It's Only A Doll

La Sanjuanita

In early Fall, San Antonio's Catholic faithful eagerly anticipate the return of the doll-size statue of Nuestra Senora de los Lagos, also known as La Sanjuanita, for another brief visit. Every year, the figure of Mary, Our Lady of the Lakes is taken from it's normal home in Mexico to make the trip north.

When the little figure arrives in this Texas city, it is greeted by an adoring crowd of Catholic faithful, much in the same way teenagers might react to the arrival of the latest teen idol. The statue, which looks for all the world like one of those expensive collector's dolls that are sold on cable shopping networks, is famous for the healings ascribed to it. People want to touch it, to pray to it, to be healed by it.

For so long as the idol is here, the little St. Lawrence Catholic Church will be the destination for Catholics coming from all over this region. Despite the efforts of city police, traffic near the church will be congested. Everywhere one might look, he will see people in wheelchairs and on crutches. The blind will be there, praying that their sight will be restored. Diabetics will be well-represented, as will be people with tuberculosis, cancers and failing hearts. For so long as the doors are open, a seemingly endless line of petitioners will make its way slowly past the little figure of Mary.

There are many stories of incredible healings attributed to this statue, and of the dead being restored to life by its healing power.

"The healing power of this statue is tremendous," said Monsignor Adolf Valdivia, pastor of St. Lawrence. "There is a story about a 6-year-old girl who was part of an acrobatic troupe who was fatally injured in a fall while practicing for a performance.

"Her body was brought to the chapel of Our Lady of San Juan. The statue was placed on the girl's shrouded body. The girl sat up, alive and unharmed." - Darryl Bell, Blinding Experience, San Antonio Express-News, October 3, 2000, p. 3B

The newspaper article includes the story of a man who claims to have been struck blind while praying before the statue in its Mexican home in 1959. According to Gilbert Barrera, he and his brother had driven there to pray that the brother, who had just graduated from Army boot camp, would be safe. According to Barrera,

"I remember both of us were kneeling before the altar when all of a sudden, I was blinded. I can't explain what happened except that I could not see, and this is the truth." - Ibid.

His brother helped the now-blind Gilbert out of the church, where someone brought him a glass of lemonade. He said he never stopped praying.

"I wanted my eyesight to return," he said. "I couldn't think of anything else but to pray that it would come back. It was strange. I'd never been sick a day in my life and all of a sudden, I couldn't see. I prayed very hard. I wanted to see.

"Then all of a sudden, for some unexplainable reason, I began to see again. It was amazing. There's no doubt in my mind that faith had a lot to do with me regaining my sight. I'm from a religious family and I've always believed, but that day changed me. If it was a test of my faith, then it was a good one." - Ibid.

Does that pretty little doll-statue truly have the power to heal? Can it restore the dead to life? Nothing could convince me that it can. But thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Catholic faithful believe that it can. They go through great personal hardship and sometimes expense just to get near enough to the image to touch it, to direct their prayers to it eye-to-eye. Is their hope for healing in the statue? In Mary who is represented by the statue? In God? Or in something else? Are they adoring the statue? I believe that the answer to all these questions is YES. They come for different reasons and place their trust in different things.

I believe the story told by Gilbert Barrera. I have absolutely no reservations at all. Why? Because something very similar once happened to me., except that I was struck stone blind twice in the same evening.

I had been working at my computer for long hours without a break. I was writing, and to make my words standout on the white image on the screen, I had both contrast and brightness turned way up. As I worked into the night, but tired eyes burned in protest. But I kept right on working.

Suddenly, the image before me dimmed as my eyes appeared to shut down. In the space of a few seconds, I was completely blind. I mean completely. There were no flashes or little colored spots. Nothing. Nada. The screen in my brain was as dark as I remembered the time, while deep inside Mammoth Cave, when the guide turned off the lights.

There was no pain. Even the burning sensations in my eyes seemed to have been suspended.

What did I do? Nothing. I just sat in my chair and did nothing, as in my mind I tried to make sense out of what had happened. Some may find this difficult to believe, but it is true. A long time ago, in distant jungles and urban areas, I had learned to control emotion when confronted with danger. That old discipline has served me well several times, as when doctors pronounced to me what must have seemed to them sentences of death. Invariably, I would just sit and look at them, presenting no observable reaction. Invariably, those doctors asked about my lack of response.

I believe that the ability to remain calm in difficult or dangerous times is a gift from God, and I believe that gift was in play at the moment of my blindness.

As I sat quietly, my mind was processing information. I am diabetic and blindness is a well-known complication of diabetes. But does it come on so fast? No. Had I suffered any injury or blow to the head recently? No. Could it be a tumor or aneurysm inside my head? No. There were no symptoms of dizziness or disorientation. I finally ran out of questions. The only possibility I had not disqualified was eyestrain. Had I so abused my eyes that some safety valve inside me flipped a switch and turned off that section of the brain that processed input from the optic nerve.

Having figured out the likely cause of my total blindness another question remained. How long would this condition last? Would it be permanent? Or would it eventually pass? I began to think in terms of getting a guide dog and peripherals to permit me to continue to use my computer. I had helped a group of blind people establish a chat room on the IRC and am familiar with the equipment they use. If I needed that equipment, would Medicare pay for it?

As my mind processed these questions, the lights in my eyes came on again. And so did the burning in my eyes. And vision returned quickly, taking no more than a few seconds to go from completely black to normal. I wouldn't need a guide dog or a reader for my computer after all.

Up to this point, I had not prayed, nor called for my wife. Now that my eyesight was restored, I gave my most sincere thanks to the Lord for bringing me once again out of darkness this time out of physical darkness. I decided not to mention anything to my wife, who has enough things to worry about concerning the state of my health.

I went back to work on the paper I was writing.

Within the hour, I was blind once again. This time, I knew what was the cause. I sat quietly, listening to the music playing on my computer's speakers. When my sight returned, I again thanked God for His mercy and this time shut down my computer. The next morning, I wakened and, upon firing up my machine, I reset the brightness and contrast controls to less abusive settings.

This is why I believe Gilbert Barrera. What happened to him also happened to me. What led to his momentary blindness? I don't know. Perhaps it was the long drive in the hot and bright desert sun. Perhaps it indeed was a test of his faith. Perhaps my blindness was a test of my faith. By the time of my episodes of blindness, I already had come to truly trust in the Lord and to place my worries and concerns at the foot of His throne, thereafter walking away from them without looking back. Then, as now, I can truly declare that I am content and at peace.

Was the blindness a test of faith? Or was it a reassurance that my trust in Him was well-placed? I don't know. Perhaps the occurrence had no supernatural aspects at all. God knows and that is enough for me. He was with me when I was in spiritual darkness and I am convinced He was with me when I was in physical darkness.

Truly, He is God Who is with us.

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