|By Daniel Klimek
Daniel is a PH.D candidate at Catholic University.
The spiritual significance of the apparitions in Medjugorje is of course monumental and, in many ways, self-evident. However, few people may know how much Medjugorje means on a scientific and academic level, especially in regard to the study of mysticism and supernatural phenomena. Medjugorje’s implications, largely due to the timely significance of the apparitions, constitute a breakthrough for the study of mystical experience.
Throughout the centuries countless of Christians have reported experiencing mystical phenomena, both bodily and spiritual. The late-medieval and early-modern periods are especially studied richly in this tradition. From a stigmatic like Francis of Assisi to medieval visionaries like Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, Angela of Foligno, Julian of Norwich, to famous early-modern mystics, especially the great Spaniards like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Ignatius of Loyola, to lesser known (or unknown) figures of the time, the examples of existing Christian mystics between these periods are pervasive. Because claims like visionary or apparitional experience were prevalently reported in the distant past, however, usually reduced to the medieval and early-modern framework, they became that much easier to dismiss for contemporary thinkers.
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Sidney Callahan, a professor and psychologist, explains: “Suspicions that religious beliefs and fervent religious experiences are a form of mental pathology still prevail in our world.” Likewise Amy Hollywood, Harvard scholar of Christian mysticism and medieval history, additionally points out that mysticism often—and thus mystical experience, particularly—is denigrated by skeptical scholars through psychoanalytical categories as simply constituting a form of hysteria, among other possible natural disorders. “Most scholars who have wanted to take mysticism seriously have, as a result of such dismissive diagnoses, either avoided the term ‘hysteria’ entirely or have reserved it for those figures seen as somehow marginal, excessive, or troubling to standard religious categories.” Speaking of the reported visionary experiences of medieval mystics of the Christian tradition, Columbia University neurologist Oliver Sacks argues: “It is impossible to ascertain in the vast majority of cases, whether the experience represents a hysterical or psychotic ecstasy, the effects of intoxication or an epileptic or migrainous manifestation.” Noticeably, the possibility of a genuine mystical experience is not even considered by Sacks in light of these neurological (and, therefore, natural) alternatives.
Religious historian Moshe Sluhovsky, likewise, points to the numerous “natural” diagnoses which are employed by many modern scholars to dismiss the validity of mystical experiences, whether divine or diabolical, especially reported experiences of late-medieval and early-modern Europe. Such diagnoses include: “insanity, hysteria, paralysis, imbecility, or epilepsy…” Yet Sluhovsky aptly explains that stereotyping Christians of past centuries, particularly of early-modern Europe, as ignorant of medical or psychological causes for abnormal (if not paranormal) behavior constitutes an erroneous approach, if not an altogether arrogant dismissal, obstructing serious study of such cases. Since matters like hysteria and epilepsy were “all classifications of afflictions that were not unfamiliar to early modern people” the assumption “that medieval and early modern people were simply not sophisticated enough to know the right meanings of the symptoms they experienced and witnessed tells us more about modern scholarly arrogance than about premodern ailments and healing techniques, or about early modern configurations of the interactions with the divine,” Sluhovsky concludes.
This is exactly what makes the case of Medjugorje so unique and important: by occurring in our contemporary society of the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the apparitions have been able to be scrutinized by exhaustive medical and scientific investigations unavailable to past generations—instead of remaining untested and being prejudicially dismissed by modern thinkers as constituting a case of hysteria, fraud, or any other possible natural explanation. In other words, the timing of the phenomenon has shielded it from the unexamined (and presumptuous) dismissal which so many medieval and early-modern mystical claims have received by skeptical critics. Now, with Medjugorje, skeptics need to deal with concrete empirical evidence, instead of simply proposing preconceived reductionist theories about mystical experience. As author and journalist Randall Sullivan explained: “the apparitions in Medjugorje had been subjected to perhaps more medical and scientific examination than any purported supernatural event in the history of the human race.” Similarly, Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and Eugene D’ Aquili, a professor of psychiatry at Pennsylvania, have made the claim that: “It is possible that with the advent of improved technologies for studying the brain, mystical experiences may finally be differentiated from any type of psychopathology.”
The majority of the studies conducted on the young Medjugorje visionaries, which have ranged from polygraphs to neurological examinations, psychiatric tests, electrocardiogram, blood pressure and heart rhythm examinations, and electroencephalogram tests measuring brain waves during ecstasies, have supported the integrity of the apparitions. The tests have shown that the visionaries were not lying or hallucinating, nor were they in any epileptic or hypnotic state during their daily ecstasies but, indeed, experiencing something unexplainable, beyond the boundaries of scientific understanding. Furthermore, numerous miraculous healings have also been reported at Medjugorje, many of them copiously documented with abundant medical evidence supporting the claims.
Thus, at Medjugorje, for the first time in human history, neuroscience and medical examination have played an instrumental role in penetrating the interior depths of mysticism by combining scientific inquiry with spiritual experience, thus elucidating our knowledge of the subject with empirical examination of the visionaries’ ecstasies. As the French doctor Henri Joyeux, an internationally renowned physician and Professor of Cancerology in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Montpellier, explained in regard to the timely significance of the apparitions:
“Ecstasy is seen as a sensory perception of realities that are perceivable by and visible to the visionaries but invisible to and imperceivable by all others and, in particular, those who seek to understand. For the first time in history science can study these facts as they unfold in Medjugorje and not merely a posteriori. The most advanced medical techniques and the most up-to-date photographic and cinematographic techniques help us to reach the kernel of these events in order to try to understand them.”
This is much different from Oliver Sacks’ neurological reductionism, which applied no empiricism to the study of mysticism whatsoever but simply postulated that mystical experience cannot be authentic by offering neurological euphemisms for the experiences of medieval visionaries. The Medjugorje visionaries, on the other hand, have been tested for all of the natural symptoms which are usually applied by skeptics to discredit mystical experience, thus undermining reductionist theories against the apparitions. Dr. Joyeux led a team of French physicians from the University of Montpelier to examine the Medjugorje seers in ecstasy during their daily apparitions of the Virgin, when the visionaries simultaneously fall to their knees and enter an ecstatic state, which has the appearance of a trance. This phenomenon takes place daily at the same time (5:45 pm in the winter and 6:45 pm in the summer). Dr. Joyeux’s concluding report, delivered in the spring of 1985, stated: “The ecstasies are not pathological, nor is there any element of deceit. No scientific discipline seems able to describe these phenomena.” He explained that “these young people are healthy and there is no sign of epilepsy, nor is it a sleep or dream state. It is neither a case of pathological hallucination nor hallucination in the hearing or sight faculties…It cannot be a cataleptic state, for during ecstasy the facial muscles are operating in a normal way.” Through meticulous examination and investigation, the scientific studies have been able to disqualify all possible alternative, natural explanations for the apparitions.
Electroencephalogram tests, measuring brain waves and thus indicating the rhythms of brain activity through electrodes attached to eight different parts of the skull, were used on the visionaries and the results were recorded as taking place before, during, and after the apparitions. The electroencephalograms confirmed that pathological symptoms were not present before, during, or after ecstasy, excluding the possibility of epilepsy, paroxystic hallucination, or any sleep or dream state which can ignite hallucinations that are observable in cases of extreme mental disorder or in the course of atrophic dementia. All these were ruled out, since clinical studies proved the visionaries to be completely healthy, mentally and physically, and the electroencephalograms indicated the presence of type alpha (receptive) rhythms in their brain activity during ecstasies, which display the “normal electrical activity associated with wakefulness…” What is most fascinating is that, in neuroscience, states of consciousness are identified through some combination of alpha (receptive) and beta (reactive) impulses. Falling into a sleep or trance state would decrease the number of alpha cycles while increasing the beta. Yet, surprisingly, the exact opposite happened during apparitions: the visionaries’ beta impulses ceased completely, showing them to be in a state that is not simply awake, but hyper-awake. A similar, general alpha rhythm state has previously been observed only in a few Trappist or Buddhist monks. And the monks, Dr. Joyeux explained, could only reach such a state with their eyes closed in meditation, and after partaking in several hours of deep prayer, while the Medjugorje visionaries reached it instantly, as the apparition began, with their eyes wide open during the entire time of the ecstasies. In sum, the results especially contradicted claims of an epileptic state or any hallucinatory sleep or dream state, whether collective or individual, omitting these possibilities as explanations for the apparitions.
Dr. Jacques Philippot, an ophthalmologist, undertook the study of ocular and visual functions on the visionaries, examining the back of their eyes; photomotor and blinking reflexes; the frequency of blinking before, during, and after ecstasy; screening tests; and studying the mobility of the eyeballs by using electro-oculographic recordings before, during, and after ecstasy. The examinations on the back of the visionaries’ eyes “were normal and were identical before and after the ecstasy.” These tests excluded any “organic anomaly (either ocular or cerebral, whether due to swelling or not)” and, furthermore, they excluded the possibility of visual hallucination since the “ocular system is anatomically and functionally normal.” The reflex of blinking, interestingly, was absent from the eyes during ecstasy when extremely strong lights were flashed in front of the visionaries, having no effect on them—yet reflexive blinking was present both before and after ecstasy in the face of dazzling lights. Moreover, during ecstasy the number of eyelid movements, thus blinking, was significantly less than observable before or after the apparition. Two of the visionaries had no eyelid movement whatsoever during ecstasy. Furthermore, according to the electro-oculogram tests, as the ecstasies begin the eyeballs of the visionaries become immobile, their eye movements “ceasing simultaneously almost to the second.” This graphic recording of the uncanny synchronization in the simultaneous movements of the eyeballs “indicates simultaneity to the second in cessation of movement at the beginning of the ecstasy and, again, simultaneity to the second in the return of movement at the end of the ecstasy.” Dr. Philippot would notice that, actually, at “the beginning of the ecstasy there is a simultaneity to one-fifth of a second in the cessation of eyeball movement which begins again simultaneously at the end of the ecstasy.” The electro-ocuolgram recordings showed that the visionaries’ eyes converge on the same point, a spot above their heads where they report to see the Virgin. The eyeball movements support the fact that during “ecstasy there is a face-to-face meeting, as it were, between the visionaries and a person whom we did not see.” James Paul Pandarakalam, a member of the Department of Psychiatry of Soho House in England, came to the same conclusion: “The eye movements of a person looking at a real moving object are different from those of a person looking at an imaginary moving object; the visionaries’ eye movements at the end of the apparition correspond to the former, as I had the occasion to witness in a person in Medjugorje.” Pandarakalam explained that this is defined as a voluntary activity, which is most observable when the apparition ends and the visionaries all simultaneously look up within the same second, claiming that the Virgin disappears upwards.
Pandarakalam, who witnessed the visionaries experiencing their apparitions on 21 different occasions, also ruled out the possibility of hypnosis. He noted that human eye movement patterns differ when a person is visualizing or remembering something from when the sequence of a person’s eyes are focused on an external object. The latter sequence involves no randomness, but both eyeballs converge to a point on the object as when looking at something in a three-dimensional space. This noticeable pattern in the visionaries, combined with the fact that the apparitions begin spontaneously (and not at the demand of the visionaries), and with the fact that there is no evidence of any intense concentration, or preparation, by the visionaries before the apparitional experience, undermines hypnosis as a possible explanation. The healthy mental state of the visionaries, before and after the apparitions, as determined by the clinical studies performed by the French team, further excludes the possibility of hypnosis, in addition to the electro-encephalograms that ruled out any induced sleep or dream state during the ecstasies
Of course, since the apparitions continue to the present day, it is that more unlikely that a hypnotic manipulation could take place consistently on a daily basis, to a collective group, over a 28 year period. Thus the conducted tests—ocular, visual, and mental—all undermine the possibility of fraud and deception, and exclude visual hallucination, hypnosis or any organic abnormality as possible explanations for the apparitions.
Dr. Francois Rouquerol, another member of the French team, conducted tests measuring the auditory functions of the visionaries in order to determine whether an auditory hallucination is taking place. The doctor concluded that during ecstasy there is an absence of normal objective clinical reactions to the presence of violent noise. A 90 decibel sound—the “equivalent to the noise of a combustion engine at high speed”—was fed into the right ear of Ivan Dragicevic, one of the visionaries, during ecstasy without a single reaction of surprise from the visionary. “At the end of the ecstasy Ivan confirmed that he heard nothing.” This was a fascinating contrast to his pre-ecstasy reaction, wherein the injection of a 70 decibel sound visibly startled the young visionary. In addition to concluding that there is a clear disconnection of auditory pathways during the ecstasy, making the visionaries as impervious to exterior noise as they are to strong blasts of light, in “the same way [it was concluded] the visionaries do not feel pinching, prodding or other interventions” thus being impervious to pain as well. Dr. Rouquerol’s results additionally showed that the “auditory potential test, which studies the nervous influx from the periphery (the cochlea, part of the inner ear) to the core of the cerebral artery, indicates that the various pathways to the brain are normal. The regular and rounded shape of the graph eliminates auditory hallucination of an epileptic type.” Thus another alternative explanation for the apparitions was eliminated.
Dr. Rouquerol also conducted voice function (phonation) experiments on the visionaries. It is interesting, and important, to note that during their ecstasies the visionaries’ voices become inaudible while their lips continue moving as if in conversation with the Virgin. This is one of the key synchronizations experienced by the visionaries during their ecstasies. As the apparition begins, first the children fall to their knees and their voices immediately (and simultaneously) become silent without even a split second of distinction, in addition to the synchronistic movements of their eyeballs. Dr. Rouquerol’s tests showed that during ecstasy, while their lips and facial muscles are mobile, the larynx (where the vocal cords are present) of each visionary stops. Interestingly, this means that while their lips are moving normally, as in communication, the act of exhaling does not vibrate the vocal cords of the visionaries, presenting an inexplicable paradox. Yet the movement of the lips, and thus the muscles controlling gesticulation on the face, provide “a further argument against catalepsy” since a cataleptic state would constitute rigidity and immobility of the muscles. Thus another natural explanation for the apparitions was eliminated.
The visionaries, in addition to medical scrutiny, underwent immense psychological and psychiatric testing. The results showed a group of perfectly healthy young people. According to Dr. Joyeux’s report: “The visionaries have no symptoms of anxiety or obsessional neurosis, phobic or hysterical neurosis, hypochondriac/or psychosomatic neurosis, and there is no indication of any psychosis. We can make these formal statements in the light of detailed clinical examinations.” In his previous examinations, Dr. Stopar reached the same results: “Scientific and sociological tests, including (respectively) neuropsychiatric, medico-psychological, somatic, adolescent and young-adult profiles, lifestyle characteristics and intelligence and educational standards, show the children to be absolutely normal and free from all psychopathological reactions” (emphasis in original). Likewise, Dr. Philippe Loron, head of the Neurology Clinic at La Salpietre Hospital in Paris who examined the visionaries himself in 1989, concurred that this “is the first time that medical science has been involved to such an extent in evaluating the phenomenon of ecstasy. And, in the process, what was confirmed in several ways was the moral and psychological integrity of the visionaries.”
After taking into consideration all of the tests and results assembled by the French team, Dr. Joyeux had to admit, in his final analysis, that the “phenomenon of the apparition in Medjugorje, which was studied during five different periods of 1984 with five visionaries as subjects, is scientifically inexplicable.” He acknowledged that an extraordinary event is taking place in the village and, in a later interview, the doctor would reiterate that, taking into account all of the possible natural explanations which were eliminated by the investigations, the experiences of the children “do not belong to any scientific denominations.”
Moreover, Dr. Luigi Frigerio, another member of the Italian team, explained that the results combined with neurological testing, which determined that the visionaries were not only awake but hyper-awake during their ecstasies, presented a paradox that “cannot be explained naturally, and thus can be only preternatural or supernatural.” Interestingly, even Dr. Stopar reached the same conclusion years earlier, admitting: “I had the impression of coming into contact with a supernatural reality at Medjugorje.”
Such facts—pointing to the supernatural through scientific inquiry—have led to many spiritual conversions, especially of scientific skeptics, in the small Bosnian village. Randall Sullivan relates the story of Dr. Marco Margnelli, an eminent Italian neurophysiologist and an ardent atheist who came to Medjugorje in the summer of 1988 determined to expose the apparitions as a fraud. Margnelli had a well-known history of doubting the validity of Christian mysticism and supernatural phenomena, perhaps most notoriously conveyed in his skepticism toward the stigmata of the Franciscan friar Padre Pio, arguably the twentieth century’s most prominent mystic. An expert in altered states of consciousness, Margnelli conducted an array of medical tests on the Medjugorje visionaries in which he had to conclude that during their daily apparitions the seers did, in fact, enter into “a genuine state of ecstasy” and adding, “we were certainly in the presence of an extraordinary phenomenon.” Dr. Margnelli’s observations have ranged from conducting medical investigations on the seers to personally witnessing miraculous healings and strange occurrences which, admittedly, left him bewildered and deeply shaken. Sullivan relates a sequence of events to which Dr. Margnelli had been a witness at Medjugorje:
“from the ‘synchronous movements’ of the visionaries [during apparitions] to the apparently miraculous healing of a woman with leukemia. What had affected him most deeply were the birds: During the late afternoon, they would gather in the trees outside the rectory where the seers shared their apparitions, chirping and cooing and calling by the hundreds, at times deafeningly loud, until ‘they suddenly and simultaneously all go silent as soon as the apparition begins.’ This ‘absolute silence of the birds’ haunted him, the doctor admitted.”
Thus, a “few weeks after returning to Milan, Dr. Margnelli became a practicing Catholic.”
The very possibility of the supernatural in modern society, as strongly supported by medical science and observation, challenges an immense array of Enlightenment-influenced thinkers subscribing to strict rationalist ideology who have denied the possibility of such phenomena—denials that have led to renouncing the reported visionary experiences of earlier mystics and, frequently, the very existence of God. As noted, many modern scholars have utilized theories from neurology and psychology prominently in order to provide alternative explanations for phenomena they presumed medieval and early-modern people, with their lack of scientific knowledge, were not sophisticated enough to understand. Ironically and inversely, the same process is occurring today, wherein disciplines like medical science, neuroscience, and psychology have been utilized to disprove the rationalistic and naturalistic preconceptions of many post-Enlightenment thinkers by using advanced technology—such as electroencephalograms—to test supernatural claims with more sophisticated methods than any of those available to past generations. The fact that science lends strong support to the Medjugorje apparitions as constituting a legitimate supernatural phenomenon undermines numerous preconceptions of the rationalist worldview, challenging its presuppositions while providing significant support for the possibility of mystical experience and divine intervention. Of course, one modern case cannot vindicate all past visionary reports—since psychosomatic and fraudulent experiences are, obviously, probable in Christian history—but it can challenge the prejudicial, and easily accepted, mentality that all former mystical claims must be pathological or false.
In Medjugorje, the findings of contemporary doctors and scientists, based on knowledge of medical investigations not available to previous visionary and apparitional encounters, do offer significant insights concerning the possible mechanisms and probabilities of past mystical experiences. Whether one chooses to believe in the spiritual content behind the phenomenon—that the Virgin Mary is appearing—does, however, still constitute (and require) an act of faith. But since so much evidence is offered for the possibility, excluding all other alternative scientific explanations, then the visionaries’ claims must be given a fair chance. Not to do so could easily constitute an inverse reflection of dogmatic fundamentalism (in rationalist thought) over the findings of objective scientific and medical studies. The mentality of presumptuous skepticism has been prominent among many modern and postmodern thinkers denying the reported mystical experiences of late-medieval and early-modern Christians. However, the inclusion of modern science and technology in investigating contemporary mystical phenomena no longer makes such unexamined presuppositions universally agreeable, undermining their rash and unscientific conclusions.