Interpreting Miracles

Madeline McMahon on Robert A. Orsi & Karin Vélez

Karin Vélez. The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto: Spreading Catholicism in the Early Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. 312 pages. $39.95.
The defining feature of a miracle is that it does not make sense in its context. Yet a miracle poses other problems, too. It breaks the bounds of time and space, not just in the moment and location in which it occurs, but also in a larger and longer space-time continuum. A single miracle, one that leads the historian of a particular time and place to scratch her head, may take its meaning from the cumulative power of many miracles past and the hope of miracles to come. It might be part of a growing tidal wave of similar miracles sweeping across the globe. How should historians understand the multiplicity of a miracle—its repetitions and eerie rhyming with other events? Two recent books offer new ways forward, especially for writing the history of the miraculous in Catholicism.

Karin Vélez’s The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto: Spreading Catholicism in the Early Modern World does so by tracing what she calls the “mythohistory” of her titular flying house. The House of Loreto was both shrine and relic: it was the home in which Mary had raised Jesus, and it had been flown across the Mediterranean by angels to land on this Italian hill town. Despite its precise location, the House had the ability to reproduce itself in multiple forms. Shrines to the Madonna of Loreto, Incan processions celebrating this Madonna, and even the repetitive naming—of women, bays, towns, and churches—after Mary all reinforced one another. Vélez compares the growth of Lauretan devotion to the snowballing popularity of the Star Wars franchise: the fans, or in this case, the devotees, contributed to the legend. Only by reconstructing the heady combination of myth and history that the House accrued can she fully describe the reiterative nature of Loreto’s history. Her “mythohistory” captures the ways in which early modern Catholicism was collaborative and cumulative.

Vélez’s mythohistory of the House of Loreto ranges from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. It covers the European ecclesiastics who wrote histories and guidebooks about the shrine and the communities in the Americas who made these histories their own. She deftly compares and contrasts New and Old World visions of Mary. Her handling of the case of Marie Tsaouenté, a devout Huron woman who ran a Christian household in the Jesuit mission of Lorette, is illuminating. When consulted by a French Jesuit about the burial of a child, Marie gave a rousing speech from the doorstep of her holy home on the immortality of the soul. Vélez compares her to her contemporary Caravaggio, who also imagined a holy yet accessible Mary perched on the threshold of her home in his “Madonna of the Pilgrims” (also known as the “Madonna of Loreto”). Marie Tsaouenté fashioned herself as a living icon of the Virgin. Vélez is comfortable with the power of mere association, even when a crucial detail, like what Marie Tsaouenté in fact said, cannot be entirely substantiated. Association—of terms, saints, events, and structures—is the tool that binds the contents of her wide-ranging book, as well as the one that her early modern subjects used to understand and participate in the wandering, omnipresent cult of the Virgin. The Portuguese Jesuit António Cordeiro thus exalted a local Marian shrine through comparison and association with that at Loreto. Similarly, Vélez reconstructs this world of associative devotion by assembling her protagonists’ constant echoing, imitation, and repetition, of the divine and of each other.

Image result for history and presence orsi
Robert A. Orsi. History and Presence. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016, released in paperback 2018. 384 pages. $19.95.

Robert Orsi’s History and Presence argues that contextualizing miraculous phenomena so that they make sense to us—describing them as social constructions or linking them to the politics of their time—ignores the encounter between human and divine that contemporaries experienced. Such contextualization omits what we meant to interpret in the first place. But it also ignores the fact that a single event radiates outward. The apparition of the Virgin to Bernadette at Lourdes is part of a longue durée of miraculous history, that continues down to the modern-day pilgrims healed at the shrine. Bernadette’s vision, then, is described by Orsi as an “abundant event,” when the divine erupts through time and space—not once, but over and over, in myriad ways. To tell the story of such an event, we need to write “abundant history.” For Orsi, such a history includes the gods not as symbols but actors: divinities miraculously and truly present.

Orsi writes an “abundant history” of twentieth-century Catholicism in North America. Whereas Vélez tells the story of Loreto’s miraculous flying house, Orsi largely fixates on the miracle of Christ’s presence in the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist. His compelling ethnography becomes at times heartbreaking, as when he describes the ways in which divine presence touched the lives of his mother, his student, and all those he interviewed for this book. He surveys changing relations between Catholics and Protestants in the United States, which both sharpened Catholics’ presence-based identity and shifted it. Wakes, for example, moved out of the home and into the funeral parlor, and Catholic ideas about the corpse as a tabernacle consequently lost some of their force. By contrast, in his work with survivors of clerical sexual abuse, Orsi has found that sexually abusive priests were not merely evil, but abundantly evil. They were endowed with divine presence thanks to their proximity to (and particular role in the creation of) the Eucharist. Some victims have since found comfort in the absent and abstract “Higher Power” of Alcoholics Anonymous rather than the anthropomorphized, present “Catholic God.” Others continue to seek out the Eucharist, even if they have abandoned the Mass itself, or Catholicism entirely. In this painful case and in others, Orsi shows that the history of presence includes belief and doubt, anger and awe. Presence might be damaging as well as restorative; its power lies in its unpredictability. Ultimately, this book is meant as a manifesto for historians of religion more broadly. Orsi says that he writes about Catholicism because it is “good to think with” as a religion that has been identified as the quintessential religion of presence. I wonder what an “abundant history” of American Protestantism in the same period might reveal.


Vélez’s “mythohistory” and Orsi’s “abundant history” are both polemical constructions that criticize how historians have handled miracle stories to date. Vélez takes issue with a number of standard scholarly approaches to miracles, or as she tellingly calls them, “habits of historical deconstruction.” These include viewing miracle stories with empathy and seeking to understand the past as a foreign country on its own terms. Empathy, for all its good intentions, distances us from the mentalities of the past, creating a false separation between early modern people and ourselves which is antithetical to the repetitions and continuations of a tradition like Loreto.

Vélez and Orsi are united in finding unsatisfactory any approach that focuses on a single moment in the long and tangled histories of the divine. Orsi, however, not only argues against contemporary scholarship, but also seeks to rehabilitate the idea of divine presence from the discredit cast on it by early modern disputes. In fact, both The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto and History and Presence are in some sense books about early modernity, even if Orsi’s book is primarily about the twentieth century. This is because Orsi locates the beginning of a crucial division of views about divine presence and absence in the century of the Reformation. Protestant and Catholic reformers in the sixteenth-century debates over real presence in the Eucharist created a dichotomy: “Catholics = presence, Protestants = absence.” Catholics insisted that Christ was physically present in the Eucharist. Protestants did not understand the words of institution—“this is my body”—quite so literally. These stereotypes aided early modern and modern efforts to compare and classify world religions—where on a spectrum of presence/absence did any religion fall? Modern religions were religions stripped of presence and of its sticky, needy, and excessive practices. Catholicism was by contrast a primitive religion. Comparisons of Catholicism and Protestantism led to a long-lived binary: primitive religion = presence, modern religion = absence. Orsi wants to do away with this sixteenth-century dichotomy and its modern progeny.

Orsi’s history of a stereotype serves an important purpose, as it rehabilitates the miracle of divine presence in our own histories of religion. Yet it repeats old stories about the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. He accepts the Council of Trent’s polemic which defined Catholic real presence against Protestant absence, even though, as he notes, only a minority of Protestants denied any presence in the Eucharist, and none denied the immediate workings of Providence in the world around them. Vélez’s book, by contrast, paints a new picture of a contingent and collaborative Counter-Reformation—and no one expects collaboration when expecting the Spanish Inquisition. Her book is a contribution to a growing number of studies of early modern Catholicism that overthrow early modern and modern stereotypes alike. Combined, Vélez’s and Orsi’s books give us the resources to reframe debates that pit Catholic devotional practices against modernity.

As wonderful and suggestive as both books are, they present stumbling blocks that future scholars must take care to avoid. Highlighting the multiplicity of miraculous history—whether through telling a “mythohistory” or an “abundant history”—threatens to efface any distinction between miracles, different modes of worship, or the mixed media of divine presence. For example, Orsi, in his chapter on “Printed Presence,” writes that both printed prayer cards and Catholic comic strips taught children about divine presence and were also imbued with it. By bringing these genres together, Orsi makes his point that presence is infused into print, even in modernity. But prayer cards and comic strips work differently. On twentieth-century prayer cards, portraits of the saints look calmly outward, with a prayer for their intercession inscribed on the reverse. The card depicts the saint as icon. Comics, by contrast, not only narrativized a sacred history—most memorably, in a strip Orsi’s book reproduces, the story of the martyrdom of St. Maria Goretti, a preteen virgin murdered by her would-be rapist—but also appropriated a genre Catholics often wrote vehemently against in the twentieth century. Orsi’s history, shot through with divine presence, might have captured that presence’s historical role better had he dwelt more on how it was reproduced or made visible in different modes. Was presence more accessible with a prayer card in hand that reproduced a photograph of Padre Pio, or a well-known painting of the Virgin? Was gazing at either card more devotionally efficacious than flipping through a Catholic comic book? Similarly, Vélez’s connection of Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto altarpiece, Marie Tsaouenté, and a statue of the Virgin and Child on an altar in Peru is illuminating, but also obscures how a painting, a person, and a sculpture are different media of Marian reproduction and devotion.

Future mythohistories and abundant histories might investigate how different materials of the divine worked within the richly three-dimensional devotional world that Orsi and Vélez have reconstructed; however, Orsi’s and Vélez’s approaches to miracles are innovative and helpful because they show that these various media built on each other to create a Catholic world of shared devotion, intense and charged with meaning.

Madeline McMahon is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton University, where she studies the intellectual, religious, and cultural history of early modern Europe. She was recently a Fulbright doctoral grantee in Italy. You can follow her on Twitter @madmcmahon.