Before beginning to read the texts for Monday, I remember noticing a shift in reference that was striking to me in the headings: the use of a word that had not appeared before in the readings, apparition. Previously, in works of Hildegard, Mechtild, Elizabeth of Schonau, and so on, we have seen experiences of “seeing” referred to primarily as “visions.” What then constitutes this shift from visions to apparitions? Prof. Fulton-Brown touched on considering the ways in which thought about these experiences of seeing and experiencing the supernatural had begun to change. Somehow the heavens have become more accessible by this time.
Yet, I want to suggest that the shift in vocabulary, from visions to apparitions, is characterized by a shift in a certain kind of accessibility—a specifically physical or concrete accessibility. I wonder whether this characteristic is the most salient feature that distinguishes visions from apparitions. Examining these distinctions/features, I hope to arrive at a clearer picture of the difference between visions and apparitions.
This urge for and awareness of the physical is latent throughout the texts and manifests itself in a number of different ways. We identified one in class: the very striking new kind of legality in the accounts of these experiences. As we noticed, the reports of these visions were not written necessarily in moments of spiritual sharing but rather the see-ers are interrogated and giving testimony to what they have seen so that it can, to whatever degree, be judged in authenticity. Witnesses are examined, facts are double checked, stories are compared. At the end of the investigation of Ines, it is stated that no blatant contradictions were found in the stories and that, in fact, enough minor variations indicated that the testimony had not been arranged in advance. Even a level of scientific study is made by Martin Ruiz on the position of Ines’ thumb. There is a critical eye watching these events; all of sudden, it seems, that it matters whether these events are actually happening in a way that it simply did not before.
Another feature of this new accessibility is the “group” or community aspect of these experiences. Previously, we have seen in St. Gertrude, for example, that her experience of the Virgin is quite intimate and exclusive. It serves no immediate purpose outside of her own spiritual encounter with the virgin. “Revelations” are made exclusively to her though she shares them with the world through the writings. The visions are addressed directly to her and are regarding her specific character and spiritual development. This is radically different from what we see in the accounts of the apparitions. In the story of Pedro of Burgos, it is clear that both Pedro AND Juan see the lady and the many people in white processing on the Wednesday of Holy Week. They hear themselves being called to Matins with them. Though the next day only Pedro is visited by the Virgin, it is significant that they both see previously and are equally afraid. The story of Jaen makes this point more strongly. What is interesting about the Jaen story is not only that they all see the same procession, their locality with relation to the event is also striking and described in detail: they are all at different distances with relation to what is happening. Juan and Pedro are beyond the walls of the city while Maria Sanchez is in her house and Juana Fernandez is in the yard of her house. Because of this, they all see different aspects of what seems to be the same phenomenon. Further, this event is directly linked to referents in their own familiar reality. In the case of Pedro and Juan the barking dogs signal that something is happening and in the case of Juana she is able to trace the procession as passing over the muladar near the chapel, etc. In the Story of Juan Diego of Guadalupe, though he is primarily receiving the visits of the apparition, it is revealed that his uncle was also visited by the Virgin “and he saw Her in exactly the same way She had appeared to his nephew.” (Anderson/Chavez, 183)
Finally, I think that the visionary experiences are quite distinct from those of the apparitions in what they see. Again, let us look to Gertrude as an example. Gertrude is kept company by the presence of the Blessed Virgin and Christ. Though in Chapter 3 of “The Revelations of St. Gertrude” we read the experience she has of the Infant Jesus on the Feast of the Nativity as “apparition,” what she sees is a display of saints and angels surrounding the heavenly throne. She sees Christ in the womb of the virgin as transported into Gertrude’s own heart. The experience she describes is one of rumination; it is a deeply personal experience. Compare this to what we find in our readings for Monday. There is an undeniable shift from the internal to the external. Mary appears not to further any personal spiritual experience but with an agenda and plan for the community she appears to. She wants her holy people to be remembered, a monastery or church to be built, a message delivered and most of all to be believed. So, she offers very physical signs. Mary takes a cross and plants it in the ground in Ines’ story; in the story of the herdsman of Guadalupe, a partly-butchered cow goes on to be very productive; and Mary gives Juan Diego’s skeptic a tapestry of her divine image on his tilma.
What then do we make of this adamant insistence on bringing together this world and the divine or supernatural world? Why does this matter of faith and devotion suddenly find itself under scrutinizing investigation and perhaps even needing it? I definitely do not have the answer to these questions. They are a product of my reflection. I am hoping to get some insight via this post. There are some considerations I would like to make, however.
I wonder if this need for legitimacy and authentication stems forth as a reaction to the earlier reformation thinkers and their claims regarding the extent of Marian devotion as extra-scriptural and the need to “trim” out the excesses that have seemed to have grown out of control. Could this directing toward the physical/concrete be a response that says, “Hey, we have proof here that our practices are legitimate” because they are divinely ordained or being responded to? This response is intensified by the reflective doubt that permeates the apparition accounts. The doubt on the part of Ines’ parents and the shepherd boys is interesting to note, here. When they initially disbelieve Ines, it makes Ines’ “unbelievable” and extraordinary experience all the more believable because it is so fantastic and real.
Perhaps, the manner and tone of her apparitions can also be explained by who she is appearing to. We talked about this in class discussion but I would like to consider it a little differently. In the case of Gertrude, a woman who engages deep contemplation, encounters spiritual imagery and liturgy frequently, has experiences that reflect the depth of her thoughts. She sees flowery images of heaven. I don’t mean to suggest there is no symbolism in the apparitions accounts but there is something quite raw about the experiences described by the see-ers of the apparitions. I wonder whether the intellectual state of the see-er is a factor in this switch from visions to apparitions.
In any case, I find the movement from visions to apparitions to a significant one and as I see in our readings I think this shift is deeply rooted in the focus on the realm of natural and physical that seems to saturate the readings.
I look forward to your thoughts!