The Virgin in a tree

30 11 2009

Some personal notes about apparitions

On June 17, 1992 Anita Mendoza Contreras claimed to have had a spiritual vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She had been feeling depressed that day when she visited the oak grove and “had been sitting at the picnic table under the tree praying. A wind came up, and Mendoza looked up and saw the image.” Contreras recalled that the vision arrived in the image of the Holy Blessed Mother, in a sea shell and carrying the image of the Sacred Heart on her chest. The image spoke to her and before leaving left her mark upon the oak tree. When asked why the form of the Virgin (as well as other images sighted later) had appeared on the oak tree Contreras replied that its purpose is “so people don’t kill, don’t hit their wives, don’t abuse their children and to help people find truth.” After the spread of the news that a miracle had occurred at Pinto Lake pilgrims started pouring in from the surrounding areas.

-taken from this website

This occured in Watsonville, CA, which is about twenty miles from where I grew up in Hollister. In 1992, my mother was active in the Legion of Mary in my hometown, and I went to see this image of the Virgin in a tree when it was very much at the height of its popularity. Mind you, I was a particularly crazy and devout thirteen year old at the time, so I think my disposition was to believe above all else. When I got there, however, the skeptical cynic took hold of me once again. As I looked up into the tree, all I saw was a blotch in the wood that to me could have been anything. Yes, like most Catholics, especially Mexican ones, Fatima and Lourdes had to believed out of piety, and Guadalupe out of ontological necessity. But that didn’t look like anything to me.

“That’s not her,’ I said quite audibly, showing once again my penchant for being rather less than diplomatic in very public situations. I seem to remember some rather hostile stares from those within earshot, but I just walked away, not prepared to try to break my neck to try to see in that bark something that I knew was simply not there.

So for all my talk of defending “folk Catholicism” and the religion of the people, perhaps one of the more “popular” religious phenomenon amongst “average Catholics”, one of the things that gets them “fired up” about their faith, is something that I can barely stomach. From Fatima to Bayside, from seers in old Europe to seers in new Africa, the history of popular Catholicism in the last two hundred years cannot be told without the story of the apparitions of various celestial figures to Catholic religious, clergy, and lay folk, all with very important things to say that did not quite make it into the Bible.

People’s faith seems to be fueled by the idea that Christ, the Virgin, and other saints are speaking now, and people are obsessed with the “secrets”, the “latest word” from the powers above given to a nun, a housewife, children, or anyone else who happens to be “tuned in”. The Lourdes grotto has become a fixture of traditional Catholic devotion, and it has even come to the point that John Paul II, ever the one to impose his own tastes on the perennial ways of the Church, “augmented” Low Sunday with the title of “Divine Mercy Sunday”, all because of the clandestine revelations of Christ to some Polish nun.

Why do I have a problem with all of this? If I can accept people making signs of the Cross over babies to get rid of the evil eye, shouldn’t I accept that Christ could appear to someone like my grandmother and mandate the Universal Church to celebrate the Feast of Our Lord’s Sacred Eyebrow? Isn’t this just a logical extension of tendencies already there in Catholicism? Am I being hopelessly elitist? Perhaps, but the idea that the Celestial Court is somehow wildly trying to communicate with us like some giddy, text-messaging teenager is the straw that breaks the camel’s back in terms of my faith in the Faith of the People. I can accept that weird things happen, I can accept that miracles happen in places that defy logical explanations; I am totally down for that. But when the Virgin or the Virgin’s PR person in the form of someone who looks like my Mexican aunt tries to tell me that God wants XYZ, then I have to pull my yellow card of 21st century rationalism and give warning that God’s speech is nothing to be toyed with.

These thoughts came to me again while watching Sunday morning television here in New Orleans after AG and I went to Mass. For those not in the area, WLAE is a public television station run by the Catholic Church here, and one of the fixtures of its programming is daily Mass from St. Louis Cathedral. It also shows some other Catholic programs on Sunday morning, a lot of them heavy with apparitions and “seer-fever”. This morning there was an hour long program featuring the widower of Maria Esperanza, a Venezuelan seer who saw all kinds of saints throughout her life. It was all very “traditional” in one sense and edifying, until she said that in the 1950’s, St. Therese of Lisieux appeared to her in the convent and told her to leave and have babies. Now, being a failed monastic, I can appreciate that someone wants to leave a situation like that. But to say that a saint appeared to you to say, “Don’t proceed on the way of perfection. God’s will is that you be part of the lay B team”…that just did not sit well with me. Nor does it sit well with me that in Medjugorje, all of the “seers” have gotten relatively wealthy off of their status as celestial information workers.

Is all of this stuff edifying for many people? Perhaps. But pardon me if I think that it is all a sham. Part of this suspicion comes from my Latin anticlerical tendency to be very suspicious of people using religion to dupe others (the clergy being most proficient at this since it is the basis for their livelihood. Vatican II was the ultimate “inside job”.) People not only use religion to hide from God, they also use it to make money or get the fame or attention they think they deserve. (All I need to do here is give a good shout of écrasez l’infâme and we’re set.) At least with simple, magisterial pronouncements, or even with run-of-the-mill folk Catholicism, you know what you are getting yourself into. You know what to do, no heavenly messenger is telling you to get a pen and paper and “write this down”, and you know who is wearing what hat. Once people attempt to usurp authority by claiming that someone came down from Heaven and sprinkled some fairy dust on their heads… that is when I start to head to the exit.

Guadalupe, Lourdes, and even Fatima I can accept, just because the Virgin wasn’t as talkative in these places (okay, she was at Fatima, which is why I am still ambivalent about it) and no one got rich off of it. Indeed, everyone seems to have died quite young in these apparitions, and in the case of the Fatima children, the seers were quite traumatized by what they saw. If Heaven speaks, that is probably the effect it will have on you. Those “apparitions” where Heaven can’t seem to shut up are for me a cause for alarm. In the end, a lot of these people seem to be religious hustlers who need to be on the lookout for what Eastern Christian monastics would call prelest, or spiritual self-delusion. Really though, real old time religion is made of two-parts duty and one-part “superstition”, all balanced out by “what we have always done”. This modern lust for “fifteen minutes” of spiritual fame that seems to be the mark of many modern seers is an example of the narcissism that is eating away at religion in the context of modernity.

And so you know, I went back to that grove in Watsonville over ten years later. The candles were fewer, the place a little run down. And no, I still didn’t see anything.


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8 responses

4 04 2015
Anonymous

Its called faith for a reason I think you are forgetting

2 12 2009
Sam Urfer

I think you are right to be skeptical of the vast majority of apparitions and seers. Over the last two hundred years, there have been hundreds of claimed apparitions, and less than 10 have been given Church sanction for the very reason that most of them are sketchy as all get out. Skepticism to these sorts of claims are right and natural.

As to St. Faustina and JP II in regards to Divine Mercy Sunday, it seems that a comparison with St. Juliana of Liège, Pope Urban IV and the papal bull “TRANSITURUS DE HOC MUNDO” in relation to the feast of Corpus Christi might be beneficial.

1 12 2009
Walt C

“Those “apparitions” where Heaven can’t seem to shut up are for me a cause for alarm. ”

That was the main point that Fr. Mitch Pacwa made about Maria Valtorta’s work “Poem of the Man-God.”

“…the long speeches of Jesus and Mary starkly contrast with the
evangelists, who portray Jesus as “humble, reserved; His discourses are
lean, incisive.” Valtorta’s fictionalized history makes Jesus sound “like
a chatterbox, always ready to proclaim Himself the Messiah and the Son of
God,” or teach theology in modern terms. The Blessed Mother speaks like a
“propagandist” for modern Marian theology. ”

I’ve gotten into arguments with family members about me not wanting to read this book and also about some doubts I’ve had about Medjugorje. So , Arturo, your entry today certainly resonated with me.

1 12 2009
Jared B.

Left out is the fact that not just the Divine Mercy Chaplet, but many forms of popular piety did not come about organically or as “folk” piety, but because somebody thought they heard voices or saw an apparition saying “do this”, and a lot of people decided to believe them.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The Brown Scapular. Almost all scapulars for that matter. St. Francis of Assisi’s calling started when he thought he heard a voice coming from a cruicifix. Valuable spiritual writings like St. Catherine of Siena’s took the form of private “dialogues” with God. Countless prayers, novenas, litanies, and sacramentals. The Miraculous Medal. Some saints like Philomena owe all their cult to private revelation. Even the ROSARY in its current form is attributed to an apparition. Our history doesn’t tell us for sure, but for all we know, the very earliest devotion to the Virgin Mary has its origin in private revelation.

None of those things derive their value from their connection to apparitions or private revelation (in some cases the devotion did come first and was only later attributed to alleged private revelation), but that’s the point: they can’t be any less valuable because of that connection either.

The very institution of canonizing saints simply would not exist but for the kind of credulous enthusiasm that also runs the risk of seeing the Virgin in a tree stump: the good and the bad both come from the instinct that tells us that the supernatural really is constantly bursting through into our little world. I’m not saying that means all Catholics are obligated to share the same attitude concerning each and every devotion or believe the same things about their origin. I am saying that if each and every Catholic had Arturo’s attitude, then not just the false but the true apparitions & “voices in the head” would be ignored, and the history of the Church would be quite different: most of the above prayers would never have existed, our liturigical calendar would be bare, and even the shape of our doctrine and theology would undoubtedly be different from what it is today.

Again, that doesn’t make Arturo’s opinion wrong at all; but it gives me enough reason to be cautious of it.

30 11 2009
Andrea Elizabeth

It’s one thing to be scared by the awesome glory of God, who is love, and another to be scared by visions of hell which leave one more impressed with the power of Satan. The visions left some of the children terrified, which is not how a loving Mother would leave her children. The undoing is different,

30 11 2009
Anonymous

I think anything to do with genuine experience of the divine would be pretty scary. Scripture always seems to portray it that way, at least. Consider the shepherds being terrified when the angel appeared to them to announce the birth of Christ. That wasn’t some Hallmark angel…

30 11 2009
Andrea Elizabeth

I just don’t think the Blessed Virgin Mary would horrify young children with apocalyptic visions as was the case with Fatima and Medjugorje. The films of the Medjugorje children in their trances is also quite scary.

30 11 2009
Manuel

There was also a claimed apparition in a tree in Soledad a few years back.
Medjugorje was also supiscious to me because of so called monthly messages.
Leave St. Faustina alone though, she did die at 33 and the Church was very slow to publish her work at first.

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