As a kid, I grew up in the Charismatic renewal that swept its way through the Catholic Church in the late seventies and early eighties. Much of my childhood was spent at prayer meetings with nuns running up and down the aisles, priests speaking in tongues, and a two hour (!) mass healing service.
I threw myself into the whole experience. I read the Bible cover to cover when I was in second grade. I tried to imitate my parents as we swayed and sashayed through the mostly bad praise music.
As I look back on it now, I see a seed of pride planted in my young heart. Everyone drank it in, because we were getting spiritual visions that people in the ordinary “dead” church would never know. I learned the deadly notion of spiritual pride. And, very often, what happened in those meetings terrified and unsettled me. I could never explain why.
I had similiar feelings when I read The Miracle Detective by Randall Sullivan. He was a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine who decided to investigate Marian apparitions. The conversations and experiences he had, especially in Medjugorje, kept me awake a few nights.
I have no objections to the idea of Mary appearing to people. My first two published novels are paranormal fiction and deal directly with the supernatural. I’m often asked to speak at events like Salt Lake City Comic Con about the paranormal, the strange and the uncanny.
Most people are taken aback when I confess I actually believe in a world with two parts: Visible and Invisible. Even more, they give me strange looks when I confess that my explorations between the Seen and the Unseen are what led me back into the Catholic church.
And yet, as I’ve read about the long history of Marian apparitions, I’ve been unsettled and confused. There are a lot of nuances, caveats and mysteries surrounding these events. And there are many things that bother me. They raise a lot of uncomfortable questions and issues. I won’t pretend to solve any of them here. I just want to share my own personal thoughts on the subject.
So, what are Marian apparitions? Basically, the Blessed Mother has supposedly shown herself throughout the centuries, giving revelations or guidance to a variety of people. Usually, these appearances are accompanied by strange events like the sun spinning like a top. There are mass pilgrimages to the supposed site of the appearances. Many people testify to changed lives, healings (spiritual and physical), conversions, and a renewed devotion to God.
The idea that the Blessed Mother might appear to people and give them comfort/guidance/warnings doesn’t bother me. I am, as I’ve said, a confirmed believer in the Seen/Unseen world. Many Christians (and Catholics) have scoffed at the idea that the Virgin Mary would appear to peasant children in a field. Why, they ask, is she not appearing to Leaders of the World, or rich people who can actually do something about the world’s problems?
Further, and rather oddly, I find Christians (and Catholics) find comfort in the mistaken notion that the walls between the Seen/Unseen world are so firm and established. They believe this because it is an unconscious comfort to them. If we really contemplated the idea that the Unseen world is watching us at all times, it would drastically affect everything we do. Yet, most of us live our lives as functional naturalists.
However, if you’re a Christian (and certainly if you’re a Catholic), you must believe the distinction between the Seen and Unseen worlds is very fluid. The walls between the two are very thin. The Bible and church history are very clear. If you buy into the belief, then nothing is more likely than the Blessed Mother appearing to people, giving them advice and comfort.
It doesn’t bother me that the church sanctions Marian apparitions such as Lourdes or Guadelupe. The church only does so after years of investigation and never adds any teachings of the apparitions to official church doctrine. They are considered “private revelations” worthy of veneration. Medjugorje, the most famous apparition of the last thirty years, has not been sanctioned by the church in any way. The investigation is ongoing.
And yet, there is danger. St. Paul spelled it out when he warned the Corinthians about arrogance, pride or obsession with heavenly visions. The root of all sin and evil is spiritual pride. Very often, I’ve seen Catholics who are so obsessed with Mary they seem to forget ordinary Catholic life and obsess over the supernatural events. They forget those around them. On the other side, the skeptics are tempted toward a spiritual pride that ridicules belief in miracles. As Al Pacino’s devil said: “Vanity… definitely my favorite sin.”
That’s the problem with living in two worlds at the same time. We never know what will poke through and find its way into our hearts. While I’m a strong advocate of people embracing a point of view that takes the unseen world seriously. At the same time, there is a danger for us. If we get overly curious about the supernatural, it becomes overly curious about us.
On the positive side, it could mean contact with the saints or the Blessed Mother. On the negative, it could mean opening up our minds and hearts to scary things. And what’s worse, we may not be able to tell the difference until its too late.