When people claim to have seen visions of religious significance, we can interpret this in three different ways: they could be entirely religious experiences, or a sincere delusion or fraud.
Quite a fuss has been made over claims made by a rather drab 17-year-old girl in Benoni who claimed that she had numerous visions of the Virgin Mary. She claimed that the Virgin has appeared to her at least 20 times in different parts of her home, and she has created shrines at each spot, complete with little statuettes of Mary, pictures of the crucifixion, candles, and bunches of roses.
The first vision
We were told that the first vision occurred during the evening meal, while the girl was replacing an encyclopaedia on a bookshelf. She smelled a strong odour of roses, and fell to her knees crying tears of joy. Now most of us, faced with such a burst of rosy odour, would think of spilled perfume, or a new home air freshener, rather than immediately expecting a major religious experience and feeling rapture.
This reaction suggests a strong degree of specific happy expectation of the meaning of the perfume. She called her family to her, and they also smelled the roses. When she went to her bedroom, she found Mary sitting at her bedside. She described long brown hair, and "ice-blue eyes", and an "ice-blue cloak", and Mary had light coming out of her hands. She says the Virgin told her to write a book about her experiences (according to some reports, it must be called “Doorlight to Heaven”, which is a most peculiar title), and to start a youth prayer group.
Apparently Mary has a "baby-soft hand", and wept sadly about “gays, gay marriages and abortions, saying they were not from God”, which sounds more like a far-right political agenda than a truly spiritual message. The Virgin told her to “pray the rosary, and to get others to pray it, as though it were the last day on earth”.
Holy oil from the taps
One report says that hardened newspaper reporters claimed to have felt very much at peace when touched by Francesca, which I find really hard to believe. Similarly, we are told that in the home, the tap water suddenly became miraculously mixed with "Holy Oil". What we saw on Carte Blanche looked more like cooking oil, and again one wonders why contaminated water should be immediately assumed to be holy in origin, and why any holy intervention would be so trivial, obscure and unhelpful.
Though similar visions have been reported by various people around the world and across the ages, I don't recall such a persistent and hyperactive Virgin, making 20 appearances within the same house. The mother was quoted, early on, as making a very curious comment, that this came "at an opportune time" for her daughter, who had left school, and that this "may be her calling."
It seems certain that far more is going on here than meets the eye. This is, we are told, a highly devout Catholic family among whom presumably the idea of visions is accepted as possible, desirable, or even likely. We gather there are pictures of Jesus and Mary all around the family home - I would be surprised if the Mary seen in the vision did not closely resemble the pictures round the home.
One report I found online, said: "At age 15, in standard 8, her father took her out of school. This was in the same year that she was confirmed and discovered that she had certain gifts, namely, speaking in tongues and seeing certain visions."
Now, this is odd. Seeing visions, and certainly speaking in tongues, is not a normal sequel to being confirmed; and a most odd reason for taking a girl out of school. But it strongly suggests a girl believing profoundly in a very old-fashioned and almost archaic form of Catholic Christian beliefs, who sees the experience of visions as a worthwhile career, and has a set of beliefs and expectations that would almost provide a script for what happened in Benoni.
Speaking in tongues
This also known as glossolalia, which is a form of dissociative disorder with its own special significance here. So we have a plain girl, apparently finished with her basic education and perhaps at a loss for occupation, within a family who believes in and almost expects such events, and which may, wittingly or unwittingly, have encouraged this development in the girl after her earlier claims.
And then there's what we saw on Carte Blanche recently, which I found very disquieting indeed. There was an old priest present who seemed, instead of observing and calming the situation, to be delighting in it and participating actively.
There was much laying on of hands, and when the girl began to babble and "speak in tongues", and then, good grief, so did the priest. This must lead one to wonder about the extent and nature of his influence, and whether he had been encouraging the development and shaping of these phenomena. A Church spokesperson mentioned that her parish priest has been advising her and that she would be supported by the Church, but from what we saw on Carte Blanche, it looked a lot more like coaching than advising.
Visions the world over
Visions of the Virgin Mary (known as Marian Visions) and similar religious sightings, are not especially uncommon, though not quite what one expects within a South African suburb. There are also a variety of situations known as pareidolia in which people who are not hallucinating, do see "visions" or perceive objects that are not actually there.
How are we to understand such events? Broadly, there are three alternatives. Firstly, this could be a purely religious experience, with no other influences or components. This seems to be an uncommon situation. Secondly, it could be a delusion - the person claiming such experiences is mistaken, sincerely, and suffering some form or mental illness, or at least a temporary disturbance. Or they are displaying ardent wish-fulfilment, seeing what they very dearly wish to see. Thirdly, it could be basically fraudulent, arising from someone's wish to become important and either ultimately to make money out of it, or at least to enjoy the temporary celebrity.
Where the claims are accompanied by an expressed or implied power to heal, more unpleasant effects may arise, as has been the case in this instance. The Catholic Church does recognise the occurrence of such visions of Mary, such as those at Fatima, Lourdes, Knock, and Guadeloupe. Such visions have been reported in various parts of the world, including some African sightings reported in Ruanda, 1982-1988, and in Accra, Ghana, in November 2004. But not all such claims are recognised or accepted as serious events. There is a formal process of investigation and recognition (or not). (see below)
From a psychiatric perspective
In the Cybershrink Forum I was asked about the opinion given on radio by another shrink, that this could be explained by schizophrenia. The girl is indeed around the age that schizophrenia starts to show itself, but the belief is very culturally appropriate within devoutly Catholic communities, especially those from the Mediterranean fringe. Such sightings are relatively often reported in Europe, and I haven't heard of any of those girls being diagnosed as schizophrenic.
To me it’s more like what used to be called hysteria, before that diagnosis was foolishly removed from the rules book for being politically incorrect. If the family and community believe that such things happen, it provides a dandy way for a frustrated adolescent to attract a great deal of favourable attention and be considered a very special person.
Just because what is being described fits within some Christian traditions, does at all not mean that this is a Christian or religious phenomenon. When a person's mind becomes disordered, when they hallucinate or become deluded, there is often religious content when they are very religious in their beliefs, but that is very understandable. People whose lives revolve around computer games tend to hallucinate or get deluded about game characters. How would people have responded had she claimed to have seen a UFO, a fairy, or a unicorn?
So it’s not at all disrespectful to consider the possibility that the Benoni story might be about an adolescent with some form of problem or motivation, rather than necessarily and unavoidably being an actual sighting of the Virgin. And somehow such claims get specially careful attention and respect, simply because they are described in religious terms.
If a boy in Klerksdorp claimed he had seen hobbits in his home, he would receive very much less attention and respect, and would probably be dismissed as eccentric and as having spent too much time reading and watching the Lord of the Rings. We would not assume until proved otherwise that his visions must have been caused by the personal intervention of Gandalf.
(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, June 2007)
The Church and Mary visions
Healed by faith?
Carte Blanche interview