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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

By Randall Sullivan
Atlantic Monthly Press,
450 pages, $25
Looking for sanctity in all the wrong places


Beginning with the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the quest story has been a fundamental and fruitful genre in Western literature. Usually, it involves an outward journey as in The Odyssey, but always it is also an inward journey, as in The Divine Comedy -- that is, a journey of the soul that also moves from innocence to experience or from ignorance to knowledge, or confusion to wisdom. But in nonfiction as in fiction, the generic can easily devolve into the merely formulaic -- the journalistic equivalent of the cable TV series, “In Search of … .” Randall Sullivan’s The Miracle Detective nicely illustrates what I mean.

A contributing editor to Rolling Stone, Sullivan tells us right off that the idea for this book came, as it often does for a freelance journalist, as the result of an assignment that took him to Oregon to investigate claims that the Virgin Mary had appeared to women in visions. Though not a Catholic, Sullivan is intrigued by the idea of visions and conceives of going to Medjugorje -- by now overworked territory for Catholic readers but apparently not for those who read Rolling Stone -- to do a book. The trick, as always, is to find a title that a publisher can sell, and Sullivan seduces his with The Miracle Detective.

The title not only is clumsy, it isn’t even accurate. This book is about visions, not miracles (a very different matter), and as a detective, Sullivan is as clueless at the end of his journey as he was at the beginning. Reading it, I was reminded of James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword, which begins with a trip to Auschwitz, also courtesy of a magazine assignment. Like Carroll, who pops up Zelig-like in every chapter of a book that purports to be an historical investigation but is really a disguised memoir, Sullivan does not give us insight into his subject so much as he gives us a home movie of himself on the road -- a rolling stone.

The first clue this reader had that Sullivan is out of his element comes in two brief chapters recording a two-week preliminary stop he makes in Rome. The Vatican is not a place where a writer shows up unannounced and without introduction, so it is not at all surprising to learn, as he tells us, that more doors are shut to him than opened. Sullivan does manage to talk to two figures from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Msgr. Robert Sarno, an American, and Jesuit Peter Gumpel, whom he mistakenly identifies as a postulator (Gumpel is a relator, something very different). Some of the contents of these two interviews are put into quotes, but much more of what he “learns” at the Vatican only looks like it might have come from interviews. Since the book has no index and no footnotes or endnotes, the reader is left wondering where this material comes from.

Most of Sullivan’s material on saints, the canonization process and the half- dozen causes involving visionaries is very familiar, at least to this reviewer: It can all be found in my own book, Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t and Why, published in 1990. Sullivan acknowledges his “indebtedness” to my “research” at the end of his book, but the ordinary reader would have no way of knowing that this material is not the fruit of Sullivan’s own journalistic labors.

What really offends, however, are the hokey conflicts Sullivan claims to discover behind the doors that did not open to him. As he puts it: “After 10 days in Rome, what at first had seemed mere palace intrigue, the petty machinations of careerists in clerical collars, I gradually understood as something more profound, a clash not only of ambitions but also of deeply held beliefs, one that many in the Vatican -- particularly at the highest levels -- regard as an apocalyptic struggle for the very soul of the church.” Sullivan offers no evidence for such a portentous statement. But for once he does cite a source -- none other than the late Malachi Martin, whom Sullivan deems “the one writer on the subject of Catholicism who cannot be ignored.” Statements like these do not inspire confidence.

By the time Sullivan takes off for Medjugorje, I am feeling sorry for the aging seers there, thinking of what they will have to put up with from a journalist like him. Had Sullivan begun here, he’d have produced a more coherent book. Here at least he makes use of the Medjugorje parish archives and a collection of translated documents to give his ruminations some ballast outside his own experiences. But in these final 380-odd pages, there is more history of the Bosnian war than the reader needs, more interviews with foreign pilgrims to the shrine than can sustain interest and a winding narrative that is so loose that there are no chapter titles -- as in a novel. Again, it is difficult to distinguish what Sullivan learned from being there and what he gleaned from books he read.

Toward the end of this overly long book, Sullivan records a detailed interview back in the states with the Capuchin friar Benedict Groschel. He describes Groschel as “the most influential thinker in all of Christendom on how to deal with reports of supernatural experiences” -- an exaggeration that Benedict would be the first to disown. Nonetheless, Benedict gives him good advice on how to think about visions and associated phenomena. Indeed, had he talked to Benedict first, Sullivan could have saved himself the bother of going to Medjugorje -- and of writing this book. But Sullivan presents himself as a sojourner seeking the truth of faith by focusing on the experience of visions. He claims, in fact, to have experienced a few ecstatic moments of his own. But then so did Wordsworth while contemplating nature. Far from getting at the vital center of Catholicism, Sullivan skirts the outer precincts of faith, which he identifies with feelings and experiences. One lesson he says he learned is “that, for a human being, the truth is and must remain entirely subjective.” It would take another journey, and possibly another book, for him to discover how wrong that statement is.

Kenneth L. Woodward is a contributing editor of Newsweek where he served as religion editor for 38 years. He is the author, most recently, of The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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