.

I won’t be forgetting her anytime soon.