Abundant History: Marian Apparitions as Alternative Modernity
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12 Historically Speaking September/October 2008 "Abundant History": A Forum* AFEW YEARSAGO, WE RANA FORUM IN THESE PAGES ON of Religion, is widely recognisedas one of the leading scholars of American religious Constantin Fasolt's Limits of History. And in theJuly/August 2008 issue we publishedaseriesof reviews of Manifestos for History. Although verydifferentin detail, both of these exploredthe limits of criticalhistoricalmethodandits epistemol ógica!underpinnings. We return again to this importanttopic, this timefrom theperspective of religious history. RobertOrsi, apastpresident of theAmericanAcademy history. In thisforum, Orsi uses Marian apparitions to explore how historians often tame religious experience into "safe" explanatory categories. In theprocess, he highlightsthetension betweenabsenceandpresencein contemporary religioushistoriography. Fourhistorians respond,followedby Orsi's rejoinder. Abundant History: Marian Apparitions as Alternative Modernity Robert A. Orsi« I believe, indeed, that there is no tenet in all paganism , which would give so fair a scope to ridicule as this of the realpresence. " -David Hume The historical and cultural study of Marian apparitions and pilgrimages immediately draws us into the deepest contradictions of experience and imagination in the modern world. This was made eloquendy clear to me many years ago, in 1976, when I stopped by chance in the town of Knock, in County Mayo, Ireland, to fuel my car. I asked the gas station attendant how it was that Knock boasted such an enormous church with a plaza built for vast crowds, as well as its own airport. Do you not know what happened here, he asked me? I did not. Are you Catholic, he asked? I am, I said. Not a verygood one then, he said. He condescended to explain that in August 1879 the Virgin Mary along with several other holy figures appeared near the church wall in Knock to a number of villagers that grew as the evening wore on to around fifteen. "Here," the gas station attendant ended his story, "the transcendent broke into time." Here, the transcendentbroke into time. The conjuncture of transcendence and temporality, the particularity of here with the no-place or beyond-all-places of transcendence, exemplifies the unexpected conflations within Marian devotions of categories normally (meaning normal within the languages of the ?This forum is sponsored by agram from theJohn Templeton Foundation . Praying Near Shrine of Knock, Ireland, 1995. © Michael St. Maur Sheil/CORBIS modern world) held distinct. People journey to Lourdes to bathe in water from the spring that bubbled up miraculously from the spot at Bernadette's feet where the Lady told the girl to dig during the ninth apparition. It is this water, coming unexpectedly from dry earth, that people want to drink and to pour on their wounds. But then what do we make of the fact that Catholic pilgrims around the world journey to human-made replicas of the Lourdes grotto far from the European site to drink and bathe in the (ordinary) waters flowing from plumbing hidden in (more or less) artfully arranged rocks? Pilgrims almost always know that the waters at these other Lourdes flow from local reservoirs, but still they insist that these waters have healing powers. Conflations and erasures abound. In the places where Mary is encountered, where the transcendent not only breaks into time, but also gets involved in the nitty-gritty of people's affairs, the boundary between private and public experience is blurred. Pilgrims speak their fears and their most deeply held needs and desires aloud in the presence of others to images of Mary. The carefully maintained distances among bodies are erased as volunteers and family members offer the most intimate support for pilgrims who cannot walk, feed, or bathe themselves, or take care of their bodily needs, carrying them the final yards toward the healing water. A heightened sense of intimacy exists among people, even among strangers, a sharpened awareness of vulnerability, exposure, and dependence . The boundaries of single subjectivities dissolve in these potent environments of desire and need, conscious and unconscious. On another level, while Marian shrines have served as pivots of nationalist sentiment, the same shrines become international centers, where nationalist sentiments are eclipsed, at least momentarily, in the shared experience and expression of common need before the Virgin. The shrines create alternative publics of men and women in need...


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