Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Children's Apparitions

Like my last reflection, I’m going to treat this much like my personal blog and just work through/touch on issues that our Monday class explored that I personally found interesting.

First one of the disclaimers we had for Monday’s class is to be cautious of the impacts of the chronological proximity of the versions of the apparition stories we’re reading about the modernist twist they can have. This illuminated some tensions I was having with the texts not with the modern people writing about them but about the nearness of the events themselves to modernity. Where as I could read all the other apparition and visitation stories with a suspension of disbelief, I found myself constantly challenging the apparitions of La Salette, Lourdes, and Fatima partially because of their proximity to modern time. My mind easily accepts that in “ancient” times apparitions were certainly possible. If I didn’t, I couldn’t believe many of the stories of the Bible. Even the stories of knights and peasants of the middle ages I could stomach with a relatively low sense of doubt. But these stories, ground against my nerves. In my mind, apparitions and the like are tales of days well past that I don’t need to consider the reality of because the time difference allows me to separate my reality from theirs. But, especially twentieth century apparitions, I find to be too close for comfort. One of the major reasons for this is the media and fame that came along with these tales, a symptom, no doubt of modernity.

One thing that struck me the most about these apparitions were not the press writing articles. With the current impact of the newspapers and blogs on people’s opinions and knowledge as well as their ability to distort and spread the information rapidly through those means is not lost on my understanding of the effect of the press during the early twentieth century. Yellow journalism anyone?? Although less advanced and slower, people were perhaps more limited, less jaded to, and more reliant on the information they took in through their available media.  This isn’t what surprised me most about the media coverage. What surprised me most were the photo graphs of the children. Photographs place them in the range of time I consider to be relatable technologically to my current time what with photography and industry. Since then we’ve been advancing through the “take a picture or it didn’t happen” age.  What a fascination we have with the visual for historical documentation and proof. Pictures overcome the language barrier, as well and play up the emotions of the viewer. Who wouldn’t believe the innocent, poor children looking back at you? The devout and simple looking Bernadette? What an impact these pictures could have had. What a game changer they could be!

And now we’ve touched a few times on the believability of these apparitions. Part of me wants to believe these children so very much because they are in a situation where they have little to gain from having these visions. They are too young to want power, refuse monetary compensation, and know little beyond their daily prayers. They couldn’t understand the impact of what they have seen. They couldn’t make something like that up for attention. It’s too coherent, too many details to remember and too many times to perform under pressure. It seems like a natural choice for Mary to choose young, poor children for this role.  After all, they still believe in “magic” of sorts and won’t immeadiately deny the apparition trying to rationalize it like an adult would. Children have a level of trust and faith in their naïve innocence that adults cannot muster. This is also why adults have so much trouble believing children. Not only are they naturally cynical about such things but they know how susceptible and naïve children are to the world. That innocence that makes them so perfect for receiving apparitions also makes them unreliable sources in a way. The poverty aspect plays up on a sense of pity on the surface level and deeper justifies why they would be the ones to see this apparition.  To experience so much suffering in such a short time and giving this suffering to the lord which they tend to do would make them perfect examples of those virtuous people who suffer more on earth to receive more in heaven. Martyrs of sorts.  

However, I distinctly remember challenges I faced dealing with my younger sisters when they were at similar ages as Melanie, Maxmin, Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta.  The older of my two younger sisters lied. She told elaborate stories and the more she did it the better she got, being able to cover up her tracks and manipulate me into believing her ridiculous tales. She would speak a made up language for multiple days and have imaginary friends that could last months.  The youngest could play alone for an entire afternoon, talking to people we couldn’t see, making up games and the likes. My roommate told me a story about how when she was a child she convinced her entire class that a girl who moved away had died and that in order to bring her back they had to use a stone she had found. To this day, only one person in her class ever found out it was a lie.  As I mentioned before, children have incredibly intense and well developed imaginations that are capable of imagining and sustaining a made up story much longer than any adult could possibly allow their rational selves to even think about.

 Three things keep me on the side of believing that the children had a real religious experience; one, they didn’t accept gifts and seemed to not gain anything for their troubles, they maintain consistent to the day they died about their stories, and they appeared to be so incredibly devout that it would be so ludicrous to them to even consider being heretic enough to lie about the Virgin.  In an even more general sense, who are we to say what is or is not a religious experience for someone? If it deepened their faith or brought them some answers or direction then it is believable enough for me.  The problem comes in when they have something to say to other people, a message or direction because then it impacts more than just their personal faith and we have to evaluate the validity of their experience because humans in general have tendencies to manipulate people for power by using religious revelations.

One aspect I found rather fascinating was the obsession with the appearance of Mary. It seems completely rational to me that she should appear in many different forms as would allow her to relay her message the best rather than which form is most true to who she was physically during her lifetime.  If she’ll have a greater impact being tall and imposing as she was in the New World apparitions, then she’ll choose tall. If she wants to be relatable she might choose to reflect the age and general demeanor of the person she is appearing to, like Bernadette. It seems entirely reasonable, especially under the modern customs of advertising a message to people.  It’s all about tailoring it to their needs. This makes me wonder though, is it the frame of modern times that finds this shifting of appearance so natural. The ability of Mary to show many different faces could easily be discomforting to people who thought of her in only one manner, the one created by the Church.  The shape shifting concept is a little science-fiction-esque. I’d think that people who were so comfortable with the concept of ghosts and faeries would be fine with the idea of Mary.  Speaking of this fascination with the spiritual world, there seems to be a strong impulse from the people present at apparitions to witness the witnesses to try to explain the apparition in terms of the spiritual realm. But why is that so much more believable than a religious apparition? Why would they rather the girl is seeing ghosts than Mary? Perhaps because they had cures for ghosts and ghost sightings were more normal.  But were religious apparitions really that much of a novelty? Perhaps it was just a way of crossing off all the possibilities, starting with the curable ones, the ones that wouldn’t require a complete reordering of one’s understanding of their religious world.

Regardless, I still don’t know who I believe or don’t believe if I believe anyone at all. I’m inclined to believe based on faith but my modern experiences won’t let me entirely.  These readings are so uncomfortable to read because they create so many contradictions and tensions so that I can’t figure out whether to read them as miraculous myths or non-fiction biographical material.

Did anyone else have these tensions? If you did, how did you resolve them? If you didn’t, why not?



  1. I had similar tensions in believing or not believing the stories of apparition. On one hand I want to discredit all apparitions because I would want proof of something so out of the ordinary. One thing I thought about was dreams. From personal experience, I sometimes have dreams that get sewn into my memory. Days or years later I tend to think some things I dreamed happened and that is really confusing. The “logical” problem with the apparition stories for me is that the visions, like the one of Fátima tend to occur not once but multiple times. In the case of Juan Diego in Mexico the Lady tells him to return and tells him when to return, just as in other apparition relations. The fact that many people saw “unnatural” things at Fátima such as with the sun makes me want to accept the apparition more.
    The way I thought about it was 1) either everyone is imagining things and none of it is real…which seems a bit too over encompassing and too simplifying…or 2) the things that people are seeing where Mary speaks to them and presents them with dilemmas, questions, or even answers!.. are supposed to be out of the ordinary and are supposed to be uncommon.
    Based on Saint’s writings like Saint Bridgette of Sweden or Saint Anthony of Egypt, saints have experiences that are profound and personally revealing and Id like to think that whether or not these are actual apparitions and whether or not the person involved presents it as such… that something valuable came from the experience.
    I find it almost impossible to satisfy a scientific “proof-based” reason to believe any apparitions. But the only thing I can think of is that if any apparition is slightly true that the laws of physics or nature that seem to be broken…such as the sun changing color or intensity in a way that is not “normal” is due to a truly miraculous act of God. Assuming that at least some events in the life of Jesus which don’t seem to obey the laws of physics (walking on water for example) happened would make me think that scientific fact is the way it is “most of the time” and then I have less trouble “making an exception” for miraculous apparitions. That though requires a tremendous amount of rethinking everything one knows about physics, nature, God.
    On a side note… Messages like those about Russia in the messages of Our Lady of Fátima tend to make me want to believe even more. Simply because it offers a very “real-world” application. It makes it very easy to credit or discredit an apparition or message based on exactly what the text says… which is something that seems to be a demand today… at least it is outside religion.

  2. I know exactly what you mean about the photographs of the children striking a nerve. It seems hard to imagine these things happening in a modern time. It is so much nicer to think that these apparitions happened a long time ago, especially if you’re inclined to believe them to be true. I find myself stuck in a place as far as all the visions and apparition stories are concerned (not a good thing since my final paper deals with this). On the one hand, my modern sense tells me they’re faking and lying, but why would they? Their parents didn’t believe them, they didn’t receive gifts, and they didn’t recognize her as Mary. If they were making it up, wouldn’t they say that they knew it was Mary talking to them? They also went through interrogation. It is like faking sick to skip school when you’re a kid, you want to skip school, but you wouldn’t want to go to the hospital. I know that once you make up a story and others believe it, it becomes almost impossible not to play along just so you don’t disappoint everyone or get in serious trouble. But then the signs come in to play. How did Bernadette know to dig for water or where to dig? She was observed by many people to be in some sort of trance and that cannot be easy to make up on the spot in front of a crowd. The thing is, for me, I don’t need scientific proof that this actually happened in order to believe it, but it should be credible. I think it is completely possible for Mary to appear to children and while I want proof, I know it is impossible to fully satisfy scientific proof. But isn’t that a part of faith in some sense? There’s a lot to Christianity that we cannot prove, like God’s existence, but we can believe that. And hey, I personally like to think that Mary is appearing time to time to make sure we’re not messing up the world too much and make sure we’re following her Son.

  3. I also was reflecting on the idea of "shape-shifting," and quite agree that it would be "fitting" for Mary to adapt her form to the limits of human understanding; we've seen her do this in "veiling" Christ in human flesh, so why should she not do it for her own appearances? But I also had a passing thought about how we might reconcile this with the discussion we had about the dormition and assumption of Mary. The bodily presence of Mary in heaven is a key aspect in the medieval development of Marian thought, if Jacobus de Voragine is any indicator. Does there need to be any conflict between the idea of Mary appearing to individuals (in bodily form) in the shape that will best enable their understanding and the idea that her bodily presence in heaven is a fore-taste of all bodily assumptions, in the form that is most perfect to each human form? I don't think there needs to be any such conflict, but it does raise the question of the "body-liness" of these apparitions. Does Mary's bodily assumption require her to be a "static" body?

    I also agree with you re: "scientific evidence." I found Mary of Agreda's "I saw" vision more believable than the "scientifically" verified modern cases, and I've been trying to parse out why that might be. Perhaps I'm such a product of modernity that I've come full circle re: empirical evidence-- I find it easier to believe the testimony of a single experience. I can fully believe that Mary saw what she says she saw (although this is perhaps a different statement than "I fully believe that the BVM appeared to Mary of Agreda"). I have a harder time with this idea of communal verification, because I think that an experience shaped and mediated by many different hands is not the MORE believable for such multiplicity. I don't think this is just being willing to enter sympathetically into the world view of a historical actor, to accept her assumptions and experiences and extrapolate from that position, as a historian. I think I'm actually such a product of the modern empiricist mode that I find the differing evidence of many actors suspect precisely because it is being offered as evidence for the same experience; the rubbing of the rock, the spring, the Marian apparition of La Salette I might accept individually, but combined, my modern mind says "these are discrete, non-repeatable expressions of non-intersecting experiences." It is precisely because they are being offered as scientific proof that I find them suspect, because they do not meet my standards of what is required as scientific proof.


  4. I really appreciate LLD's analysis of how children can be pretty wretched. This idea of the tabula rasa, the blank and therefore innocent (if not virtuous) child, strikes me as being directly at odds with both original sin and how education was understood in the Middle Ages. If we operate from the perspective that children are born innocent and it is adults who corrupt them, we lose the idea of education as part of the cultivation of virtue. This is perhaps why, for Rousseau, the savage man is preferable to the civilized one.

    But I think we're struggling with these visions because their context is struggling to reconcile the modern and the Medieval, to answer to the epistemic demands of science while also satisfying the needs of theology. "Worthy of belief" is an interesting compromise, suggesting to me that what is being declared is not, in fact, the full empirically demonstrable reality of the event, but something of a cross between that and the "I saw" of Mary of Agreda. Something was seen, the Church seems to affirm, and that something is theologically sound and devotion-worthy.


  5. LLD - You raise so many interesting questions in your post! One statement that really struck me was in your final paragraph - ‘I’m inclined to believe based on faith but my modern experiences won’t let me entirely.’

    I remember in Chicago in 2005, a woman claimed to see the face of the Virgin on the wall of an underpass. I immediately decided that Mary would never present herself to anyone in this fashion; she would appear to people like the mystics of the middle ages or the children of Fatima, Lourdes, etc. I mean, an underpass? Via a salt stain? That just seemed preposterous. And even though I’m sure it seemed ridiculous to most Chicagoans (or at least every one I talked to), people kept talking about it!

    “Our Lady of the Underpass” is obviously not an officially approved vision of Mary. However, it seems significant to me that even in these so-called “modern” times, people see Mary. I am so bothered when scholars like Henry Adams say that faith is dead, when clearly people will go to such extremes to find ‘proof’ that we are not alone in the world. To me, this expression of faith is proof enough that Marian devotion is not dead. I have faith that people will continue to see Mary when they feel a need to. Whether or not the Marian visions and apparitions to the people in our reading were ‘authentic’ is a secondary point to me. The fact that these people said that they saw Mary is an expression of a basic human need find meaning within themselves and the people around them. Even though I know that visions legitimized by the Church otherwise mass chaos, power manipulation, etc., I am inclined to believe a person who says he/she saw Mary. Because even if it technically didn’t happen, it is clearly important for that person for you to believe.

    Keep it up, people.


    PS: For a picture/article on the subject: http://www.chicagotribune.com/chi-0504190294apr19,0,5613549.story

  6. LLD:
    I enjoyed your thought-provoking post, which brought to mind several writings on modernity and evidence (which I would be happy to discuss with you anytime!). Your difficulty with apparitions in the modern era is not uncommon. The question for me is, why? Is it the “trick” of “modernity” to induce and reinforce the premises upon which this sort of surprise, incredulity, or even doubt are based? If so, it has also been argued since the 19th century that phenomena like the Marian apparitions are part and parcel of modernity itself.

    What stands out to me as perhaps a very telling trace of “modernity” in your reasons (and those raised in other posts on the modern apparitions) to believe or disbelieve is the centrality of monetary or other material remuneration. Apparitions in the past (e.g., 15th-century Castile) resulted in sites of “revenue collection.” But can’t it be argued with equal validity that this is *positive evidence* of the reality and draw of these apparitions?*

    *Another way of thinking about this is to ask, who provided the BILLIONS to create Chartres? Why did they do so? Even in H. Adams it can be argued that, rather than the receipt of this money being the *end* which Chartres served, there is some persuasive force to which money is put into service–it is the *means* NOT the end, the *evidence* of some not quite explicable force.

  7. I enjoyed your reflections as well. Isn't it interesting how we are more willing to believe something miraculous that happened back in the mists of time (or, at least, mists of history) and skeptical when those same kind of events are said to happen now, in our time? And yet, if you go back through our sources, you will see that people "back then" were skeptical, too--even in the Gospels, even in the "credulous" Middle Ages. Indeed, just as with the idea of "innocent" children, so our conviction that people in the past found it easier to believe in miracles can be seen as a product of modernity. No, they didn't--just as children have always made up stories and downright lies (they are testing the adults, learning the limits of what others are willing to believe). Perhaps, indeed, it is we who are credulous, willing to believe that children are "innocent" and thus reliable conduits of revelation. This seems to me, culturally speaking, one of the most important features of all three of the apparitions that we discussed: why they appeared to children rather than (as, for example, in the accounts from 15th-century Castille) to adults. Whom are we more willing to believe as a culture? The illiterate peasant? The guileless child? Why?


  8. GREAT POST!!! I definitely can relate to what you are struggling with. Jesus himself asks us to have the faith of a child in order to be welcomed into the Kingdom of God. Children are innocent and, as you say, we have a hard time proclaiming a child of heresy, since they don't know any better. Yet, we know that children are fallen and are in just as much need as we are. We know from our own experiences that children lie for their own benefit.

    We also know from the same experiences that children have an amazing creative mind. Imaginary friends and made of languages are just the surface of a child's mind. A simple living room layout can become a lava pit where the furniture is land not yet taken over by the lava. But the difference between these childish games and images and a Marian apparition is that the vision will change a person's life. In the blog post "Determining an apparition's "worthiness" of belief" (posted by AC), we are given a list of characteristics that qualify a true and believable apparition. The biggest one is an undeniable pious devotion to God that follows after the vision is seen. Since these children have done that following these visions, we have to accept these visions as true, regardless of age or even their proximity to modern times.


  9. LLD, I'm fascinated by what you've brought up here. There are a lot of ideas in your post, so I'll just comment on one: your mention of photography and the potential impact of the images of the children who had these apparitions.

    You're right, I think, that we have an obsession "with the visual for historical documentation and proof. Pictures overcome the language barrier play up the emotion of the viewer." The last part of this reminds me of an argument Roland Barthes makes in Camera Lucida; Barthes says that though a photograph has an formal and qualitative nature that can be identified, pointed to, and evaluated, a photograph also has something called a "punctum." The punctum that a photograph has is dependent on the viewer; I might look at a photograph of a lake and be very struck by the sunlight on the lake, but my friend might look at the same photograph and be very struck by the cow standing next to the lake. Our individual natures our unique, and so we cannot related to the photograph in exactly the same way; thought we can both identify the composition of the photograph, we are brought into relationship with it by different punctum. We are "pierced," Barthes says, by different things.

    The visual nature of these apparitions brought those who saw them into different relationships with Mary and with God. Through visual imagery that is meant to convey or bring to mind these apparitions, we, as lay people, can also be brought into different relationships with Mary and God. The apparitions we read about have all spawned huge visual cultures: there are photographs, animated movies, comic books, live-action films, paintings, sculptures, bookmarks, candles, rosaries, holy water fonts, etc. associated with Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje---and I'm just naming things that are in my parents' house! (Yes, I have seen animated AND live-action films of the stories of both Lourdes and Fatima.) It's really amazing the way that people who are interested in these apparitions, whether or not they believe in them, have turned to visuality to understand them. The idea, I think, might be to create a variety of imagery to give people who struggle with the veracity of the apparitions many chances to interact materially with visual objects about the apparitions in the hope that a certain object might have a punctum that could "pierce" someone and bring them to believe in Mary's true presence in the apparitions.