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Rev Lionel Fanthorpe: "The human mind fills in the gaps"
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Wednesday, 15 September, 1999, 17:37 GMT 18:37 UK
Miracles: Virgin on the unbelievable?

Can you see it yet? Lourdes on the left, Westminster on the right
Was the Virgin Mary watching over Cardinal Basil Hume's coffin during his funeral? Not watching from heaven, that is, but from within Westminster Cathedral itself?

And what was written in a tomato which was cut open in West Yorkshire last week? Did it really say "la illaha illala" - There is no God but Allah?

And could it be true that "Ya Allah" - Allah exists - was spelt in the seeds of an aubergine?

And whatever happened to the statues of the Hindu elephant-headed god Lord Ganesha drinking milk?

Dozens of sightings of the Virgin Mary have been reported in recent years, perhaps the most well-known being at Medjugorje in Bosnia Herzegovina.

Cardinal Hume's coffin, with the sighting to the left
She has also been seen in a Mexican puddle, on a Florida skyscraper, and even in a pork scratching found in a pub in Hull.

The latest sighting was captured when two photographers for a Catholic newspaper took pictures of television coverage of Cardinal Hume's funeral.

One, Terence Wynn, says: "What I see is an image on the left hand side of the coffin which looks to me as if it's female and with its hands joined in prayer."

He admits it is not a clear image, but suggests if you traced a picture of a statue at Lourdes, it would be "almost identical" to his photograph.

Statues of Ganesha were seen drinking milk all round the world in 1995
His suspicions were heightened when he discovered that a photographer colleague who was 300 miles away had also photographed the television coverage, and had got the same result.

"It may be no more than a trick of the light, but having said that, it's a trick of the light in two places at once," he said.

The Catholic Church itself is not too impressed by the report. Spokesman Monsignor Kieran Conry said he was "mildly curious".

But he added: "The Church would never make a statement about something like this, and would certainly not say it's a supernatural or miraculous phenomenon."

A smudge on the film?

The Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, the presenter of Channel 4's Fortean TV, who has been investigating supernatural phenomena for nearly 40 years, says he thinks the sighting in this case is probably due to a smudge on the film.

The inside of the aubergine in which people saw "Al Allah" written
"On the other hand, I have seen photographs that have been taken either by scientific-based investigators which have been put through laboratories and for which there is no chemical photographic explanation.

"Now I think we need to come at this with a completely open mind. I'd like to see it examined by a photographic laboratory, and if there is no other explanation for the image, then perhaps it is genuinely something spiritual and paranormal."

The human mind has an ability to fill in the gaps of things it does not understand, he says.

"If we go back several thousand years to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, in a primeval forest where there might be something like a sabre-toothed tiger, walking indistinctly because of its camouflage, the human eye can fill in the gaps in that shape, and say: 'Predator! Run!'"

Lionel Fanthorpe: Open minded
If there has indeed been an increase in sightings, bearing in mind the possibility that it's simply that more are being reported, then "pre-millennial tension" could be a factor.

Some doctors have already warned about an impending increase in depression, tension and suicide as the turn of the millennium approaches.

However, many people will think that even if the sightings were proved not to have taken place, it would not matter to people who had seen them and believed them.

If they coincide with, reinforce or run parallel to people's own inner convictions, says Lionel Fanthorpe, "that image matters irrespective of its chemical composition".

And he added: "There's a great deal to be said for remembering that the world, very probably, does contain strange things, and that there is in all likelihood a spirit world as well as a physical one."

But as ever, people will make their own minds up.

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