Difficile est saturam non scribere.
It’s difficult not to write satire.
News stories like the following emanated from the Tampa Bay area in Florida during December of 1996:
CLEARWATER – A finance company on busy U.S. 19 became the site of a mass pilgrimage Tuesday when a stain on the building’s side assumed the visage of the Virgin Mary for the faithful.1
CLEARWATER – The trickle of pilgrims coming to an office building to see a two-story image resembling the Virgin Mary turned into a traffic-clogging throng on Wednesday. Thousands went to Seminole Finance Corp. near Drew Street and U.S. 19 to see the sight and, in some cases, look for a miracle.2
CLEARWATER – When a city has a high-profile apparition of the Virgin Mary on its hands, it calls for serious action. That’s why Clearwater officials on Thursday established the Miracle Management Task Force.3
TOKYO, 1997 JAN 13 (NB) – This is a roundup of new and updated resources and services on the global Internet, including: in the news – Virgin Mary in Florida.4
CLEARWATER – Covering nine panels of bronze-tinted glass, the image evokes an impressionist stained glass portrait of Mary, her downward gaze cloaked in a mantle of swirling hues. Although glass experts have attributed the multicolored pattern to the effects of weather and sun, belief overrides science for most visiting the makeshift shrine.5
CLEARWATER – Throughout the large parking lot Monday, people bowed their heads, knelt on the pavement and openly wept before the sight. Many of them added to what has become a shrine of several hundred prayer candles, potted poinsettias, photographs of loved ones and hand-scrawled pleas for help.6
CLEARWATER – Some 800 pilgrims stand at noon in the south parking lot of Seminole Finance Company, near Drew Street on U.S. 19: construction workers, business people in suits, mothers with babies, teenagers, the elderly, the disabled. Tears stream down the faces of new arrivals. Strangers converse and share their wonder. Around the periphery, six television satellite trucks stretch microwave towers heavenward. Reporters work the crowd.7
I found myself, on December 31st, amidst this crowd of the curious, fascinated and desperate. I just happened to be in Clearwater for the afternoon. I hadn’t planned to attend the miracle, but, as traffic swept me into its vortex, I became a participant-observer. I have recorded my impressions below through the eyes of a fictive persona, Augustine of Epcot. I offer this event-scene as an experiment in altered subjectivity and critical historicity: the first of Augustine’s confessions and chronicles of our times.
Book I: Event-Scene: Miracle on U.S. 19
“The appearance of the an image in glass, on a finance company building in Clearwater, Florida, has drawn pilgrims by the thousands, a multitude of the faithful come to view the miraculous vision of the Virgin in Glass.” So the author’s consciousness of the late twentieth century, only three years from the millennium, might construe the events of this day of our Lord, 31 December 1996. As I must speak in that Authorial mode, I do so now, understanding the Limits of Insight that this entails, but such are the conditions of our current Fall into the realm of Subjectivity, a kind of Captivity in the Babylon of Consumerism, whose Intellect is condemned to Produce Commodities in the Alienated Person of Authority. But, if I may confess, I view things somewhat differently, amidst my ceaseless wanderings under the bridges, across the parks, through the Stadiums of – in the words of a recent friendly Saint suited in gold like (but not actually of the same substance as the original) Elvis – the hyperreal kingdom, “America”: self-proclaimed star of two continents, supervening locally like the haggard pixellated ghost of divinity absconditus upon the landscape of my home peninsula. I was born here in mid-century, 1950, in a little house on 23rd Avenue North, whose number signifies that Psalm which makes of all faithful Sheep, in St. Petersburg, home of the retired, the dead and the dying, home too of the Segregated Drinking Fountain and the wars of race and class flowing from it, a city named after another old Saint friend of Mine and, soon, no doubt, of Yours if I may be permitted a moment of memento mori. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was born, this time once again (yes, I confess, this is a heterodox idea, reincarnation, popular not only in the Old Empire but also, more recently, in upper-caste California) as a neighbor to the coming Event. That Occurrence, the celestial visit in Clearwater, is perhaps the organizing eschaton of Florida history, and perhaps even of our collective history to date, if we take into account the great European invasion of Florida by Ponce de Leon, itself the tip of a great migratory toe stepping onto North America, in search of youth and gold and hope and, of course, Real Estate. Could it All have led here, to the Corner of US 19 and Drew Street in Clearwater? To visit this site, You might think so.
So, this is how it begins, and this is how it will end, perhaps, the story of our times in this terribly stricken land of Florida, once the domain of Flowers, lately visited by the ghostly image of our Lady. The appearance of the Virgin in glass is the miracle the great stream of travelers has been seeking all along, I believe, in their ceaseless wandering up and down the asphalt river between the shrines of consumerism, the great Malls gracing our landscape like Tombs, their designer iconography illuminated by hot lights under plate glass, plastic visages frozen in smiles of concerted amity, Directed toward the Final sale and the transubstantiation of the very lives of the seekers miraculously into Commodities: those malling sheep in the flock of the devoted, all in quest of their dreams. Our dreams. I have looked in awe at them, and at myself reflected, like our Lady, in glass, my image a patina of light laid delicately over the more stately images of the mannequins behind shop glass, wondering how I myself might become transformed into an idol of the market, and I have reflected too on my own image, pale and imperfect as it must needs be, in the presence of that Radiance I witnessed today on Highway 19. But less of myself, for now, and more of the Virgin and Her other admirers, many of whom have come so far to witness a miracle.
There is an eeriness, a strange panic and hushed desperation, evident on the faces of the devoted before our Lady of the Glass, so many attempting, futilely I imagine, to capture Her miracle in the boxes of their cameras, some of which are of the Kodak disposable variety, to take home to enthrall their friends and neighbors. They might well Hope to Package some of Her, perhaps, standing before the (I might admit I hope without disrespect) rather oily image of the celestial Lady, emerging with such glory on the Finance facade, just below a Sign, a billboard for medical services, itself rising above the litany of the traffic, reading “Have your tattoos removed.” Indeed, the box – camera, “vault,” kamera, “chamber,” as our Latin and Greek Fathers would say – is in some sense a key to the mystery of the Virgin, or at least to Her effect here in Clearwater, itself a kind of camera lucida projecting the celestial image, as if through a spiritual microscope, upon the Plate of Commerce. For she is not only gracing that Industry offering promises of happiness and protection from calamity, as our Lady herself is wont to do, but She is surrounded by – seemingly encased in – the great icons of power which are interspersed on the landscape between the Malls, so many beacons on the road to Orlando, signs of our Progress toward our End. Our lady appears, to the cinematically conditioned consciousness, as a muted curvaceous rainbow, rather like those Madonnas one used to see in Byzantium, and now sees on the Arts and Entertainment Network (Angels & Evangels, I would have thought), mosaic images of our holy Mother emanating from tesserae of blue, amber and gold, on the walls of Churches in the Old Empire and on the Monitors of Cable Christendom in the New. She arises from the tesserae of mineral deposits on glass, stricken and transformed by Light, and hangs there amidst, as I was saying, the Signs.
“Amoco,” reads one on the corner just below our Lady’s visage, itself a logo in red and blue, offering the blessing of transport to the pilgrims, from mall to mall, and a kind of industrial oasis for their wheeled-internal-combustion boxes of steel, plastic and glass, which bear them into the presence of the Lady, and require considerable attention from local Authorities in charge of traffic, and litany, control. Of these Authorities and their orchestration of devotees, I shall speak Again. “Pelican Car Wash” is emblazoned on yet another sign, though this one seems less universal than Amoco, notwithstanding its promise of “oil change while you wait,” conveniently, I surmise, allowing the devoted further to rejuvenate and even illuminate their automotive cubicles with polish, while attending the miracle. “Kane’s Furniture” offers its self-evident, if again less than universal, appeal from across the eight lanes of concrete whose Signs say US 19, a way reminiscent of those viae constructed in the Old Empire, Via Appia etc., this being no doubt the Via Commercii, whose ancient forebears lead to great Imperial monuments we once admired and then shunned in favor of the Savior and, of course, his Mother, whom we in turn shunned in favor Images, and Madonnas too, more worldly and, some would say, profane. Curiously, though, no one has yet seen fit to purchase any chairs or tables or other paraphernalia of Comfort from Kane’s, to enhance his or her stay in the Presence of our Lady. The Authorities, themselves present in considerable number, would no doubt disapprove of that. There is a woman selling cotton vestments, “T-Shirts” her Sign reads, bearing the title, “Miraculous Mary,” which some younger Seekers seem to think may be the name of a “band” of “punk” minstrels rather than of our Lady, but on this subject I am not qualified to speak. In any case, the devotees stand, and mill, and stare in the presence of the “awesome.” “No Parking” is also evident, highlighted by a forest of orange cones pointing, like so many Fingers of Remonstration by the Authorities, toward Heaven, and this at least has the aura of universality again, being a sign (No Parking) which God no doubt would have given to Paul in his Fortunate fall from his legged vehicle on the road to Damascus, with a vision of the Son shining in his eyes, if it were not for His infinite mercy in allowing saints to exvehiculate during visions (a policy I have recommended in several editorials to the Clearwater Sun, none of which has appeared as yet in print, possibly due to the paper’s fear of angering the Authorities).
I have, by the way, watched this Virgin miracle on Tele-Vision, as They call it, and it is not the same as being there, though of Tele-Visual miracles I shall also speak Again. Our lady appears, curiously, in multiple apparitions on various panes of the Finance Company, leading one to believe that her appearance is meant to have less than a unique appeal, perhaps indicating the complexity of projecting divinity in what Saint Baudrillard called the realm of Simulacra, a Zone in Saint Pynchon’s sense more suited, perhaps, to the apprentices of the Sorcerer than to the passionate admirers of our Lady, but, again, this could be, in spite of my preference for “being there,” a domain where the actual event and the Tele-Visual have, miraculously in a strange new sense, been transubstantiated. One has only to re-envision her mineral tesserae as digital bits of primary color, to Imagine one is squinting at a Modern painting by Seurat or at the site of the Louvre on the Internet. But I precede myself again, and promise to speak of media miracles in a later chapter. You Authorities reading these words may ignore my comments on Tele-Vision and on Yourselves, as I have already spoken of these mysteries on the Tele-Phone, to which you are already Secretly privileged to listen.
I am amazed at the masses of the devoted themselves, of their plights, and of the Hope that seems to draw them into the Presence so strangely ambient amidst the Signs and Authorities and Malls of late Modernity. So let me share with you what I witnessed today, this last dies of our Lord’s annum, in the Reign of Clinton, 1996. One wonders if the Sign, US 19, is not an intimation of the End of that grievously destructive era leading up to the Appearance of Notre Dame, Parthenos Kathara, here in “Clearwater,” whose name itself may be a neon intimation of the luminescent Baptism – purifying virginity of the Unsignified, our Lady of Contracts (including Finance and Insurance Policies) Unsigned – offered by the present Vision. “All things are signs and of signs they are made,” if I may conflate two Saints from very different yet perhaps, in the hyperreal Imaginary of our collapsing millennium, convergent schools, the one the Author of the Dhammapada, the other of Of Grammatology, both of whom are virtually absent like Yours truly. In any case, we are all, entrapped here in this text, and despite our denials of metaphysics, Devotees of the industrial Dump, more or less like Vladimir and Estragon, so let us attend to our fellows and their Hope renewed by the miracle.
Onward march the banners of the Kingdom of Death, Lord; I see the Signs marking its seductive and universal machineries, as I stand below the bright arcs of metallic birds piercing Your heavens, and wade through the colored legions of steel thundering down the lanes of fused stone, transporting souls in endless rings around Your Spouse and Your Son, emblazoned here in stained glass. In Awe I view the Letters of Hope written to Her in the Spirit of the Love She emanates. But, Oh, give me the power of Your mysterious Word that I may express the Anguish that I see written here!
Now I gaze at formations of Candles, standing together like so many soldiers before a great battle, massed before Mary’s image as if to protect Her from some approaching Peril. Or are they huddled around Our Lady to receive Her Protection from the Gargantuan Thing, Res Mundi, whose name echoes from their ranks in one collective voice crying, not in the wilderness, Lord, for that has already been Consumed, but rather from the phantasmagoria of concrete and plastic that surrounds them, and their Protectress, on this bright Winter day in the land of Flowers? Yet, what I see in the hands of these glass soldiers, these little vestibules of light before the Miracle and, yes, partaking of it, indeed, too, constituting part of its glory, what I see are Letters, Lord, written by so many hands in so many languages that even with the learning of Rome I cannot read them all. Yet I shall share with You what I have seen, as it resonates in my soul, that You may hear through me what You already know, yet patiently attend to as the sad melodies of Time, “the ebb and flow of human misery.” Some of their missives I do not recall literally, so let me paraphrase: “Mary please bring back our daughter, Sarah, to her family. We miss her and need her home,” cries one broken soul. And another’s voice pleads, “My grandmother has a tumor on her neck. Mary, please help her with the pain.” And yet another, “Please help us get our 16-year-old son out of jail.” “Beloved Mary, I am alone. Please bring me love,” appears in a shaken hand on paper limp with last night’s damp. “Mary, please bless my husband so that he can stop drinking,” cries another from mute paper. Yet another reads in bleary script, “I have no job. Please Mary, help me find work.” Others, I managed to write down on the sleeve of my gown, so I have a literal record (though I have abbreviated names to protect the Innocent):
“Everyone please take time to read – I believe that this has been sent from heaven that the Vergin Mary is holdin Jesus’ hand and when she lets go – thats it – cause her hands getting heavy – so if your not saved please get saved. Anne G. I love you Jesus & Mary”
“Mary Mother of God, Please, we pray for an arrest soon. You know the feeling of losing a son – Lynn E. and George A. are withholding information from the police – but not from you!”
“Help heal my eyes.”
“Pray for Shawn to find happiness.”
I wonder if the Authorities consult the Virgin regarding Information otherwise unobtainable? Yet Behold: Amidst all these missives of despair, Lord, stands a color image on paper, jutting from beneath a glass candle holder, and on it one of the most peculiar compound messages I have ever encountered in my spiritual quest. There is the picture of a small, fluffy-white dog, mouth agape as if in a smile, and beneath it a note reading: “Please bless Chris, our beloved poodle, blessed Virgin Mary”! I am so stricken by this message of spiritual Need, and in the kindness shown even to household pets, here in the presence of our Lady of US 19, that I turn my face heavenward, past the prism of light of the miracle in glass, and – forgive me Lord for I must confess – laugh. As I look down again among the legions of the Desperate, my Fount of Light, I find another note, probably written by a philosopher of the street, which generalizes the sentiment I find inscribed everywhere here, for it says, presumably to Mary though there is no salutation: “Bless those less fortunit.”
The writing of Arabian souls is emblazoned here, too, Lord, for they are no doubt just as miserable as the rest of us, and that of Your Latin Church in the Americas, and even that strange composite script of the New flocks who come from across the Pacific, under the Sign of Toyota, to visit my home and “America’s” great City on the Swamp, Epcot, domain of that Second Son, Walt, whose miracles have so enlivened souls with the Phantasies of Light on Tele-Vision. Yet whatever their script, there rises from the thousand sheets of vellum here, not only despair but also, above all, Hope.
I have been told by another Pilgrim that a strange little man appeared at the Site in the first week of the new year. He was dressed in black vestments with a black mitre, which rose like a tombstone above his long white hair and sun-darkened face splashed with a white moustache. From around his neck hung a gold medallion, which glinted in the candle light and seemed to hypnotize the Admirers who circled ’round him with specula – a glimmer of hope. “Perhaps he is a Greek, or a Bishop of some post-Christian sect,” I commented, though I can not report his appearance with confidence, since I only heard of it from another.
I have thought long on that Hope, as the Despair seems plain enough in the Desert of Signs that stretches between the Malls, for I see a yearning that is unfulfilled in the Desires prompted by the consuming machineries of night, amidst the starry glare of thousands of lamps lighting the way of the earthly “cars” on US 19, and the planetary neon Signs that glow in Primary Colors along the vast concrete plain I travel, just past evening. I cannot see Your stars, Lord, though I strain upward toward the Empyrean, and the Image of Our Lady is gone, too, taken by the miraculous descent of the Sun beneath our little sphere at the center and lowest point of the Cosmos You have fashioned, yet also at the pinnacle of spiritual possibility. Now I too Hope, and wonder, at the miracle of this inspiration that You have planted in us, that we could be entombed in a dying world, a mortal shell, encased, if you will, Lord, in a Dumpster outside Paradise, yet still we can aspire out of the Tomb toward the Light.
All citations from The Tampa Tribune are from the paper’s webpage.
1. Coryell, George and Janet Leiser. “Faithful Flock to Clearwater Building, Say Image of Virgin.” Tampa Tribune. 18 December 1996. Internet. 8 January 1997.
2. Norton, Wilma and Curtis Kreuger. “Come All Ye Faithful.” St. Petersburg Times. Thursday, 19 December 1996, Pinellas Edition: 1 A.
3. Collins, Lesley. “Popular Image Spurs City Task Force.” T ampa Tribune. 27 December. Internet. 8 January 1997.
4. Williams, Martyn. Internet Update. Newsbytes News Network . 13 January 1997.
5. Coryell, George. “Thousands Find Peace with Image.” Tampa Tribune. 25 December 1996. Internet. 13 January 1997.
6. Spitz, Jill Jorden. “Seeing is Believing – Devout Visit M ary’s Image.” Orlando Sentinel. 24 December 1996.
7. Barry, Rick. “Christmas Miracle on U.S. 19.” Tampa Tribun e. 19 December 1996. Internet. 8 January 1997.