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Marian Apparitions:
An Anthropological Perspective

Dr. Michael Dean Murphy
Department of Anthropology
University of Alabama

Although I have not yet had an opportunity to visit Conyers myself (and I hope to rectify that shortly), what I have learned from the literature the Conyers people have begun to generate--and the wonderful material sent to me by the Georgia Skeptics--suggests that the events there conform in many respects to well-known patterns of Marian visions, shrine development and pilgrimage.

As an anthropologist, I am not terribly concerned with determining the truth or falsity of the apparitions themselves. My experience with visionaries and devotees of the miraculous suggests that most are neither suffering from some sort of mental disorder nor engaging in chicanery. Whether these experiences are somehow "real" or not is just not something I focus upon. I am very interested, however, in how psychological, social and cultural forces converge to lift the extraordinary personal experiences of some individuals out of obscurity. How do the vivid religious experiences of the individual succeed in capturing the imagination and focusing the devotion of hundreds, thousands, even millions of their co-religionists? Why do some seers "catch on" while others are quickly dismissed or disattended?

It might be helpful to consider that what is happening in Conyers is, in part at least, the intersection of three great traditions in the Roman Catholic Church: (1) Apparitions; (2) Marianism; (3) Pilgrimage.

Apparitions: Both the Old and the New Testaments are loaded with examples of supernatural beings (God the Father, the Holy Spirit, Angels, Satan, etc.) manifesting themselves to mortals in various ways. This tradition has continued throughout the history of the Catholic Church in which all manner of spiritual beings (especially Christ, certain saints and the Virgin Mary) are believed to interact with ordinary, even humble, human beings.

A supernatural manifestation is considered an apparition if the being appears to be physically present. Sometimes the apparition is limited to a strictly visual presence; sometimes it is also able to touch or be touched; sometimes it communicates through vocalizations. In short, the apparition (unlike the imaginative and intellection "visions" also identified by the Church) appears to be a corporeal visitation. Very often the apparitions are discernible only by one or a handful of seers who then communicate their experiences to those who have not been given the gift (charism) of directly apprehending the supernatural.

It is not at all unusual that the principal or primary apparition (or series of apparitions as is usually the case) is accompanied by other miraculous signs of the authenticity of the phenomena. The "Miracle of the Sun" is a very common event at apparitional shrines. It can also be dangerous if people stare at the sun for any length of time. Other common miracles reported at the sites of apparitions include the transformation of rosaries from silver to gold, or vice versa. Devotees may also experience strange physical sensations (a holy object may be perceived to glow or to radiate heat; the scent of roses may fill the air; etc.) As the vision site becomes a magnet for pilgrims, there will often be claims of both physical and psychological cures and it is typical for the shrine keepers to solicit and record testimonies of miraculous claims.

Michael Carroll, in his The Cult of the Virgin Mary (1986), classifies apparitions into two categories: hallucinations and illusions. He identified as hallucinations those visions in which outside observers report no physical evidence of anything extraordinary: only the seer or seers see or hear anything unusual. The apparitions at Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje, and it would seem, Conyers, are of this type. The apparitions that I have studied in central California are of the second type because they involve the play of light and shadow on the wall of a house. So is the appearance of Christ's image in the spaghetti billboard. These are classified as illusions because there is some physical stimulus available for all to see (often some sort of funny light) although not all see the same thing or come to the same conclusions about exactly what the illusion means. The famous Marian apparition at Zeitoun, Egypt some years ago is another excellent example of this sort of phenomenon.

Although to the outsider observer, especially the skeptical observer, it may appear that the followers of visionaries are completely bereft of any critical judgment about the phenomena in question, the fact is that there has developed over the centuries both the notion that sometimes apparitions are not what they seem (i.e., they are inauthentic or false) and that believers must be alert to the possibility of psychopathology, trickery, or even diabolical deception. Perhaps, this helps to explain why these events tend to follow fairly standard scenarios. Do not overlook the fact that devotees are constantly engaging in a critical dialogue about whether one or another manifestation is truly supernatural in origin. What may appear to onlookers as "mass hysteria" may actually be the excitement of people producing a convergence or consensus of opinion about what is going on. In other words, expect to find a culturally patterned skepticism among the true believers.

Marianism: Since about the 11th century the Virgin Mary has been far and away the most frequently identified apparition among the Roman Catholics of Europe and, later, the Americas. Carroll describes well the emergence and development of the cult of Mary (so does Zimdars-Swarts, 1991) although you can take or leave his psychoanalytic analysis of its attraction. One thing to keep in mind is that the prominent place that the Virgin Mary occupies in both official and folk Catholicism is perhaps the greatest single source of distinction between them and Protestants. Therefore, it is interesting when Marian apparitions occur in unlikely places like Georgia. Is there a big pocket of Catholics around Conyers? What do the local Protestants make of the whole thing?

Another interesting feature of the Conyers apparitions is that Nancy Fowler first experienced a vision of Jesus Christ. My understanding, and I could well be wrong about this, is that now she mainly experiences the Virgin Mary.

An important element of those apparitions which also happen to be Marian, is that very frequently they involve messages to the faithful. Typically, some of the messages are made public but others are kept secret. The public messages tend to be quite general and innocuous, as has been noted with respect to Conyers. This is understandable if you consider that most seers want to remain in the good graces of the ecclesiastical authorities. Wild or dramatic prophecies attributed to the Virgin Mary do not endear visionaries to priests and bishops.

Pilgrimage: As Sandra Zimdars-Swartz points out in her excellent book, Encountering Mary, modern Marian apparitions are distinguished from earlier ones by two features: they are public and they are serial in nature. That is, multiple apparitions occur in a sequence, sometimes over a very long period of time (e.g. the Medjugorje apparitions began in 1981 and they continue until this day) and the apparitions do not take place privately but rather in front of an audience. Both of these characteristics are conducive to the formation of a pilgrimage shrine.

Pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place undertaken for religious purposes. Some Catholics are attracted to the sites of apparitions because they want to personally experience the supernatural and, often, because they seek some specific supernatural intercession. One of the reasons that Mary is so popular is that she is the Mediatrix, a mediator between human beings and God. Hispanic Catholics are particularly given to seeking her intervention in times of trouble or necessity. Simply traveling to one of her shrines can be the fulfillment of a vow to her.

Once people start coming to the place of the apparitions a decision is gradually made about whether to accommodate them and thus promote pilgrimage or not. Often shrine construction begins and a core group of followers begin the task of normalizing the interaction between visionaries and pilgrims and, importantly, spreading the word about miraculous happenings. How successfully this is done has a lot to do with how long the apparitions will last and how widely known they become. From what I can tell from video recordings and other sources, it would appear that quite a bit of organization has been put into place at the Conyers shrine. There also seems to have been a significant involvement of priests in the affairs of the shrine and that is always an important factor.

In their analysis of over 6,000 pilgrimage shrines in Western Europe, Mary Lee Nolan and Sidney Nolan (Christian Pilgrimage in Modern Western Europe) note that fully 65% of them are focused on the Virgin Mary. Although only a minority of these shrines originated with an apparition, virtually all of the great modern pilgrimage centers did (e.g. LaSalette, Paris, Lourdes, Knock, Fatima, Medjugorje). Estimates vary about how many pilgrims visit Marian shrines every year, but I think that the Nolans are conservative in claiming that over 100 million pilgrims and religious tourists visit the Marian shrines of Europe each year. Although the grand apparitional shrines like Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, Medjugorge, El Rocio are impressive, it is worth keeping in mind that for every hugely successful apparition, there are countless numbers which either never enjoy public notice or do so for only a brief period of time before fading away.

I hope the forgoing helps provide some context for understanding the events of Conyers.

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