For They Had Heard No Thunder

For They Had Heard No Thunder January 24, 2024

tall grass in a field

image via Pixabay

[Note: a version of this post originally appeared in 2019, but the old links to my two-page posts aren’t working properly, so I’m posting a revised version in one page here.]

We were Apparition People.

We weren’t just ordinary Catholics who occasionally thought about apparitions. Most every Catholic I knew was interested in apparitions; everybody had a bottle of Lourdes water somewhere. Everyone made their children watch those disturbing CCC videos about Lourdes and Fatima. But my household went far beyond that. My mother got a cheap mimeographed publication called Spirit Daily delivered to the house so that she could read about every bit of supposed supernatural activity going on in the country– statues mysteriously losing fingers, icons weeping oil and perfume,  Mary appearing in the grease stains on overpasses. She used to read entries from this to us with great excitement, while I cringed.

I hated apparitions.

We got other, more obscure journals delivered to the house as well. One of them absolutely petrified me, because it had photographs of an alleged stigmatic. She was a woman somewhere in America who went only by her first name, to show her humility; the article contained a sentence about how she expressly did not want these photos being taken, but they were taken anyway. The photos were close-ups of the bloody gashes in her hands and feet, and a photo of her modestly-clothed side with a patch of brown gore oozing the fabric. One showed her face, her forehead a mass of blood and her expression drawn with extreme pain and fear.

We had lots of other books on apparitions and private revelations as well– enough to fill a large bookcase. There were the standard ones like “Divine Mercy in my Soul.” There were the thick volumes of Sister Lucia’s Fatima testimony. There were books on Medjugorje and books of grainy black and white photos of Garabandal. There were many badly edited, cheap self-published paperbacks with notes in the front explaining that they were not required to have an imprimatur, and that they had retained all the visionary’s original spelling and grammar errors so as not to interfere with the Lord’s messages. These latter books fascinated me. Some were full of ordinary, pedestrian pieties but some fairly glowed with their grace and wisdom. I would not be at all surprised if some of those locutions really originated with Christ and Mary.

But then there were the other kind, the scary and violent kind. The kind where Mary said “time is running out” and warned of horrible cataclysms to come. I remember one where Mary kept insisting that she and Saint Michael were offering God the Passion of Christ over and over again to prevent a hideous chastisement, but God was running out of patience with us. She didn’t know how much longer it would work. We had to repent and pray the Rosary to prevent the agonies God was just longing to unleash on the human race in His impeccable justice. I would read them in horror, and try to repent and pray, and wonder if it was working. Which of life’s sufferings were ordinary events and which were chastisements Mary hadn’t managed to deflect? How could we know? Would Mary appear and tell me? What if, when she appeared to me, she’s split open the ground and show me the pit of hell like she did at Fatima? What if she demanded I become some kind of victim who volunteered for God to pour His wrath out on me, and I came down with tuberculosis and died by inches over the course of several years? What if I came down with stigmata? What if I didn’t, because I wasn’t holy enough, and because I wasn’t holy enough the world suffered a chastisement at the hand of a vengeful God and it was all my fault?

I was petrified of apparitions.

We got dragged to every purported apparition site that was driving distance from Columbus, and there are far more of those than you’d think. Some were inside of churches; some were at conveniently-located retreat centers with suspiciously well-stocked gift shops. We packed into those places with hundreds of other Apparition People, praying the Rosary. I would panic and cry, embarrassing my mother, because I was very scrupulous about the Rosary. I was afraid Mary would be upset about how much trouble I had concentrating. Maybe she’d smite me with a chastisement rather than smiting me because she liked me and wanted to make me God’s victim.

I was petrified of the Virgin Mary.

My mother kept photographing the sun so God would show her a miracle, but little came of it. She looked for miracles everywhere. Once she swore that the patterns in the wood grain in one board of our cupboard looked like the Virgin Mary, and I could see it if I squinted. But our lives continued to be un-miraculous, ordinary, punctuated by fear and lurid fascination whenever news of apparitions came into the house.

There was one of those supposed apparitions, however, that I  think might be genuinely of Divine origin.

We were out in the middle of a grassy field, on a sloppy misty day in the armpit of summer; I think it might have been in the northern part of Kentucky. There were hundreds of people there, praying the Rosary, but they were nice to each other. That was the first miracle. Under ordinary circumstances there is nothing grouchier or less charitable than a mob of Apparition-seeking Catholics praying the Rosary together. The glares and hisses you usually receive are terrible. In this case, though, the people were being nice. An elderly man even invited all seven of us to kneel with him on the vast vinyl shower curtain he’d brought to use as a picnic blanket.

“There’s chiggers in the grass,” he said. “You don’t want no chiggers. Come pray over here. Thank you for sharing your family with me.”

Someone was leading the Rosary over an annoying crackly loudspeaker. After a moment, they stopped and announced that the visionary said Mary was coming. And then there was silence– eerie, complete silence.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to make a massive crowd of Apparition People silent? There would usually be at least one irritating person praying in tongues or strumming an acoustic guitar, but there wasn’t. And there weren’t any birds or crickets either. All of creation kept silence.

And then there was a wind– a sudden, gentle but noisy, tickly breeze that bent all the tall grass for a moment. A pleasant rustling whhhhhhhshhhhhh like wind has in films sometimes, but rarely sounds so perfect in real life. And then the wind, too, was still.

And then I heard the thunder– a sustained, very soft rumble from somewhere far away. It went on, then paused a moment, and then it rumbled again, as if someone was speaking and then waiting for a response and then speaking again, but that person’s voice was thunder, yet the thunder was gentle and not threatening. For all I know it was something to do with the old-fashioned loudspeaker, but it didn’t sound like it was coming from the loudspeaker– and it didn’t seem likely in the total absence of wind to disturb the microphone. For all I know it was an airplane somewhere, but I didn’t see an airplane, and the noise didn’t approach and get farther away the way airplanes do. It sounded like thunder in the distance, but it never turned into a storm.

And then there was another breeze, whhhhhhhssssh. And then the loudspeaker announced that Our Lady had finished, and we would finish praying the Rosary. And the noise and action of a group of Apparition-chasers praying in a field of chiggers commenced again.

And I wasn’t afraid.

I wasn’t afraid that Mary would appear and open the ground to show me hell; I wasn’t afraid that she’d drive nails through my hands and make me offer it up. I wasn’t afraid that she’d be cross that I couldn’t pray the Rosary. I just prayed it, calmly, kneeling on a vinyl shower curtain in a misty field somewhere in northern Kentucky.

As I said, it probably all has a perfectly run-of-the-mill explanation. But If I were the Blessed Virgin, that’s the aura I would wish to radiate to everyone– the breeze, the silence, the voice that you hear out of nowhere but doesn’t alarm you, the charity of total strangers in an irritating place, and the absence of fear.

We went home. We went back to reading Spirit Daily. The fear and scruples came back. Life went on as it had.

Later, I mentioned my memory of the apparition and the rumbling thunder. My parents were surprised. They didn’t recall any supernatural events in the field that afternoon.

They had heard no thunder at all.


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