Belief's in a bag of chips, or an ashtray: not-so-new in bookstores

Finding the sacred in the unlikeliest places: Jesus in an ashtray, from "Look! It's Jesus!" It's a joke, right? What else are we supposed to think when someone claims to see an image of Jesus on a tortilla or the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast or the Buddha in a cluster of beehives?

I had picked up the book "Look! It's Jesus! Amazing Holy Visions in Everyday Life" (Chronicle Books) as an amusement, and over the past couple of years I've hung onto it for more important reasons. Whenever I've sorted through my shelves to decide what to keep and what to give to our local library, this one has always been in the "keep" category.

We're all seekers of truth. Everyone looks for meaning in the least expected places. That's what this book by Harry and Sandra Choron tells me.

It seemed only appropriate to take out the book, dust it off, and share it becauselook its jesus cover we're at a time of the year that's special for Christians. 'Tis the season of glad tidings and all that. And with Pope Benedict getting all sorts of attention now for debunking the legends of Jesus' birth, it also seemed fitting to share some unusual appearances by Jesus & Company in the modern world.

The book may offer ammunition to non-believers (look, they'll say, at the ridiculous extremes that some people reach), but I find this book far more important and consoling. You don't need to drive to a church or temple or mosque to find God: the spiritual world surrounds us, it's everywhere and in everything.

Like a bag of Cheetos. Take the following image, for example. Do you see it? There's Jesus, in profile, in an attitude of prayer:


This unusual holy "relic" was discovered by Steve Cragg of Texas. The Chorons nickname the image "Cheesus."

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was found in this cinnamon bun ordered in a Tennessee cafe. The Chorons refer to it as "the nun bun."

Delicious snack or image of Mother Teresa of Calcutta? Or both?

The next one is one of my favorites in this book. Though the selections gathered by the compilers are mainly Christian --others include the Virgin Mother in a lava lamp and a grilled cheese sandwich -- some "sightings" refer to other world traditions.

In a Cambodian Buddhist Temple located in Minnesota, for instance, the Buddhist monks heard the hum of bees in the temple's eaves and looked up. What they saw was the divine Siddhartha, sitting in a meditative pose:

A beehive shaped like a seated, meditating Buddha.

The Chorons quote the reaction of that Buddhist community's elder, and it's a lovely comment for this time of year:

"Everywhere in this world, we humans need to follow in the bees' path to make peace and serenity."

Amen to that. A perfect sentiment for the Christmas season.  Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.

Leda and the New Testament?: new in bookstores

The Virgin Mother's been called some unusual things: I've heard her likened to the Egyptian goddess Isis. I've read comparisons of her to the Greek maiden Leda (both, the comparison goes, conceived after a divine encounter). I suppose I expected something just as startling or subversive in a new short book by Colm Toibin, "The Testament of Mary," published by Scribner this month.

In a way, this is just what happened - although not in the way that I expected.

Toibin gives us a portrait of the mother of Jesus in her heartbroken old age: living in Ephesus, visited (and harassed) by the Gospel writers who want her to corroborate the story of Jesus that they're writing. One of them scowls at her "when the story I tell him does not stretch to whatever limits he has ordained."

What does she think of her son's disciples?

They're nothing but "a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye."

This book started as a dramatic monologue performed before Dublin audiences, and all I could think was: Well, I wonder what people in the world's most Catholic nation think of this!

After all, Mary's not the figure of the Pieta, holding the body of her son after he is taken off the cross: She flees, terrified for her life.  There are many more provocative revelations -- but I won't spoil them -- all rendered in Toibin's characteristically beautiful, lyrical prose.

In the end, Toibin gives us a Mary who isn't Isis, or Leda. She's not a figure surrounded by stained-glass or stretching across the ceiling of countless church domes. Toibin's testament presents us with someone far more powerful and easier to understand: A mother. Toibin's Mary is human, all too human.