were great holy men and there was much mysticism during the medieval period,
particularly in the 1200s. If
St. Dominic and St. Francis in themselves were enough to make this a special period,
the extraordinary thing was that the episode of great wonders was only beginning. No longer
were there only the one-shot sightings of Mary, as was the case most of the
time, since her first apparition in Spain (in the first century).
By the Middle Ages there were plenty of people
experiencing multiple or "serial" apparitions and as usual Mary seemed to
favor the humble but appeared to people of all persuasion. Among the new
seers were Pope Honorius III, Queen Helene of France, and Princess Ermesinde
of Luxembourg. The princess's occurrence took place near a clear spring (or
clairefontaine) that gave the area its name. Clairefontaine wasn't far from
Luxembourg and had been blessed by Saint Bernard on a journey through the
area six decades before. Apparently it was known even then as a place of
sacred marvels, the sparkling water running past luxuriant foliage in a
It was in this charming valley that Princess Ermesinde,
recovering from the recent death of her husband, was meditating under a
tufted oak when she had her vision. It was an experience that would inspire
erection of a convent dedicated to the Heart of Jesus. Some say she was
dozing, others that she was awake and sitting. Whether a vision or
apparition, what she saw was the sky "open" and a woman of incomparable
grace descend on a fleecy white cloud. The woman was Mary, holding Jesus.
She approached the princess and stationed herself by the stream. Around her
was a flock of unearthly white lambs. As they gathered she smiled at the
animals and caressed them. On their back they bore unusual and unforgettable
black crosses but the most striking feature was the Child, Who was of such
beauty that Ermesinde felt there could be no equal in the world.
While Ermesinde's experience, if it occurred with her eyes
closed, in a sleeping state, was technically more a "vision" (and a fleeting
one at that, lasting but a few moments), there were many other instances at
this same time, at this important historical juncture, that were experienced
in a fully wakeful state or that left physical evidence. Such was the case
in Spain of a young shepherd named Francisco Alvarez who lived on the
outskirts of Alcaraz and whose case typified many of Mary's appearances
during this particular period. One afternoon Alvarez, who had a badly
crippled arm, was dozing at the foot of an ancient holm-oak when he awoke at
the sudden rustling noise of his cattle, which were trying to flee the area.
The same thing happened the next day. They were being spooked by something.
When Alvarez finally saw why, it took away his breath: A strange and intense
light was emanating from the holm-oak and stranger still was the sound of
sweet music. (Recall that a holm-oak would later be the site of the Fatima
Overcome, Alvarez fell into sort of a faint and when he
recovered noticed that the light was gone -- replaced by a statue of Mary
nursing Jesus. The image, which may have been hidden in the tree during the
Moslem invasions, spoke to Alvarez, requesting the townsfolk to build a
chapel. When the herdsman expressed concern that no one would believe his
story, he was told to extend his useless arm and it was immediately healed. That
case was more the combination of locution and statue phenomena, which were
by far the most frequent manifestations, but of most interest remained
visions or apparitions. While visions could be symbolic manifestations or
like a dream, apparitions were living images seen with the physical eyes and
often Mary was not transparent or ephemeral but a corporeal apparition,
meaning she had tangible aspects.
She seemed physically present. She could
touch a seer. She appeared to a man we know as Blessed Reginald of
Saint-Gilles while he was in Rome and anointed his eyes, ears, hands, and
feet, which brought him out of a serious illness. She had also appeared to
Anthony of Padua in 1221 encouraging him when he was challenged about her
Immaculate Conception ("My son, feel assured that I was born without sin")
and her visit to Pope Honorius had come in 1226, when she told him to ignore
a group of cardinals who were opposed to establishment of the Carmelite
In like fashion she appeared at least twice to Albert the Great, who
as a youth had been an untalented, even "dim-witted" student but who through
the Rosary, through beseeching Christ and Mary, was granted the gift of
intelligence -- miraculously illumined -- and went on to become an authority
on physics, astronomy, chemistry, and biology, such a natural scientist that
there were those who would soon compare him to the great Roger Bacon. (He
also excelled at philosophy and when he went to Cologne, Thomas Aquinas was
among his pupils.)
In 1225 there was also testimony that Mary had been seen
at a grave accompanying a young deceased boy's soul as it sailed skyward and
she appeared to a Dutch woman named Lutgardis who experienced stigmata
(specks of blood as if from a crown of thorns) on her forehead. The standard
apparition was to those whose names were lost to history or who attained the
merest of footnotes. In Kiev there was a missionary known as Hyacinth who in
1231 was beginning Mass when word came of an attack by a tribe of Mongols.
The Tartars had suddenly burst into the city and their mission was to
destroy everything and everybody. There was no choice but to take immediate
flight and still dressed in his vestments, Hyacinth grabbed the Blessed
Sacrament from the tabernacle and was ready to leave when he heard an
inexplicable voice. It seemed to come from an alabaster statue. "Hyacinth,
my son, said Mary. "Are you going to leave me behind to be trampled
underfoot by the Tartars? Take me with you."
"How can I?" protested Hyacinth. "Thy image is too heavy!"
"Take me nonetheless," beseeched Mary.
"My Son will lighten the burden." Somehow
Hyacinth grabbed the large statue with one arm while carrying the Blessed
Sacrament with the other and in that way did he escape the raging flames of
We see then that Mary spoke several ways, sometimes while she was
seen, sometimes in a pure locution, sometimes in a nonverbal fashion, and
sometimes through statues. Her very presence said that mankind was in great
need and again hinted at chastisement. Flame. Fire. Disease. There were
already so many warnings. They indicated big trouble as the Church stumbled
into worldliness and sexual scandal (more and more notorious in the
monasteries) and as society as a whole headed toward the error of
materialism, underscored by Mary's tremendous appearance to seven wealthy
merchants in Florence. This rarity -- a simultaneous apparition to a group
of people -- occurred on August 15, 1233, as the merchants, devout if caught
up in money, were in thanksgiving after Communion. It was at that time that
each saw a bright light encompassing the Queen of Heaven and her angels.
"Leave the world and retire together into solitude in order to fight
yourselves," said the Blessed Virgin. "Live wholly for God. You will thus
experience heavenly consolations."
After another apparition in May of 1234 the seven men set up
a crude hermitage on Monte Scenario and then on April 13, 1240, which was
Good Friday and also the Feast of the Annunciation, Mary appeared a third
time bearing a black habit, a book, a scroll, and palms. "Beloved and elect
servants, I have come to grant your prayers. Here is the habit which I wish
you to wear henceforth. It is black that it may always remind you of the
keen sorrows which I experienced through my Son's Crucifixion and death.
This scroll bearing the words `Servants of Mary' indicates the name by which
you are to be known. This book contains the Rule of Saint Augustine. By
following it you will gain these palms in heaven, if you serve me faithfully
That was the start of the Order of Servites. There was also
the Order of Mercy, which was likewise inspired by a simultaneous vision.
That case involved three men, Peter of Nolasco, Raymond of Pennaforte (the
most competent authority on canon law at that time), and King James I of
Aragon in Spain, who all saw Mary on the same night but from what I can tell
in different places. According to the literature she instructed them to work
together to form an order whose purpose would be the ransoming or rescue of
Christians who had been captured by the Moors. The three men heeded her
request and one evening as King James sought a location to house the order,
he was astonished to see seven unusually bright stars hovering over a
hillock. It brought to mind the seven stars representing angels in
Revelation 1:16 and all the countryside witnessed it. This was a place
called Puig. When James directed workmen to the site, they found another of
those hidden images of Mary, shielded in a bell!
Then there was the great revelation to Simon Stock. This was
a classic, corporeal apparition. A holy hermit whose father had been Lord of
Kent, Simon at age 47 had entered the Carmelite Order and was sent to the
order's very root, Mount Carmel in Israel. Located in the northern part of
that country between Megiddo and Tyre, Carmel stood as a testimony to many
generations of mankind. There, along the sparkling Mediterranean, its caves
had been the habitat for ancestors who began with the prehistoric forebears
known as homo erectus and went through the Neanderthal phase and then
an Amudian phase linked to the emergence of modern homo sapiens.
It was a treasure trove for archeologists but more important
was its spiritual history. Mount Carmel was where Elijah called down the
fire, ordered death for the prophets of Baal, and then went up to the top of
the mount, telling his servant seven times to look out to the sea.
When he finally did the servant saw the unusual sight of "a cloud as small
as a man's hand" rising from the water (1 Kings 18:44) in a way that
reminds us of the puffs or billows of cloud associated with the Virgin.
Indeed, the Carmelites would later claim the cloud (which of course was many
centuries before her birth) was Mary's forerunner or "prefigurement,"
and whether or not that's true it was a very holy place and dedicated to
Mary by ancient hermits. Simon was so impressed by the holy men, whose
existence was uncovered by the Crusaders, that he joined the order and was
soon their leader (based along the Medway River in England). But more than
an administrator Simon Stock was a visionary. His most famous apparition and
one of the most important in history came during a night of prayer on July
16, 1251, when his cell was flooded with a great light bearing the Blessed
Mother, who held the Infant and also a sleeveless brown outer garment that
was to be known as the scapular. It was a broad piece of cloth that went
around a monk's head and became the Carmelite habit (later modified for
laymen as a string with cloth squares). And it too indicated special times.
It too indicated the need for protection. And it was protection that Mary
promised. As Simon himself recounted, "She appeared to me with a great
company, and holding the habit of the order said, 'This will be for you and
for all Carmelites a privilege. He who dies in this will not suffer eternal