Friday, April 08, 2011

Dark Holiness: Forgotten Apparitions

Dark Holiness: Forgotten Apparitions

By Scott Corrales

It would be an interesting exercise to sit down and compile all a list of all major events which occurred during a given period in history but were later forgotten, despite their impact at the moment. Almost assuredly better minds have attempted such an effort, categorizing incidents which caused a stir in their time yet totally overlooked by subsequent generations.

One such event--of gargantuan proportions, but tamped down by the triple factors of time, space and language barrier--occurred during the 1930's in Spain. The mention of those two coordinates will prompt thoughts of Ernest Hemingway and the international effort to participate in that country's bloody civil war, yet the event in question is by no means political. It specifically took place in the Basque Country, the industrial backbone of the Iberian Peninsula, with its coal mines and factories; Euskadi, in the mystifying Basque language, unrelated to any other on the continent and fancifully assumed by some to be the parlance of lost Atlantis.

A Forgotten Apparition

In a small, nigh well unreachable town in the Cantabrian mountains known as Ezkioga, there occurred a religious phenomenon far greater than Fátima and Garabandal, and perhaps more troubling. The agitation and the civil strife that marked those times aided religious authorities in stifling the situation ; the Second World War would succeed in obliterating any memory of it.

Ezkioga was rescued from oblivion recently through the diligent efforts of two journalists--Carmen Porter and Iker Jiménez--the first of whom published a book entitled Misterios de la Iglesia in 2002 and included her research in the text. Porter had the incredible luck to find, against all odds, one of the only copies of a limited print book regarding the mystery of Ezkioga...a book which church authorities had condemned to the flames in a tradition that dated back to the Inquisition.

On June 30, 1931, a brother and sister from Ezkioga -- Antonia, 11, and Andrés, 7 -- engaged in their daily routine of walking to a nearby dairy for milk and returning over the slopes of Mount Anduaga. On this particular day, the children noticed a bright light hovering above the treetops; forgetting their errand, they approached the light in awe and quickly dropped to their knees and prayed fervently, after seeing an image within the light source which they identified with the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The youngsters ran home to tell their elders of their religious experience; as in other Marian apparitions, they were scolded and warned not to lie about "things having to do with heaven." But such was their nervous excitement that they were later taken to see the parish priest, who was unable to detect any guile in their eyes and advised their father to be patient with the children. The priest apparently had reason for such a gentle approach: only days before, one of the communities most important landowners had had a much more dramatic encounter.

The landowner and his son had been dragging a fallen tree trunk across the steep terrain using a team of oxen when the tree unexpectedly rolled, dragging the beasts and his son with it over the edge of a precipice. Fearing his son dead, the landowner ran toward the edge of the defile and proceeded to descend. To his great surprise, he saw "a lady" holding one of the oxen by its horn; the son stood to one side, in shock but otherwise alive. The "lady" was covered by a long black veil and had a five starred crown which "glowed like a sun". The landowner "knew her to be the Blessed Mother". His friends, however, ridiculed him when the story was told.
But their clumsy jests would soon come to an end when reports of "a very beautiful lady in black" who would appear and cause children to kneel and pray with their arms outstretched began to surface. The children were none other than Antonia and Andrés, who continued to visit the location on Mount Anduaga where the initial contact had taken place.
Unlike Fátima, the miraculous visitations would not be restricted to the young. Less than a week later, a man known as Patxi, a carpenter who scoffed at the notion of apparitions and decried the foolishness of his fellow townsmen, claimed to have seen the woman in black himself: she had appeared to him wielding a bloody sword, addressing him in his native Euskera instead of Spanish. Her warnings were dire--there would be a civil war between Catholics and Non-Catholics in the Basque Country, but the Catholics would prevail in the end despite the death toll. A married woman named Maria Recalde had visited Mount Anduaga to pray the Rosary and was engulfed by a brightness she described as being "greater than that of the sun." She too saw a beautiful young woman, clad in black and holding a rosary, with her heart pierced by swords. María was shown horrific visions of desolation, rains of fire and poisonous gases killing thousands.

The sword motif would appear in a vision experienced by nine year old Benita Aguirre. She would tell clergyman Juan Bautista Altisent that she "could see the Holy Virgin...with two swords, on piercing her heart and another in her left hand, its point bloodied." The girl asked the apparition if she was bleeding for mortal sins, and the reply was affirmative.

So far we have a list of elements that are common to any Marian apparition, but there are details to Ezkioga, according to Carmen Porter, which suggest phenomena other than divine: some of the worshippers present at the Basque peak thought to have seen "a witch" rather than a beautiful woman; others saw a headless figure of the type reported in paranormal chronicles worldwide. Still another claimed to have seen the devil himself, describing the fearsome apparition as tall, red-headed and black, with fangs like those of a wolf. The man wanted to scream out of sheer terror, but managed to make the sign of the Cross and the apparition vanished.

Salvador Freixedo has the following to say about this part of the his native country: "There are in Spain two regions which have distinguished themselves throughout history for being the centers of witchcraft of the entire Peninsula. One of them is the region of the Basque Country and Navarre (Zugarramurdi, Berroscoberro)..." Church authorities in the 16th century believed that at least thirty thousand witches existed in the Basque country. Could there have been other forces at play here?

Summer had turned into harsh fall over Ezkioga, but the inner fire that inspired the believers did not waver. On October 15, another visionary named Ramona Olazábal informed the congregation that they should bring handkerchiefs with them, because the Virgin was about to induce stigmata in her. At five o'clock, Ramona raised her hands, standing at the site of the apparitions, and blood began to stream from the backs of her hands. The cry of "Blood!" rent the air as the faithful swooned and others hurried forward to dip their napkins in the seeress's vital fluid. A church hearing soon followed and Ramona's stigmata were questioned, especially when witnesses claimed having seen a razor blade on the ground beside her.

Even though this new aspect of the Marian phenomenon was called into question, the number of visionaries now soared past one hundred and fifty and up to eighty thousand people had visited Ezkioga to partake of the holy event. Church authorities were beginning to look into the event to ascertain that the events occurring in the remote Cantabrian mountains were other than natural, such as the healing of a stomach cancer patient whose recovery amazed physicians, or a paraplegic woman who felt better after praying the Rosary at site of the apparitions, and walked downhill to the echoed cries of "Milagro!" ringing in her ears. Even as eminent a physician as Gregorio Marañón visited Ezkioga and unequivocally stated that the phenomena were beyond the realm of the pathological sciences. "They belong to other disciplines that are beyond my competence."

The Church was not quite so sanguine. Religious authorities like Jose Antonio Laburu, a fiery preacher of the times, stood foursquare against the miracles, saying that the predictions had been false, that fraud was prevalent throughout the sightings, and that gift-giving had stimulated many of the seers "to keep having visions". Other religious, like Amado Bruguera, struggled to separate the wheat from the chaff (the true visionaries from the impostors, in this case) and to ferret out the impostors with inquisitorial zeal, firmly believing that Satan had also played a role on Mount Anduaga, deceiving the unworthy with false visions. His misplaced zeal would later win him a jail sentence and ecclesiastical censure.

By 1933, even as the political situation within Spain grew more precarious, Bishop Múgica of city of Vitoria wrote the Vatican, denying the presence of any paranormal phenomena and forbidding Catholics from keeping "any photographs, images, hymns" or other material regarding the apparitions. This decision was approved by Rome in a letter by Cardinal Sbarreti in which the "alleged apparitions and revelations of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Ezkioga are shorn of any supernatural character." The ruling also banned three books discussing the events.

The government was also finding the events in the village of Ezkioga tiresome. Pedro del Pozo, governor of Guipúzcoa, was given the order to put an end to the commotion over the Marian apparition. The governor ordered that the image of the Virgin be removed along with the souvenir stands which had cropped up at the site; if this was not done voluntarily, he cautioned, he would order workmen to demolish the chapel with dynamite. Although workmen had refused to manhandle the statue--being cautioned by the visionaries that to do so would mean their deaths--the image was removed to a cluster of houses for safekeeping. The authorities cut down the large cross which had been erected at the site, and the premises were fenced off to keep any further multitudes from congregating. Even more medieval-sounding was the decree issued by the mayor of Ezkioga under pressure from his superiors: the punishment prescribed for anyone having visions in public would range from heavy fines to prison, internment in an insane asylum, or deportation. Many of the visionaries indeed wound up institutionalized while others served jail time.

Was Father Laburu right about all of the prophecies being fraudulent? Apparently not. Most of the revelations concerning "a war in which much blood would be spilled within Spain" would come true, and which would begin with the closing of churches in Catalonia -- the event which would unleash the Spanish Civil War.

In 2001, Spanish film filmmaker Gutiérrez Aragón directed Visionarios: La Virgen de Ezkioga, starring Ingrid Rubio as one of the visionaries involved in the actual events. Although the production was not well received by contemporary audiences despite having been shot on location, it nonetheless served to rekindle interest in this all but forgotten paranormal event.

Headless at the Holy Sites

Strange creatures, some of them far from having a divine or holy aspect to them, are often reported at the sites of Marian apparitions. In the early 1990s, for instance, a "Bigfoot"-like creature was reported at the Marian shrine of Montaña Santa on the island of Puerto Rico. Believers like Ezkioga's Amado Bruguera shared the conviction that the devil's minions were at work at some of these locales, trying to frighten the faithful away from holy ground.

Most prevalent among these apparitions are the "headless" ones: the headless woman at Ezkioga had been preceded by a similarly decapitated figure--also female--which sent Lucía, Francisco and Jacinta, the young shepherds of Fátima, running for cover in 1915. The girl returned to her house and told her mother that she had seen "a white thing hovering over the trees which looked like a headless woman, having neither hands nor eyes." This presence was seen on two more occasions during the Fátima apparitions and became known as the "angel".

Journalist J.J. Benítez, writing in his landmark La Quinta Columna (Plaza y Janés, 1985), makes the curious note that strange headless entities form part of the lore of Spain's Las Hurdes region -- at one time so inaccessible and poor that it became the source of countless legends -- which is scarcely one hundred kilometers away from Fátima and Leira, across the Portuguese border. A mere coincidence or a fact filled with hidden significance?

Not to belabor the point about disturbing, seemingly non-angelic entities seen at Marian apparitions, but it is curious to note that the rituals of the ancient Coptic church (one of the oldest branches of the Christian faith) contain explicit prayers against the presence of "headless demons", such as the one appearing in the Zereteli-Tiflis collection, described as "a text containing a spell to provide protection against headless demons and powers that are bothering the person invoking angels and archangels". To make the link between Marian apparitions even more confusing, another such amulet invokes the virgin Mary's protection against a headless dog: "because I am having a clash with a headless dog, seize him when he comes and release me..." (Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power, Princeton: 1999). One wonders if this orison would have worked against the bat-winged, headless "Mothman" of West Virginia or a similar entity seen landing on a field in Britain in 1965.

Beatings from Beyond?

Salvador Freixedo has also made note of another strange negative feature that seems to afflict many of these Marian apparitions--the appearance of "persons unknown" who inflict bodily harm upon the seers or other involved with the miraculous phenomenon taking place at the site.

In October 1980, Amparo Cuevas, a fifty year-old mother of seven, became known as la vidente de El Escorial (the seeress of El Escorial) for her part in the Marian apparitions which occurred in said location. Cuevas was first visited by undescribable pain and voices which told her the suffering "was that of Christ on the Cross." From that moment on, Cuevas displayed the full range of manifestations that accompany the phenomenon: stigmata--including a curious image of a heart pierced by a sword on her chest--bilocation, levitation,speaking in tongues. She was able to take on the maladies of others, exhibiting the symptoms in her own body. Upon the onset of the pain, Cuevas supposedly "saw a beam of light heading straight toward her" which signalled the start of the mystical communion: during these ecstatic periods she would see the Virgin as a figure swathed from head to toe in a black mantle (with the detail of a white, gauzy veil included) as well as the crucified Christ.

While looking into the controversial El Escorial apparitions, Salvador Freixedo discovered that a gang of unidentified men--their faces conveniently covered by hoods--had inflicted a severe beating on Cuevas. The authorities considered the culprits to be members of some right-wing clique heavily opposed to any deviation of the Catholic doctrine, but the paranormalist drew an interesting conclusion of his own--based on his research into another, little-known Marian phenomenon of the 1970s.

Ladeira do Pinheiro, a small farming community not far from Fátima, became the focus of miraculous activity centered around visionary Maria da Conceicao Mendes. Mendes had startled members of the community and visitors with sixteen separate levitations, being transported--on one occasion--high into the air and losing herself among the clouds; three thousand communion wafers rained out of the heavens during one of the outdoor manifestations (their provenance was later determined to be the churches in the immediate vicinity) while other manifested in her very hands; the UFO phenomenon was also partial to Ladeira and its surroundings during the events, and some of these unknown lights outshone the full moon in their brilliance.

But one particular evening, while Maria da Conceicao Mendes held a nocturnal vigil with other worshippers, a group of men with clubs showed up out of nowhere to kick and batter the congregation. One of the worshippers died of a savage kick to the chest; Mendes lost her front teeth to another. The official explanation was that local roughs from Fátima -- incensed at the thought that Ladeira was "muscling in on the sweet deal" of the miracle business -- took matters into their own hands, possibly abetted by the clergy, who had declared the Ladeira incidents "demonic" from the onset.

"The resemblance between these incidents," writes Freixedo in Las Apariciones del Escorial (Quintá, 1991) "and what occurred at El Escorial is undeniable. Forces, whether human or non-human, appear to be always alert and active. These were not right-wing fanatics [...] but rather entities created by the apparition itself. In other words, they belong to the non-human montage behind the phenomenon. Absurd though it may seem, I suspect that the very entity that appears is the one responsible for the beatings."

The Devil at Garabandal?

So much has been written about the utterly inexplicable events at Garabandal--another town lost in the mountains of the Basque country-- that nothing can be added to it that will either make matters clearer or keep devotees of these apparitions, which ran from 1961 to 1970, from becoming enraged. For readers interested in delving fully into the matter, number of books and journals on the miracle are available in English and Conchita González, the principal seer, lives in the USA. Black and white footage of the girls walking backward and enduring some brutal testing by skeptics has been shown countless times on television.

But the bare bones of the event are as follows: four girls from the small town of Garabandal, near Santander, had repeated visions of both the Virgin and St. Michael and were given prophecies to disclose to the rest of the faithful. On June 18, 1961, while picking apples at a local orchard, the girls heard a "thunderclap" and saw a beautiful figure enveloped in light which they thought was an angel sent to punish them for stealing fruit. Over the course of the following twelve days, the girls would have visions of the same angel, dressed in blue and with pinkish wings, whom they took to be St. Michael the Archangel. The angel told them that they would soon be seeing the Virgin, and they did so after the eight visitation. The Blessed Mother appeared in garb that would be immediately recognizable to any school-age child in a Catholic country: a white dress with a blue mantle, a starry crown, and a scapular at her waist. The heavenly patroness told the girls to inform their elders that sacrifice and penance were in order to avert imminent punishment.

The thousands gathered in Garabandal to see the miracle were hoping for something more substantial, however, and in the wee hours of October 19, 1961 those present saw the famous miracle of the communion wafers manifesting itself on Conchita's opened mouth (and of which photographs have been reproduced in countless journals and religious tracts).

Garabandal's "dark side" -- if it can indeed be said to have one -- came about a few months earlier when theologian Luis Andreu lost his life in a car crash. Andreu had seen the four girls in their ecstatic trances and had been forced to proclaim aloud the miraculous nature of what he was seeing. When asked exactly what the miracle was, he told his friends that he was overwhelmed with joy at what the Virgin had shown him and that it was the happiest day in his life. Shortly after, he fell silent, much to the concern of those around him. The priest had died.

When news of Father Andreu's death reached the young visionaries, they claimed that they had seen the Virgin looking at him at one point, as though saying: "you shall soon be with me".

The death of this respected religious caused the bishopric of Santander to forbid members of the clergy from visiting Garabandal without permission from Church authorities. Worshippers were advised that they too must cease their visits, and the tide of pilgrims to the mountain village was stemmed for a while. But there was another death in the works...

In 1965, Monsignor Puchol assumed the bishop's crook at Santander and was even more stringent in his prohibitions against any veneration of Garabandal, issuing a terse pronouncement: "there has never been any apparition of the Blessed Virgin, nor of the Archangel Michael, nor of any other heavenly personage. There has been no message, and all of the events which have transpired at said location have a natural explanation."

It was this rejection of the miracle of Garabandal that many believed cost the bishop his life: he died while driving his car, allegedly screaming "God, what's wrong with me?!" before the collision. The car crash occurred on the same day as the feast of St. Michael the Archangel.

Another Jesuit father, José Warzawski, wrote a comprehensive study on the phenomenon entitled El Mito de Garabandal (Madrid: Ed. Studium) accepting the reality of the events which occurred at the site but ascribing them all to demonic forces. Does the Church know something else it isn't sharing?

(A version of this article appeared in Paranoia Magazine in 2003)