Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Complicating things further is the fact that sometimes the recipient of a very sketchy-looking private revelation—in the strange providence of the God who writes straight with crooked lines—receives real grace. An example of this can be seen in the recent story of a Baptist woman named Diana Duyser who believed (I am not making this up) that a grilled cheese sandwich she bit into in 1994 was a sign from God, because she saw the face of the Blessed Virgin in it:
The strange story began some 10 years ago, when Duyser prepared the sandwich for breakfast. She placed a slice of Land O’ Lakes yellow American cheese between two slices of Publix white bread and cooked it on a non-stick pan. She then took a bite from the corner and saw what she describes as the face of Mary staring back from the bread. She spit out the bite and screamed for her husband.
“It scared me half to death,” said Duyser, a housewife and amateur doll maker.
Duyser told friends and neighbors, and the story spread throughout metro Miami. She kept the sandwich in a small plastic container and padded it with cotton.
“All those years, whenever I’d get real down, I’d go in and say things to her and make sure she was still there,” Duyser said. “Sometimes my husband would come in and say, ‘What is this lady trying to say to us, this Virgin Mary?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know, honey, unless she wants us to put her out there and show the whole world.’”
Duyser said the past decade has been blessed because of the sandwich. She won $70,000 at a Florida Indian casino and attributes it to the sandwich.
As you might expect, the reaction from most people (including Catholics) has been justifiably skeptical:
“This is just so dubious that I would say the chance it’s any kind of legitimate miracle is almost zero,” said Father Ernan McMullin, a well-known author and professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University.
Many casual onlookers needed no further evidence of fakery after reading that Duyser auctioned the sandwich off “for $28,000 on eBay. The buyer, Golden Palace online casino of Las Vegas, plans to tour the sandwich worldwide to generate publicity for its company and raise money for charities.”
But a closer look suggests Duyser, however mistaken she may be about the supernatural origin of the sandwich, acted in good faith. In addition to holding on to the sandwich for ten years, she parted with it only out of desperation:
“She is unbelievably sincere, which is about 100% of the appeal of the sandwich,” [Golden Palace spokesman Monty] Kerr told the Register.
“She talks to the sandwich like it’s a person. She definitely believes in God and believes this is something important. She wept when she had to give the sandwich up.”
Recently, however, the Duysers fell on hard times. Her 52-yearold husband, Greg—a former air conditioning technician—was diagnosed with terminal emphysema, and the couple has no health insurance. They live on a $1,153 monthly disability check.
“We had always intended on selling her at some point,” Diana Duyser said. “We wanted her to go to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, or a museum, and I thought we’d get a couple hundred bucks. We decided to try eBay, and I think she was watching over us. Now people everywhere will see her, and that was my goal.”
This month, the Duysers are traveling the United States in a luxury RV the casino bought, displaying the sandwich everywhere. Kerr said the casino has heard a few complaints from faithful who believe the promotion is sacrilege, but not many. He said most Christian faithful appear deeply moved by the sandwich.
A Miami Herald reporter drove the sandwich to Las Vegas, after the casino bought it, and showed it to a variety of people along the way. Some were amused; others fell to their knees and cried.
Weird? You bet. A genuine apparition? Nah. Grill enough cheese sandwiches and you can get burn patterns resembling anything from a woman’s face to a picture of the Space Needle.
But does that make Duyser a liar? There’s no evidence of that. She obviously believes. Indeed, she believes so sincerely she was (at the time of the writing) contemplating joining the Catholic Church—because of the sandwich:
“I’ll be going to a Catholic church, to visit, and I’ll see how it goes,” says Diana Duyser, 52. “Mary came to me, and she touched me, and there isn’t much that’s ever said about Mary in the Baptist church.”
Duyser said she knows little about Catholicism, but she understands that Catholics know Mary as the sinless mother of God.
Duyser’s story highlights exactly the sort of conversion that makes Catholics cringe and critics of the Catholic faith whoop with glee. But I simply note that Christian history—Protestant as well as Catholic—is full of people who have found the motivation to follow Jesus in very strange and very commonplace things. A modern skeptic might see in Augustine’s “pick it up, read it” voice a very simple “natural explanation” (“It was just a kid playing a game next door!”) that overlooks the fact that for Augustine the incident was a divine invitation, even if it did have a completely “natural explanation.” That’s because Augustine, while a supernaturalist, did not separate nature and supernature into separate, watertight compartments. He took it for granted that things with natural explanations could still be signs from the God who is in control of nature. In other words, he believed in providence.
Similarly, car accidents, like burn patterns on a grilled cheese sandwich, are everyday phenomena, yet when a young Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, was hit by a car and survived:
He spent the next two weeks in the hospital, recuperating and pondering the peculiar ways of Providence. That he had survived this incident seemed a confirmation of his priestly vocation.
God is not proud. He’s willing to meet people at their growing edge, and it’s difficult for us mortals to make hard and fast judgments about what natural or supernatural means he might employ to do so. Anything from a miracle of hearing in a Seattle hospital to a child’s voice to a car accident to a grilled cheese sandwich may be used by him to get through to us.
Which makes the task of discerning private revelation very tricky indeed. Of which more next time.