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Engaging Ritual

Historian Lisa Bitel of USC College studies religious practice past and present to find the roots of belief.

By Claire Martin
November 1, 2007

Engaging Ritual

On the 13th day of every month, at around 10:30 a.m., the Virgin Mary appears in the Mojave Desert. Invariably, the sun shines bright, and always, Maria Paula Acuña is there to see the image in the sky.

A crowd gathers around her, staring directly into the sun to try to catch a glimpse of the Virgin, some using binoculars to glean a sign of a divine presence.

Acuña and her followers may sound unusual, but they’re not alone in their devotion to religious visions. The many recent claims of divine figures appearing in everyday objects — from a smudged window to a taco shell to a ray of light — are contributing to a debate that’s gone on for centuries and recently gained momentum. Are these communications from a higher power or are they examples of religious belief gone wild? Why does one person see a religious figure where another sees a cloud in the desert sky?

USC College’s Lisa Bitel is one of a growing number of scholars exploring these questions. Bitel, professor of history, has studied the social, cultural and religious history of medieval Europe. Now, she’s training her eye on religious visions.

Specifically, she’s trying to define the cultural influences that surround visionaries as a path to understand why some people see visions and others don’t. She’s discovered that people come to religion in often-unconventional ways that have nothing to do with doctrine or gospel, and everything to do with their cultural surroundings.

Bitel, whose work is supported by the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, is also using this contemporary research as a window into the past. By studying Acuña and her followers, or similar groups, she is better able to understand how religion took root centuries ago, and how for many people ritual and practice is as important as doctrine and belief.

Two years ago, when Bitel was a fellow at the university’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research, she and another fellow, USC neuroscientist Norberto Grzywacz, began a joint study into how gender, ethnicity and religiosity affect the mechanics of vision and what the brain sees. But the research didn’t get Bitel any closer to understanding what’s at the heart of visions.

“I couldn’t find out what I needed to know — maybe because I can’t define culture in a way that’s measurable in the body,” she said. “You can keep using science to explore, but you reach a point where you can’t know where a religious experience begins.”

That study, which is ongoing, served as a springboard for Bitel to begin writing two books on religious visions, one about medieval Europe and the other on present-day California — and to track trends over time. “A year or two ago, I would have said religious visions were more accepted back in medieval times,” said Bitel. But now, she’s not so sure. “I’m finding more and more people in this world who see things other people can’t see,” she added. “And it’s not just the total nut jobs you find on the Web.”

Among the contemporary seers Bitel is interested in are Acuña and her Mojave Desert crowd. They’re the subjects of her collaborative book project with photographer Matt Gainer. Hundreds of them gather each month to witness Acuña’s divine connection, and they’ve developed unique rituals. “There’s a whole liturgy and a protocol that’s as formal as anything you’d see in a Catholic church, but it’s outside of the church,” said Bitel.

Acuña’s followers don’t claim to see the Virgin Mary, but do snap photos of the sky or sun in hope of capturing a holy sign. They collect the photos, trade them and put them into scrapbooks, and they’ve even established an iconography that they help each other interpret. They might look at a photo of, say, a flash of sunlight or a swirling cloud, and identify an angel or the gate of heaven.

Bitel and Gainer have witnessed this “vision event” several times, and want to map out how this ritual and subculture came to be. What Bitel knows so far is that most people are Spanish speaking, from the Southwest, Catholic and second-generation Americans. During the ritual, they picnic and chat in a fiesta-like atmosphere.

“They’re operating under the assumption that there must be some other way to experience Acuña’s vision,” said Bitel. But why? Beyond the obvious Latin-American cultural influences, Bitel wants to understand the mentalities and assumptions that shape the practices and iconography. She also wants to find out what led this group to believe in these particular visions.

Bitel says more and more vision events are happening across the country. “A lot of people are seeing stuff they probably don’t talk about outside the event, and most of them are normal people — whatever that means.”

Scholars nationwide are picking up on the trend: In an interdisciplinary workshop organized by Bitel at USC last spring called “Visionaries and Vision-Hunters,” professors from around the world presented their research on religious visions and visionaries. Bitel has helped organize a similar event at Princeton next spring.

In the meantime, a new book by Bitel, Landscape With Two Saints (Oxford), will be released in early 2008. It’s her fourth book treating religion as a cultural phenomenon, and it’s part of a larger trend of research on what Bitel calls “living religion, rather than just thinking religion.”

This time she focuses on two fifth century saints, Saint Brigit of Kildare, Ireland, and Saint Genovefa of Paris, who were the first women saints. They both had cult-like followers who were converted to Christianity not by being persuaded to change their beliefs, but by engaging in regular rituals — not entirely unlike what’s going on now in the Mojave.

“There’s this current of inexplicable sightings and a culture of it that’s below the radar of formal religion,” Bitel said. “And the more I think about it and the more I talk to colleagues who work on this stuff, the more I think that’s the way it has been in most parts of the world forever. Today, we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg as far as people [recognizing it and] debating it.”