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The Miracle Detective
by Randall Sullivan
Atlantic Monthly, 448 pages, $25

Few things rankle the modern mind more than religious apparitions. See a ghost, and you may raise a few eyebrows; see a celestial being, and eyes will roll, tongues clack, friends worry and strangers edge away. To believe in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s sanctity is, in our day, standard Christian issue; to believe in her heavenly queenship is acceptable, if rather old-school; but to believe that she has visited France, Rwanda, or Bosnia-Herzegovina with a message of love and apocalyptic thunder is, in large swaths of the educated world, to cross the line of good taste into the twilight zone of pious fanaticism.

Randall Sullivan, an investigative reporter for Rolling Stone and the author of two true-crime books ( The Price of Experience , about the “Billionaire Boys Club” of corrupt financiers, and Labyrinth , about the murder of rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.) encountered all these reactions when he decided to investigate the world of Catholic apparitions.

He encountered them, most interestingly, in himself, for he began his research as a committed skeptic. One day, while browsing in a Portland bookstore, he picked up a volume about the apparitions at Medjugorje, in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, classified it as “your basic devotionalist drivel,” and told himself that “religion was a subject best left to the religious.” Nonetheless, the topic stuck in his mind. A few weeks later he pitched to his publisher, on the spur of the moment, a “wide-ranging” book on religious visions and soon walked through the looking-glass into a madcap realm of bleeding statues, mysterious parchments, apocalyptic prophecies, luminous apparitions, and the host of scholars, madmen, holy fools, and ordinary faithful who pursue these arcane subjects.

The upshot of his investigations, detailed in this very long and lively book, was that he wound up a believer (with reservations). To begin as a skeptic and end as a believer is a familiar authorial pose, one might even say a genre in its own right, and more than one author has adopted a false naiveté to lend his book a powerful denouement and to juice up sales. But Sullivan’s odyssey from doubt to faith rings true, if only because of the urgency of his reporting, much of it intensely personal, as he describes not only the world of Catholic apparitions but his increasing inability to resist the startling messages that they convey.

For the most part, Sullivan’s multi-year investigation focuses upon Medjugorje, site of the most spectacular Marian visions of modern times. Here, on June 24, 1981, the Virgin appeared for the first time to six young people”four girls, two boys, ranging in age from ten to seventeen”and delivered a message filled with uncontroversial Catholic verities: “I have come to tell you that God exists” and “Obey your grandmother and help her, because she is old” typify Mary’s pronouncements on this occasion. The messages continued the next day, and the next, and”here is where Medjugorje stands apart from all other apparitions”continue to this day. As of 2005, three of the visionaries (now fully grown adults) still receive daily visits from Mary, with many thousands of messages now received.

The unfolding of the Medjugorje events makes for an immensely complex tale. Throngs of people began to attend the daily appearances (the total number of visitors, by 2005, has reached many millions), the Communist authorities accused the visionaries of deceit and mental illness, and the local bishop rejected the visions outright, detecting in the hubbub the hand of Satan. Important Catholic scholars, most notably French theologian Father René Laurentin, visited the site and came away convinced that the seers were indeed discoursing with Mary. Miraculous healings occurred, in which the dumb spoke and the paralyzed walked. Teams of scientists jabbed the seers with needles and flooded their dilated pupils with light, all to no effect; the children remained impervious, rapt in meditation, and the specialists concluded that “no scientific discipline seems able to describe these phenomena.”

Meanwhile, the divine messages poured out on a daily basis; most sustained the original mild”some would say bland”note, but others had more bite, especially ten “secrets” that, in a curious echo of the three Fatima secrets, include chastisements and apocalyptic warnings. Only one secret has been revealed: When the apparitions end, the Virgin will leave a permanent supernatural sign, so far undefined, at the site of the original visitation. In addition to these perplexing messages, the visionaries have also been granted the power of supernatural travel, and some of them have visited Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Heaven is a blend of near-death and Swedenborgian landscapes, described by one of the visionaries as “a huge endless tunnel filled with an unearthly kind of light” and populated by men and women in bright yellow and gray robes. Another seer received, in addition, a mysterious parchment, never seen by the public, made of some unearthly substance and containing the full text of all ten secrets.

Sullivan recounts this history with tremendous verve, interweaving the religious, social, and political threads, which include the Bosnia war from 1992 to 1995, as well as numerous visits to the Vatican, where the author discovers that Curia officials, as one would expect, hold a variety of opinions about Medjugorje, covering the spectrum from enthusiasm to scorn.

The Miracle Detective also describes in detail other twentieth-century apparitions of varying impressiveness, ranging from an image of the Virgin appearing in a corner of a landscape painting in a rundown trailer home in Boardman, Oregon, to the amazing events in Zeitun, Egypt, from 1968 to 1973, where millions of people witnessed the glowing figure of the Virgin atop a Coptic church (the image was photographed by several professional photographers and can readily be found online).

What holds Sullivan’s report together, apart from his impressive authorial skills”he shows particular ability to capture the eccentric personalities involved, as well as the hot, dry, impoverished landscape of Medjugorje”is his personal investment in the case. He begins by assuming that there are only three viable explanations for the visionaries’ claims: fraud, hysteria, or real visitations. Vatican officials added two more to the list: diabolical possession and the sophisticated idea that a genuine divine encounter may be filtered by a seer’s unconscious, producing a vision “at once symbolic and actual.”

Choosing among these options drives Sullivan half-mad. He seems to believe that he glimpsed a demon in the Piazza Navona in Rome; he panics and tries to leave Medjugorje; while witnessing an exorcism at Medjugorje’s Youth Festival Mass, he reveals, “I felt as if the bones of my sternum had separated and my heart was about to break through the flesh.” This extreme passage gives some sense of the crackling electric sweep of thoughts and feelings that course through the book.

Happily, Sullivan accompanies this high psycho-drama with a sense of his own absurdity and some delightful responses to less than adequate theories put forth by so-called experts; grappling with the problem of the devil, he turns to the writings of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, and finds that “Jung’s answer was exactly the sort of obfuscatory twaddle that had made him such a disappointment to me: Evil is terribly real for each individual. If you regard the principle of evil as a reality, you can just as well call it the devil.” Exit Jung.

The mystery of Medjugorje remains unresolved at book’s end. Sullivan doesn’t know what to make of it, and neither does the redoubtable Fr. Benedict Groeschel, an expert whom Sullivan visits as his investigation peters out. “I find Medjugorje extremely puzzling,” Groeschel admits, suggesting that perhaps the apparitions began as authentic supernatural events but “changed into something else,” possibly a variety of “deeply devout hysteria.”

This cautionary note is characteristic of Groeschel, whose A Still Small Voice (1993) remains the best modern study of private revelations, including apparitions. Groeschel, who is sympathetic to these phenomena and to those who experience them, emphasizes throughout his book that visions never come directly from God but always through human intermediaries and thus contain personal elements, cannot be taken as infallible, and must be assessed prudently in light of the teachings of the Church.

Sullivan, far less of a theologian, is more inclined to shout the legitimacy of the Medjugorje apparitions from the rooftops. But even he holds back, worried by the oddities that surround the case. All the same, his long investigation pays the highest dividend: He winds up his study as a Christian, having seen too much”not only in the way of miraculous events, but in the deep dogged faith of Catholics around the world”to doubt the reality and the mystery of God. “All I had demonstrated to myself,” Sullivan concludes, “was that I could not live without God’s love, and that the only way I knew to get it was to love Him back.” The seers of Medjugorje, deluded or not, could not ask for a happier resolution.

Philip Zaleski is a research associate in religion at Smith College. His latest book, co-authored with his wife Carol Zaleski, is Prayer: A History (Houghton Mifflin).