Amid all the fake and frankly depressing news that swamps us daily, there is a category I’d like to call hidden or repressed news. I mean news that may grab headlines for a day but is quickly forgotten; news that is extraordinary and mysterious but never fully confronted intellectually as it deserves to be.
Consider, for example, what may be the most spectacular case of paranormality on record: the story of the Zeitoun appearances (1968-1971) of what witnesses believed was the Virgin Mary. The story appeared in the New York Times and became news all over the world at first, but except for Egypt it faded from public awareness. But this is still news, extraordinary news but hidden. So let me summarize the main points on the Zeitoun phenomenon.
First to note; it has a history. There is an ancient narrative about this visitation that connects to Heliopolis, the ancient Egyptian City of the Sun. According to tradition, Mary promised she would return to Zeitoun where she had stopped with the infant Jesus and sought help when in flight from Herod. So the back-story of this phenomenon involves much psychically charged imagery and expectations.
The event that started the series of sightings occurred on April 2, 1968. A working man from a garage nearby St. Mary’s Church, Farouk Atwa, thought he saw a woman on the dome of the church about to commit suicide, and yelled to her not to jump. He then ran for a priest and a crowd began to gather, and then a woman cried out, “Mary!” And so it began.
The basic fact is the unexplained appearance of a shape-shifting light that turned into a figure of a robed woman, sometimes accompanied by a child, or by floating crosses and pigeon-like forms that flew without moving their wings. All these were fashioned into light forms more or less completely; sometimes only half of the figure appeared. It was sometimes described as a luminous statue that would suddenly come to life and bow and make gestures of blessing. The appearances occurred only at night, not every night, and always unpredictably, for lengths of time ranging from a few minutes to 8 continuous hours. They were photographed and filmed. Thousands if not millions of people witnessed them over a period of three years; they declined in frequency toward the end. The psychic effect of the experience was overwhelming, comparable to the effect of seeing the Being of Light in the classic near-death experience. It is important to note that this recurrent and highly public representation of the Virgin Mother never said anything. She was all light, power, gesture; beyond words, belief, doctrine. She was frequently seen in an attitude of prayer.
Other extraordinary, well documented phenomena were observed, such as huge purple clouds of incense and super fragrances. In addition, and most dramatic, reports of numerous, medically certified, inexplicable healings. Atwa, the man who first saw the apparition, was scheduled for an operation on a gangrenous hand the following day. But the next morning the doctor told him that his hand had completely healed. Medical authorities collected similar accounts of sudden healings of serious medical conditions.
Finally, there is a psychosocial effect that may be the most interesting. Coptic Christians in Egypt normally cannot display their religiosity in public; political and economic tensions with Muslims are typically high. Once the appearances of the Light Lady began, Muslims and Christians from all over Egypt and the world gathered a hundred thousand strong at St. Mary’s, night after night in peace and harmony, all the rules and divisive beliefs dissolved in the ecstasy of collective vision. This was perhaps the most impressive miracle—the melting away of the lower nature of humanity in the presence of a power of a distinctly feminine nature.
I’m drawn to this image of the Zeitoun Lady of Light with supernormal powers that managed to cast a spell on Egypt (recall that Nasser witnessed the phenomenon) and bring the entire population into a state of ecstatic rapport. The enchantment persisted for a while but sadly, despite her best efforts, the Lady failed to create a lasting peace. 2017 has already witnessed the slaughter of Coptic Christians in their churches; Isis (Daesh) has said its “favorite prey” are the “infidel” Christian Coptics.
But the fact of the phenomenon remains firm and the latent possibility of transformation remains. One wonders how or whether it is possible to mobilize this latent potential human transformation. With luck, it might awaken in the form of an idea of transcendent power that catches fire in the collective consciousness. It seems, however, associated with existential crisis, given that there was a return of the visions (1986-1991) when the Muslim Brotherhood increased its attacks on Coptic Christians.
Three possible explanations of these appearances occur to me, and I don’t know what the correct one is. The first is that the phenomena were a powerful manifestation of the collective psyche of the Coptic Christians in the midst of an almost constant existential crisis. The sometimes clumsy, random, half-completed manifestations suggest a struggling psychical process. I interviewed six witnesses of the phenomena, and one of them said she was there and saw everybody else reacting and looking at various things that were invisible to her. A few others also said they saw nothing, even though the camera sometimes picked the light forms up.
A second possibility is that the whole divine light show was put on by an extraterrestrial agency as a way of pacifying the conflicted parties; and the imperfect process could be explained as the result of an imperfect technology.
Also, there are definite connections between UFOs and Marian visions, especially at Fatima and Medjugorge. In the latter, I know an artist who was present and drew a picture of what she and the other pilgrims saw, and it looked like a UFO light-structure, not the figure of the Madonna.
A third possibility is the one believed by the Egyptians, Christian and Muslim. Muslims venerate Mary; cited more often in the Koran than in the New Testament. In their shared view, it really was the spirit of the dead mother of Jesus back on a mission of mercy.
Whatever the explanation, I don’t see how any skeptic could explain the phenomena away, not the testimony of thousands, if not millions, of people over a stretch of three years. The testimony—the phenomenon—raises questions about the nature of reality itself. It is a metaphysical singularity; not just an example of hidden news but maybe a bit of good news.