Los Angeles spread across the landscape like an altar cloth. Streetlights formed jeweled patterns: grids of straight lines in the valleys turned into curved lines that faded into nothingness as the roads snaked into canyons, hills and mountains. I’ve flown into Los Angeles more times than I can count, but I never grew weary of picking out the landmarks barely discernible in the dark: the race tracks, the sparkling towers of downtown, the dark passages where the rivers flow through their concrete channels.
The plane banked for its descent into LAX and I closed my book and put it into my carry-on. The man sitting next to me in 32B asked, “Is that a Catholic book you were reading?” The sound of his voice startled me; he had not spoken a word the whole flight.
“In a way,” I said. It was a book by a German sociologist about apparitions of the Virgin Mary. He considered them more a cultural and psychological phenomenon rather than a religious one. He emphasized how Mary seemed only to manifest herself to the weakest members of society: almost always women and usually marginal women at that. The visions provided status for the visionaries while the message that was proclaimed was usually one of support for the status quo. Anything revolutionary was reserved for those outside of the visionary’s society: non-Catholics, Soviet Russians and the like. I had hoped to find some hook for my next article in its pages, but it was a dry well.
“I saw Our Lady of Fatima on the cover and knew that it must be a Catholic book.”
I took a closer look at my traveling companion. It was rare that anyone could tell which of the many variations of the Virgin Mary an image was meant to represent. Was he a priest in mufti? 32B was a clean-shaven man in late middle age. He wore a sport coat without a tie and unfashionable glasses with black plastic rims. His gray hair retained only a few traces of its original brown, but he had the genetic good fortune to have a young man’s hairline. He had the sort of medium build that was completely unremarkable, not muscular and only the slightest hint of a paunch. I couldn’t say how, but somehow I knew: he wasn’t a priest.
“Are you going to Los Angeles because of the apparitions?” he asked. “That’s what’s bringing me.”
“What a coincidence. I’m reporting on them for The New Catholic.”
“The New Catholic. Oh.”
The silence hung between us, not without reason. If he was travelling to Los Angeles because of the supposed apparition of the Virgin Mary, it was safe to assume that he was not a reader. The New Catholic is the preferred religious reading of non-religious Catholics. It provides succor to the iconoclasts and agnostics who, for whatever reason, can’t give up that last connection to the Mother Church. They might no longer go to mass and consider Pope Benedict to be their own personal persecutor, but on any form that asks for religion they’ll still write Catholic, even if their only remaining connection to the Church is their subscription to our magazine.
“I’ve visited all the places that the Blessed Mother has appeared,” he volunteered. “Lourdes, Medjugorje, Rome City, Kibeho, Akita. I keep going.”
“That’s a lot of travel. I do this for a living and I haven’t even been to all those places.”
“I know, but I have to go. I’m sure that eventually Our Lady will let me see her, even if it’s not until I’m in the bosom of the Lord.”
I felt some sympathy for him but didn’t say anything. I fully expected the Los Angeles visionary, like all the others that I’d encountered in my career to be a pious fraud. It might surprise the readers of my New Catholic articles to learn, however, that there’s a part of me that hopes that maybe next time there would be something real behind the alleged miracle. There never is.
When I started my religious journalism career, fresh out of Loyola, I was still full of youthful idealism. I saw myself as a great Catholic reformer, an Ignatius or Francis for our time. I would be the lay writer who would pull away the last vestiges of superstition and irrationality from the Church. My first assignment, writing about a miraculous healing that turned out to be neither miraculous nor a healing, unveiled me in my readers’ eyes as the apostle of doubt. Debunking the supernatural became my beat for The New Catholic and I could count on at least two or three e-mails a week from readers thanking me for giving them the courage and the strength to leave faith behind and view the Church as a sometimes useful, if flawed social structure and nothing more.
I never welcomed this, although my correspondents obviously believed that I would. I was clinging desperately to a faith that was harder to hold on to with each day. It sometimes seemed that all that remained of my Catholicism was the Church’s own teaching against other superstitions: horoscopes, tarot cards, new age mysticism, freemasonry and all of that sort of thing—pretty much everything my correspondents counted as “spiritual but not religious.” When I railed against these things in my articles, my readers managed to get precisely the opposite message. I lived in my own complicated dimension of belief, belonging to neither the orthodox nor the heterodox.
I figured 32B was the sort of person who normally reads the more conservative Catholic publications, those targeted at the traditionalists and reactionaries. Their readers ached with nostalgia for the days of the Latin mass and priests and nuns who wore distinctive habits all the time, even though most of the people with any actual memory of those days have gone to the grave. Occasionally, I would get a letter from one of these conservatives, apparently after they stumbled across a copy of The New Catholic in the vestibule of their church or their dentists’ waiting rooms. They declared me an atheist and heretic, claimed I was corrupting the faithful with my confutations. They may be right.
But I also saw in 32B a valuable hook for my writing. For many of my articles, those where a miracle could be definitively proven to be a fraud, I fell back upon a regular formula taking detective stories as my template. I eliminated the impossible until the truth behind the “miracle” was exposed. My last story was written in this vein, culminating in the depiction of the tearful priest who had surreptitiously applied drops of contact lens solution “tears” to the face of the status of Saint Philomena at the side of the sanctuary, entering the church via a hidden passage from the rectory whose original purpose had long been forgotten. The priest, an insomniac, discovered the passage while spending a sleepless night rearranging furniture in the rectory. He pleaded with me, shedding real tears, begging me not to reveal his fraud, telling me that the discovery of his ersatz miracle would destroy the faith of his flock. I informed him that any faith that depended on lies could not be true faith. The article stood as I conceived it.
But for the “miracle” of apparitions like those that brought me to Los Angeles, another tack had to be taken. Since only the seer could see the image, a direct debunking was impossible. I usually found it best to tell the story using one of the faithful as my proxy in understanding the socio-psychological basis for the desire to believe in these visions. In this way, I’m able to satisfy my readers’ needs for an account bereft of any hint of the supernatural.
For these stories I usually created a composite character, identified as such in an italicized note at the end of the article. In this case, though, 32B struck me as the perfect lens for examining, not just the apparitions, but the debates within the church between the traditionalists and the progressives which had risen to a fever pitch under Pope Benedict.
“How long have you been travelling to the locations of these visions?” I asked.
“Since I took early retirement. I used to be an accountant at a firm in downtown Chicago, not far from St Peter’s Church on Madison Street. I worked there forty years, started back when they still had pensions instead of those 401(k)s.”
“And what about your wife?”
“I never married.”
Never married. Was I looking at one of the priests manqué who litter the pews of the traditionalist parishes? I did the mental math. At the age that boys would be considering becoming priests, 32B was experiencing the changes in liturgy implemented in the aftermath of Vatican II. By the time he would be making the choice between college and seminary, the Latin mass of his childhood would have been discarded for the new Pauline liturgy. Was that why he had decided not to become a priest? I didn’t ask. To do so would risk pushing him away.
Instead, I asked him how he heard about the apparitions.
“I’m on an e-mail list.”
Of course. The internet era has been nothing short of miraculous for enabling connections between people of esoteric interests: technology, pornography, obscure and exotic pop culture, religion and every imaginable combination thereof. There were whole sites dedicated to critical examinations of the latest English translation of the Roman missal and how it still doesn’t get everything right. As if God, if He’s even listening, would care about the distinction between God of power and might and God of hosts.
“You’ll have to give me the info for that list, it sounds interesting.”
“Not a problem. Can you give me your e-mail?”
“Sure. It’s Henry-dot-allen-at-the-new-catholic-magazine-dot-net.”
He wrote down the address in a small notebook he had tucked into the inside pocket of his sport coat. “It’s nice to meet you Henry,” he said extending a hand, “my name is Arthur Southwell.”
I shook his hand. “Where are you staying?”
“I found a cheap motel room at—” Arthur took out a piece of paper folded inside his notebook. “It’s at 5350 West Olympic Boulevard. Near the Cathedral Chapel of Saint Vibiana.”
I noticed that the page he held contained a complicated set of directions to reach his motel via public transportation. “Would you like a ride?”
“No, I can get there on the bus. I’ll be fine.”
“In Los Angeles? Trust me, take the ride. If you like, I can also pick you up tomorrow morning to go to the apparition site.”
“Are you sure? It’s not too much trouble?”
“Of course not. I’m staying close by.” I had no idea if this was true, but this was an opportunity too good to pass up. This article was destined to be something my editor would nominate for an award.
I had long ago learned not to check my bags, even before the airlines began charging for the privilege. Baggage claim was reliably a loss of half an hour or more that could be spent finishing an overdue article or watching hotel-room HBO if by some miracle I was caught up with my deadlines. But this day, I was willing to wait with Arthur for his bags if it would provide an opportunity to learn more about my subject.
I was not disappointed. I learned that Arthur had considered the priesthood, but his reasons for not pursuing ordination were not what I had guessed. Before he applied to the seminary, he found himself in love with a woman, the memory of whom caused his voice to trail off. He didn’t explain why they never married despite the fact that in his account they were deeply in love. I didn’t press the issue; if he never brought it up again, I could always ask when I drove him back to the airport at the end of our trip, or leave the end of the relationship unexplained when I wrote the story. This sort of lacuna is always a successful rhetorical device in my column; it makes my readers feel as if they’re reading something literary.
Arthur was a surprisingly ordinary man, despite being in his sixties and never married. The only unusual thing about him was his quixotic hobby of travelling to putative holy sites, and even that was a result of the desire that so many of us feel, the yearning to have a taste of what the soi-disant mystics claimed to have.
The tragedies of Arthur’s life extended beyond his aborted marriage. His career as an accountant was hindered, he believed, by his solid Catholicism, even in heavily Catholic Chicago. He was unwilling to play the sorts of accounting games that so many of his firm’s clients demanded: he would not disguise a profit as a loss or double count transactions in order to inflate the value of a future stock offering. And his insistence on attending daily mass at the Franciscan church nestled among the skyscrapers on Madison Street meant that he was never part of the lunchtime gatherings where office friendships developed and determined who would advance through the ranks of the company faster than they might otherwise deserve. Arthur dismissed my commiseration in his misfortune; he considered it a simple case of being an honest man in a dishonest business.
When I dropped him at his motel, we made arrangements to meet the next morning at the Catholic church just up La Brea for Saturday morning mass before driving to the site of the apparitions, a maintenance yard under the Santa Monica Freeway on the dangerous edge of downtown Los Angeles.
At mass the next morning, Arthur’s participation seemed less mechanical than the presiding priest, a forty-something cleric who had the appearance of a man who had stayed a little too late drinking at the Bongo Club the night before. The recent changes to the English liturgy texts, a subject of much Sturm und Drang in the pages of The New Catholic, were no problem for Arthur. He hit all the “and with your spirit” and “Lord of Hosts” and so on as if he had been using that translation all his life. Perhaps he had; the traditionalists had often pointed to the previous English translation of the mass as one of their warning signals of the invalidity of Vatican II.
I remained in the pew during communion, a fact that Arthur left unremarked when he went to the front of the church. It had been years since I’d received communion; it seems only right that a belief in God should be a prerequisite to partaking of His body and blood.
We drove to the maintenance yard where the visions took place in silence. NPR played quietly on the radio of my rental car, Sylvia Poggioli reporting on the latest news surrounding the economic crisis in the Eurozone. We passed a sign directing us to an on-ramp to the westbound Santa Monica Freeway and Arthur pointed and said, “I think that’s it there.”
A burgeoning crowd had gathered between the concrete pillars supporting the freeway above the surrounding neighborhood. Banners showing La Virgen de Guadalupe rose above the crowd. Two men were dressed as Jesus. It was the festive air that always sprung up around these happenings.
I turned onto a side street and gave ten dollars to a tattooed Latino teenager with a shaved head for the privilege of parking in the rock-covered front yard of a pink and yellow house. There were even odds of the car being there when we returned. I chose not to worry. After paying the outrageous fee for the insurance from the car rental company, it was their problem.
We crossed the street to join the crowd, trying to find our way to somewhere where we could see the visionary. She was nineteen years old and rumored to be an illegal immigrant. Many news accounts speculated that it was because of her immigration status that she refused to give her name. The online comment writers speculated that she had a racy background she was trying to hide. My own guess was that it was neither. She most likely came from a painfully mundane background. Having a mysterious identity increased her cachet.
A platform had been constructed for her to speak from. It was surrounded on three sides by makeshift bleachers. We looked for an open space and Arthur spotted a place for us near the top of the bleachers on the left side of the platform. I hesitantly followed Arthur to the seats he had spotted; the construction didn’t seem sufficiently strong to support safely the people already seated, let alone two more.
Once we squeezed into our seats, I surveyed the throng. Rows of people in wheelchairs were crowded against the base of the platform, with more of the sick or dying scattered through the crowd, all hoping that their presence would be enough to heal them. The man sitting next to me wore a plastic hospital bracelet on his wrist. I wondered if he was recently discharged or had found his way from the hospital without his doctors’ knowledge or consent. We were afloat in a sea of all the broken people drawn to the Church: the injured, the abused, the mentally ill, along with all the people who can only find a home among the broken people.
Something about how I looked at the crowd must have betrayed my attitude. “You don’t approve of this,” Arthur said.
“I suppose not. I’ve seen too many miracles that turn out to be frauds. Not one hasn’t been anything but. I can’t help thinking that it cheapens all”—I waved my hand over the crowd—“all the faith that these people are offering up. The charlatans and swindlers behind these things end up destroying what they think they’re building.”
“But you keep travelling and writing about all these ‘miracles’—don’t you sometimes feel like you’re just writing the same article over and over?”
“More than you know. I can only try to keep things interesting for my readers.”
Arthur looked into my eyes for a longer time than was comfortable. I turned away and he said, “I think that there’s more than just that going on. I think that you have a secret hope that one day the miracle will turn out to be true.”
“What about you? You must have had a lot of disappointment in your own travels.”
Arthur nodded silently. I wished I could open up his head and look inside.
After a long time, he said in an almost inaudible voice, “I just want to know I did the right thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“With Amanda, the woman I told you about. She left me because I was a Catholic, you know, because I believed in everything, that I wanted to accept all that the Church taught.”
“But wasn’t she Irish?—and Catholic?”
“She was, but she had left the Church by the time we met. She expected big changes after Vatican II and there were big changes, but not big enough for her. She thought the Church needed to let priests get married, let women become priests, give up the ban on contraception. She once said that every piece of news that came from Rome felt like it was meant to drive her further away from the Church. I can only imagine what she thinks of Pope Benedict.”
“Couldn’t you accept her like that? It’s not like yours would have been the first marriage between two people with differences in belief.”
“I asked her to marry me, you know. And she even said yes.”
“Then what happened?”
“She was willing to marry me but she refused to do it in the church. She wanted us to just go and get married, just go to city hall and do it in front of a judge. I told her no, we should do it right, get married in church with a priest. I loved her, I really loved her, but I also really believe that the Catholic Church is the one holy and apostolic Church, infallible and guardian of the truth. It has to be.
“There I was, insisting that we do everything the way the Church said it should be done. I insisted on it. She said she didn’t want to wait the six months that the Church said we needed to wait, or to go through the pre-marital counseling the Church said we had to do. We love each other, she said, why should we have to prove it to some dried-up virgin priest who’s never known love?
“I keep thinking about it and wondering if I should have done something different, should have said something different. I said priests did know love, they knew the love of God, they knew love better than anyone, and I really believed that. I think I still do. She laughed and said that they know nothing about love. At best they know lust, lust for little kids or for other men, and they were all hypocrites and liars. I asked her where that came from and she didn’t answer. She told me that she wasn’t going to get married in a church and if I couldn’t accept that, then I didn’t really love her, not enough.”
Arthur didn’t finish his story. He didn’t need to. I knew enough to finish it for him. He chose the Church over Amanda hoping for—I don’t know—for her to see the error of her ways, perhaps, or for him to see that he didn’t love her as much as he thought he did. Instead he became who he was now, a lonely old man, desperate to prove to himself that he had made the right choice in choosing the Church over Amanda.
We both stared at our feet, contemplating Arthur’s life choices when Arthur nudged me with his elbow. The crowd had gone silent and I looked up to see the seer approaching the platform. The people in wheelchairs reached out trying to touch her as she passed. She looked little more than a child, small and fragile. But even as far away as we were I could see the years of experience and pain in her eyes. I couldn’t imagine what would have led her to perpetrate this holy fraud.
She rose to the dais to speak and I took notes on her sermon. She proclaimed that Mary wanted us to be believers, to pray the rosary, to comfort the afflicted. It was blandly orthodox, disappointingly so. At least the heterodox visionaries have the controversy of their views. The archbishop of Los Angeles would have little resistance from Rome if he were to endorse the apparitions.
She was speaking about the need to take care of the poor when she stopped mid-sentence and froze in place. I couldn’t help holding my breath waiting for the next word. It was a brilliant performative technique; I’d have to use it during my next speaking engagement. My thoughts were interrupted when she suddenly shouted, “She’s here! The Virgin Mother is here!”
A woman screamed. A few people standing at the margins of the crowd collapsed in ecstasy. A group of people began reciting the Hail Mary in Spanish, Dios te salve Maria. Everyone craned their necks to see if they could see the Virgin. I looked too.
“Do you see anything,” I asked Arthur.
“No, do you?”
I shook my head.
It was a lie.
Standing next to the visionary was a woman dressed in a blue robe with olive skin and Semitic features. Her dark hair cascaded to her shoulders in loose curls. Her eyes bore the sadness of the sins of the billions who had lived and died in the last two millennia. Despite her sudden appearance in the center of the action, nobody looked at her, not even the visionary who proclaimed her presence.
The visionary repeated portions of her sermon, pausing as if she were receiving dictation from the unseen Virgin Mary, but the apparition paid no attention to her. The woman’s eyes were locked on me the whole time. Somehow, I knew she was real, that she was the Virgin Mary, that I was not hallucinating.
“Nothing?” Arthur asked.
Arthur sank to his seat while the rest of us continued to stand. I wanted to comfort him, to tell him the truth, but I didn’t. How could I admit to seeing her? Who would believe me? And wouldn’t it be worse if they did? I would become an object of curiosity or ridicule or even worse—devotion. The man who saw the Virgin Mary.
The saint kept her eyes on mine. As much as I wanted to turn away, I couldn’t. She looked deep into me in a way that left me feeling naked and exposed. I knew then that this was not the last time that I would see her, nor the last time that I would deny her.