MILTON, Mass. -- I came here to see a miracle.
I drove to this placid Boston suburb to view for myself a sight that has become one of the biggest attractions in New England: a nondescript third-story window on a medical office building next to Milton Hospital. It was there, on June 10, that someone noticed that a large stain on the glass looked strikingly like a Madonna with a child. In the two weeks since, tens of thousands of people have flocked to the hospital to gaze at the image. Many of them believe it is a sign from Heaven, and they have turned the window and the brick wall that contains it into a shrine to the Virgin Mary.
When I arrived on the hospital grounds one evening this week, about 350 people were already there. Dozens of others, in cars and on foot, were streaming in behind me. All eyes turned to the window, where the whitish discoloration -- the result of condensation caused by a ruptured chemical seal -- did resemble a robed woman holding a baby. Many in the crowd, perhaps most, clearly believed themselves to be in the presence of something miraculous. More than a few were fingering rosary beads and praying; their murmured Hail Marys were audible everywhere I turned. "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners. . ."
Eight or 10 people were on their knees beneath the window. One woman repeatedly touched the wall and then her head, as if anointing herself with its unseen essence. Bouquets of flowers rested on the ground, along with pictures, money, and handwritten notes. Nearby, a small group of elderly Vietnamese prayed in their native tongue. Parents pointed out the image to children; hospital patients with IV drips were trundled over in wheelchairs to pay homage. Many in the crowd simply stared. I cannot remember ever being surrounded by so many people who were sure God was sending them a message.
But is this really how God communicates with His children -- through chemical deposits on a suburban hospital window? And is this really how He would want them to respond -- by swarming into that suburb, clogging the hospital's parking lot, and offering flowers or prayers?
The Archdiocese of Boston has declined to express an opinion on whether the anomaly in the Milton window is a genuine miracle; its spokesman suggests instead that it doesn't really matter. "If it leads to a deepening of faith," says the Rev. Christopher Coyne, "it's a good thing." The Rev. Gilbert Phinn, pastor of St. Elizabeth's in Milton, concurs. "Anything that inspires devotion is a good thing," he told the Boston Herald, "and that's certainly what this is doing."
I think it is safe to say that God has the power to send a message without having to resort to supernatural effects. In Genesis, God tells Noah after the Flood that He will never again destroy the world -- and that the rainbow will forever be a reminder of that promise. Rainbows can be readily explained by the laws of optics; in that sense they are no more miraculous than chemical condensation forming on a window. And if a rainbow can inspire thoughts of the divine, why not a Madonna-shaped stain?
But thoughts of the divine -- or "devotion" or "a deepening of faith" -- are of value only if they lead to self-appraisal and changed behavior. Otherwise, what is the point? What is accomplished by kneeling beneath "Our Lady of the Window" if nothing about your life is altered when you get up?
"When I saw it, I knew it was a sign from God or something," one young woman told the Quincy Patriot Ledger. "When I left there, there was something different. I felt holy. I felt like I was a better person."
There is no reason to doubt her sincerity. But surely God cares less whether she feels like a better person than whether she acts like one. True spiritual self-improvement takes time and effort and discipline. There is no shortcut -- not even at the site of a "miracle."
One clergyman made the point beautifully in a letter to The Boston Globe. "I don't know if the image in Milton Hospital's window is of divine origin or simply a curious natural phenomenon," wrote the Rev. John Swencki of Waltham, "but I am certain it would please and honor the Virgin Mary if the onlookers would stop gawking at the window and go inside the hospital, become a volunteer, visit patients, make a donation, pick up litter on the grounds, offer hospitality to families of patients who live a distance away . . . or escort patients into and out of the hospital."
That gets it just right. With or without a miraculous apparition, Heaven's message is what it has always been: Love your neighbor.
I came here to see a miracle and I saw one, but it wasn't condensation on a window. It was in all the people who had come to view it -- in their uniquely human yearning to find divine involvement in this world. The spirit that drew them here may have been God's gift. Where it takes them when they leave is up to them.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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