The tilma of Juan Diego

guadalupe1[Author’s note: this article was originally published several years ago when I wrote as the Atlanta Creationism Examiner at Examiner.com. The article’s original contents have not been edited, requiring a correction: the tilma was not weaved from cotton, but agave plant fiber. As I say below, I’m not Catholic. I don’t need for this story to be true; I merely find the alleged details fascinating. Strangely enough, my atheist friends seem to desperately need the story to be false.]

I present the following information for your cogitation acknowledging that it is anecdotal in nature, but included there are some very interesting claims made by scientists involved in the story.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I’ve never been to Mexico to personally examine the tilma of Juan Diego.

Given the current climate and tendency of drug cartels to shoot or chop of the heads of people, I don’t consider it a tourist friendly travel destination. Therefore, I have planned no trips for the purposes of conducting a personal examination. Besides, we’ve firmly and cheerfully established my lack of credentials in certain natural sciences and my aversion to microscopes and lab coats.

My primary source of information for this story of Juan Diego’s tilma came from a book titled Divine Interventions by Dan Millman and Doug Childers.

Internet sources appear to confirm much of the information that I found in their book.

Juan Diego’s story begins on Saturday, December 9th, 1531 — the day Catholics celebrate as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

It is believed to be the day of Jesus’ conception, which is sort of odd considering I know Catholics also celebrate Christmas in December.

If accurately celebrated, it would be mean either the baby’s gestation period lasted a full calendar year. If the day celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is correct, according to the calendar Jesus should have been born in August or September.

Personally, I don’t think it matters when we celebrate Christmas, but that we recognize the birth and death of the promised Messiah.

But I could be wrong. It’s been known to happen.

An Aztec peasant converted to Catholicism, according to the story Juan Diego experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary at a specific hill approximately nine miles outside of Mexico City. The vision sent Juan Diego on a mission to convince the bishop of Mexico City to build a shrine for her at the site.

Although he spoke no Spanish, Juan boldly approached the bishop to relay her request. After listening to the translator with little interest the bishop summarily dismissed him. A dejected Juan Diego departed for home.

The vision of Mary greeted him with encouraging words on his return journey. Juan confessed his failure and begged Mary to find a more suitable and articulate replacement.

Undeterred, the vision sent Juan back to speak with the bishop a second time.

This time Bishop Zumarraga found it more difficult to simply dismiss the determined peasant. He was troubled by his persistence, but needed more proof.

He thoroughly interviewed Juan Diego through their interpreter. The bishop wavered before committing resources to build the remote shrine on the word of the Aztec peasant who could not even speak Spanish. The authors of Divine Interventions write, “Finally, he told Juan that he required a sign; let the Lady decide what kind of sign to give—but he, the bishop of Mexico City, could not build a temple based on fantasy.” (pg 157)

It seems that for a purportedly religious man, Zumarraga took a very cautious and skeptical approach. I respect his conservative point of view as opposed to taking a blind leap of faith.

Greeted by the vision on his return home, she told Juan Diego to relax. The following day a sign would indeed remove all doubt from Bishop Zumarraga so the church would be constructed.

Juan returned home, only to find the uncle who raised him as his own dying from an arrow wound. His uncle begged Juan to fetch a priest, in order to receive last rites. Juan hurried to find a priest for his uncle, but the vision of Mary stopped him on his way at the same hill.

She told Juan not to worry; his uncle would recover. She sent him to the crest of the hill. There he found a wide assortment of flowers that were blooming out of season.

He gathered the blooms in his tilma — a long thin cotton poncho — believing they were the miraculous sign the bishop expected.

Juan Diego arrived at the bishop’s residence, who at the time was hosting another bishop named Ramirez and the governor of Mexico.

The bishop’s staff ushered Juan Diego into the room. He explained through the interpreter how he found the flowers as their powerful scent filled the room.

Juan released the bottom fold of his tilma that he’d curled up to hold the flowers. The petals dropped to the floor.

After a moment of stunned amazement the other men in the room also dropped to the floor on their knees, stunned into reverential awe.

According to “legend”, Juan Diego looked down and saw that the flowers had left a perfect artistic impression of the Virgin Mary on the thin cotton fabric. According to Millman and Childers,

Modern experts say the fifty six inch tall on the tilma of Juan Diego equals the artistry and beauty of the works of Da Vinci, Raphael, and Rembrandt. But the manner of its appearance on the tilma is more miraculous than its eerily vivid lifelikeness. For Bishop Zumarraga testified that he saw the image of the Mother of Christ appear on the tilma at the very moment he looked up from the flowers. Four centuries would pass before modern technology would unravel even more mysterious aspects of this unparalleled work of spiritual and artistic perfection. (pg 159)

So now let’s try to separate fact from fiction. Here’s what we know is fact.

  1. A church was built on that site.
  2. Juan Diego’s tilma still hung in the church when Divine Interventions printed in 1999.
  3. The normal life span of such a garment is twenty years.
  4. Though currently protected by a thin layer of glass, the tilma was exposed to candle smoke and other pollutants for hundreds of years without discoloration or ill effect.
  5. A bomb planted directly underneath the tilma exploded on November 14, 1921. Though the church suffered significant damage, witnesses reported not only was the garment unharmed, the glass protecting it didn’t even crack.
  6. Two fibers from the image were examined by the director of the Chemistry department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Heidelberg. He concluded “no coloring agent of any kind [existed] in the fibers.” The authors added, “The source of the color was untraceable, being neither animal, vegetable, or mineral dye. Yet no synthetic coloring existed before the 1800s.” [pg 160]
  7. Scientists using a microscope examined the image and declared no visible brush strokes were present.
  8. Using an ophthalmoscope, Dr. Rafael Lavoignet examined the eyes in the image and announced in the cornea of the eyes, a human image could be seen that had been imposed with the correct optical imagery produced by a “normal” eye. The date the image was created has been established as 1531. The nature of corneal eye reflections were not scientifically verified until 300 years passed. The image has been identified by matching it to a painting of Juan Diego.
  9. In 1962, an optometrist and his wife magnified a photograph of the image 25 times and announced they had discovered two more faces reflected in Mary’s eyes: Bishop Ramirez and translator Juan Gonzalez, identified from painting of the men.
  10. Professor Philip Callahan examined the image using infrared technology in 1979. The professor, an expert in the field of infrared radiation and an accomplished painter, wrote about the image on the tilma, “it’s color rendering and the preservation of its brightness over the centuries are inexplicable. There is no sizing and no protective over-varnish present on the image. Without sizing the tilma should have rotted centuries ago, and without protective varnishing the picture should have been ruined long ago by prolonged exposure to candle smoke and other pollutants. Under high magnification, the image shows no detectable sign of fading or cracking—an inexplicable occurrence after 470 years of existence.”

Those are the salient facts about the story I can provide that can be easily verified: the age of the church, the approximate age of the tilma and its failure to adhere to normal laws of physics that govern entropy. Experts in their respective fields have made remarkable claims about the garment in question.

Several other anecdotes about the history of the shrine include:

  1. The vision of Mary appeared to Juan’s dying uncle and healed him as she promised Juan. She told the uncle her name was “the Ever Virgin Mary Tequetalope, an Aztec word meaning “Who saves us from the Devourer.” This last word in her name was phonetically translated into Spanish as Guadalupe.” (pg 159)
  2. The day after Christmas in 1531, during the celebration of the swiftly completed construction of the chapel, some celebrants fired arrows into the air in jubilation. One arrow allegedly struck a man in the neck and killed him.

Millman and Childers write,

“His corpse was carried into the chapel and laid beneath the sacred image. The crowd prayed aloud to Mary for a miracle. Minutes later, the man opened his eyes and rose, healed. Spaniards and Mexicans – mortal enemies – now embraced one another with joyous affection.” (pg 159)

Whether or not these two anecdotes are true, we know for a fact that within a few years, more than nine million Aztecs converted to Catholicism. An estimated one billion pilgrims have since visited the shrine over the past four centuries.

As with the Shroud of Turin, the known facts surrounding the tilma of Juan Diego are fascinating if true.

But they don’t really prove anything.

My own tendency is to emulate doubting Thomas. I usually need to see the wounds for myself before I really allow myself to believe a story like this. But I don’t have to go to Mexico City to see proof of a miracle. I’ve met Matthew Botsford in person.

When I first learned of his story on Biography Channel’s I Survived: Beyond and Back, it was hard to believe someone who looked that good could have ever been shot in the head.

The camera didn’t show everything, staying from the neck up. You couldn’t see his paralyzed left arm, or the leg brace on his left leg.

It was hard to believe he still had a bullet in his head until I held his most recent CAT scan image in my hand. When I saw his tracheotomy scars, I really began to believe the truth of his story that he’d been through hell and returned.

I can’t prove any of this: that Juan Diego’s tilma still hangs at the shrine for Our Lady of Guadalupe, or that the events happened as described. I can’t even prove the personal experiences that Matthew Botsford claims to have had are real.

For that matter, how do I prove that my own personal experiences are real unless I’m somehow able to apply the scientific method in real time?

Maybe life is just a figment of my imagination.

Atheism and life after death

Matthew and Nancy Botsford

Matthew and Nancy Botsford

Why are atheists so adamantly opposed to the idea that consciousness could possibly survive physical death of the human brain?

For several years now, I’ve conducted personal research mostly to satisfy my own curiosity about what might happen when we die. I’ve read dozens, if not hundreds of articles describing various scientific studies of the near death experience to learn what doctors and scientists think they have discovered about this phenomena.

I’ve personally interviewed people making NDE claims. I seen enough and read enough to believe that the mind and brain separate at death. The spiritual mind survives; the physical brain does not.

Dr. Bruce Greyson established what is now called the Greyson NDE scale of 16 specific attributes many alleged NDE claims share in common. These attributes include seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel, reuniting with dead relatives, the sensation of leaving their physical body, etc.

images-7My atheist friends have vehemently argued that these events are hallucinogenic in nature, originating from chemicals produced by the dying brain to make the transition to death more pleasant and less traumatic. However, the typical atheist’s arguments are fatally flawed, for two reasons.

First of all, not every NDE is a pleasant or euphoric experience. Some are quite terrifying. After learning about his experience from the television program I Survived: Beyond and Back, the reason I sought to interview Matthew Botsford in particular was because he was by every account an innocent bystander accidentally gunned down in a drive-by shooting — yet he emphatically insisted that his NDE experience took place in hell.

The second reason the atheist’s criticisms don’t hold water is called a corroborated veridical NDE event — specifically, the person experiencing near death in location “A” claims to learn new information found in physical location “B” and that claim later can be verified independently.

For example, Michaela Roser has claimed while undergoing emergency surgery that saved her life, her consciousness visited the hospital cafeteria. There “she” claimed to witness a very unusual conversation that involved smoking, her parents, and her two grandmothers. Her family confirmed the conversation had taken place when Michaela emerged from a coma, several weeks later.

Scientific studies have clearly established that people who claimed to have an NDE have a change in attitude toward death — a large majority of survivors claim they no longer fear death. They claim to enjoy life more. They often volunteer to serve in hospice care, helping make the transition easier for those facing imminent death.

My question for my atheist friends is not why they reject the idea of life after death — that seems rather obvious. The question is, why would they want to destroy the peace and tranquility of these NDE survivors who believe their experience was real?images-8

Even if the experience could be proved to have been false, the survivor received a tangible benefit as a result in most cases. Why would anyone want to try to take that feeling of bliss away from them?

The really sad thing is that the experiences appear to be real and true, so critics must misrepresent the evidence in order to make it appear weaker than it really is.

If only one example of corroborated veridical NDE evidence can be proved true, then strict materialism is dead, And there are thousands, if not millions of stories like Michaela’s and Matthew’s.

The rejection of the substantial and growing body of corroborated veridical NDE evidence seems to require my atheist friends to become conspiracy theorists beyond all reason and compare.

After all, rejecting all of the evidence requires the atheist believe that the victim, family, friends, doctors, and every other witness must have colluded to deliberately perpetuate a lie.

That absurd assumption begs this question be asked: cui bono? Who benefits from the alleged lie?

Arguing with atheists

southernprose_cover_CAFGMy friend Fred described a weak atheist as a person who simply doesn’t believe any sort of God exists, while a strong atheist wants to get in your face and tell you why you’re stupid for believing in an invisible man in the sky, or some such nonsense.

I liked those helpful definitions, and knowing the distinction.

You might believe that, having written a book titled Counterargument for God, I relish every opportunity I get to argue with every atheist who I might happen to encounter. But you would be wrong.

In fact, you couldn’t be more wrong, and always remember that there are gradations of wrong.

There’s simply no reason to argue with a weak atheist. He or she isn’t spoiling for a fight, and it would be rude to goad them into one by insulting them or calling them names.

I have no interest in flaunting my faith, and it most certainly isn’t my place to judge somebody else and tell them they’re going to Hell for not believing exactly as I do.

Isn’t that fun to hear!

For that reason among others, I’m still quite reluctant to invite strangers to church because I don’t want weak atheists to feel like I’m trying to shove my God down their throat.

In my opinion, it requires the mutual interest of two people to maintain a dialogue, and my interests are far from limited to theological discussions.

Now, if someone is interested in polite conversation about what I personally believe and why I wrote the book, I’m more than capable and happy to accommodate, if returning three times to the same radio show to be interviewed by the same atheist friend serves as any indication.

And if someone tells me they don’t believe in Hell, I’ll be delighted to explain why I do, using only two words: Matthew Botsford.

Please note that I didn’t simply take the information from a video.

I took the scientific approach to his story, meeting Matthew in person, interviewing him about his claims of visiting Hell, even holding the image of his skull, with the bullet still embedded in his brain, in my hand.

Matthew’s a guy whose story ought to be heard. But if you’re really that disinterested in learning about his personal experience and remarkable recovery, it’s your loss.

Rarely if ever do I inject God in the course of a “normal” conversation or while conducting my day-to-day business. If God does get mentioned, the other person almost certainly brought it up. I can talk about a lot of different things without getting bored — writing “Rocky Leonard” detective novels, tennis, golf, Braves baseball, University of Georgia football, politics, abrupt climate change, just to name a few topics that can get me started.

I don’t go to church every Sunday, so I can’t look down on others who aren’t there, either. My attitude, to a large degree, is that as long as its legal, what you do is your business, not mine.

Truthfully, I have very little interest in shoving my faith down the throat of somebody else, finding the idea almost as repugnant as super-aggressive atheism. If you don’t want to talk about God, fine. We can always talk about something else. I just gave you a short list of ideas.

I’m not a pastor or theologian. I’m pretty sure that my personal perception of what Christianity really means is unique to me, therefore not necessarily intended for mass consumption.

I only wrote Counterargument for God as a response to those allegedly free-thinking “strong” atheists out there who might be open to new ideas and a unique perspective.

Most of my counterargument relies on knowledge gained from the best experts in their respective fields of physics, chemistry, biology, paleontology, cosmology, and neuroscience using logic, reason, and a fundamental understanding of statistical analysis. Interesting stuff.

My counterargument for God is based on a simple, straightforward premise: if you don’t believe some form of supernatural intelligence is responsible for your existence, then you must accept that virtually impossible good luck is the reason you are here. There isn’t a third option.

Let me be crystal clear: I have NO desire to create a new religion or start my own cult. If you want to know details about my specific Christian beliefs, you’ll have to read the last section of the book.

The argument about the existence of God was basically over long before that point, logically won by the scientific arguments I put forward.

Why write Counterargument for God, if personally I’m so apathetic about evangelism?

The answer is quite simple. I got really tired of seeing and hearing about the nasty, confrontational tactics of strong atheists who make absurdly wrong claims, when I’m almost certain those arguments are egregiously wrong.

Now if I choose to believe in supernatural intelligence that I like to call God, it hurts no one. So my attitude is that you can believe what you want, as long as you respect the right of others to believe something else, and leave me alone.

But strong atheists, or antitheists, aren’t content to simply be atheists; they want to convert others to atheism. That from of “enlightenment” I truly don’t understand, especially when I’m sure they’re wrong.

Please don’t misunderstand; strong atheists  can be entertaining to engage in debate, in a controlled environment or print.

The problem is that the overwhelming majority of them aren’t nearly as smart as they think, mainly because they don’t know how to think for themselves.

Here’s a hint for those strong atheists out there spoiling for a fight: if Dawkins, Darwin, Harris, Hitchens, or Hawking said it, there’s a pretty good chance I’ve heard it before and developed a superior rebuttal to whatever argument you’ve chosen to parrot.

I don’t particularly care for arguing with strong atheists who lack original arguments, in the same manner I dislike arguing with idiots, or people trying to insult my intelligence.

The purpose of writing Counterargument was to establish a starting point for spirited, intelligent conversation, but unfortunately, I don’t get the best effort of atheists very often.

This is not to suggest that the average atheist in incapable of intelligent thought, but when the majority of them don’t seem to bring their “A” game when they come to pick a fight, apparently because they grossly underestimate my ability to provide serious competition.

Presumably they automatically assume that I’m stupid because I unashamedly admit that I believe in a supernatural God, and specifically refer to myself as Christian. What’s really hilarious is when one of these intellectual giants tells me that I’m a waste of his time after seeking me out for a confrontation.

Don’t get me wrong; I love to be underestimated by my opposition in debate. But it isn’t very much of a challenge to decimate the same old tired arguments, over and over.

The problem is that I haven’t had very many takers, even though I’ve offered practically anyone who might be willing to accept a free electronic copy of my book so we would have a common understanding of thought as a starting point.

With all due respect, I’ve already read the books of Russell, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens that evangelized for atheism.

I know most of the best atheist arguments that have already been published. They were the inspiration for my counterargument for God.

I’ve also read Darwin, Gould, Impey, Hawking, and many other experts in their respective scientific fields, seeking information adequate to form answers to my own existential questions.

I may be completely wrong about any given topic of which I write, but you should rest assured that I am not stupid, illiterate, or delusional. Logic and reason are my two best friends.

Compounding the problem is the fact that I have a nasty tendency of responding to insults in kind. Respect is earned, not freely given. Traffic on that street runs both ways.

My harshest critics are often surprised to learn that I’m not particularly partial to the idea of turning the other cheek, preferring to remember “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”

On the other hand, there have been a few worthy opponents willing to step up to the plate.

For example, my Facebook friend and former president of American Atheists Dr. Ed Buckner and I met for an official debate back in February 2012.

Ed was both a worthy opponent and a pretty fun guy.

He kept me loose and on my toes beforehand, with harmless pranks such as sending a friend of his an email promising that I’d pay $10,000 to have our debate videotaped.

Naturally, I responded that I would honor that agreement and hoped the friend had no objections to currency issued by Milton Bradley.

Apparently one debate was enough for Ed. He has never asked for a rematch. I’m more of a writer than public speaker, so it’s never going to be my suggestion.

Perhaps Dr. Buckner felt that he won our first debate convincingly, or perhaps he was irritated that in the heat of the moment, he erroneously declared that Darwin never wrote the words “Monkeys make men.”

Then — after I explained that for the Darwinian theory of evolution to be truly correct and account for all of the diversity and complexity of modern life, we must not be only related to monkeys, but the bananas we both like to eat — Ed shocked me, when he agreed that my logic must be correct.

Really? It seems rather absurd to believe that sexual reproduction and genetic recombination over time can explain the shape-shifting relationship of humans to the oak tree, but that’s exactly what Darwin’s theory leads us to conclude — but only if we completely eliminate any possibility that supernatural intelligence was involved.

If that’s what floats your boat, that’s your business. Just please don’t simultaneously try to convince me that what I believe is stupid.

To be brutally honest, I’m really not interested in dissenting opinions that attempt to rebut my counterargument but lack solid scientific evidence. However, I am keenly interested if to learn if such evidence exists.

So if you’re a strong atheist looking to pick a fight with an idiot, first try looking in the mirror.

I’ve got better things to do.