Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The (Il)logicality of Apparitions

As someone who was raised Catholic, there are many questions with which I have struggled as I have tried to come into my own faith. The biggest has been "But why would Jesus care about insignificant me? Why would Jesus care about sinful, disobedient, tiny, irrelevant me?"

That's not the question I'd like to consider, but it is connected to the question we discussed on Monday of why some apparitions are more believable than others in the eyes of believers and in the eyes of the Church. It's a question that has stuck with me since I first learned about Lourdes and Fatima in grade school and which was thrown into sharper contrast after reading Pius's Constitution on the Immaculate Conception: Why would Mary appear to those people? Why did she single them out?

(I still haven't figured out the first question.)

In some respects, these questions go back to questions we have discussed earlier in the course, such as which presentation of Mary is most appealing, what aspect of Mary strikes us most, and how people connect to the various apparitions and why different versions of the same woman have such different--and yet equally dedicated--followings. When I read Pius's descriptions of Mary, I was overwhelmed. A human above all humans I was used to considering, but above all angels? In his description of her, she is the perfect woman, the perfect vessel, untainted and untouchable by humanity. In many respects, she stopped being human to me, which meant she could no longer be a role model for my own existence and her example was inaccessible to me since she was granted circumstances unique to my own. In his painting of Mary as the Immaculate Conception, then, we have a woman who exists on a wholly different sphere and who is untouched by the horrors of our world. In the course of reading that treatise, I lost sight of the other Mary's I knew--the Intercessor, the Mother, the Gentle Woman. How dared I, someone tainted by such sin and defiled by the world, appeal to this perfect individual? Why should I possibly expect her to intercede on my behalf?

And this is where we return to the question of the apparitions or, as I see them, moments when perfection comes into contact with imperfection and we are forced to confront the question of why Mary would appear to us at all and why she would choose certain individuals? The stories that we read abound with skepticism of the individuals who reported visions or sightings--some were too sexually promiscuous, others too wild and adventurous, some with a history of illness, others too imaginative, some not devoted enough, others not pious enough... the list goes on. Very few were deemed fit the Church's requirements for being an ideal model, displaying appropriate levels of piety and obedience.

Why would Mary, who is perfection itself, choose to appear to those who are untrustworthy or (in our perception) undeserving of her presence? Why would she appear to those who could not recognize her and give her proper adoration? Why would she risk her message on those who might not be believed? Logic tells us that Mary should appear to those individuals who are entirely ready to take her into their hearts and decipher her messages, who have purified themselves and made themselves temples for Christ, and who are mirrors of herself: models of perfection in their communities.

And yet, why would she not appear to such individuals? Jesus said that he came to save those who were in need of salvation; that is why he reached out to the sinners, to the outcasts of society, and to those in need of aid. Those who are well do not need a doctor (Mark 2:17). Why would His mother do any less? Would she not continue his mission: appearing to the outcasts of society, bringing them into its circle, appearing to those who needed her most in their lives and could perhaps be turned away from the path of destruction by witnessing her presence and her message? In many of her apparitions, she came to call the world into repentance, so it would be logical for her to begin her mission by reaching out to those whom society deem to be sinners or who are in need of salvation.

Part of the confusion, though, comes from how the apparitions occur. They are full of complex mysticism which the initial seers cannot understand and which can only be understood and decipher by learned individuals in the Church (examples being Bernadette's confusion regarding the phrase "I am the Immaculate Conception" while the priests and religious in the Church understood it more easily and were aware of its significance or Melanie and Maximin's assumption that the woman they saw was referencing domestic violence, not the destruction of the world). But at the same time, they are simple enough and accessible enough that children can chase the vision with excitement and wonder and that the woman inspires trust and continued conversation. Throughout, the visions are full of contradictions, such as in the case of Melanie and Maximin, who could not initially understand the woman because she spoke in French but who was quickly able to switch into their dialect--would not the Mother of God, above all men and all angels, be aware of the conversational capabilities of the individuals to whom she has chosen to present herself?

And this is why I think the apparitions can be so confusing, so difficult to believe, and why the Church struggles to determine which should be recognized and promoted and which shouldn't: because the events themselves are not clear and because an argument can be made for why the individual chosen for the message is both the perfectly right choice and the perfectly wrong choice.



  1. In many of the discussions we’ve had over the course of the quarter and in these blog entries (including here), there seems to be a continual focus on the tension between Mary as the most perfect, most exalted, and only untainted woman whose rightful place is above all of humanity and Mary as the understanding, compassionate, healing mother who intercedes, comforts, and nurtures. The second portrayal of Mary seems to be the more relatable Mary in many ways, whereas the clergy and religious may place more emphasis on the theological understanding of Mary that seems to evade many.

    This idea of relatability was explicated in class at some point, and the word that seems to best describe this idea is accessibility. In music criticism or literary criticism or film criticism, accessibility often has a more negative connotation. Because a particular artist or filmmaker or writer is considered difficult, dense, or even incomprehensible, we are advised, or even advise others, to begin to consider the canon of the individual with the most accessible work. By choosing to enter the world through the marginalized, disenfranchised, and outsiders, there is something to be said about the accessibility of these individuals, I think. Rather than attempt to upend conventional understanding through appearing to the most pious and worthy, Mary, like Jesus, encompasses many more through her inclusionary methodology.

    - LCM

  2. Interesting post JT! The question I asked myself after reading these accounts and posts was: If Mary is appearing to the people of the world, why does she do it in such a way that is so difficult to accept and requires such rigorous proof? Why didn’t she just burn the rose bush as the bishop asked?
    In earlier accounts of her miracles, we also saw her intervene to some of the lowest individuals in society, including the poor and sinners. But in these accounts, she also appeared to the higher ranks. She was all-inclusive and did not discriminate. Lyndsey, this goes along with your point of inclusion.
    Now looking at the apparition accounts for last Monday, we see that both the high and the low are integral parts of the accounts. As JT discusses, Mary does not reveal herself in these apparitions to those who are learned enough or even old enough to be able to unpack their meaning to their fullest extent, as may be expected. Instead, peasant children see these visions. But at the same time the bishops and others higher up in society are apart of the accounts as investigators and authorities. So perhaps this is the answer to my initial question. Perhaps it was necessary to reveal herself if this particular way, for perhaps this was yet another act of inclusion, in accordance with her previous miracle accounts. By appearing to the unexpected low, she not only included them but she included the skeptical high. Perhaps Mary was being very purposeful in her actions at Fatima, Lourdes, and La Salette with her eye towards the greater good of inclusion.


  3. “Logic tells us that Mary should appear to those individuals who are entirely ready to take her into their hearts and decipher her messages…[who are] models of perfection in their communities”

    But that’s just the point: the love of God, of which Mary is a perfect reflection, is illogical. It is too much for us to understand. We don’t have the capacity to contain the uncontainable, or understand God fully. Any attempt at doing so completely is useless in the long run. We can only know what we are told by scripture and tradition, the revelation of God in our lives: God is good, God is Love, God loves us. We can conjecture this is because He made us, but why He did this is not known to us. It is highly unlikely that God needed us, but beyond that, we can only accept His warm rays of Love, or we can reject them. We cannot understand how they come to us, why they would reach for us, or the entirety of Him who showers them on us.

    The same is true of Mary. Why she appeared to whom she appeared is unknown, and it is almost irrelevant considering the proclaimed mission of these apparitions. Perhaps there was some significance to Mary speaking in French to the children, even though they could not understand her. Perhaps, as in Mary of Agreda’s vision, this was similar to the scene in which Mary is taken into heaven and named as “Chosen,” Mary not being able to hear the rest of what God said (“Chosen to be the mother of the Only-begotten”), for the greater purpose of the ability for her to fully exercise her will. Perhaps she was trying to make sure the children did not think she was some other woman from their village. There are hundreds of reasons we could propose. But that doesn’t mean that we have to understand all of her reasons for everything. Just because we cannot understand something does not mean that it doesn’t “make sense” in the broader scheme of God’s plan for the world, in His transcendence of rationality.


  4. JT:These are good questions to raise to contrast the verification-era apparitions with, say, the Rocamadour or Herholt stories. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, on a “syllogism square” the lack of positive church endorsement does not necessarily equal a negative condemnation of an apparition. I think that it is important to keep in mind the possible differences between what the Vatican might be willing give its official “stamp of approval” and other things (like unendorsed Marian apparitions) that may simply be left in a category of “decide for yourself.”

    Should the modern apparitions be any more confusing to us than those from earlier times? As I have been suggesting, persisting with these questions may be a true key in getting at Marian devotion, notions and assumptions of modernity, and the future of the Virgin’s presence among humanity.


  5. Exactly: why shouldn't Mary appear to exactly the kind of people whom her Son addressed in his preaching and ministry? It is curious that this has been brought against her (or, rather, her cult) in some modern discussions, especially of the miracle stories that circulated in the Middle Ages. We get a hint of this criticism in the sections that we read from Adams' Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, but he develops it further in his account of the miracle stories of Gautier de Coincy: Mary just doesn't seem picky enough about whom she bestows her favors on, all they have to do is be devoted to her. But why not? Why shouldn't she, as you say, pay more attention to the sinner than the pure? In fact, as we have seen, she pays attention to both, but it is interesting to think about our reactions to her attention. This, it seems to me, is part of what lies behind our reactions to the apparitions. What I always find myself thinking is, "Why not me?"


  6. I really appreciated your post, JT. I have also been thinking about why Mary appeared to the poor, the needy, the sinful, – as Professor Fulton Brown points out, exactly the people Jesus appeared to – and why their testimony inspired such confidence. However, I have been trying to think about from another angle: why people believed the women in the first place. I actually puzzled at why Bernadette, the children at La Salette, and others were believed at all – they had no social standing, no credibility. It is understandable that the Vatican would begin an investigation once the allegations came to light. But why, even before the Holy See accepted them as legitimate did they attract large followings of the laity?
    I wonder the importance of locality in the popularity of these visions. I wonder if the fact that Mary appeared in a specific impoverished individual, in a specific local, making specific demands of the populace made people feel important, protected and valued by the Mother of God. This was alluded to in earlier posts about the Guadalupe Cult and the story of Juan Diego (Is There Something Underlying the Questions? And Marian Apparitions), as well as our discussion of the stories of Rocamadour. I simply wonder if the particularity of the visions catalyzed the cults that would emerge as all in the surrounding areas had access to Mary in a concrete way, rather than in the abstract. People want to believe because it means they are part of a community chosen by the divine.

  7. I agree to some extent, yet perhaps not for the same reasons as you. I would say that whether or not a vision or appearance occurs or not has more to do with the image of the church than anything else. It is just as much a religious thing as it is a P.R. thing. Visions and appearances, apparently, happen all of the time. Many of them gain traction without the involvement of the Catholic Church, and the Church very much distances itself from the overwhelming majority of them.

    For instance, there is a woman in the Philippines to whom Mary appears to quite frequently; a shower of glitter comes down upon her, and her face sparkles with the light of Mary. People pay to be in her presence when this happens, and there are curative properties attributed to her during these episodes. The Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines has done little to check on the veracity of her claims, although a priest is present during the ‘sessions’. When I was there two years ago doing film work, I tried to get an audience with her to shoot an interview, but was adamantly (ADAMANTLY) shot down.

    Her story, as well, followed the same story that many posit who have had a visionary (especially continued) experiences. They were destitute, poor, needed money, when suddenly Mary (or a Saint) appeared to them, providing reassurance, and in the case of the woman I outlined above, monetary sustenance. One can look at this a number of ways: Mary really appears to assuage the worries of the downtrodden, they are schemes (like Jesus’ face appearing on the side of a building, and low and behold it takes 5 BUCKS to see it and worship, or in my view the Glittery Mary), or they are manifestations of the individual in times of need to provide comfort (they usually occur in or around sleep, or during episodes of physical distress). And often, the Church has to protect their image by having very strict rules and guidelines in place when it comes to visions. There are many hucksters out there ready to take advantage in the name of religion. The modern church has to be careful not to associate themselves with ‘bogus’ claims (I would argue, claims that don’t involve true belief); it has enough PR problems with it comes to scandals, birth control, etc.

    Ultimately, these visions represent the assuaging of fear. People want assurances that yes the supernatural exists, and that yes, there is more to life than this. Ultimately, Christianity exists because of a worry about what happens after death; the voice that says things are going to be okay. Which is wonderful- its social ramifications include respecting all living things, treating each other kindly, and helping out the less fortunate (well, at least it should).

    BTW- great post. Really enjoyed it!