Modern Apparitions, New Forms

A New Type of Apparition

- Father Johann G. Roten, S.M.

The recent multiplications of so-called visions of Marian silhouettes, bas-reliefs, color schemes, light pools, and splodges of ice cream, raise again questions about the nature and purpose of Marian apparitions.

THREE TYPES
When speaking of apparitions and not locutions, we are asked to make a distinction among

1. External Visions
The external vision is the most common, at least apparently. We say apparently because we are not always, in fact, seldom aware of how a seer perceives what he/she senses. We assume that the seer sees an objective reality distinct from or alien to the functions of his/her mind. The reality perceived is external to the person, and this happens so spontaneously that the visionary is overwhelmed by the unexpected and inspiring presence of the "other," the "supernatural," the "apparition."

2. Internal Visions
There is a second form of visions, called interior or internal visions. God does not need to dispatch a personal messenger and introduce him/her to us in a physical and tangible appearance. He may and can address Himself directly to the imaginative faculties of our mind. Internal visions are not hallucinations, but God's inspirational power forming representations of His messenger and message at the very core of our cognitive faculties. It is believed that most apparitions are of this type, although not perceived as such by the visionary. He/She actually accepts them as a part of the ordinary visual experience, the so-called external vision.

3. Intellectual Visions
If internal visions are accompanied by visual representations or images, the intellectual vision, in turn, is devoid of images. The perception of the seer may be that of a divine presence, the almost physical certitude that Christ or Our Lady is present. Or, it may be a more conceptual experience, linked to a special and in-depth insight of a spiritual nature. Some masters of the spiritual life call this spiritual experience objective mysticism highlighting a religious conviction based on mainly cognitive insights.


A NEW AND HYBRID TYPE

Looking at some of the phenomena described in the introduction, we may ask the question where and how they fit into the typology we developed. It is not difficult to see that these silhouettes don't adequately fit any of the three types. We could argue that they constitute a hybrid type, and belong to both the interior and exterior vision.

Chicago apparition resembling a bas-relief on a stone wall

(1) The bas-relief of the recent Chicago Apparition would be, at first glance, the equivalent of an external vision or appearance. The object is visible, even tangible. Everybody--not only a privileged seer--can see it. The "appearance" has a permanent character, and thus becomes an "icon." Votive candles and flowers are placed in front of the image, and people gather in prayer.

Of course, some onlookers, perhaps many and even most, would say that these silhouettes, bas-reliefs, etc. are all in the eye of the beholder. They simply cannot see what others perceive, and argue that chance, coincidence and personal projection amply explain these so-called "signs from heaven."

Chicago apparition resembling a bas-relief on a stone wall

(2) The mention of "personal projection" raises an additional question. Are people taking their wishful thinking and spiritual longing for a fact? It is not unheard of that people project their longing for Mary, or simply their eagerness to communicate with the supernatural and the mysterious onto objects (silhouettes, etc.) whose actual physical configuration and spiritual meaning are blatantly open for discussion and interpretation.

Whatever the origin and deeper meaning of these occurrences, little doubt is permitted that there exists a close connection between what people seem to see and their inner disposition of religious needs and expectations, as well as accompanying mental images. The one helps, suggests, and triggers the other. A special personal craving for a Marian apparition, for example, may well lead to decrypting and identifying the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in a fairly non-descript and anodyne visual object.

One should not deny, however, that these situations may contain a true religious message. God, who is an inventive pedagogue, may use this somewhat strange method to send us a reminder of His presence, or that of His mother, in today's world. Nonetheless, overall caution is of the essence. Wishful thinking is lurking. Misguided sensationalism may play tricks with our hearts and imagination.


A POSSIBLE MEANING

1) Silhouettes, reflections on windows, etc., can be seen by everybody. They are no longer the privilege of a lone seer who holds the exclusive authority of communicating and interpreting his/her experience.

2) The phenomena here discussed have a quasi-permanent character. The "apparition" can be seen whenever needed and desired. The supernatural has made itself permanently available. It may be "consumed" just as any other consumer good is absorbed. We are dealing here with a form of domestication of the supernatural.

3) There is usually no worded message related to the appearance. The image stands for itself, and sometimes effectively speaks for itself. Apparitions without a message tend to become inconsequential. They do not contain a specific challenge or a call and mission; there is neither a specific responsibility nor a precise accountability involved.

4) The ubiquitous character of the phenomenon seems to indicate a trivializing tendency. Mary can be seen everywhere, from oil spills on macadam, to ice cream splodges and grilled (and decaying) cheese sandwiches. True, God has sanctified in his Son the whole of reality. There remains some doubt whether these occurrences lead to a better understanding of the Incarnation.

5) Last but not least, it might be suggested that in some of our Western cultures the phenomenon described points to a voracious hunger for religious experience. This religious need is voracious because it is all-encompassing and indiscriminate. Anything goes when it comes to bringing Our Lady down to earth and making her apparitions available to any would-be seer.

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