Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is There Something Underlying the Questions?

As we sat in class discussing the Castilian apparitions, a pattern began to come forth. In a nutshell, Mary appears to a poor layman and asks him to go to those in power and instruct them to build a structure for the betterment of the people as well as an act of devotion to her. However, when they do, there is disbelief and intense questioning. Here is where I would like to ask a very simple question: Why? Why the disbelief? Why the inquisition? Why IS there this legalistic aspect suddenly against the laymen and not against (or at least not to the same intensity) those like Elizabeth of Schonau or Gertrude of Helfta?

As was discussed in class, Elizabeth of Schonau and Gertrude of Helfta were both faithful to the liturgy and received their apparitions while deep in said liturgy. In contrast, we see these laymen at work, doing daily tasks in very humble settings, out in the countryside, not in a physical or spiritual state for the liturgy. No church, just sheep. No liturgy, just mundane conversations with friends. And yet, Mary appears and communicates with these folks. With this in mind, I propose a couple possibilities as to the reasoning for the questioning.

The first is a psychological/theological one. These are ordinary laymen with no spiritual training who suddenly receive these apparitions of Mary. I can imagine the priests asking themselves and even each other, “How do these ordinary folk know they’ve seen Mary in an apparition?” (It was explained in class that they must have known it was Mary because of the ubiquitous amount of Marian statues in and around town.) I believe that the inquisition of these laymen could have support if they were simply trying to verify that the visions seen were of Mary. The priests, who more than likely have at least heard of other priestly visions if not they have not themselves seen apparitions, will know what to look for in these visions in order to verify that the layman has seen actually Mary. They need to make sure of this because if they simply go on this untrained layman, they could very easily be falling into a theological trap (or even a physical one at that) by following a lunatic.

The second possible reasoning for the questioning has its base in the heart of the inquisitor. Could it be possible that those questioning the layman, or those who try to stand in the way of the layman getting his message across, have never themselves seen a vision? I am not claiming that any one of the inquisitors definitely has this sort of malice or jealousy in their heart but I am bringing up something that could very easily be looked over when looking at a story like this. For example, I am thinking about the servants of the Bishop from the Juan Diego story. They were made fools of themselves because they lost Juan Diego as they were attempting to follow him. As a result, “they put into his [the Bishop’s] head that he shouldn’t believe him (Juan Diego), they told him he was only telling him lies, that we was making up what he cam eto tell him, or that he was only dreaming or imagining what he was telling him, what he was asking of him” (177). Do they put this idea into the mind of the Bishop simply because they lost Juan Diego? Or is there an underlying envy towards Juan Diego for seeing a vision before them, the faithful servants of the “Reverend Bishop?”

But then this also brings up a slight tangent that I think would be interesting to bring up here. If Mary is supposed to be relatable and approachable, as we had seen going back to the readings from Mater dolorosa, why does it seem that Mary appears only in liturgical practices up until now (or at least in what we’ve read thus far for class)? It would make sense that Mary, humble servant that she is, would meet the lowly, poor, and marginalized where they are, just as the angle Gabriel did to her. She was, traditionally, doing simple household chores when she was met by Gabriel and conceived by the Holy Spirit with Christ. Why would Mary only meet those in a specific spiritual state when she herself wasn’t at the start of her glorious 9 month journey?

This is not to say that the pious should cease being pious. It is very clear that Mary rewards those who have been faithful to her and her Son through serving the Church and the needy. Obviously, Mary would not appear and call out to those who WON’T serve the Church to build her churches and memorials. But why leave out those who can’t serve the Church for various reasons? Those that CAN’T serve the Church shouldn’t be left to the side simply because they can’t make it to church or are too poor to help out the Church.

To bring it back, these questions might have a deeper reasoning than simple curiosity on the part of the inquisitor. But here we throw in another wrench into this large machine that is the inquisition of the layman. If the priests confirm that it was in fact Mary that the layman saw, why ask for more proof? Why does Juan Diego need to bring back the flowers? It is obvious that it is unbelief but why? Is it shock that a layman truly did see Mary? IS it jealousy? These are the questions I would like to see the inquisitors answer.

-- OGC


  1. I have always wondered, too, why there appears to be so much hesitation to believe the visionary. Bernadette was questioned, the three children at Fatima were questioned, Juan Diego was questioned, and so were the Spanish visionaries that we learned of in our readings. Many if not all of them were required to provide proof of the apparition. You raise an interesting point, that up until now we have read about visions from “people of the Church,” priests and religious who are perceived as credible, who bring “authentic” experiences to the table. Yet now we are seeing visions pop up that are from the lowly, the lay folk. No wonder the hierarchy is skeptical of such visions! It was even mentioned in class that some of these farmers and workers actually had no idea that it was Mary who was appearing to them. Despite the fact that Mary was everywhere and her statues left and right, some of these lowly men and women were not sure that this could be the Mother of God who spoke to them. To me, this practically proves authenticity. They are not making up the story to seem pious and special. From this perspective, visions from Elizabeth and Gertrude should have been questioned further, because who can say that these religious women were not fabricating their stories to get attention and praise? I'm not trying to propose that this was the true case, but my point is that Mary appearing to the lowly who do not readily recognize her is a way to decipher how she chooses to work in the world. Great things can happen through the lowliest of people, lest we forget the words of Mary herself in the Magnificat!


  2. Great post! During the 15th and 16th century, the Church was in a state of corruption where the buying and selling of indulgences was very common. We wonder, why did the Blessed Virgin chose to appear to the POOR laymen, Juan Diego, and etc. during this period? Like we talked about in class, one of the ideas is that she was "Mothering the New World", that she was mothering the Church of the new era. But what else can this mean. Unlike the Church officials at the time, these simple laymen were the ones living the life that paralleled Christ: a life as a humble servant. These modest people of low economic status were not caught up in the greed concerning money or the popular hunger for power, but rather their innocence allowed grace to efficiently remain in their souls. Thus to make amends, the Mother of Grace knew these people were the ones at the time who were able to receive and respond to her messages and help start over. However, perhaps she was also making a statement to society, and most importantly the Church (for example: Juan Diego's flowers, like you mentioned) which was so blinded by sin. The statement was the call of the Church back to Christ. Thus the whole idea of "Mothering the New World" also means mothering the rejuvenation of the Church through the subservient examples of the people she chose to appear to - the only people who were able to listen.


  3. You have aptly raised the exact questions I pondered as we dissected these texts in class on Tuesday. Jesus' words just kept coming to mind: "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matt. 12:39, 16:4). The Jewish leaders demanded a sign from Jesus, even after they had already heard numerous testimonies of his power. So also the church leaders in these apparition narratives; just like doubting Thomas, it is human nature to demand proof of divine power with our own eyes even after such evidence appears to others. But what makes such a supernatural apparition to those perceived as in closer communion with the divine, such as the clergy, that much more immediately credible? Is it merely the institutionalized support for their claims that the poor and oppressed cannot invoke?

    I find your observation very insightful, that perhaps this is exactly why Mary would choose to appeal to such lowly commoners. She herself was of course one of them, and it would seem that they would find it much easier to identify with her than would those in positions of church authority. It is also interesting to me to consider the setting for the apparitions, as you have highlighted; as we discussed in class, the wilderness was seen as the devil's territory, so that it was believed that you were much more likely to encounter demonic forces outside the urban environment. In pre-Christian Europe, the wilderness was where gods and demigods appeared to humans, so once the Christians equated pagan gods with demons, the wilderness naturally became a spiritually volatile place. But then wouldn't it seem all that much more likely for Mary to appear in such a setting? Why wouldn't the townspeople believe the stories of supernatural apparitions, if they were inclined to see the wilderness as the precise environment for such activity? These are the questions I would also like to see these "evil and adulterous" inquisitors answer.

  4. In response to the first psychological and theological concern you raise, I think there could be such emphasis placed on the verification of the accuracy and validity of the visions discussed in the readings for Monday simply because these, in a certain way, undermine the hierarchical structuring of the Church. Perhaps another reason why individuals like Elizabeth and Gertrude weren’t as heavily scrutinized for their visions is because they did occupy a more elevated position in the society of the Church. Also, believing the so-called visions of a lunatic could be detrimental to the orthodoxy. Worse than that, if these visions were heretical, that could undermine those in authority.

    It doesn’t seem outrageous, at least to me, to suggest that there could be some degree of jealousy, or at the very least, some confusion, as to why the layman could experience a vision of Mary that had been experienced by the most devout. It makes sense that a human individual may succumb to the very human emotion of jealousy, especially if one believes that he or she is more learned or devout or worthy.

    The last point you raise reminds me quite a bit of the way that most tend of associate Mary today – that is, outside of a liturgical concept. The piece I brought up in discussion at one point in which women claim their devotion to Mary is borne out of the compassion they feel she embodies and the understanding she is capable of a servant mother seems to represent this quite well, and I am equally confused as to when and how this tradition began.

    I think the need for proof satisfies a very human condition – that faith is certainly difficult, and proof means that acceptance isn’t blind. Proof seems to serve a different purpose in each actor in the apparition genre.

    - LCM

  5. OGC: I am glad that you are looking at various and specific motivations within these records. I think that each of the suggestions that you bring up are possibilities, alone or in any combination, depending on the particular contexts within which the apparitions took place. Given all of the players involved, it seems not only distinctly possible that these motivations could have been operating during these processes. In fact, I would be surprised if these emotions and motivations were *not* present during these episodes. You make a particularly good case for these sorts of motivations with Zumárrga’s assistants and Juan Diego. No question this is one of the intentions of this aspect of the story.

    However, I don’t see any of these motivations being the *primary* or *causal* motivations behind these “inquisitions” (as you put it).* The process is too patterned, homogenous, and universal throughout Castile (as well as continuing over the next two to three centuries in Spain and Spanish territories for all sorts of spiritual examinations). I don’t know just what all of the factors are in these apparitions and the verification processes, but I think that we need to keep searching. You have gotten us off to a good start here by interrogating motivations and interpersonal, social, and political dynamics among and between the subjects of narratives. As can almost always be expected, there seems to be more going on here.

    Finally, has Mary only appeared during the liturgy?

    *Throughout your post the exams and examining officials are referred to as “inquisitions” and “inquisitors,” which is technically correct (because you do not capitalize), but potentially misleading. Just in case of any confusion: the officials we read about were not “Inquisitors,” nor do they seem to have been local representatives commissioned by the Spanish Inquisition.

  6. One underlying motivation that you could explore further is the possibility that the inquisitors actually may want to believe the seers, but that they are worried themselves about being deceived by the devil. Suspicion is not always a sign of a reluctance to believe; it may also be a sign of wariness about being too ready to believe. The important thing to keep in mind, as I mentioned in class, is that in the case of the accounts of apparitions that we read, *in every case* the seers *were* believed--that is why we have the accounts! They were recorded as a basis for the foundation of the very shrines the Virgin called for in the apparitions. Which doesn't mean every villager who claimed to have seen a bright light was believed to have seen the Virgin. What it does mean is that Ines and Juan Diego and the others were believed *by somebody* who was capable of recording their stories in writing, and these somebodies were typically officials of the town or church. As for the servants of the bishop who did not believe Juan Diego, clearly the author of the account thought that they were wrong--thus their portrayal in the story.


  7. Interesting post; out of all of the readings for the semester, I found this series on apparitions in Latin America to be most interesting BECAUSE of the externality of the visions. We aren’t dealing with internal experiences of Mary, but rather events that occurred outside of the human body/mind: appearances that exist on, and interact with, the natural world. As many have noted, this is in stark contrast to, for instance, Elizabeth’s internal visions.

    Of utmost interest is the interactive, and narratives aspects of Juan Diego’s apparition. Unlike our previous Marian visions, Juan Diego’s exists within the framework of a narrative story. Mary appears, speaking to Juan in his native tongue, directing him to an end goal (church building). Mary does not tell, for instance, Elizabeth to do anything. It merely happens. Here, Mary is given a unique life of her own, removed from the internal-thought space. Mary exists, one could interpret, in a very physical sense: she has a body, she can speak, and she can think.

    To return to the narrative aspect: the apparition of Juan Diego, unlike our previous texts, is very much a story. The non-believer converted to belief by the appearance of, and interaction with, the new supernatural. While the majority of posts and comments here are sticking to a religious and spiritual interpretation of the Juan Diego apparitions, a much easier path to follow is the human one. When was the Juan Diego story first written down, and when did it become a prevalent conversionary device? Doing some quick cursory research, the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego was not written until 100 years after Diego’s death. How authentic, then, can we take the story of Juan Diego to be as something that really and truly occurred, rather than a beautiful story that echoes and reflects the conversion of a land to a new and different faith? I am inclined to lean towards the human interpretation. The story of Juan Diego is simply that: a story, one written by a priest 100 years after the supposed events happened.

    However, to state that does not negate the power of the myth of Juan Diego as a spiritual/religious metaphor for the dawning of a new religious age in the new world, a conversionary device, and as an integral part of Mexican culture. Its power and importance are very much real, and just because it did not actually happen does not take away from that.