In the mid-1990s, Randall Sullivan stumbled upon claims that the Virgin Mary had been appearing to children in a village in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The subject of heavenly apparitions was as intriguing to the secular journalist as it was alien. His response was to embark upon a journey into the nature and disputed reality of modern-day miracles. That journey is the subject of Sullivan’s utterly captivating book, The Miracle Detective (Grove Press, 2004).
[pullquote]The focus is on the events and personalities of Medjugorje, where six children were reported to have daily encounters with the Virgin Mary in 1981. Sullivan’s book is an illuminating, meticulous examination of the role of science in assessing claims of the miraculous. It is also a compelling character study, full of personalities as gripping as any you’ll find in fiction. Examples include the dauntless seer Vicka (“the most radiant human being [Sullivan] had ever encountered”); Karen, the savagely abused British expatriate who believes in God, but hates Him for the suffering He allows; and Benedict Groeschel, the New York scholar and priest who is considered a living saint by some and “Groucho Marx in a monk’s habit” by others.
Last, but not least, Sullivan’s book is a spiritual journey in the first person. He is full of doubts: ”I could hear the God station signaling through the static, but I always lost it… and afterward wondered if it was all in my imagination.” But sometimes, he is also electrified, humbled and awed by his total immersion into religiosity. Sullivan has the first real religious experience of his life at an immense cross atop storm-tossed Mount Krizevac, an experience that’s expressed, to his astonishment, as liberating laughter, in an unexpected communion with “a God who was wild and free and totally unpredictable.”
Apparitions of the Virgin Mary, which go back at least to the third century, “are viewed by those who believe in them as both a promise of salvation and a prelude to apocalypse.” Intriguingly, those who experience such visions are more surprised than anyone else that something so extraordinary has happened to someone so ordinary. When he embarked on his journey, Sullivan believed that “there were three possible explanations for the raptures of religious visionaries: They were fakes, or they were hysterics, or they were telling the truth.” By journey’s end, however, Sullivan’s view is more nuanced: “[For] a human being, the truth is and must remain entirely subjective. … Faith is no more the elimination of doubt than courage is the absence of fear.”
John Arkelian is a writer, professor of media law and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine. Copyright © 2009 by John Arkelian