Saturday, November 21, 2015

Inter-Female Relationships and Apparitions

As we move to 19th and 20th century Marian apparitions it is nearly impossible to ignore that those apparitions that we have studied all feature young girls who have complicated relationships with their mothers, aunts, and other women in their lives. Not only that, but the older women in these girls’ lives were among the most notable of those who doubted the girls’ visions as genuine. Though this may have been, as we acknowledged in class, an effort to silence those who would criticize the apparitions as parroted words of family members, it is nonetheless worth noting that all three of the young girls in Zimdars-Swartz’s Encountering Mary: From La Salette to Medjurgorje are recorded as having problematic relationships with the women in their lives both before and after their encounters with Mary.

Zimdars-Swartz begins her discussion of Marian apparitions with La Salette; though the vision of Mary at La Salette was apparently witnessed by both Melanie Calvat and her cousin, Pierre-Maximin Giraud, Zimdars-Swartz devotes much more of her text to the former. In her biography of Melanie, Zimdars-Swartz reports: “In her autobiographies she said that when she was very young she had been rejected by her mother, told that she was no longer a member of the family, and locked out of the house for days at a time” (28). Melanie was just 14 years old in 1846 when she and Maximin witnessed the apparition, and Zimdars-Swartz notes that the girl’s troubled home life could have easily been an influence in her initial thoughts surrounding the vision: “...she had thought that perhaps the woman had a husband who wanted to kill her son… She also recalled that when Maximin had seen the woman… Maximin had thought of a woman ‘whose son had beaten her and then left her’” (31). Additionally, of those who also had miraculous encounters at La Salette, Zimdars-Swartz specifically references women such as Madame Aglot, Marie Laurent, and other unnamed girls who were suffering from illnesses that were cured from the spring at the site of the apparition (35-38). While some were healed, the sacrilege treatment of the shrine at La Salette by a local man resulted in the death of his daughter (37-38).

The presence of women in relation to Marian apparitions becomes even more pronounced in the accounts of St. Bernadette’s visions. Bernadette, like Melanie, had a difficult relationship with her mother from her infancy, when “her mother, who was then only eighteen, became unable to nurse her.” Indeed, this negligible relationship was of such fascination that an urban legend grew up around it, in which Bernadette’s mother “was dozing in a corner by the fireplace, it was said, where a resin candle fell on her, igniting her clothes and burning her breasts” (44). Bernadette is also said to have had a difficult relationship with her employer, Marie Lagues (46-47). Upon first having visions of the aquero, Bernadette was immediately dismissed by her mother and aunt (47). The others that Zimdars-Swartz names as witnessing apparitions at Lourdes are also all women; two separate groups of five women went to the grotto and reported religious experiences, and Marie Courrech became “The most celebrated of the so-called visionaries” at Lourdes (59-62, 61).

The apparitions at Fatima were, as in La Salette and Lourdes, witnessed by multiple children, though one young girl is now predominantly associated with the . Unlike Melanie and Bernadette, however, Lucia was a precocious, well-educated child; she recounts being able to manipulate those around her, telling engaging stories, and a proclivity for memorization as a young child, so much so that she entered into First Communion three years before most children (69-72). Despite this, Lucia also had a troubled relationship with her mother: “...if she was too busy to give her affection, she would give [Lucia] to her father,” Zimdars-Swartz writes (69). Like Bernadette, Lucia’s mother also reacted negatively to her daughter’s recollection of an apparition, even going so far as to deny her food and denying Lucia’s spiritual gifts after being healed when her daughter appealed to Mary on her behalf (73, 86-87, 90).

As Zimdars-Swartz suggests, the complicated and often fraught relationships that Melanie, Bernadette, and Lucia had with their mothers and mother figures could very well be why all three experienced Marian apparitions. At the same time, however, all three girls (and the other children who shared their experiences with them) had greatly varying visions: Melanie saw a regal lady, Bernadette’s aquero was a young girl about her own age, and Lucia’s lady was accompanied by grand natural effects such as lightning. Even if the girls were looking to fulfill a psychological need for a female figure in their lives, this does not explain the prominent presence of women after the apparitions were reported.

We have not seen many interactions between women in the scripture that we have focused on in class, though several moments seem relevant: Luke 1:39-45, when Mary visits Elizabeth, is one example, as are the women described before, during and after the Passion throughout the four Gospels. Perhaps most pertinent to these particular apparitions, however, is the Annunciation itself in Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25; while Mary immediately accepts her pregnancy when Gabriel tells her that she will bear the Son of God, Joseph is skeptical, and plans to divorce Mary until he receives his own vision. Though none of the girls featured most prominently in the apparition stories we’ve studied conclude themselves that their visions are of Mary explicitly, they all believe the apparitions to be in some way divine, never doubting what they have seen. Like Joseph, the people who hear of the girls’ visions are initially doubtful, and, in the cases of Lucia and Bernadette, some people only believe their stories after witnessing visions or other signs themselves. How does our understanding of 19th and 20th centuries apparitions change given the similarities between the young girls who received them and Mary herself? Perhaps one of the reasons these stories have survived, and, in the case of Bernadette, lead to sainthood is because the parallels between Mary and the three girls make it seem more likely that she would appear to them. After all, if Mary were going to appear to anyone, why wouldn’t it be young virgins who never doubt her divinity or the truth of her message?



  1. I think KM's point that young girls may be more likely to see Marian visions given their similarity to her is a good one. It is makes intuitive sense that Mary, as a mother, would appear to children more. Pope Pius IX says "mother" 41 times in his Apostolic Constitution and his supreme reason for her divine maternity is that “it was wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin that she would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent” (1). It is also intuitive that children, having had less time to sin and therefore being more innocent than there parents, might be the ideal recipients of divine wisdom. This could be a reason adult community and family members often present a backlash against Marian visions. In this context, I think it’s also interesting to return to the point Professor Fulton-Brown made in class that it’s condescending to think that peasants don’t have the imagination fabricate a Marian vision. Is this then a case of sexism and ageism as well as classism? That the least imaginative, least literate, least intelligent people in the world are young, poor females? I don’t have an answer to these questions but I do think it is interesting to consider the social as well as scriptural reasons young, poor girls may have been so favored by Mary.


  2. "After all, if Mary were going to appear to anyone, why wouldn’t it be young virgins who never doubt her divinity or the truth of her message?" This, it seems to me, is the crux of the question (pun slightly intended) in making sense of the forms that more modern devotion to the Virgin has taken: *why* should it be more likely for Mary to appear to young women than young men? Why should ideas of gender parallelism have come to be so prominent in what we now call "religious experience" (as opposed to devotion or worship)? The Virgin appeared at Guadalupe to a young man. Bernard of Clairvaux seems to have imagined the Virgin as a model for himself as an abbot and a monk. Most of the works that we have read this quarter were written by men with a profound devotion to Mary. Just as we need to be wary of crediting the modern period with a greater degree of skepticism than the pre-modern (see my comments below on GT's post), so we need to think carefully about the way we impose gender categories on the images of Mary in our sources. That said, yes, something significant is going on here in the way in which women are at the center of these 19th-century apparition accounts. Our challenge as historians is not to take this focus for granted as the way things "naturally" should be. RLFB