For most thinking believers, faith and doubt always co-exist in an uneven, ever-shifting continuum. This is healthy and keeps things in balance.
So it is with my belief in miracles and apparitions, with the doubt far outweighing the belief. I have always been skeptical of Marian appearances, wondering what role dreams and psychologically-induced visions play. The experiences often seem genuine, but did Mary really appear to these (generally young, impressionable) people?
The question has never been very important in my life of faith--until my wife, Lynn, shared with me a book by Robin Ruggles, Apparition Shrines, which includes the amazing story of what happened outside Cairo in 1968.
There, opposite St. Mary's Coptic Church in Zeitoun, a group of Muslim laborers arriving for the night shift at a garage noticed something move on one of the church's domes: a "white lady" knelt at the cross atop the church. One of the men thought it was a desperate girl about to jump and called out to her, pointing his infected finger toward the lady.
The lady rose amid a flock of white doves and said nothing before disappearing to a crowd of onlookers, one of whom had cried out, "Our Lady Mary!" The infected finger was healed, the first of several miracles as further visitations occurred. An explosion of light would form the outline of a lady wearing a white robe and blue-white veil. Sometimes she appeared above the palm trees in the church courtyard, like a phosphorous statue gliding twenty feet above the roof level. The apparitions, which drew huge throngs of people, gradually ceased in 1971.
One remarkable effect is that the Christians (Coptic Orthodox and Catholic) as well as Muslims prayed together. (Maybe that was miracle enough.) Mary was seen by 250,000 people at a time. Like T. S. Eliot's mysterious Lady of Silences, she said nothing, gesturing, bowing, recognizing the people's greeting. Ruggles provides much fuller information, including records of the healings.
Why did she appear? What did it all mean? What does it tell us?
For me, this apparition has greater credibility than most of the others I know about because of the witnesses (heavily Muslim)and documentation. It tells me that these happenings are not simply imagined by credulous believers, that there is more to reality than what reason and science can describe. It tells me that the supernatural is real, just beyond our sensory capacities, and can easily take shape, entering our space and time, perhaps when when our doubts about immaterial reality and the presence of God in the form of the Mother of Perpetual Help need reassurance.
Whatever it means, such an apparition is a reminder that faith in things unseen often involves the wondrous and mysterious. And that it's OK to have unanswerable questions.