It is difficult to imagine two books about the same subject more dissimilar than these. Randall Sullivan’s The Miracle Detective is a drawn-out tour de force rivaling The Da Vinci Code in length, digressions and clues that ultimately don’t go anywhere. Lisa Schwebel’s Apparitions, Healings, and Weeping Madonnas is a terse, quasi-scholarly book that examines evidence and draws some strong conclusions that are bound to stir discussion. I think Sullivan might have been spared a lot of angst if he had engaged in a long conversation with Schwebel before he got deep into his research.
Yet it is far more likely that The Miracle Detective will have the larger readership, because of its appeal to devotees of Marian apparitions who may be eager to accompany Sullivan on his painful, personal odyssey. He is a former Los Angeles police detective and author of several investigative books, including one on the murders of the hip-hop icons Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. Although he is not a Catholic and seems to have no background in any faith, he becomes intrigued by a reported appearance of Mary in Oregon, and immerses himself in the phenomenon of visions. Very quickly he is in over his head.
After reading accounts of various visions and visiting Rome to converse with priests who study reported miracles as part of canonization processes, he comes to believe that religious visionaries may be fakes or they may be hysterics or they just might be telling the truth. He is soon off to Medjugorje, but he does not arrive for another 50 pages as he narrates the history of the claims, along with observations about Bosnia and Herzegovina and musings on Manichaeism and other Gnostic heresies once prevalent in the region.
Equipped on his arrival with nothing more authoritative than credentials from Rolling Stone magazine, Sullivan is nevertheless accorded generous hospitality, is invited to stay at the home of Mirjana, one of the visionaries, and is granted relatively free access to the others. The more he learns, the more he is inclined to accept their stories as factual; that is, the visions seem to him to be genuine interventions from the supernatural world. Then comes his own, first-ever spiritual experience as he climbs the mountain where the sightings of the Virgin were first reported. He observes a sudden massing of clouds over the peak of the mountain. My knees buckled when a bolt of lightning fell out of the sky straight toward me. The clouds burst in an instant and rain fell in sheets. I was soaked within seconds but trembled more from fear than from cold. Never had I believed more in a God of wrath than I did at that moment.
Suddenly out of the darkness, a lone, dark-haired and dimpled young woman appears and gives the thoroughly soaked investigator a cap and a towel. When he reaches the mountaintop, his mood changes 180 degrees; he is overcome with euphoria and a profound feeling of liberation that stays with him. He never sees the woman again, and the reader must wait 300 pages to discover who Sullivan believes the woman might have been. This late revelation, perhaps calculated to send shivers down the spine of the reader, does not work because by then, the detective’s quest had turned into such an obsession that the reader is more concerned about Sullivan’s sanity than about the authenticity of apparitions.
He discusses at length Marian appearances at Garabandal, Lourdes, Fatima and elsewhere, reads more books, asks more questions, visits more miracle sites, goes back to Rome and Medjugorje, becomes more consumed. At times Sullivan provides day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute accounts of his travels and conversations. Everywhere he is impressed with the composure and integrity of visionaries and their supporters, yet he is never sure what to make of all thisor what it is supposed to mean for him.
Eventually, Sullivan is crippled by his doubts, depressions and a fever, whose symptoms he relates in dramatic detail. I was woozy, my knees nearly buckled several times as I walked through the crushed white rock and cactus plants that filled Carol’s front yard and climbed back into the oven of my rental car. Back at the resort I filled the bathtub with cold water and buckets of ice, then sat in it for the next hour drinking rum and Cokes. Is this the dark night of the soul, he wonders, or is it insanity? Or maybe it’s diabolic possession. Still he goes on and on.
At last a sort of resolution comes, when the author has a long interview with Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscans of the Reform, widely known for his appearances on Mother Angelica’s television network. Sullivan pours out his story of search and torment, and Groeschel patiently listens. Then he explains that some seemingly miraculous manifestations may have a paranormal explanation. Sullivan seems not to have heard that word before, but appears greatly relieved to learn that certain natural experiences, which science is as yet unable to explain, may indeed be also the work of God operating through a person’s spiritual nature; so it’s not necessary to make rigid distinctions between supernatural events that come from God and natural events that don’t. In other words, God is capable of multitasking. At this point Sullivan abruptly concludes that all he has to do is love God. That brings him peaceat least for the time being.
Lisa Schwebel, a theologian who teaches at Hunter College in New York City, takes up where Sullivan leaves off. The paranormal is her bread and butter. She does not seem to have visited any miracle sites or interviewed any visionaries. But she has read widely reports of mystical phenomena, studied practically everything written about parapsychology and consulted what theologians like Karl Rahner, S.J., have had to say about miraculous occurrences.
Her approach is analytic, her conclusions stark. She introduces concepts like precognition, telepathy, psychometry, divination, clairvoyance and bilocation as understood by scientific researchers and examines how they might be relevant for understanding apparitions and other reported wonders. As long as an experience can be explained according to a reasonably probable, even hypothetical theory of parapsychological phenomena, its divine origin is not established, she writes. Long ago Rahner said the same thing. The existence of paranormal powers means that we must disregard many phenomena formerly accepted as decisive proofs of the supernatural origin of visions.
Schwebel explains that confirmed laboratory experiments using thousands of subjects demonstrate what parapsychologists call the ordinariness of extrasensory perception and psychokinesis (the ability of mind to influence matter from a distance). These abilities, she says, exist across the general population regardless of religious affiliation or belief, and this means the mere presence of parapsychological powers in visionary experiences does not guarantee its religious character. Telepathy, psychometry and psychokinesis may be factors in the major events at Garabandal, Schwebel says, while divination and cryptomensia have some relevance for the events at Lourdes and other sites.
Fatima, considered by many the gold standard of modern Marian apparitions, gets especially detailed scrutiny in light of the church’s established criteria for genuine visions, such as the plausibility of the message and the piety and integrity of the visionaries. The three prophecies revealed to the children under orders to keep them secret for years raise serious doubts, she says, citing Rahner: How is it comprehensible that God should reveal certain matters concerning the whole world to a person, in order that this person should keep them secret until after their fulfillment?
The nature of the Virgin’s messages that were immediately made public are also disconcerting, says Schwebel: When asked by her parish priestwhat the figure had said, Lucia replied that the apparition wanted people to say the rosary, be good and not insult God. Put in the best possible light, this is more in the nature of a Sunday school sermon than a blistering moral insight of prophetic analysis.
Then there is the fact that the recipients of the Fatima messages, like those at the other seven most popular sightings of the last two centuries, were children whose average age was 9 when the visions began. What, Schwebel asks, was the divine purpose in transmitting vital information for the world to children who, generally speaking, are not considered reliable reporters and are often given to imaginary embellishments? Also raising questions for Schwebel was the famous dance of the sun before an estimated 70,000 onlookers at Fatima. Considerable inconsistency and even contradictions, she reports, were present in the eyewitness accounts, no authentic photographs of the event were ever produced, and similar phenomena have occurred elsewhere during high-pitched religious gatherings. The dance, she speculates, could be explained as an optical illusion induced by prolonged staring at the sun or as a collective hallucination or some other less known paranormal manifestation.
Despite her heavy tone of skepticism, Schwebel insists there is no reason to deny the spiritual validity in apparitions and other wonders. Within the created order, human beings are not merely biological,’ nor is nature merely natural.’ Matter and spirit are open to one another: This is the real miracle. The experience of God reverberates through the whole person, transforming the physical as well as the spiritual.
Christians, she says, should understand wondrous events within the context of God’s original, all-encompassing self-communication in grace. They need to emphasize questions of meaning, not questions of demonstration. We must ask not how did it happen, but rather what is the significance of the event within the total life of faith.
The final result is a brief, yet coherent and respectful application of modern scientific analysis to religious phenomena that are important to millions of believers.