Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The LSAT, Comparisons, and Marian Apparitions

I am currently taking an LSAT preparation course two nights a week downtown. One of the sections of the exam focuses on arguments. The test taker must analyze a few sentences or a short paragraph and either resolve, strengthen, weaken, supplement, undermine, or compare and contrast the components of the argument. One of the more common flaws in the arguments present on the LSAT is that the argument compares the components of the individual parts to the components of the whole (for instance, an Olympic team created by taking the very best player of every team in a league cannot be considered analogous to a division of a company that interviews top candidates in a field and chooses those to create a new division). Essentially, this argument flaw advises us to be mindful of the nuances of the parts of a whole rather than simply look at the similarities in our considerations.

Monday’s lecture and discussion focused on three particular personal experiences of Mary. The modern-day apparitions of La Salette, Lourdes, and Fatima each seem to bear a certain resemblance to one another when considered in tandem, but to merely consider them alongside one another would be akin to comparing an Olympic team to a new division -- it only focuses on the whole rather than the parts and makes the comparison ill-suited.

I know I am guilty of falling into the trappings that many other readers perhaps also fall victim to. In reading these accounts in preparation for lecture, it proved to be slightly more difficult than I assumed it would be to parse out specific details and attempt to keep the minutiae of each narrative straight in recollecting. The stories were all different, of course, yet, not unlike the accounts of Mary as healer previously encountered, there seems to be some repetition, or at least commonalities. By lumping these tales together, this may inadvertently lead to some level of reductionism. If we as readers choose to reduce the stories to a more simplistic, narrative arc, certain trends emerge, and this can obscure the perception of the reader and make it difficult to look at the microscopic effects of the specific, particular vision.

Likewise, these similarities present an analytical problem. As implied, the various apparitions tend to blur together and create a sort of apparition genre, which means that an astute reader may look for literary significance to make and construct meaning. We bring certain premonitions and expectations to our reading. We as literary readers expect a youthful protagonist, possibly of limited financial means, who has been forced to occupy a low societal position. There is skepticism embedded within the narrative, as someone -- typically someone with means and authority -- attempts to undermine the protagonist, and therefore launches an investigation with the aim of proving the underdog wrong, perhaps intending to tarnish his or her reputation along the way (though, truth be told, there might not be much of a reputation to protect in the first place for an impoverished child). Not unlike the story of Juan Diego and the Marian apparitions from pre-modern Spain, there is a portrayal of the Church as self-serving, greedy, perhaps even tainted.

Though it is problematic to overlook the details in many, if not most circumstances, it may, at times, be useful to neglect the wisdom of the Princeton Review’s LSAT preparatory course and look at the broader, sweeping scheme of the stories. When looking at these apparition narratives in tandem -- all of which are tales that been have been confirmed as worthy of belief by the Vatican and therefore, have been validated and confirmed through a rigorous process -- the obvious question is what makes these instances three of only twelve recognized by the Vatican.

The question that remains, then, is what is the alternate storyline? If the Marian apparitions that have been verified and deemed by the Holy See to be worthy of belief are the few rare exceptions and are few and far between in number, what are we to do with these other tales? I’m interested in this question because I think that comparing a few different apparitions that have since been rejected or await confirmation could illuminate precisely why these three accounts of La Salette, Lourdes, and Fatima are so compelling.

In class, I made a comment regarding the mass following that these apparitions are able to gather. That’s really what I find most interesting about these tales. The event itself is obviously interesting in that it is antithetical to the norm of daily life. However, equally astounding is that idea that a following develops and is able to sustain belief in the initial apparition itself. The construction of the magnificent shrines themselves requires continued financial assistance. The mystic of and devotion to the Marian apparition would cease to exist without the journeying to pilgrims. Word would cease to spread without a captivated public and keen interest and observation on the part of the observers. Unless there is some credibility bestowed on the vision by religious and secular authorities, the entire apparition itself is undermined. Additionally, there needs to be some sort of adherence to piety or devotion on the part of the visionary. If any of the visionaries themselves somehow falter, then the entire cult seems to lack authenticity.

Though in most cases, comparisons seem to reduce some of the detail of the individual components, in the cases of these apparitions, it seems to be vital to look at both the macro and micro. 



  1. This was a very interesting post due to your perspective from the lens of law school preparation. Comparing the apparitions is absolutely inevitable, because when we have an “apparition genre” then comparing them follows suit. We even have an apparition genre in the first place because so many apparitions occurred, in like manner, around the same time. So it is no surprise that we now create expectations about what Marian apparitions are and would be like.

    I was also interested in your observations about the mass devotions and following of Marian apparitions; that if these apparitions had not gained public attention and credibility, then the whole of the experience would be undermined. This reminds me of a trip (or would you call it pilgrimage?) I made to Fatima two years ago. Fatima is located in a very, very rural setting in Portugal. It is so rural that absolutely no one speaks English and even though six million visitors come every year, there is barely any signage or help for English-speakers. But one did not have to even speak a word in order to understand and experience what Fatima was all about. The two magnificent churches that were erected there, the thousands of pilgrims there that very day, the devotions, the long wait to see the tombs of Jacinta and Francisco-- all of these things are sustaining Mary's appearance at Fatima. If there had been no sense of credibility of this event, then why would six million people make the effort to go there each year, almost 100 years after the apparition took place? It would be a good project, however, to look at unapproved apparitions in order to see, as you said, what makes these three accounts so compelling.


  2. I too was reflecting on the “mass movement/devotion” quality of the apparitions as it appears in the approved Marian apparitions. Sometimes it seems that the mass devotion element, though it is a crucial aspect of approved Marian devotion, doesn’t end up “making” the apparition site/event popular or approval worthy. As you mentioned, what are we to do with these other “tales?” Though, I think this quality is important to consider, in looking into at least one other Marian apparition, that of Garabandal, whose status is currently undetermined by the Vatican as far as I can tell, I find another key element that seems to play a big part in the quality of authenticity of the apparitions: the seers themselves and their own lives.
    In the case of Lourdes and Fatima, (couldn’t find too much on La Salette other than the brief description in the articles we read) the children themselves who saw the Virgin and their personal lives become greatly important. None of the children in these tales, unlike that of Inez for example, seem to be particular special in devotion or faith. Yes, they do the rosary and go to Mass but everyone did in their time. There is something deep and hidden and mysterious about the idea of the Virgin appearing to these no-names. They become instruments of faith; I think this gives hope to other believers and thus becomes a deeply attractive quality about them. For example, as mention by LR, why would pilgrims wait for so long to visit the tomb of Francesco and Jessinta? Why do the crowds refer to Bernadette during the apparitions as “the Saint?” In the case of Garabandal, one of the major criticisms leveled against the 4 visionaries, despite the mass followings, etc., is the life of the girls after the apparitions as compared to Lourdes and Fatima. All four of the visionaries seemed to have gone on, married, have families and that is the end of it it seems. Bernadette and Lucia become nuns and spend the rest of their lives associated to the name of these apparitions. I myself am not sure what to make of these but I think it is important that we trace out this concept of mass devotion further to see the extent of scope of this quality and, as you mentioned , compare them to those unapproved or pending apparitions.

  3. LCM:
    I am not entirely sure that I follow the points of your post, but you make starts at several important issues. One question present has been recurring since our Reformation readings, i.e., where the church has stood in relation to the Virgin and “the people.” To what degree does a lack of ratification by the church undermine credibility in apparitions? If we follow the timelines, aren’t there cases of followings preceding official ratification? Shifting to the field of dogma, there may be something comparable in Pope Pius XII’s statement (or that of his theologians) that the doctrine of the Assumption is manifestly true because (in essence) the people of the church already know that it is true, preach it, and celebrate it.

    An extended examination and comparison of on the ground practices of Marian devotion associated with apparitions, both officially endorsed and not would be very interesting. And (in honor of the LSAT) throughout such considerations it is important to keep syllogistic reasoning clear. That is, if the church has not positively endorsed an apparition, does that mean that it is negatively *condemned*?


  4. You touch briefly on a number of important questions here, and some of them I also considered during the course of trying to fully understand these narratives. However I do not follow your logic in the LSAT argument; analyzing historical accounts by examining the individual events does not at all fit the same model of comparison as examining individual members that make up a team, as you seem to suggest. In fact, one might argue that in order to perform effective historical analysis, you must deconstruct and examine each of the constituent events of a bigger narrative to truly discern change over time. That said, it is particularly identification of the differences and similarities between individual features of each of these apparition narratives that leads not to reductionism but to effective historical investigation.

    In considering the issues of what made those specific twelve apparition reports so much more believable for the Catholic church, as well as what made them so attractive for the populace in general, it is not that difficult to imagine what sort of features would set these apart from the countless rejected apparition accounts. For a skeptic like myself, even these "Pope-approved" narratives remain largely incredible, regardless of the "rigorous process" of Catholic validation; however, based on the widespread acceptance of these fantastic stories, how much more unbelievable must have the rejected reports been? There was certainly a scale, so that some received general acclaim in their local contexts but never made it to the Vatican, but the vast majority fell short of these twelve at some level. This returns us to other issues raised in class, but most relevant in this case perhaps is the question of precedent. As more and more of these apparitions were proclaimed, the stakes were raised, so that new stories must have needed to acquire their own increasingly distinct flavor and intrigue. My biggest question then is one tinged by postmodern, scientifically-minded skepticism: how were there still reports being verified by the Catholic church up until less than fifty years ago, after so many centuries of new accounts that did not make the grade? It seems that the criteria for papal approval may not be so monolithically rigorous after all, as much as a product of the moment.

  5. The most important thing you touch upon, to my mind, is the fact that we are dealing not just with events, but with a process of story-telling. In preparing for class, I wasn't quite sure how best to present the narratives; as you point out, they are easy to get confused. Which details really matter and which don't? How do the stories change in the telling? Could I depend upon everyone's having been able to make sense of the stories or should I work through them? What struck me as I did, both in preparing for class and in the telling, was how messy most of the stories actually were. They refused to fit into easy categories--and yet, we want them to. I think this is where your comparison with the LSAT questions works best: in making us conscious of the degree to which we think in stories and analogies and, therefore, tend to assimilate phenomena that may actually be wildly dissimilar. But actual events are never so tidy as we would like them to be. Could this be a criterion for testing the validity of an experience?


  6. I also found the crowds that these stories attracted to be one of the most interesting aspects of these stories. Independent confirmation and the support of others are both compelling ways to support something that is not necessarily reproducible or provable by normal means. However, it was the crowds that made me the most skeptical. As an undergrad, I was a psychology major, and as such I have seen how extremely malleable our memories and experiences can be. Among the people who came, many would have been skeptics, but many would have desperately wanted to see what these children had seen. Just as a sugar pill can have actual physical effects if the person taking it believes it will, I imagine that someone who believes they will see a vision could see it based on that belief/desire. The first person who saw something would undoubtedly tell others. There is power in a group, and people tend to want to be part of the crowd. Did the people who came after really see a cloud and hear buzzing (for example), or did they say they did because they did not want to be left out, because it seemed like the “right answer”. Or did they become so invested in the group that they saw something that was not really there (a sort of group hysteria). The bottom line of this is not specific aspects of the human psyche (though those are endlessly interesting, and I wish I had the time and room to discuss specific studies instead of throwing out generic speculation), but rather what we look for as proof. Throughout our class discussion, I imagined how these visions would be viewed today, and what means we would use to verify them. Though I doubt the process within the Church would look very similar, but I am sure the general public and the modern media (I cringe to think what they might do with the backgrounds of these children!) would view it with a skepticism that calls science into the fray. Though I now study religion, I still consider myself, in a rather fundamental way, a scientist because of the rigor of my training and the ways it has effected how I see the world. With that said, with great effort, I can quiet the yelling of my skeptical scientific mind and consider that there may be ways of knowing and ways of proving that cannot be directly tested by science. This leaves me with my personal criteria of proof a bit muddled—do I investigate with eyes of science or of faith? Are the two compatible?