The first thing I need to say about The Miracle Detective (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004; 450 pages), by Randall Sullivan, is that you shouldn’t shy away from reading this book if you aren’t religious. In fact, the non-religious or the differently religious might have a better time with this book than those of you who are more devout Christians. In the book, Sullivan asks many more questions than he answers, and he ends the book still asking them, and without coming to any solid conclusions. This is not a criticism, by the way.
As the book opens, Sullivan, who is an investigative journalist, goes off to investigate an alleged visitation by the Madonna (that would be the woman Christians hold to be the mother of Jesus, not the singer), in an old, dilapidated trailer in Oregon. The young woman who first sees what she immediately interpreted as the Virgin Mary in the corner of a yard-sale painting, is not especially devout. But she’s sure of what she sees, word gets out, and soon the trailer is full of and surrounded by people who want to see for themselves.
During his visit to cover the story, Sullivan has a couple of eerie experiences in Powell’s, a bookstore in Portland, discovers that a much bigger series of visitations have been reported in Medjugorje, in what is now the Herzegovina region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in the course of his research decides that he could make a book out of the process the Vatican goes through to authenticate, or more often not authenticate, such visitations and the miracles that are often claimed to accompany them. He proposes the project to his publisher, who agrees to fund a research trip to Rome and to Medjugorje and to go forward with the book if what he finds there warrants it.
This sets Sullivan off on a years-long journey to discover what is really going on in such events and, as it turns out, to try to discover what he believes about them, about God, and perhaps about himself. Along the way, he meets visionaries, expatriates, believers, non-believers and maybe-believers, hangers-on of various sorts, and Roman Catholic clerics with a wide range of opinions about the subject of visitations and miracles. He might even have seen the Devil in Rome. There is a side trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, to investigate a series of alleged visitations there. There are questions about whether or not the claims of visitations violate the laws of physics, and where do the laws of physics come from, anyway?
Near the end of the book, Sullivan talks to a priest who also holds a doctorate in psychology and is considered to be one of the Roman Catholic Church’s foremost theologians. The priest, Father Benedict Groeschel, advises Sullivan to leave the question of what the apparitions and miracles really are, fact or fantasy, open because, he says, nobody actually knows what they are. They only have belief, and belief is a decision and a gift, and would be so even if any particular visitation or miracle could be proven beyond doubt, in a scientific sense.
At one point, Sullivan comes to the conclusion that visionaries are either lying, hallucinating, or telling the truth. What he comes to realize is that the answers are much more complicated than that. He also realizes that it is much easier to believe in the visitations and the miracles, and even in the experiences he himself had gone through in association with his investigation, when he was close to the source of them. Later, away from the environment where they were experienced, he began to doubt that the experiences he had really happened, or that they meant what he thought they meant at the time. And, he reports, sometimes the visionaries themselves begin to doubt that what is happening to and through them has really taken place.
So, it turns out that The Miracle Detective is much more a book of questions than a book of answers. Which is, perhaps, what I like most about it. I’ve always been much more comfortable with questions than with answers.