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Seeing the Invisible God: Discerning the Supernatural in the History of Christian Visionary Experience
Lisa Bitel
Religion: Super Religion. Ed. Jeffrey J. Kripal. Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2017. p105-124.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2017 Macmillan Reference USA, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning
Full Text:
Page 105

Seeing the Invisible God: Discerning the Supernatural in the History of Christian Visionary Experience
Full Text:

Lisa Bitel
Professor of History and Religion
University of Southern California, Los Angeles

Christianity's story of itself begins with the supernatural. According to the religion's most sacred texts—the canonical Gospels—prophets foretold the mysterious birth of Jesus. The adult Jesus claimed to not
only see but to be God. He defied nature with miracles, fought demons, and rose from the dead. Before he disappeared from the earth, he promised that one day his followers would join him in the afterlife.
Everything that resulted—the creation of Christian communities and rituals, priesthood, doctrines, and institutions; the global spread of myriad versions of the religion; and the constant fracturing and renewal
of Christianity—is based on widespread belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ, son of the invisible triune God, and his promise of salvation witnessed by Jesus's human followers and recorded for posterity in
first- and second-century texts.

The Gospels make clear that Jesus inherited Jewish traditions of the supernatural, including the concept of monotheism, as well as theophanies, prophecies, miracles, and angels (fallen and upright)
described in the Torah—that is, the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament. Many generations of Jesus-followers have tried to see the supernatural through his eyes (as conveyed by
Scripture), but their views have also been influenced by the visual environments and cultures of their homelands, as well as those of the other places they lived in or visited. Christians have always privileged
vision among their senses of the supernatural, and they have always discussed even the most outlandish supernatural encounters in visual terms consistent with familiar sights and places.

Christian theologians and ecclesiastical leaders have never settled fundamental doctrinal and theological issues related to the supernatural and human perceptions of it. The variety of inexplicable visual
phenomena reported by believers, as well as the imprecision of human observation and expression of visions, have undermined the attempts by Christian authorities to define meaningful religious visions.
Almost always, what some believers interpret as heavenly revelations, others see as delusions or devilish errors. Until an individual reports what was seen, a vision has no religious value; a supernatural
encounter gains Christian meaning only after being shared and approved by other Christians. Every single account of a supernatural sighting is, in some sense, the result of negotiations between a person
who sensed something unearthly and those who learned about it from that person.

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Consequently, Christian stories of supernatural encounters have differed not only in individual expression and historical-cultural setting but also in their reception by other believers. Many Christians have
faced skepticism, derision, or even persecution for revealing their visions of the supernatural. The splintering of Christian sects and denominations has made the identification of meaningful epiphanies still
more difficult and, in some historical situations, dangerous. In the early medieval period, for instance, bishops and other literate Christians wrote freely about battling demons—in the literal sense—with
punches and kicks. In seventeenth-century Germany or Scotland, someone who claimed to have seen or touched a demon would likely have been executed for witchcraft. Christians judge the visions of
others according to criteria derived from sacred texts, historical precedents, local environments, common sense, and their own personal views.

No single volume, let alone a short essay, could convey the wild range of Christian encounters with the supernatural over two thousand years of the religion's existence. This essay examines five selected,
linked cases of Christian visionaries, ranging from the first century CE to the early twenty-first century. Only one major Christian tradition—Western Christianity—is treated here; the other major versions of
Christianity have their own histories of the supernatural.

Each case describes a Christian who claimed to encounter the supernatural and shared the experience with others. Each example also represents a different stage in the history of Western Christianity, as
well as an important theme in the development of Christian visionary practices. Together, these cases merely hint at the diversity of Christian encounters with the supernatural. They outline enduring themes
in the expression of Christian visions and sketch a picture of the complex negotiations that take place whenever one Christian claims to see something that others cannot.

CASE STUDY 1, C. 60 CE: PAUL SEES A LIGHT FROM HEAVEN


Saul, later Paul, of Tarsus (c. 5 BCE–c. 67 CE) was probably the most influential of Jesus's disciples, although he never actually met Jesus in the flesh. Paul grew up in a Jewish community in the
cosmopolitan city of Tarsus (in modern Turkey). Schoolboys in Tarsus learned Greek by reading ancient philosophy and mythology. Paul later went to Jerusalem where he trained in Hebrew traditions and the
laws with Rabban Gamaliel the Elder (d. c. 50 CE), one of the foremost scholars of the Torah. Like everyone living in a Roman colony, Paul was also exposed to various other religions that flourished in the
vast empire.

In those days, almost everyone had visions. Latin and Greek authors of the period wrote about meeting their gods and goddesses in temples and in dreams. Soothsayers and astrologists were respected and
popular in Roman cities where they forecast individual fortunes and futures. Priests of the imperial state cult also interpreted messages from the gods; when the emperor Vespasian (9–79 CE) was on the
verge of besieging Jerusalem in 67 CE, he ordered a priest to read the entrails of a sacrificed animal in order to assess his chances of victory. Apparently, they were good.

Devotees everywhere flocked to the shrines of their guardian spirits, regarding statues of healer gods such as Asclepius or the current emperor as vessels of divine presence. Worshippers lingered in
temples overnight, repeating prayers and invocations in hopes that their divine patrons might appear in their dreams to help and heal them. Christians would Page 107 | Top of Articlelater do the same at
tombs of their saints. Everyone knew that semi-divine spirits (daemones)—both good and bad—moved between earth and other worlds.

JEWISH PROPHETIC TRADITIONS

In Galilee where Jesus was raised, and in Judea where Saul trained as a Pharisee, the Israelites rejected personal gods for the omnipotent, abstract God of their ancestors. Yet they too had experienced
epiphanies. Their laws and histories recalled the first days of the world when Adam and Eve had walked in a garden with their visible Creator. The patriarchs of Genesis had regularly spoken with the
unnameable power they called Adonai, or “Lord.” The Book of Exodus described how Moses climbed Mount Sinai to confront God and came back a changed man with a glowing face (Exod 34: 29–35).
Entire books rehearsed the divinely sent visions of Hebrew prophets during the Babylonian Captivity and Second Temple periods (c. 587 BCE–332 BCE). Several foretold that a descendant of ancient
Israelite kings—mashiach ben David, or “anointed one, son of David”—would unite Israel once again as a kingdom (Isa 11:11–12; Jer 23:8; 30:3; Hos 3:4–5). Jesus-followers read these passages as
predictions of his career. Other Jews, however, envisioned different messiahs arriving in glory to fight the Romans or riding chariots of fire into the heavens, presaging the Empire's doom.

“Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams,” the book of Joel reminded the Jews (2:28). The Apostle Peter repeated these
lines to his colleagues after Jesus's death (Acts 2: 17). A prophet's reliability, however, depended on his interpretation of what he saw. Scripture provided numerous examples of false prophets who made
mistakes, enticing the Israelites away from monotheism with disastrous results. God told his people that “a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a
prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death” (Deut 18:20). The Israelites never trusted soothsayers, diviners, or spell casters the way that Romans and other non-Jews did.

Saul knew well the Torah's ambivalence toward prophecy because he was a Pharisee—a scholarly expert in the religion and laws of the Israelites—who opposed the Jesus movement. Saul was in Jerusalem
during the Roman occupation of Judea, when many self-proclaimed Sons of God roamed the region, each one warning of apocalypse. Some saviors counseled withdrawal from society; others advocated
violent rebellion against the Romans. The citizens of Jerusalem could not decide which, if any, was a genuine messiah. Many distrusted Jesus, according to the gospel of John, because of his lack of
training, his unusual behavior, his preaching to all sorts of people in public places, and his provincial origins in Nazareth (John 7). “How could the messiah come from Galilee?” they asked each other (John
7:53).

SAUL'S FIRST VISION OF JESUS

Saul was on his way to Damascus in pursuit of Jesus-followers when a “light from heaven” suddenly knocked him to the ground. Still dazed, he heard a voice calling, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
The voice identified itself as “Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Get up and enter the city,” it added, “and you will be told what you are to do.” Paul lay blind in Damascus for three days—exactly the time
between Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection— until another follower, who had been inspired by his own vision of Christ, restored Saul's sight. Saul accepted Jesus as the legitimate Messiah, was baptized,
changed his name to Paul, Page 108 | Top of Articleand immediately began to preach Jesus's ideas. The story of these events appears in the Book of Acts (9:3–6), written several decades after Paul's
conversion, not in Paul's own writings.

According to many versions of the Gospels, the other apostles had supposedly watched the living Jesus perform miracles. They had seen him walk on water, battle demons, and raise the dead. Peter,
James, and John had apparently witnessed an event later known as the Transfiguration, when Jesus rose into the air on a dazzling cloud and hovered there with Elijah and Moses. The three Apostles
cowered on the ground while a hidden voice declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matt 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36). Jesus returned to earth and bade his
followers keep the affair secret until after “the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Matt 17:9). The story, like those describing Jesus's appearances after his resurrection, was meant to prove his divinity.
Future generations of Jesus-followers, deprived of his company, used these narratives to guide their own visions of Christ.

ARE ALL PROPHETS?

Jesus-followers had already sent news of the Messiah to other Jews in cities far from the Temple in Jerusalem, but Paul was the first to take tidings of Jesus, as well as his own conversion story, to people
outside of Hebrew tradition. The Gentiles of Greek towns knew nothing of ancient Hebrew history and laws, the visions of the patriarchs, or biblical warnings about false prophets. They had inherited
visionary traditions and ideas about the supernatural from their ancestors. They relied on other people's descriptions of Christ in order to understand his revelations.

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Sometimes new believers made mistakes. Paul's letters urged converts to let him guide their visual encounters with God and His Son. He wrote to the Corinthians, “Have I not seen Jesus?” adding, “You
know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak” (1 Cor 9:1, 12:2).

The Jesus-followers of Corinth seemed eager to see God. Paul chided them for raucous gatherings where some hollered prophecies while others gave witness to Jesus's divinity, and yet others spoke in
tongues (glossolalia, or ecstatic speech as practiced by the Apostles at the Pentecost). He reminded the Corinthians that God had distributed a “variety of gifts” upon believers: “God has appointed in the
church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles?” he asked rhetorically,
“Are all prophets?” (1 Cor 12:28–30). Paul thought not. “If anyone speaks in a tongue,” he instructed,

Let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God. Let two or three
prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. (1 Cor 14:27–30)

Paul was concerned about false revelations that might conflict with the already accepted teachings of Christ and the Apostles' oral accounts of the savior's miracles. Individuals who chose to follow Jesus
might receive revelations from him, but believers needed to make sure that their news was compatible with the authoritative visions of Christian leaders. “I want you to understand,” Paul wrote, “that no one
speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). Paul was preaching to people who, like him, had never seen Jesus
alive, but who were less skilled in articulating the religious meaning of what they claimed to see.

Page 109 | Top of Article THE CONTENT OF EARLY CHRISTIAN VISIONS

Paul worked to establish basic guidelines for continuing Christian revelations, including their meanings and their uses. He urged the practice of what came to be called “the discernment of spirits”—literally,
the deciphering of the supernatural source of whatever inexplicable phenomenon a person saw, whether the ineffable Hebrew God, the resurrected Christ, divine agents such as angels, or the malicious
spirits conjured by idolaters, magicians, and misguided Jesus-followers. Paul strove to prepare his co-religionists for legitimate signs of Jesus's return and the apocalyptic end of time. He died—some say
martyred in Rome— around the time that the armies of Emperor Vespasian leveled Jerusalem and its Temple (70 CE). Jesus-followers anticipated the imminent coming of Christ, though they were only
beginning the long struggle of organizing a religion.

Over the centuries, Christians came to see Jesus differently. In the third-century catacombs of Rome, he was painted as a beardless healer or shepherd. In the early-medieval churches of Europe, he was
often a stern, splendid ruler. In the later Middle Ages, he hung in agony on gothic crucifixes, though he could also be found in the form of a baby, cuddling with his mother. Angels and demons, heaven and
hell, saints, ghosts, and miracles also changed their looks over time. It seems that Christianity and Christians saw the world and the otherworld differently, depending on where and when they lived. Believers
constantly renegotiated their visual understanding of the supernatural with reference to authoritative tradition derived from Scripture, institutional leadership, local traditions of the supernatural, and familiar
visual environments.

CASE 2, C. 573 CE: GREGORY OF TOURS SEES A FIREBALL


Sometime in the 560s, Georgius Florentius Gregorius (538–594 CE) saw a fireball in his chapel. Gregory of Tours, as he is now known, was a scholar and the bishop of an old Roman town in the kingdom of
the Franks (Francia, now France). As he wrote in one of his many learned works, Glory of the Confessors, the occasion was the dedication of an oratory for the relics of Saints Martin, Illudius, and
Saturninus. Gregory was leading a procession of fellow priests and distinguished local citizens in the cathedral where he preached, which was dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours (d. 397 CE). He was carrying
relics of Martin and a few other saints—bones, or maybe secondary relics such as pieces of the saints' clothing, carefully housed in “wooden coffers and adorned in shrouds”—when suddenly “a frightening
flash filled the room, so that the eyes of bystanders were closed out of fear.” Gregory calmly watched as the light flared around the room and then disappeared. “Don't be afraid,” Gregory advised his
groveling flock. He reminded them that when Saint Martin had preached Mass in that very same church, people had seen a fireball rise from the saint's head all the way to heaven.

THESE FIRES APPEAR ONLY TO JUST MEN

Whatever he witnessed that day in the oratory, Gregory explained in terms modeled on the biblical supernatural and borrowed from the history of his patron saint Martin, who had been a visionary and
first-rate discerner of demonic spirits. Gregory noted that, whereas only a few people had witnessed Martin's fourth-century fireball, his own had “appeared to all the people…That earlier miracle was kept
secret to avoid ostentation, but this one was made manifest to everyone for glorification.” Gregory meant the glorification of Martin, but he Page 110 | Top of Articlealso aimed to instruct his readers in the
protocols of Christian visions and establish his authority as Martin's heir and successor as Bishop of Tours.

Part of Gregory's job as a high-ranking churchman was to watch for signs from both God and the Christian saints. He interpreted the incendiary incident for those who could not see or understand it for
themselves. “I think this fire contains a mystical sacrament,” he commented, “but the darkness of my senses cannot understand how as it becomes visible it produces such light but does not burn anyone.
But I know only this fact, that these fires appear only to just men or above just men.” Gregory considered the fireball to be a mystery equal in importance to the burning bush in the Book of Exodus, which had
appeared to Moses on Mount Moriah.

Gregory knew that light symbolized truth and divinity because Christ had proclaimed, “I am the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). He also knew that in the Bible, angels wore radiant white garments and that in
olden times, when people had gotten a glimpse of God or heaven, they too glowed with miraculous light, which symbolized their inner illumination. By the same logic, Christians who could not bear to look
upon a dazzling supernatural phenomenon such as a fireball—or who saw but did not understand it—were blinded by sins, ignorance, or a lack of clerical expertise.

Gregory's visions were not the same as Paul's visions because his Christianity was not the same as Paul's Christianity. Few people in his diocese ever learned how to read, and few of those could make
sense of biblical texts. Most people probably heard only bits and pieces of Scripture in Gregory's sermons, which he interpreted through theology from the Romanized Mediterranean world. Ecclesiastical
leaders such as Gregory had to translate both the texts and the visual terms of ancient Christianity into local idioms: the architecture of basilicas, the liturgies and rituals originally developed for urban
congregations, the iconography that continued to adorn shrines in the Eastern Empire, the appreciation of saints' relics and tombs, and the organizational hierarchy of bishops and priests, modeled on the
imperial bureaucracy—none of these worked well in a place such as the Frankish kingdom where Gregory lived. The majority of Europeans dwelt in huts made of sod or wood, barely scratching a living from
their fields. Not many towns north of the River Loire were large or wealthy enough to support a bishop and his cathedral or even a priest with a modest church, let alone a school or library.

When Europeans decided to be Christians, they did not typically undertake a strenuous course of study in Christian doctrine, as Saint Augustine did, or experience a sudden epiphany—as far as we know.
Nor did they discard all of their previous religious habits, places, and familiar spirits. They lived on landscapes still watered by sacred wells and haunted by forms of the supernatural far older than Christ. This
had also been the case earlier in Mediterranean regions, when Christians ran the late Empire; imperial orders to destroy pagan temples and statuary had gone out at the end of the fourth century. Far away
from Rome, though, there were fewer Roman temples. The holy places of rural northerners were not as easy to find; some of them didn't even have buildings or visible markers. Stories of late antique saints,
such as Martin of Tours and Patrick of Ireland (c. 387–461 CE), often included scenes of the holy man fighting with pagans over a sacred tree or well. Christians sometimes built their own shrines on or near
such sites of earlier religion in order to exploit the resident powers.

Europeans slowly learned how to look like Christians—that is, to build Christian structures on their landscapes and habits into their lives, and to interpret their visual Page 111 | Top of Articleenvironments in
Christian terms. However, communities also changed the look of Christianity to suit their surroundings. Their ability to identify the supernatural depended on what they observed around them every day and
shifted accordingly.

VISIONS OF SAINTS

We know a little about what early medieval Christians saw in their visions and dreams because literate churchmen such as Gregory of Tours wrote about them—at least, we know what church-trained authors
chose to record about those visions. Saints dominate stories of the supernatural in this period, partly because hagiography (the written lives of saints) was a favorite genre of northern churchmen. The
biographies of saints were simultaneously histories of the local Christian community, assertions of clerical authority, and lessons in faith and behavior for believers. In addition, they were often entertaining
and were read aloud in churches on feast days. Saintly dramas taught ordinary believers how to spot and react to supernatural phenomena, both good and evil. Writers used the saints as exemplars,
suggesting that the more virtuous Christians were, the better able they were to identify demons and discern the spirits of visionaries. Saints were experts.

Every important settlement had a church, every important church had a saintly patron, and every important saint had a written vita. By Gregory's time, Christians had come to understand that when saints
died, their bodies went into tombs but their spirits immediately entered heaven (whereas ordinary Christians waited in their graves until the Second Coming of Christ). Saints, however, also remained
immanent in their material relics, which were kept at shrines and churches dedicated to them, as Tours was dedicated to Saint Martin. While alive, these pious men and women had been alert to messages
from heaven and sensitive to attacks by the demonic forces of evil. After death, they worked as liaisons between living Christians and their God. They heard and helped those who prayed to them by
channeling divine power into miracles.

CHASTE SIGHT AND VISION

To early medieval hagiographers, saints were superheroes. Besides working miracles in imitation of Christ, they could also identify angels and demons invisible to other Christians. An ugly imp stalked
Sabinianus (fl. c. 450 CE), a saintly hermit who lived high in the Jura Mountains on the French-Swiss border. Every night, according to the sixth-century author of his story, the demon banged on his walls,
cracked stones, punctured holes in Sabinianus's roof, and once tried to burn his house down. The hermit warded off the demon by uttering the name of Christ. Nonetheless, one night as he kept vigils in the
dark, the demon appeared again. This time, the imp was in disguise—as not one, but two scantily clad girls. The beauties pulled off their “misty” clothing, so that wherever Sabinianus's glance landed “the
devil confronted him with female genitals.” The devil hoped to “defile at least [the monk's] most chaste sight and vision with such a shameful sight.” Luckily, though, Sabinianus was able to detect the artifice
and banish the demon in a vaporous huff. The next morning, Sabinianus's neighboring hermits were curious about his swollen jaw (in Vivian, Vivian, and Russell 1999, 52–55 ).

In the Christianizing Europe of the fifth to tenth centuries, this special way of seeing was the weapon of protective saints, and hagiography was the tool of church leaders such as Bishop Gregory of Tours.

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CASE 3, 1194–1253: REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN MIRROR


By the beginning of the next millennium, most Europeans identified as Christians. During the central Middle Ages (c. 1000 and after), Christians who proved they could see and interact with Christ became
increasingly popular and powerful, gaining reputations far beyond their local congregations. What is more, visionaries were no longer primarily priests and monks; in fact, the most famous visionaries were
nuns and devout laywomen. A combination of circumstances—population expansion, urbanization, the growth of a bourgeoisie, changes in inheritance and landholding patterns and, especially, a new

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concept of individualism—made it possible.

With so many people traveling and trading and examining new places, exotic customs, and foreign landscapes, Christians began to experience the supernatural in new ways, too. Although the promise of
revelation and prophecy were theoretically still available to all Christians, reforming church leaders were determined to manage all encounters with the Christian supernatural. At the time, popes were building
a new bureaucracy to organize the religion and its believers. Beginning while Pope Gregory VII (c. 1025–1085) reigned, bishops worked to centralize and regularize all Christian doctrines and religious
practices. When a visionary individual threatened the spiritual well-being of a community—for example, by seeing something that contradicted church doctrine—it challenged the entire reorganized church.
Meanwhile, clergy collaborated with local officials in order to police and punish dissenters.

GENDERED VISION

At the same time, Christians began to reconsider their importance to Creation and relation to Jesus. Should they revere God and his Son as old-fashioned kings and patriarchs, or should they try to construct
an up-to-date, personal tie with a gentler Jesus? Should they escape the world or spread the Gospel in noisy city streets? Many well-to-do bourgeois were anxious about their profits from the newborn money
economy. Hadn't Christ cast out the moneychangers? Hadn't he taught that good Christians should live in poverty and charity?

When seeking religious answers, medieval Christians increasingly turned to Mary, mother of Jesus, for help in approaching her son. After about 1000 CE, the Virgin began replacing local saints as a favorite
heavenly intercessor. Her loving maternal relationship with her son and Savior became a role model for women and men alike. The feminine qualities for which priests had always scolded women suddenly
became spiritual assets—it was good to react emotionally, crying with rapture at the thought of Jesus's face, or yowling in grief when visualizing his suffering.

Another result of the far-reaching changes of the central Middle Ages was the exploding number of women from the minor aristocracy and merchant families who were able to opt out of marriage and
childbirth to choose a life of religion. Medieval commentators marveled at the proliferation of women's monasteries after 1000 CE. Some women joined traditional Benedictine monasteries, but many others
went to new kinds of communities governed by the rules of the Cistercians, Premonstratensians, Dominicans, or Franciscans. Women also created more flexible forms of religious life for themselves, for
example, as beguines in the Low Countries who vowed to live in chastity and poverty, but not in convents. Nuns called themselves “Brides of Christ” as they sought intense, lifelong relationships with Jesus,
although chastity always remained the primary source of their religious authority.

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At this historical moment, more Christian women began seeing things—or rather, it became acceptable for some kinds of women to reveal their visionary experiences to the larger Christian world. Although
they could not acquire formal training in theology and doctrine, their supposedly innate femininity opened the senses of pious women to the divine. Some visionaries reported highly intimate encounters with
Christ whom they envisioned as their baby or lover. Other female visionaries disclosed more intellectual moments of divine contact. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), a Benedictine abbess in the Rhineland,
had theologically complex visions for years until finally, when she was forty-two, God commanded her to record her experiences. As she described in Scivias ([c. 1151] 1990), her multisensory ecstasies
helped her grasp “the deep profundity of scriptural exposition.” Although Hildegard's work was sanctioned by Pope Eugenius, she was not permitted to preach her theological discoveries, except to other
nuns. Rules against women taking ecclesiastical office and limits on their education rendered the revelations of female mystics problematic and potentially threatening to clerical leaders. Well-intentioned but
ignorant Christians, untrained in the discernment of spirits, were liable to lead other good Christians astray. Visionaries such as Hildegard built their reputations only with the approval of ordained men.

FRANCIS AND CLARE

One of the most exceptional visionaries of the period was Chiara Offreduccio (1194–1253), friend and follower of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, called Francesco or Francis of Assisi (1181/82–1226). Both
were charismatic exemplars of the new spirituality sweeping European cities after 1000 CE. Both came from wealth—she from a noble family, he from a merchant dynasty. After serving as a soldier, Francis
had fearful visions and underwent a radical conversion to asceticism, poverty, and chastity. He decided to live as a wandering beggar and preacher. Witnesses recalled how Francis had marched up to the
bishop of Assisi and, with his father watching, stripped off his clothes to symbolize his rejection of his family and their fortune. He mingled with lepers, visited Rome, and then began to move through the
Italian towns preaching a gospel of radical poverty. He refused donations and lived each day without anticipating the next. Francis quickly gathered followers who recorded his words and deeds. His career
climaxed when he encountered the Holy Spirit in the shape of a six-winged seraph in 1224 and received the stigmata—the wounds of the crucified Christ inflicted physically on his body.

Chiara Offreduccio was a teenager when she first heard Francis preach, and her parents were with her in church on that Palm Sunday. Soon after this, Chiara—in English, Clare— decided to follow Francis's
example and dedicate herself to extreme poverty. She ran away from home and cut off her long hair, indicating her decision to take a religious vow. She resisted attempts to lure her home again. Eventually,
her sisters and many other women joined her in a community built for them by Francis and his male colleagues. The women called themselves the Poor Ladies.

Unlike Francis and the friars, however, Clare and her Ladies were not allowed to wander and preach or beg for their daily bread. Francis believed in gender norms. From her cloister, Clare gained a
reputation for her asceticism, her visions, and her establishment of multiple Franciscan convents before she died at the age of 59. During the canonization proceedings just two years after her death, one of
her dearest friends relayed a vision that Clare had once received. “It seemed to her,” recalled Filippa di Ghislerio, that

She brought a bowl of hot water to Saint Francis along with a towel for drying his hands. She was climbing a very high stairway, but was going very quickly, Page 114 | Top of Articlealmost as
though she were going on level ground. When she reached Saint Francis, the saint bared his breast and said to the Lady Clare: Come take, and drink. After she had sucked from it, the saint
admonished her to imbibe once again. After she did so what she had tasted was so sweet and delightful she in no way could describe it. After she had imbibed, that nipple or opening of the breast
from which the milk comes remained between the lips of blessed Clare. After she took what remained in her mouth in her hands, it seemed to her it was gold so clear and bright that everything
was seen in it as in a mirror. ( Boccali 2002, 29 )

Three other sisters related the same story to clerical interviewers. None of the women had shared or witnessed the vision, and none ventured an interpretation, yet they offered it as important evidence of
Clare's sanctity, along with the reports of other extraordinary things Clare had seen and done.

To modern audiences, Clare's vision of suckling at Francis's breast may seem uncomfortably erotic, as several scholars have pointed out. Medieval artists, such as Giotto, who painted scenes of Clare's life
did not include this event. However, the figure of a man nursing a child was familiar to Christian writers and artists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They had discovered a maternal God in the Bible, as
when the Lord declared to his people through the prophet Isaiah, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget
you!” (Isa 49:15).

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who died four decades before Clare, frequently employed the metaphor of a man suckling a baby when he wrote about monastic spirituality. The nursing God reminded Bernard of
abbots mentoring young monks and of bishops who preached to eager congregations. In his famous commentary on the Song of Songs, Bernard interpreted the romantic verses about women's breasts as
allegories for priestly nipples that suckled souls with the milk of doctrine.

Clare's vision derived partly from these trends in Christian spirituality, and partly from her dedication to apostolic poverty. When she climbed those stairs, she was symbolically struggling to reach Francis,
who had died years earlier. Clare longed to imitate his extreme asceticism, but Francis made her live in a cloister; in the vision, therefore, Francis was stuck in the tower with her. She humbly carried water to
cleanse him. Francis took his beloved only child to his breast so that she might drink of his wisdom and charisma. The vision asserted Clare's unique intimacy with Francis and her inheritance of Francis's
doctrine of poverty. When Clare spit into her hand and gazed at the shiny gold surface, she saw herself mirrored as Francis.

What a splendidly crafted vision this was—striking but orthodox, erotic but metaphorically so, reflecting new spiritualities but recalling passages from ancient Scripture. Francis's followers depicted him as
another Christ, preaching the Gospel to the poor. The discovery of the stigmata on his body had fixed his saintly image. Clare's visionary identification with Francis reveals what it meant to look like a
saint—in both senses of the phrase—at a specific moment and in a particular location in the history of Christianity.

Clare's only other major vision occurred on her deathbed. Unable to rise for the liturgy, she was nonetheless able to see and hear her sisters singing in church, as if projected on the wall of her cell. For this,
Clare has been named the patron saint of television.

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St. Francis Mourned by St. Clare and Her Companions, scene from Giotto's fresco cycle in the Upper Basilica of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. Chiara Offreduccio (1194–1253), a friend
and follower of Francis of Assisi (1181/82–1226) known in English as Clare, reported a striking vision that involved her suckling at St. Francis's breast. This vision asserted Clare's unique intimacy with
Francis and her inheritance of Francis's doctrine of poverty. ALINARI/GETTY IMAGES.

MYSTICS AND WRETCHED LITTLE WOMEN

Female mystics proliferated in the centuries after Clare's death. Angela of Foligno (1248–1309), also a follower of Saint Francis, suffered bodily illnesses caused by demonic assaults, which were designed to
prevent her soul's ascent to God. When the devil attacked, she informed her confessor, it felt like being blindfolded, cuffed, and hung on a gallows, yet somehow surviving in torment. “While I am in the most
horrible darkness of the demons,” she reflected, “it seems that any kind of hope of the good is lacking … the vices that I know were dead in my soul are brought back to life” ( McGinn 2006, 377 ). She
suffered Page 116 | Top of Articleparticularly from sexual temptations and apparently used real flame to sear away her bodily desires until her confessor forbade it.

Mystics with clerical managers were more acceptable to Christian authorities than women who published their own supernatural encounters. Saint Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), one of the most famous
medieval mystics, began having visions in childhood. After she became a Dominican tertiary, she was assigned a spiritual director, Raymond of Capua (1330–1399). He was her confessor, editor, and
biographer, as well as her companion wherever she went. Both Catherine and Raymond wrote about her encounters with Christ, the mystical bridegroom, with whom she claimed to exchange hearts. Yet
Catherine also suffered torments, both spiritual and physical, in pursuit of divine encounters; like Francis, she was wounded with stigmata. So great was her visionary authority that she intervened in
international politics on behalf of the Church. She died, probably of self-starvation as well as illness.

Another religious fire consumed the mystic Marguerite Porete (1250–1310), a French beguine who wrote her own theory of visions. In The Mirror of Simple Souls ([c. 1300] 1993), Marguerite argued that
reason—the tool of theologians—could not bring one to God, whose infinite love is impossible for human minds to comprehend. Only the annihilation of self from love of God will lead to him. Although other
mystics argued much the same, Marguerite angered theologians for insisting that when her soul entered into a beatific state it became—because it was with God—unable to sin. She had no spiritual director
to save her from Church officials, who denounced The Mirror as heretical because it implied that ordinary people might achieve salvation on their own, without the aid of scripture, ritual, or the priesthood.
Marguerite refused to change or repudiate her own work. She was tried for heresy, her work condemned by twenty-one learned theologians, and she was burned at the stake in Paris. The crowd wept as
they watched her calmly disappear in flames.

By the fifteenth century, university-trained churchmen were losing sympathy for female mystics and the popular discernment of Christian visions. Jean Gerson (1363–1429), Chancellor of the University of
Paris, admitted that it was much easier for “uneducated wretched little women” to experience visions than for well-trained men. He believed that sensory visions, such as the ravishment of love felt by
Marguerite and Catherine, led ultimately to insanity. Gerson preferred to entrust all supernatural matters to “men who are quite learned both in ability and training.” (Gerson, Ouevres, 2: 61;, 2:98–99;
8:77–99).

CASE 4, 1689: THE DEVIL IN MASSACHUSETTS


“First. Witches are the Doers of Strange Things,” wrote Cotton Mather (1663–1728), an influential Puritan minister at North Church in Boston. “Secondly. They are not only Strange Things, but Ill Things, that
Witches are the Doers of….Thirdly. It is by virtue of evil Spirits that Witches do what they do” ( Memorable Providences 1689, 4–7 ).

Mather had heard evidence from the victims who had been lured to Witch Meetings where they saw their neighbors swearing loyalty to the devil by making a red mark in his book (a kind of anti-Bible). Satan
visited witches as a “black man,” they explained. His messengers took the form of talking animals—hogs, big black dogs, cats, a yellow bird, and once, a fly. In the space of one year, 1692, over 160 people
from Salem and its environs were accused of witchcraft. Fifty confessed in order to escape trial. Others Page 117 | Top of Articlemaintained their innocence: nineteen men and women were hanged, one
was crushed to death, and five died in jail.

The tragedy at Salem was the last battle in the great Christian war against witches and demons. Between 1500 and 1650, Europeans (including colonists on other continents) tried an estimated 100,000 or
more men and women as witches and executed between 20,000 and 30,000. The majority of trials took place in Protestant territories, especially Germany. Some 85 percent of the accused were women tried
for the crimes of making magic with evil intent and evil results, colluding with the devil, and blasphemy.

MEDIEVAL MAGIC

Magic-makers of one sort or another had lived unmolested for centuries among their European neighbors. Most villages had at least one healer learned in herb-lore or someone who sold potions to cure and
amulets to protect against bodily and emotional ills. They exploited supernatural powers for the benefit of their family, friends, and other customers, and were usually paid for their trouble. Early medieval
saints had performed many of the same wonders: healing incurables, controlling the weather, and reconciling community conflicts. In fact, until the fourteenth century, it was a sin to believe in the existence of
witches.

Then a new pope, who was both a heretic-hunter and fervent believer in magic, authorized the full use of inquisitorial procedures—the same methods used to seek out heretics—against supposed witches.
Pope John XXII (1249–1334) initiated a small witch hunt in the Alps and Pyrenees that lasted 150 years. It was not the first organized persecution of Christian dissenters, but it represented the first formal
effort by the leader of Christendom to define and eliminate witchcraft. That was when magic became heretical, thus anti-Christian, thus Satanic.

In 1486, Dominican friars Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger published the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook for identifying and catching witches. It explained how witches used malicious magic
to harm good Christians, and worse, practiced Satanic devotion and rituals. They worshipped the devil, denied salvation, conducted orgies, defiled the Bible, practiced bestiality, flew on broomsticks or
airborne goats, and roasted and consumed babies and corpses. Most witches were women, the Malleus Maleficarum explained, because females “are defective in all the powers of both soul and body,” and,
consequently, more easily corruptible. Witches masqueraded as normal Christians, but in reality they were part of an anti-religion designed to destroy Christian society and, therefore, entice otherwise
virtuous believers to eternal damnation.

The Malleus Maleficarum was a pernicious and popular book, but by no means the cause of witch hunts. Across Europe, people of all classes and of both sexes—whether clerical or lay people, old or
young—were persuaded to see not only their neighbors but also complete strangers as witches.

CHRISTIANITY FRACTURED

European Christianity was unraveling at the turn of the sixteenth century. In 1517, the Dominican priest Martin Luther (1483–1546) initiated formal rupture when he nailed a list of criticisms of church doctrine
and practice to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther particularly objected to the sale of indulgences—that is, the sale of promissory notes guaranteed by the pope, which diminished or eliminated
the years of punishment suffered Page 118 | Top of Articleby penitent souls languishing in Purgatory. Luther and fellow reformers also rejected the cult of saints as simple idolatry. In effect, Luther closed two
main portals to the supernatural: communication with the ancestral dead in Purgatory and access to the Most Holy Dead in Heaven.

Christians did not relinquish the supernatural, however. Both Protestant ministers and Catholic priests continued to battle demonic powers. Catholic clerics still recited prayers against cattle murrain inflicted
by evil spirits. They blessed textual amulets—written prayers—to defend individual bodies from demonic attack. They paraded with the Eucharist and statues of the saints, and made the sign of the cross
against all sorts of evil. Everywhere around them, demons were active but invisible. Protestant and Catholic alike understood that Satan was tireless and life was a test of their faith. Their behavior and belief
determined whether they would finally see Jesus as promised in Scripture or end up roasting in agony in hell.

WITCH HUNTS

Demons were up to their age-old tricks everywhere, as accused witches testified at trials across Europe. Both men and women of every class went to jail to be tortured into confessions based on the
accusations of neighbors. Local judges condemned about 40,000 to 60,000 men, women, and children (but mostly women) to be burned, drowned, beheaded, strangled, or hanged as witches. More
executions took place in Germany and German-speaking regions, Switzerland, England, and Scotland than in France, Italy, or Spain. Some scholars have suggested that the Protestant ideas spurred
individual believers to take active parts in the cosmic fight of good against evil. Everyone could read Scripture, thanks to Luther. Thanks to the Malleus Maleficarum, everyone could help identify witches, who
caused their suffering. Babies died. Crops failed. Raids occurred. People sickened and dropped. Terrible things happened to good people. Confessions led to other confessions— until they didn't.

THE DISCOVERY OF WITCHES

Judges and preachers in Europe were already beginning to doubt the logic of witch hunts by the time New Englanders discovered witches in Massachusetts Bay colony. In the courtroom at Salem, a small
group of teenaged girls demonstrated how demonic powers could be channeled by a glance or a twitch of the hand to inflict unbearable pain on a victim. At the trial of John Alden, “a company of poor
distracted, or possessed Creatures or Witches” was present to accuse him. The “Wenches,” according to court records, were “falling down, crying out, and staring in Peoples Faces.” When the Magistrates
demanded to know “who it was of all the People in the Room that hurt them,” the girls accused Alden ( Ray 2002 ). When Alden gazed at them or touched them, the accusers writhed in pain. Alden asked the
judge, “what Reason there could be given, why Aldin's [sic] looking upon him did not strike him down as well.” Some ministers sympathized with Alden's logic, suggesting how easy it was to fake possession,
and that accusers might have many motives for naming their neighbors as witches. Nonetheless, the Salem trials went on for a year before the governor of Massachusetts Bay colony put an end to them.

Accusations of witchcraft have never been restricted to Christian territories. Modern witch hunts and the execution of witches have taken place in regions of Africa, India, Papua New Guinea, and Saudi
Arabia. ISIL (ISIS) beheaded two witches in June 2015 ( Mezzofiore 2015 ). In April 2014, Pope Francis warned the world, “Look out because the devil is Page 119 | Top of Articlepresent! The devil is here
… even in the 21st century! And we mustn't be naïve, right?” (Vatican Radio). Cesare Truqui, a participant at the ninth annual Vatican conference on exorcism in 2014, told an interviewer, “Exploring the

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theme of demonic possession does not mean causing general paranoia, but creating awareness of the existence of the devil and of the possibility of possession … You can fight it with God, with prayer, with
Marian devotion (Gazetta del Sud).”

CASE 5, 2015, CALIFORNIA: THE VIRGIN MARY RETURNS TO EARTH


On the thirteenth of every month, a woman named Maria Paula arrives at a barren site about two hours' drive north of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert. She and two or three monjas (nuns) dress in snowy
white habits. Hundreds of spectators have already gathered at the site, which they call Our Lady of the Rock, or Nuestra Señora de la Roca. Slowly, everyone walks in procession for about a mile down a
gravel road to a modest stuccoed shrine. They carry a statue of the Virgin Mary, as well as rosaries, crucifixes, and roses, singing and praying as they go.

At some point between starting the procession and reaching the shrine, Maria Paula sees the Virgin Mary and kneels to speak with her. Although the crowd listens intently, no one else can see or hear the
Mother of God. Maria Paula has to tell them what Our Lady revealed that day. Usually it is a behavioral warning—no adultery, no sex out of wedlock, no abortions—or a call for universal repentance and
world peace. Some say Maria Paula can channel their prayers to the Virgin, who relays them to Christ. Pilgrims attend the monthly ceremony in hopes of someday hearing or seeing the Virgin themselves, or
of spotting some signs of her presence. They use cameras and cellphones to capture pictures of the sky, which they later examine for heavenly messages. Some claim to find angels, portals to heaven, and
prophecies, as well as the Virgin, in their photos. Others claim that their participation in the desert ritual, supported by Maria Paula's prayers and the Virgin's presence, has healed them of major injuries or
cancer.

MODERN APPARITIONS

Since 1830, when Catherine Labouré (1806–1876) encountered her in a Parisian chapel, the Virgin Mary has visited the earth with increasing frequency, according to those who have witnessed her
apparitions. An apparition, like a medieval vision, is a multisensory phenomenon. Mary, who resides in heaven, also shows herself, speaks, and touches chosen visionaries. She often brings the scent of
roses. Her most famous appearances have been at the following locations:

La Salette, France ( 1846 ), where she spoke with child shepherds;


Lourdes, France ( 1858 ), where she showed herself eighteen times to Bernadette Soubirous;
Fátima, Portugal ( 1917 ), where three children saw “Our Lady of the Rosary” and received prophetic secrets;
Beauraing, Belgium (1832–34);
Banneux, Belgium ( 1933 );
Zeitoun, Egypt ( 1968 );Page 120 | Top of Article
Betania, Venezuela ( 1976 );
Akita, Japan ( 1984 );
Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina ( 1981 ); and
Manila, Philippines ( 1986 ).

Since 1900, at least 400 Marian apparitions have been recorded by the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton (Apparitions Index). Since about 1950, there have been more
reports from the United States and Latin America than Europe. Scholars offer many different reasons for the rising number of apparitions. The secularization of modern society is foremost among them.
Modern Marian apparitions began when European nation states shed their religious identities. Other scholars point to global disasters—famines, epidemics, internal revolutions, and transregional
wars—which seem to inspire supernatural encounters. Class and gender conflicts are also possible culprits. The majority of modern Marian visionaries have been women and children from the laboring
classes. In fact, poverty and innocence have become trustworthy characteristics of authentic visionaries. Above all, Mary's reduction in doctrinal status—no longer Queen of all Christendom, since
Protestants do not venerate her—has promoted her popularity as a sympathetic intercessor with God and his only Son. Witnesses to visions are not exclusively Catholic.

Some famous modern apparitions lack Vatican support. At Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, six teenagers saw the Virgin Mary in 1981. At least two of them still claim to see her daily. An estimated 30 million
pilgrims have visited Medjugorje since then, which now boasts multiple chapels, monuments, pilgrimage paths, and gift shops. Many pilgrims claim to see supernatural phenomena there. The six visionaries
have been repeatedly examined by church officials, reporters, and doctors, sometimes while they are in trance states and speaking with the Virgin. Despite popular approval, Catholic officials reportedly find
the number of heavenly messages reported by the Medjugorje visionaries too numerous and repetitive to have come from the Virgin. In addition, they suspect the visionaries of profiting from the pilgrimage
trade in Medjugorje ( Peric 1997; Apparitions Index ).

Unlike late medieval mystics, contemporary visionaries do not need a confessor to publish accounts of their spiritual encounters with the Virgin. In general, the Catholic clergy tries to ignore reports of
apparitions. Church leaders get involved only when visionaries threaten harm, including heresy, to other believers or to themselves. For instance, the visionary Veronica Leuken (1923–1995)—who began
seeing the Virgin, along with numerous saints and angels, in 1970 at her home in Bayside, New York—was eventually prohibited from entering church property by the Diocesan Bishop of Brooklyn. She had
been predicting a looming apocalypse and spreading rumors that Pope Paul VI was an impostor ( Mugavero 1986 ). Rosary vigils continued at a second apparition site in 2015, twenty years after Leuken's
death.

MANY MARYS

In accounts of Mary's modern appearances, the Virgin looks and acts much the same everywhere. Wearing draperies of white and blue or gray, she descends from the sky, but not quite all the way to the
ground, surrounded by dazzling light, a shining mist, or a crown of stars. She is young and beautiful. She admonishes the visionaries who see her and urges penitence. She sometimes warns of events to
come, especially if believers seem unrepentant. She consistently urges world peace, prayer with rosaries, and traditional family values. She conveys her motherly love and then disappears.

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Descriptions of modern apparitions clearly draw on European accounts from the nineteenth century, as well as depictions of the Virgin in statuaries, paintings, and books. A few visionaries, though, draw from
non-European models when describing the Virgin. When Mary has appeared in Arizona, New Mexico, and California, she has often included messages about ethnicity and race in her revelations, even
though she herself appears with a white complexion. She also speaks Spanish. The major migrations of Mexican and other Spanish-speaking people into the American Southwest have changed popular
expectations of both visions and visionaries.

JUAN DIEGO AND LA SEÑORA DE GUADALUPE

La Virgen de Guadalupe was a new kind of apparition. She appeared in central Mexico soon after a troop of Franciscan preachers came to Cuautlitlán in the 1530s. One of the first indigenes to be baptized
was Cuauhtlatoa, who changed his name to Juan Diego (1474–1548). The convert was walking to church one early morning, passing the little hill of Tepeyac, when he heard birds singing a strange, lovely
song. According to the earliest written accounts, he wondered whether he had wandered into the otherworld of his ancestors, “the land of the flowers, in the land of corn, of our flesh, of our sustenance,
possibly in the land of heaven” (Nican Mopohua, chap. 1 , sec. 8). He heard someone calling to him in his native language of Nahuatl. Filled with happiness, he climbed Tepeyac to find a beautiful maiden,
dressed in robes and “shining like the sun, as if it were sending out waves of light.” The world around him shone “with the brilliance of a rainbow in a mist” (Nican Mopohua, chap. 1 , sec. 20–21).

Juan Diego prostrated himself before the unearthly lady. She informed him that she was the Perfect Ever Virgin Holy Mary, mother of the one great God of truth, and that she wanted the people of Cuautlitlán
to build her a church on that spot. In return, she would love “all the people who live together in this land, and…all the other people of different ancestries” (Nican Mopohua, chap. 1 , sec. 26.). She would hear
their pleas, relieve their suffering, and guide them to salvation. She ordered Juan Diego to relay her command to the bishop of Mexico.

The bishop was initially wary. His discernment of Juan Diego's spirit led to no conclusion about the reality of the apparition. It took three more apparitions to convince him, plus tangible proof. Juan Diego
delayed his third trip to see the bishop in order to tend to his gravely ill uncle, but on December 12 the Virgin sought him out and demanded, “No estoy yo aqui que soy tu madre?” (“Am I not your mother?”)
(Nican Mopohua, chap. 5 , sec. 119). She led Juan Diego to a field of roses, which he gathered in his cloak before returning to the bishop. When the bishop finally greeted him, Juan Diego spilled the exotic
blossoms at the bishop's feet. The emptied mantle (tilma) also revealed a miraculous imprint of the Virgin Mary's face—now enshrined and visible to all in the Basilica de la Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico
City, on the site where she demanded her church be built. Millions of people celebrate her feast day at the basilica every December.

These days, one can find the Virgin of Guadalupe everywhere in the southwestern United States. In Los Angeles, she presides over murals on the walls of grocerzas, on tattooed skin, and on automobile air
fresheners. However, it was not until 1990, when Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) beatified Juan Diego, that his vision received formal approval from Catholic leaders. The story of Guadalupe's cult is a lesson
in the glacially slow shift in popular devotions, cultural and ethnic meshing, and the process of the discernment of spirits. Our Lady of the Rock, according to the Maria Paul, may not look much like the
Page 122 | Top of Articlesixteenth-century apparition of La Virgen de Guadalupe, but both Marys are prominent at the vision site—La Guadalupana is present in religious iconography and in the hymns sung
by pilgrims.

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Shroud of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Basilica de la Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexico City, Mexico. Accounts hold that in the 1530s the Virgen de Guadalupe appeared several times before a Catholic convert
named Juan Diego, eventually leaving behind an imprint of the Virgin Mary on a shroud. Millions of people celebrate the Virgen de Guadalupe's feast day at this basilica every December. WENDY
CONNETT/ALAMY.

GLOBALSUPERNATURAL

The twenty-first-century Virgin Mary is an appropriate—if not all-inclusive—symbol of the long history of Christian encounters with the supernatural. In today's global, digitized culture, news of apparitions
spreads instantly—as do individual sightings of demons and angels in the sky, manifestations of Jesus on food products, or possession by evil spirits. Christians continue to sense the supernatural with their
ears and noses, as well as their fingers, tongues, and eyes. Some look for abstract transcendence and the ecstasy that comes with it; others seek certainty of salvation, or smells of paradise, or the divine gift
of speech in tongues. Still others grasp and wrangle with venomous snakes, hunt anti-Christian witches, or await the arrival of an interstellar Mother Ship piloted by Jesus.

The Internet has made it easier for users to investigate the supernatural of other faith traditions, too. The sacred texts and icons of Hindus, Muslims, and Jews, for instance, have infiltrated Christian
representations of the supernatural. Those traditions have borrowed from the modern visual culture of the Christian supernatural. Internet users post images of fish miraculously inscribed with the name of
Allah. They upload videos of exorcisms, introducing their demons and their process of discernment to a worldwide public. Some faith groups conduct virtual rituals online. Movies about supernatural
phenomena play in theaters from Mumbai to Minneapolis.

Scholars could trace the accretion of models and influences that shaped each of these historical expressions of the supernatural, pointing to political or cultural circumstances that brought any particular
supernatural encounter to public attention in a given place and moment. Today's Christians rely, as Christians always have, on three sources when they interpret supernatural encounters and discern spirits:
lessons of the Bible, religious doctrine, and earlier religious models of the supernatural. They also refer to their local visual environments for help in learning what the supernatural looks like. Finally, they
experience and explain the supernatural in the idiom of their particular historical moment. Modern American politics inflect the contemporary Christian supernatural, for instance, by separating church and
state. Social structures and economics shape visions, too; reports of the supernatural come more often from poor and poorly educated individuals, particularly women, children, and immigrants. Today's
digital, visual culture, gender norms, and religious demography all play a role in seeing a supernatural event.

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Summary
At the heart of all Christian encounters with the supernatural is Christ's promise that his followers would see their God. But which God? Invisible Father, Son incarnate, or flame of the Holy Spirit? Over the
generations, Christians also began to watch for heavenly messengers sent by their God, such as the Virgin Mary and the saints; and all too often they were misled by demons masquerading as divine
inspiration. After twenty centuries, Christians are still anticipating epiphanies.

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Zimdars-Swartz, Sandra L. Encountering Mary: From La Salette to Medjugorje. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

WEBSITES

International Marian Research Institute, University of Dayton. .

Internet History Sourcebook Project. .

Medjugorje Web. “Our Lady of Medjugorje Messages.” .

Ray, Benjamin. “Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.” University of Virginia. 2002. .

FILMS

The Blair Witch Project. Dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. 1999.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. 1972.

The Devils. Dir. Ken Russell. 1971. The Exorcist. Dir. William Friedkin. 1973. Guadalupe. Dir. Santiago Parra. 2006. The Omen. Dir. Richard Donner. 1976. Song of Bernadette. Dir. Henry King. 1943.
Sorceress. Dir. Suzanne Schiffman. 1987.

Source Citation (MLA 8th Edition)


Bitel, Lisa. "Seeing the Invisible God: Discerning the Supernatural in the History of Christian Visionary Experience." Religion: Super Religion, edited by Jeffrey J. Kripal, Macmillan Reference USA, 2017, pp.
105-124. Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks. Gale Virtual Reference Library,
go.galegroup.com%2Fps%2Fi.do%3Fp%3DGVRL%26sw%3Dw%26u%3Dsr3586%26v%3D2.1%26id%3DGALE%257CCX3642900018%26it%3Dr%26asid%3D824a1d6770377c64a7304a1c2f97d319.
Accessed 27 Feb. 2017.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3642900018

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