nothing to do with the "New Age" (albeit certain similarities are
involved – gurus and metaphysical belief systems), I have included this
chapter to show how people see and hear what they wish to believe, and
how mythical religious shrines can become perpetuated as fact.
As a young
teenager in war-weary London I used to form a queue outside any shop
with a couple of mates then, as others joined the queue, would walk
away leaving people blissfully waiting to buy they knew not what! On
other occasions we would stand on the footpath staring intently at the
sky, within minutes a crowd would have gathered to join us in our vigil
... looking at what?! Sometimes I would asked whether anyone could see
"it", more often than not the answer was "yes" without even asking
pranks may seem far removed from visions the stories serve to
illustrate two things – conformity and self-induced visual experiences
– essential precursors in deciding what sometimes becomes a religious
shrine and where it is established.
literally tens of
thousands of shrines throughout the world,
no culture is without them; but for the purpose of this chapter I
propose to deal with only four of the most celebrated in the Western
world – Guadalupe (Mexico), Lourdes (France), Fatima (Portugal) and
Before giving an
overview of these shrines, however, it should be noted that all four
(and the vast majority of those not mentioned) are located in countries
where the religion is predominantly Catholic, and therefore, a brief
introduction to Roman Catholic dogma and doctrine may assist in
understanding why this is so.
known as the "Blessed Virgin", "Our Lady" or simply the BVM, is
traditionally referred to as the mother of Jesus in the Christian
Gospels. Destined to become the mother of Christ, God infused her soul
with grace at the moment of conception in the womb of her mother, St
Anne, which freed her from the consequences of Original Sin – hence the
The early church
patriarchs, believing that God could not be born of woman, discouraged
worship of the Mother-figure. Constantine I forbade the worship of Mary
and ordered all goddess temples destroyed. By the eleventh century she
became more popular than Jesus and was hailed as the saviour of
humankind, the great Gothic cathedrals built to honour her still stand
virgin" was raised from the dead by Jesus and assumed into heaven as a
live woman. The Assumption becoming an article of faith in 1950.
Devotion to Mary
is part of Catholic liturgical life, and the studies, doctrines
devotions and doctrines associated with her are collectively called
– the appearance or manifestation of the BVM have been reported
hundreds of times over the centuries along with other paranormal
phenomena such as brilliant lights, spinning suns, burning bushes,
weeping statues and so on. Percipients identify the apparition, usually
in the form of a luminous woman as Mary, who, if and when she speaks,
foretells of apocalyptic disasters, and that the reign of the
Anti-christ is imminent, urging people to repent, pray and do penance.
dogma states that apparitions are not ghosts it accepts that the
phenomena are permitted by God. In some cases the apparition asks for
churches and shrines to be built to honour her and where the
apparitions have been deemed authentic by Church authorities it is to
these sites millions flock to seek and witness miraculous cures.
Guadalupe, or more
precisely, the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, is a Roman Catholic
church situated in Villa de Guadalupe Hidalgo just north of Mexico
City. It is Mexico’s chief religious centre to which hundreds of
thousands of pilgrims from all over the world come each year to worship
and pray for miracles.
The two principal
objects of veneration are "a miraculous cloth" and a portrait "not made
As told in the
sixteenth-century Nican Mopohua, ("an account") (Henderson
1979a. p. v) legend has it that in 1531 an Aztec peasant, Juan Diego, a
recent convert to Christianity, heard a voice calling, "Juanito." Then
at the foot of a hill named Tepeyac, he came across an apparition of a
young girl radiant in a golden mist who identified herself as "the
ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God", and said, "I wish that
a temple be created here quickly, so that I may therein exhibit and
give all my love, compassion, help and protection, because I am your
instructed the peasant to hasten to the palace of the Bishop of Mexico
and say, "that I manifest my great desire, that here on this plain a
temple be built to me..."
Zumarraga was unconvinced and asked for a sign. Reporting back to the
Virgin, Juan was told to gather some flowers, wrap them in his mantle,
and take them to the doubting priest.
audience, the cloth was unfolded and when the flowers were scattered on
the floor they formed a drawing of the precious image of the
ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of God. The Bishop then placed the cloth
in his private chapel "until the temple dedicated to the Queen of
Tepeyac was erected where Juan Diego has seen her." (Callero, in Smith
1983. pp 121-135).
Many of the events
in the legend can be correlated with stories in the Bible – a
luminescent holy personage on a mountain (Matt. 17:2), a divine command
to build a temple (Exod. 25:8), the sending of a messenger to persuade
a doubter (Exod. 3:18-19), the invoking of tangible "signs" to convince
a disbelief (John 20:25-30) and so on.
There is some
doubt about the authenticity of the legend. Historian Jacques Lafaye
(1976), suggests it was borrowed from an earlier Spanish legend in
which the Virgin appeared to a shepherd and led him to discover a
statue of her.
apparition resulted in a painted image, supposedly miraculous, that
became known as the Virgin of Guadalupe. It is now housed in the New
Basilica; the second, built on the site of an earlier church and
finished in 1709, became dangerous owing to the sinking of its
There is much to
cast doubt on the authenticity of the legend. A detailed study of the
portrait for example discloses a remarkable similarity to a Spanish
painting by Bonanat Zaoritza housed in the Museo do Arte de Cataluna in
Barcelona, right down to "the brooch at the throat" (Callahan. 1981.
p.10). This painting preceeds the Virgin of Guadalupe by nearly a
century! Also the obvious elements of religious dogma in statements
allegedly made by the apparition, and the similarity to the Spanish
undoubtedly helped the propagation of Christianity (an estimated eight
million Indian converts from 1532 to 1538 (Smith 1983, pp, 10-11), and
one of the main purposes of Spanish imperialism given that Bishop Juan
de Zumarraga was the chief organizer of the church in Mexico it would
not be stretching the truth to suggest that the whole business was a
probably be the first name to spring to mind if you were asked to name
a famous shrine. Situated south-west of Toulouse in southern France, it
attracts some 3,000,000 pilgrims annually, among them 50,000 or so sick
or disabled seeking a miraculous cure.
It came to
prominence in 1858, when Bernadette Soubirous, deeply pious, poorly
educated and asthmatic young girl of 14, the eldest child of a poverty
stricken devout Catholic family, was out gathering firewood with her
sisters on a cold winter’s day. She heard a noise like a gust of wind,
looked up and saw a soft glow in the grotto in a cliff face. A figure
in white materialized with a soft white veil falling each side of her
Years later she
"I put my hand in
my pocket, and I
found my rosary there, I wanted to make the sign of the cross... I
couldn’t raise my hand to my forehead. The Vision made the sign of the
cross. Then I tried a second time and I could. As soon as I made the
sign of the cross, the fearful shock I felt disappeared. I knelt down
and said my rosary in the presence of the beautiful lady. The vision
fingered the beads of her own rosary, but she did not move her lips.
When I finished my rosary, she signed for me to approach but I did not
dare. Then she disappeared."
Oddly enough, this
passage is tantamount to Bernadette confessing that she did not see
what she claimed to have seen. The apparition according to the girl "fingered
the beads of her own rosary", yet the practice was not adopted
until the 3rd century by Eastern Christian monks. Although the origin
of the rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary is not certain, it has been
associated with St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order in the
early 13th century. It was not until 1520, however, that Pope Leo X
gave the rosary official approbation.
As the BVM
predates the custom by centuries, what Bemadette saw, other than a
possible combination of early morning mist, shadows and a shaft of
sunlight, could hardly have been the apparition as described. In my
opinion, for what it's worth, we have a case of conditioned expectation
– the subject perceives that which conforms to their own subjective
experiences and associations.
Of course I could
be wrong, maybe there’s a supermarket in heaven where one can purchase
accoutrements. After all, bible classes are available as are language
lessons, how else would the BVM be able to quote verbatim from
the bible written and compiled years after her death and in every
language and dialect to boot! However, I digress.
Bernadette was not believed, but after allegedly seeing the "white
lady" thirteen times between February 18 and March 2, 1858, she told
the parish priest that her white lady had instructed her to allow
people to approach the grotto and that a chapel must be built there.
(Familiar ring to the story?) The priest (as you can guess) demanded a
miraculous sign before he would believe her. On Bernadette’s next visit
to the grotto the BVM obliged by revealing that she was "The Immaculate
sufficient to convince the Church, and a newly disco-vered spring near
the grotto rumoured to have miraculous healing powers became the
destination of pilgrims from all over the world. Bernadette became a
nun and died at the age of thirty-five in 1879. She was beatified in
1925, and canonized in 1933.
A medical team
composed in the main of French Catholic doctors, the International
Medical Committee (CMIL) at Lourdes, are cautious and painstaking in
their investigation of alleged miracle cures, as a consequence, only
sixty-five cures have been accepted as miraculous by the Catholic
Church out of the estimated two million sick pilgrims who have visited
the shrine since 1858, hardly indicative of a statistical link between
Lourdes and cures.
One of those not
cured was Bernadette herself, an early victim of cholera, she suffered
from asthma all her life and died of a tubercular knee.
in central Portugal, has since 1917 been one of the world’s great
Marian shrines. Three Portuguese peasant chil-dren -- Lucia dos Santos
aged nine and her cousins Francisco and Jacinta aged six and eight --
were tending their sheep and following a flash of lightning reportedly
saw a beautiful young girl who said that she had come from heaven and
identified herself as the Lady of the Rosary.
The news of the
vision spread and crowds of the faithful and curious accompanied the
chil-dren whenever the vision visited them. On October 13, 1917 an
estimated crowd of seventy thousand people gathered at Fatima and
witnessed a "miraculous solar phenomenon" in which the sun seemed to
swivel and emit coloured rays, now referred to as the celebrated "Dance
of the Sun."
has been repeated elsewhere in places such as Medjugorje, Denver, and
Agoo in the Philippines.
atheist Professor A.J. Ayer, cited by John Cornwell in his book, Powers
Darkness Powers of Light, (1991, p.17) offers a probable
explanation for the phenomenon. Asked whether it would satisfy Ayer's
criterion of evidence for the truth of the statement that more than
100,000 people claimed to have seen the sun spinning and falling to
earth he replied, "No it would not, for the simple reason that the
phenomenon was reported nowhere else in the world, so we must conclude
that the sun stayed in its proper place and that 100,000 people were
subject to some sort of mass hallucination."
story, the Lady is supposed to have entrusted the children,
particularly Lucia, with secrets which were passed to the Vatican.
Believed to be prophecies of apocalyptical disasters, the Pope is
alleged to have collapsed with horror!
The first national
pilgrimage to Fatima took place in 1927, the basilica was begun in 1928
and consecrated in 1953. Numerous cures have been reported although
they seem not to have received the same publicity as those reputedly to
have occurred at Lourdes.
International puts out a monthly newsletter full of warnings about the
approaching fulfilment of the Apocalyptic prophecies and the coming of
the anti-christ who, it would appear, must be on the slow boat to
China. St. Louis de Montfort, promoter of devotion to the Blessed
Virgin Mary, stated unequivocally that the world was moving
remorselessly into that terrifying period of human history known as the
"Reign of the Antichrist" – back in 1711!
small mountain parish in what was Yugoslavia, rose to world prominence
in 1981 when the Blessed Virgin Mary is alleged to have appeared to six
young people – Ivanka, Mirjana, Vicka, Ivan, Marija and Jakov – and, like the
children at Fatima,
she gave them "secrets" and countless messages.
Among the messages
(exactly what one would expect straight from the pulpit) – Faith in God
and in the supernatural; Commitment to God…turn away from sin…repent;
Regular Mass, monthly confession, daily rosary and dedication to the
Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Fasting, – Bread and Water
Nothing profound, the usual exultations, a repetition of the same old
traditional Catholic dogma, and an urging to conform to established
To date there have
been three investigative commissions into the events at Medjugorje and
their communiques exhibit a cautionary quality. This has not deterred
the hundreds of thousands who have now made it a place of pilgrimage
and stories of miracles abound, none of which stand up to scientific
not slow off the mark, official tour guides now have to pass an exam
set by the bishops, and a ninety page quarterly magazine, The
Medjugorje Sentinel, keeps the faithful fully informed.
Other lesser known
shrines where the BVM has allegedly appeared include Zeitoun in Cairo,
where in 1968 Muslim workmen saw a vision over a Coptic Orthodox
church, then, in April 1986, she reappeared over the church of St
Demiana in Cairo. The worsening relations between the Coptic Christians
and Muslim fundamentalists may have had something to do with it!
At La Salette,
France, in 1846, two young children, Maximin Giraud aged eleven, and
fifteen-year-old Melenia Calvat, were tending their cows when they saw
"Our Lady" weeping in a dried-up river bed. There were the usual dismal
prophecies and she entrusted them with "secrets", some of which were
passed on to Pope Pius IX in 1850. It is not recorded whether he too
collapsed in horror!
In 1888, thirteen
year old Jean Bernard of Vallensages, near St Etienne, was collecting
firewood when he had a vision of a gorgeously clothed "grande dame"
wearing a golden crown on her head and standing with one foot on a
lizard. She requested him to kill the lizard which he did, and then she
disappeared. The vision re-appeared six days later and although
accompanied by his parents only Jean saw the lady. Convinced she was
the Virgin he asked her to cure his thirteen year old friend who had
been deaf since birth. The girl began to hear, and news of the miracle
Feeling the need
to authenticate the vision’s identity, Jean used the two traditional
tests for apparitions. He said to the vision: ‘If you are the mother of
the Lord, step forward. If you are the Devil, step back." No prize for
guessing which way she stepped! He then threw holy water at her, but
she merely smiled — a demon would have disappeared in a puff of smoke!
Scientifically controlled tests such as these leave little room for
appeared on twenty occasions, urging villagers to attend more masses
and repent of their wicked ways.
On her final
appearance the vision was asked to create a sacred spring — the miracle
failed to materialize, perhaps rosary beads are not suitable for
dowsing purposes! Springs incidentally are considered to be a standard
A church at Knock
in County Mayo, Ireland, became a shrine when a tableau of the Virgin,
St John the Evangelist and St Joseph appeared on it’s gable end in
1879. While the flat two-dimensional quality was suggestive of a
lantern-slide projection it didn’t stop it from becoming a famous
pilgrimage site, among its visitors Pope John Paul.
In 1880, in the
grounds of Llanthony Abbey, Wales, four boys aged between nine and
fifteen saw the Virgin float through a bush. On another occasion, it
appeared to four people who were singing Ava Maria. The
surrounding moun-tains rumbled and were bathed in light. Above them
they said, "a most Majestic Heavenly Form" appeared and glided into a
nearby "Holy bush" (actually wild rhubarb). Subsequently there were
reports of healing connected with leaves from the bush.
Well I don’t know
about you dear reader but my credulity has been stretched to the limit,
so let’s see if we can find some common factors from which to derive a
visionaries’ perception of an apparition they believe to be that of the
Virgin Mary always conforms to what the percipients expect to see based
on statues, paintings and other religious representations with which
they are familiar.
No one living
today has ever seen the original mother of Christ, nor is there any
evidence of what she may have looked like. Of some things we can be
sure, she never dressed in fine raiments, wore a crown, possessed
rosary beads, read the bible, or was fluent in all languages and
dialects, yet she is always portrayed as young, beautiful, radiant,
bathed in light, splendidly garbed, conversant with the scriptures and
an accomplished linguist into the bargain.
utterances follow the traditional and conventional teachings of the
Catholic church, as do her directions in respect of its rituals. Like
the emanations from contemporary channeled entities, profundity is
conspicuous by its absence — revelations are simply restatements. Her
predictions, warnings, promises of salvation, threats of perdition and
need for unquestioning devotion, are all reiterations of those written
in the scriptures, they are exactly what the pious would expect to hear
from a divine messenger.
percipients or visionaries fall into roughly the same category — they
range in age from six to sixteen years, are peasants, shepherds or
simple uneducated folk, devoutly religious, and have been thoroughly
indoctrinated by the Catholic church into believing in miracles and the
supernatural generally. Without exception they come from poor or
deprived families, and it could be suggested that the conjuring up of
the ultimate divine figure may comfort them and give them status in the
eyes of others.
have vivid imaginations, they love to fantasise, see what adults
cannot, and love to tell secrets — all the attributes of a potential
seer. Given the right environment, a religious background and a
suitable motive and one is well on the way to hallucinating.
is contradicted by everything we learn from our five senses and natural
laws; to "see" and "hear" beyond those senses and laws is the result of
a subjective state based on commonplace concepts.
Burrus, Ernest J.
1979. A Major Guadalupan Question Resolved. Washington. D.C:
trans. 1961, in Smith, pp. 121-135.
1991. Powers of Darkness Powers of Light. Viking. Penguin
1989. Anatomy of Religion. Freshet Press. Castlemaine.
1993. Apparitions and Shrines. the Skeptic. 13(4):1317
Britannica. 1992. V61.5. p. 527c.
Ellen, 1993. Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience.
Diamond Books, London.
1976. Quezalcoatal and Guadalupe. 1531-1813: The Formation of
Mexican National Consciousness. University of Chicago Press. pp.
Nickell J. &
Fischer J. F. "The Image of Guadalupe: A Folklorist & Iconographic
Investigation." Skeptical Inquirer. 9(3):244-255.
Gordon, 1979a. Introduction to Burros. p4.
Smith, Judy Brant,
1983. The Image of Guadalupe: Myth or Miracle. Garden City. NY.
[From: A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, H Edwards]