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A nerve was struck two weeks ago with an article we had on luminous "orbs" -- those supposedly inexplicable circular lights that are showing up with increasing frequency in photographs, especially at holy settings.

One side argues passionately that they are only tricks of the camera (especially digital ones) while the other side posits with at least equal passion that there is a spiritual phenomenon behind many of them.

That's the first thing to be established: whether they are truly unusual. In fact, many seem like artifacts of dust or lens moisture refracting light patterns.

Wrote Tobin Pilotte, from San Antonio:

"As someone who has a lot of experience in traditional and digital photography I found your article on orbs to be interesting but somewhat troubling. As I have said I have a great deal of photography experience and I also have a great deal of experience with photo manipulation through sophisticated software such as 'Photoshop,' which I do for a very large defense contractor. 

"Orbs fall into much the same category as the famous 'rods' which many believe are either UFOs or some undiscovered life form. The sad reality is that these are explainable 'phenomena.' There are many professional photographers and video people who have exposed orbs and rods for what they really are: bugs, dust, etcetera. I have been able to reproduce both orbs and rods at will. I can even put them where I want in the photo with near perfect success (but that does require some 'faking it.')

"If I let my creative juices flow in software such as 'Photoshop,' then I can really do wonders. 

"The fact of the matter is that orbs are generally dust particles...well exposed on the net by photographers. The faces or images in them falls into the same category as seeing faces in clouds or tree bark etcetera."

That's one end of the argument.

Others -- far more -- expressed their belief that something supernatural is going on.

If it is -- if there is any supernormal element -- it raises the second question:

Are such phenomena of the Lord -- holy -- or rather like spiritualistic phenomena? Or both? Might both sides of the spiritual equation use a similar spiritual medium (seeing that they are both in the non-physical dimensions)?

Great caution is in order, especially among those who seek to make it a repeated phenomenon.

It is not something to arrange as a regular means of "communication." That would indeed be spiritualistic.

But there are indeed some interesting shots, not all of them looking like specks of dust, or the results of moisture, and not all with the feel of the dark side.

But then: we'll leave this one to your determination.

The photos above were taken at Medjugorje by a viewer from London during apparition time. "The sun was spinning at the time I took these photos and they were taken on a disposable camera," she states. "It was only when they were developed that the orbs, streaks of light etc were visible -- I did not see anything at the time, other than the spinning sun. I believe there are images in some of the orbs, which as always, are for discernment."

Or Mount Rainier [left]. "This was taken two years ago," says Darlene Kerfien. "I have never understood where this light orb came from. I have never had the camera do anything like this. There are actually two circles here. One is red, one is white and larger. I had been praying when I took the picture."

"I want to tell you what happened the other night traveling on the highway going north to Georgia mountains," says former flight attendant Tara Cannona. "We were on our way back from the Atlanta airport. It was actually the midnight hour after May 13th, almost one in the morning when all of a sudden a blinding bright bluish white light illuminated the car and it stayed illuminated for about five or six seconds and it seemed like a huge spotlight was right above the car and I tried to look up past the steering wheel to see what in the world was happening when this huge bright green ball with a long long green tail flew by us to the upper left, but so low in the sky, almost in front of us but to the left... We were in awe. When my Mom and I saw that, I was speechless.

This gets into an area about which we constantly warn: UFOs.

During the Middle Ages -- at the height of bubonic plague -- clerics including at least one Italian bishop were called upon to exorcise hovering balls of light -- which they saw with their eyes (this was of course before cameras, and thus before lens refraction). Are such what Indians once knew as "spirit lights"? And if so, are they occult?

We get reports of flying "triangular" objects. And other lights. Many are reported in church during Adoration or Mass. At right: one "orb" at one oratory in Pennsylvania. The photographer attributed it to humidity.

"During a prayer group meeting in St. Joseph's Church in Emmittsburg, Maryland, before Mass, I heard a 'pop' sound  just like how the old-time cameras would sound after the flash went off," writes another, Mary Irene Ventura. "This grabbed my attention and I opened my eyes (the group was praying the Rosary and I had my head down, eyes closed. I was sitting upstairs in the choir balcony with others) to see what was going on.   Immediately, I saw, in rapid succession, three flashes of brilliant (almost blinding!) white light, round in nature near the roof of the Church."

Those who have near-death brushes have on occasion mentioned them. At Medjugorje, they have been seen in and outside of the church -- not just circular, but also heart-shaped and colored. "After reading your article today on the website about orbs I wanted to share a photograph with you that I took during Exaltation of the Cross  in 2006 in Medjugorje," is another e-mail we received . "Hundreds of orbs in the photo of the outdoor altar."

"Personally I believe them to be good and bad angels appearing," writes Tony Figueiredo. "The fact that these so-called orbs always appear round rules out any reflection of light, dust, and spots on your lens because I have taken two or three pictures right after one another and only one will capture the orbs." 

"I took this photo of Cardinal O'Malley at Mother Teresa's Tenth Anniversary Mass at St. Peter's in Dorchester, Massachusetts," says a viewer. "Notice the orb in the center of the photo [left] near his staff. None of the other  photos had such a  light."

We get a number from First Communions -- and it looks like a Host, whether just a reflection or whatever. "I began to see orbs right after my brother's death (he was only 36, I was 27, and both he and I were away from the Church)," says Donna Orth of Oceanside, California. "The first one I saw was very large, maybe ten inches across, and black.  It occurred up in the corner of the room when I was thinking about and was feeling very sad about my brother's death."

This is what makes some pause: when they are claimed in the eye, not a camera.

Is it like the "cloud" that Elijah saw? Or the images from Ezekiel?

Or,  as skeptics would intone -- nonsense?

Again: not to be obsessed about, but something that if and when it comes should be treated with a dose of Holy Water as a precaution.

"I just wanted to say I recall a story (I believe in the Little Flowers of St. Francis -- The Fioretti) St. Francis and St. Clare, while in prayer, had an orb pass between them and St. Francis specifically stated it was to be ignored, I assumed he said this because it was evil," says Jean Danforth.

Do we thus have our discernment?

Zig-zaggy neon seems a bit creepy in some "miraculous" shots.

"We have several pictures of these orbs," writes a mother named Brenda from Nebraska. "They seem to 'follow' our children, specifically our daughter who has a great devotion to the rosary and adoration. It is not on the camera lens, because the orb changes location in pictures in succession where my daughter changes her location in a room. These have appeared with our other children too, just not as frequently."

"My jaw dropped when I saw the photos of the orbs in your May 15th issue," writes Renee Baranek, who notes the death of her mother at home on March 11, 1978 at 3:00 a.m., which some believe is also an hour of Divine Mercy. "Her nurse came for me just before three, and while I stood next to my mother's bed, I glanced above her body and I saw the round orb seen in pictures in today's article. I've spoken about this to my Spiritual Director, and I believe God in His mercy gave me this gift. My brothers and the nurse saw nothing, but I was able to wave goodbye to my mother."

"I am a past student of Father Malachi Martin as well as Ed and Lorraine Warren," writes Kelly J. Atkins of Louisville, Kentucky, in an especially fascinating e-mail. "I have worked in communion with the Archdiocese of Louisville for over 25 years in deliverance and paranormal investigation as well as worked as an archaeologist in the Middle East for 15 years. My undergrad is from University of Louisville in history, my master's is from Brown University in archaeology. I think I have a few dueling stripes that qualify my opinion to at least be heard.

"The phenomenon of orbs seems to have emerged in the last 40 years, although I have seen light/orb phenomenon in earlier photographs.  The orb/light  phenomenon earlier than 40 years seems to be most prevalent in combat photos as well as religious settings.

"The presence of orbs does definitely indicate a spiritual dimension.  While the orb itself is not an entity per se, it is spiritual matter that when drawn together with enough "spiritual energy" can manifest in the physical world in which we live .  I have seen orbs in demonic hauntings as well as at baptisms.  The orb is not so much as a diagnostic, as just an indicator of something afoot.

"True diagnostics of the nature of the phenomenon fall into two general categories. The positive/angelic/Godlike normally involve wide spanning rays of light. Rainbowish manifestations are definitive of the Divine. Whilst on the other hand, shadows, brown hazes, black non-descript things, and super intense red 'things' normally are tell-tale of the unholy.  Zig-zagging tubes of light, vortexes etcetera. can go either way sad to say.

"I have been shown pictures where there are orbs all over the place, say at a Christmas party or birthday and the phenomenon doesn't ever occur again on premise.  The house stays quiet.  I believe especially at Christmas and birthdays, Almighty God allows certain souls to manifest in love and perhaps petition for help.

"The trap concerning orbs is one of curious invitation.  Say a person gets some orbs on a photo. They are then vexed and stimulated to go deeper into the rabbit hole, say trying to capture voice phenomenon, involving a psychic, or using divining devices such as a ouija board or dowsing rods.  The orb a lot of time is a machination of "something" dangling a carrot to get the person to start down a road that leads to destruction.  You and I both know people that are obsessed  with this phenomenon.  Once the individual starts focusing their attention and energies toward this one point, this act of will can give certain "things" the momentum to act in more dramatic ways in the person's life and the physical surroundings in which they live.

"I submit these thoughts in light of the teachings of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, and for your own discernment. May the Good God and His Most Blessed Mother and St. Michael protect you on your pilgrimage through this life."

[see also: photographic skeptical viewpoints]

[resources: spiritual warfare books]

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