For most people, a rock is just a rock. But Jigme Shakabpa believes his rock is special. The Madison resident sees in the black, oval-shaped stone's natural lines an image of the Virgin Mary.
"I don't believe this is just an accident of nature," he says. "You don't get to see images like this too often."
Shakabpa's father, a Buddhist, found the rock 25 years ago while fishing in a river at the base of the Himalayas. On seeing the Virgin Mary's image, "he was gripped by a great spiritual energy. He believed it was an apparition."
The family became convinced the rock had great powers. Whenever Shakabpa's father had a cough or a cold, he would hold the rock and his illness would disappear. At night, his father would rub the rock between his hands and it would give him peaceful dreams of ancient ships and lambs.
Shakabpa inherited the rock when his father died in 1992. Since then, he has experienced his own miracles. Once he saw colored clouds forming flowers above his house in India. And, for three days, he and his wife woke to find perfect, concentric circles in the morning dew on their window.
"It had special meaning," he says. "Maybe this rock was telling us something."
Shakabpa, who moved with his wife to Madison in 1998 and now works at Sears, admits he doesn't know what the Virgin Mary is trying to say. Still, as a Buddhist educated at a Catholic school in India, he feels her reaching out.
"The Virgin Mary comes across to people of all cultures and all religions," he says. "She comes across in different times and ages."
And she appears in unlikely places. In the past decade, the Virgin Mary has been spotted in condensation on a window of a Boston hospital; as a salt stain on a highway underpass in Chicago; in chocolate drippings at a candy factory in California; and burnt onto a grilled cheese sandwich, which was eventually sold on eBay for $28,000.
Shakabpa has no plans to make money from the rock, although he hopes to someday display it in a museum or church: "We felt the rock was too powerful to be kept silent anymore."
The Catholic Church has long discouraged people from believing in religious images and usually refuses to validate apparitions.
"The church teaches that religious faith is rational and reasonable," says Paul Boyer, a retired UW-Madison history professor and author of several books on religious and prophetic belief. "Some of these kinds of beliefs undermine that."
And yet, for some people, seeing religious images in everyday objects "seems to provide empirical confirmation of religious belief."
Indeed, Muslims have seen the Arabic script for Allah on everything from fish scales to the shells of chicken eggs. And in 1956, Canada redesigned the image of Queen Elizabeth on its money after people noticed Satan peering out from her hair.
This summer, Shakabpa contacted Madison Bishop Robert Morlino's office. He provided pictures of the rock but is still waiting to hear back. "They're very bureaucratic," he says diplomatically. "It might take years."
Meanwhile, the rock continues to perform miracles. Earlier this month, Shakabpa brought it to the offices of La Comunidad, the local Spanish-language newspaper. As he unveiled the rock, computer screens around the office began flashing.
"The computers were going nuts," recalls Dante Viscarra, the newspaper's publisher. "It was a rather interesting experience."
On Monday, when Shakabpa brought the rock to the office of Isthmus and carefully withdrew it from its bubble wrap and golden-orange cloth...nothing happened. No flashing computer screens or miraculous healings.
Shakabpa suggests that's because the rock is intent on delivering more profound miracles. He believes the Virgin Mary is seeking to bring a message of peace to a world suffering from war and hatred.
"It's important for people to make more of an effort to be compassionate," he says. "If the rock can bring more people to affirm their faith, that's a good thing. That can help humanity."