Online Sunday Service: Is a Vision an Apparition With a Publicist, or Something More?

Beginning in the 1970’s, farmers or passersby in Great Britain discovered circles and in later years more complex pictograms impressed upon grain fields, mostly wheat, oats and barley.  By the early 1990’s, immense geometric circles, some the size of football fields, graced the countryside of southern England.  Almost everyone discounted the possibility of a hoax.  No footprints of pranksters leading toward or away from the pictograms could be found.  And besides, what possible motive could there be for a hoax?

Whole journals were devoted to exploring the origins, including but not limited to whirlwinds, ball lightening, plasma physics and a message from God.  As the crop figures became more complex, meteorological or electrical explanations became more strained.  Plainly, God or aliens were communicating to us through geometric figures.  Questions were asked in Parliament.  The royal family called in a former scientific advisor to the Ministry of Defense.  Some people accused the Ministry of covering the matter up.  A few inept and inelegant circles were judged to be attempts by the military to throw the public off track.  The number of crop circles rose to thousands, spreading throughout Europe, North America and Japan.  People increasingly cited the more complex pictograms in arguments for alien visitation.

In 1991, the wife of Doug Bower, a resident of Southampton, grew suspicious of Doug’s nightly disappearances.  Only after accompanying him on one of his nocturnal excursions did she become convinced that his absences were innocent.  Doug and his friend Dave had been making crop circles for 15 years, having come up with the idea over a pint one evening at their local pub.  Having eventually tired of their pranks, they confessed, demonstrating to reporters how they made even the most elaborate patterns.  But the media paid brief attention.  Many refused to believe Doug and Dave’s explanation, while others accused them of depriving many of the pleasure of imagining wondrous happenings.

The responses related to the appearance of crop circles remind me of the story “God’s Hat.”  Some people saw a celestial phenomenon of some sort, others saw a clever terrestrial prank, and upon resolution, all saw what they wanted to see.  But I’d venture to guess that most of the skeptics, if candid, would confess that at least for an instant they imagined wondrous happenings.  That’s the joy of visions.

What a wonderful turn of phrase: “the pleasure of imagining wondrous happenings.”

I like wondrous happenings, particularly films and stories that portray divine intervention, probably because I don’t put much stock in divine intervention in my own life.  But it’s fun to live vicariously.  In our Christian tradition, angels have been invariably  portrayed as cute children and attractive young fair-skinned women, usually blond.  Clarence broke the moldseventy years ago in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  He was a middle-aged, short and circumferentially challenged angel.  Later, Hollywood brought angels to us in the guise of Morgan Freeman, John Travolta and a host of down-to-earth Hallmark personalities, most of whom set good examples. Appearances of angels are wondrous to think about, regardless of their shape, size or gender.  I take pleasure in imagining them.

Throughout recorded  history the divine has revealed itself in visions.  Perhaps most common in our times are the Marian apparitions, commonly known as the visions of the Virgin Mary, our Lady of Fatima being one of the better known.  Knowing that I had license to deliver a talk on “vision,” I and two and a half other movie goers attended a recent showing of “Fatima,” the one half meaning that a patron left in the middle of the film.  It’s slow paced.  I’m certain that the Marian apparition was not the kind of vision that the UU program committee had in mind. 

“Fatima” is worth seeing.  It’s a straightforward telling of events surrounding the apparition of Mary on May 13, 1917 as seen through the eyes of  Lucia dos Santos, age ten, and her younger cousins Francisco and Jacinta Marto.  The children reported that the Lady would appear monthly on the same date and that she would perform a miracle on October 13.  The children’s accounts first drew skepticism from their parents.  Lucia had earlier said that the three should keep their experience private, but her disbelieving aunt told neighbors about it as a joke, and within a day the whole village knew of the children’s vision.   After word got out, the children’s account drew opposition from secular and religious authorities, the former because the officially secular First Portuguese Republic had been established a few years before, and the latter because the clergy wished to maintain  favor with the government.

“Fatima” is a real gem of a movie: low key, unpretentious, straightforward in cinematography (no gimmicks), well acted and held together through a series of flashbacks, an effective dramatic device anchored by a meeting between a skeptical university professor and Lucia herself, who died in 2005 at the age of 97. The fascinating aspect of the film was the portrayal of reactions to what I suppose we would call a supernatural phenomenon.  The devout, many of whom had sons fighting in the first world war, saw the children’s’ revelations as a sign of hope that their loved ones would return home safely. And when bulletins read by the mayor in the town square announced that a loved one was “killed in action,” expectations turned to anger and accusations of betrayal directed at the children.

On the appointed dates during the summer and early fall the children dutifully returned to the site of their vision, portrayed in the film as a plot of land farmed by their father.  On each occasion increasing larger throngs joined them, hoping to catch sight of the Virgin.  On the day of the predicted miracle, an estimated crowd of 70,000 stood in the pouring rain to witness whatever might be in store.  They were not disappointed.  By all accounts the rain abruptly ended and the heavens put on quite a show.

According to published testimony,  the sun appeared to “dance” or zig-zag in the sky, careen towards the Earth, or emit multicolored light and radiant colors.  The event lasted approximately ten minutes and could be seen in villages as far as twelve miles distant.  The local bishop opened a canonical investigation of the event in November 1917.  Secular reporters, government officials, and other skeptics in attendance verified the extraordinary solar phenomena.  Critics assert that eyewitness testimony was actually a collection of inconsistent and contradictory accounts.  Psychologists were of the opinion that witnesses could have been deceived by their senses due to prolonged staring at the sun and then seeing something unusual as expected.  Scientists talk of air temperature inversions, diffused rainbows and turbulence.  In other words, responders to the vision interpreted what was seen in different ways, as did the villagers in the story of God’s hat.

The Catholic church declared the miracle of the sun “worthy of belief” on 13 October 1930, establishing officially the cult of Our Lady of Fatima.  The Fatima event gave me the pleasure of imagining  wondrous happenings, far outweighing whatever satisfaction might result from analytical Monday morning quarterbacking.

Here’s a story of a vision from perhaps more familiar territory, as recounted in the Book of Acts.

6. And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me.

7. And I fell unto the ground, and a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest me?

8. And I answered, Who art thou, Lord?  And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.

9. And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.

10. And I said, What shall I do, Lord?  And the Lord said unto me, Arise and go into Damascus, and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do. Acts 22.

Based on my experience as a member of many Unitarian congregations over the years, I can imagine the following encounter, a counterpart to Paul’s vision on the Road to Damascus:

As the Unitarian Universalist made her journey to Cody, she came near Meeteetsi, and suddenly there shone around her a great light from heaven.  And the Lord said unto her: “Who do you say that I am?” And the Unitarian Universalist replied: “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the source of ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships.”  And the Lord said unto her: “I haven’t the faintest idea what that means.” 

So there you have it: two contrasting reactions to a totally unexpected celestial phenomenon.  On the one hand, Saul, whom we come to know as St. Paul, falls to earth trembling and astonished.  On the other, a Unitarian Universalist attempts to respond with logic.  Paul went on to shape a religious dynasty.  The Unitarian Universalist continued on to Cody, met a friend at the coffee shop and remarked: “By the way, you’ll never guess who I ran into on the road to Meeteetsi!”

In the biblical context, visions are often part of epiphanies, out-of-the-ordinary experiences that obligate us to change or to do something new.  Unitarian Universalists tend to encumber these experiences with common sense.  Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip “Dilbert,” notes that; People hate change, and with good reasons.  Change makes us stupider, relatively speaking.  Change adds new information to the universe, information that we don’t know.  Our knowledge — as a percentage of all things that can be known — goes down a tick every time something changes.”

These words would equally apply if we substituted “extraordinary” for “change,” as in: People hate the extraordinary, and with good reasons.  The extraordinary makes us stupider, relatively speaking.  The extraordinary adds new information to the universe, information that we don’t know.  Our knowledge — as a percentage of all things that can be known — goes down a tick every time we confront the extraordinary.”

A Unitarian, who was a university professor, took the Pope out fishing on a large lake.  As they drifted on the still waters in the middle of the deep lake, the professor accidentally dropped an oar and watched it drift away.  The Pontiff stepped out of the boat, walked across the water to the oar, grabbed it and walked back to the boat.  The next day at the university, a colleague asked the professor if he had enjoyed fishing with the Pope.  “It was okay,” the Unitarian replied, but would you believe that guy can’t swim?!”

Unitarian Universalists have sometimes been accused of being spiritually adolescent to the extent that most of the fun of the Impossible has been lost.  In a sermon entitled “What’s Funny About Unitarian Universalism?,” Dave Weissbard  remarked that in the 19th century when orthodox Christians were into revivalism and high emotion, Unitarians were more laid back, rational and suspicious of unbridled enthusiasm.  The criticism stuck and it is with us to this day.  Our critics contend that Unitarians aren’t God’s chosen people, they’re more like God’s frozen people.”  Weissbard continued: “The problem is, sometimes people get so caught up in the intellectual dimension that they don’t recognize the importance of the human component and fade away unfed.”

We Unitarian Universalists tend to get so involved in various causes that I sometimes wonder if we ever pause look enough to contemplate the extraordinary around us.  It seems that Unitarians are not so much interested in getting people into heaven as getting heaven into people.  It has been said that a Unitarian is just a Quaker with Attention Deficit Disorder.  Visions can be time consuming.  Rationalization requires effort.  Nevertheless, visions do crop up from time to time in Unitarian Universalist experience, as related by the Rev. Kit Howell, Unitarian Universalist Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, from his sermon “Stark Raving Normal,” reprinted in the March 1996 issue of “Quest,” published by the Church of the Larger Fellowship.

I grew up a Unitarian, having gone to the same Dallas church all my life.  My family went to that church, and I thought of myself as a Unitarian.  So you can imagine my surprise when my father announced one Sunday that we were going to a small Episcopal church.  Papa said he had met a saint – a prophet.

Sounded scary to me.  Besides I didn’t put much stock in saints.  But papa said there just weren’t many saints in the world, regardless of their religion, and when you found one, you needed to pay attention. So off we went to the Episcopal church.  Papa made us sit through the service, to be close to this saint.  He was a Latin American.  His name was Father Vega.

I didn’t listen to what he said, because what 10 year old does?  No, nothing happened to me until people came down for communion.  I didn’t receive communion, but I did kneel down at the railing.  Father Vega came by and blessed me.  He put his hand on my head and blessed me.  I had never been blessed before.  I felt it from the top of my head to my toes.  It was wonderful, as if some unearthly energy swept through me, some strange joy.

For six months I came back to be blessed.  And I always wondered, how did he do it? Where did this blessing come from?  One day after church, I understood it all.

We had been waiting in the car for papa after church and my mother finally went in to get him.  I went into the sanctuary.  Papa wasn’t there.  But Father Vega was there with this big, red, beefy parishioner.  He was standing over Father Vega, jabbing his finger at him and saying, “Father, there are people in this congregation, important people — you know who they are — and they want an air conditioner.  I tell you, Father, if this air conditioner issue isn’t resolved, there’s going to be trouble!”

And Father Vega just stood there, his face serene and unchanging.  It was one of those moments when everything seemed to freeze, and everyone stood just so, so you could see beyond them.  You could see the world they lived in.  I looked at the big, red, beefy guy and I could tell his world was full of air conditioners, and power, and cars and church politics.  And I looked at Father Vega and through him I saw another world — a huge and terrifying world where love was real and, like seraphim and angels and Jesus, love walked and talked.  I saw a world where spirit guided the flesh, where there was mercy and not sacrifice, where there was justice, where forgiveness and compassion and love were not abstractions, but were real and concrete and there, in the eyes of Father Vega.

So what happened?  Father Vega blessed this big, red, beefy guy.  He touched him on the arm, and he said “Bless you.” And then after a moment, Father Vega walked on, leaving the guy stunned and infected with grace.  But the big, red, beefy guy shook it off, and went on his way.  That’s when I understood where blessings come from.  They come from that other world — the world that is the giving heart of this world.

I’ll conclude with my own near-vision experience.  Not far from the rural community of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, drawn upon as an inspiration for the novel “Peyton Place,” written by Grace Metalious, there is a downhill ski area whose name escapes me. I was there with a group of boy scouts more than 65 years ago.  Our leader had a second home nearby.  I don’t remember why we were trudging up a steep ski slope on a summer evening at dusk .  I think our goal was to stand at the top of the ski jump so that we could imagine the nerve that might be required to soar from it.

Ski areas were forlorn almost spooky places in the off season in the days before the slopes were retrofitted for summer mountain biking,.  Drain pipes, broken snow fences, muddy ruts, tall weeds and limp cables marked the ski runs.  Finally we reached the top of the jump.  After peering down into the gloom and deceiving ourselves that “aw, I could do that.  Piece of Cake,” our attention was drawn to the starter’s shed.  Somebody tried the door and it was unlocked.  We walked in.  As our eyes adjusted, and as the kids that ate all their carrots first began to see, an apparition appeared in the corner behind the door.  It was a woman clothed head to toe in a white gown, her face white, her expression sad.  With one accord we burst from the shed and ran.  As an Episcopalian I had no idea who she was, but my Roman Catholic friends knew.  As if reading their minds, a faint voice from the bottom of the ski slope, reduced to murmur by distance but no less authoritative, commanded  “Don’t touch the Virgin!”

That phrase, “don’t touch the Virgin” gives me pause whenever I’m tempted to debunk someone’s account of a happening that defies logic.  To this day I treasure the memory of that figure in white,  standing silently in the dusk on a New Hampshire hillside, notwithstanding the knowledge that she was part of a display to be illuminated by fireworks the following night as part of a revival meeting, as we later learned.

Late at night, following a session of “Build Your Own Theology,” Unitarians Ron and Don decided to take a shortcut through the local cemetery on their way home.  As they gingerly threaded their way through the dark and mist they were startled by a loud tapping sound, the source of which seemed uncomfortably close to the ground.  They nearly tripped over an old man busily attacking a headstone with hammer and chisel.

 “You gave us a fright, old man,” said Ron.  “For a second we thought we heard a ghost. What are you doing here in the middle of the night chiseling on that headstone?” “Damn fools,” replied the old man, “they spelled my name wrong!”

In conclusion I’ll recite a couple of verses written by Joni Mitchell that sum up on the  one hand the wonder of visions and on the other what happens when we forget them:

Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

And with apologies to Joni, I’ve altered verse three as follows:

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I adore
I really want to see some  more.