on 29 June 2011
I originally read This book almost 20 years ago and found it to be a gripping account of one man's reluctant spiritual reawakening.
John Cornwell spends several months visiting instances of Christian paranormal experiences and researching the history of spiritual experiences and alleged divine visitations all over Europe and north America, highlighting some of the most famous and the most controversial.
His writing style is vivid and expressive and he declares his own ambivalence openly, not sparing his own blushes over social blunders and taclessness towards people who are often both physically and spiritually fragile, or who may find themselves in a spiritual crisis.
This is just as well because the man is a monstrous social and intellectual snob; a fact that he makes no attempt to hide and which becomes more than a little irritating and often gets in the way of the narrative.
He has little time for people whose views he does not share or who he finds disagreeable, or for those he evidently considers to be his social inferiors. Local people who are courteous and helpful are described benignly in ways that imply that they know their place- with evident approval from the author.
Those who do not, and other people whom he does not relate to are portrayed in the most unflattering terms. Their appearance behaviour and personal hygiene is criticised in lurid detail ; the manager of a disappointing Yugolav hotel eats like a hog and apparently has very bad breath; the foster father of a visionary who is not as helpful as he might be, is described as unshaven and scruffy (holy people are always clean and well dressed in the world of John Cornwell) with a cigarette hanging from his lips; a Franciscan friar talking to a pretty woman is described as "rascally" (what he means by this is never made clear, given that the author does not even speak to him) - and he is wearing trainers instead of sandals - the horror! It never appears to occur to the author that trainers might be a more practical form of footwear for an isolated village in the mountains.
The lowest point for me came when desctribing a pilgrim to the shrine at Garabandal. The unfortunate subject is apparently short, balding and overweight; he carries items in a plastic carrier bag (will this vulgarity never end!) and he has a Scottish accent! The final sentence desribes this poor soul as "having unwrapped a chocolate bar, which he ate straight from the wrapper" at which point in exasperation I asked myself whether he expected the poor man to put it on a plate and use a knife and fork. But then I realised that this is precisely what the author WOULD do!
To be fair Mr Cornwell is democratic in his snobbery. the Archbishop of Mostar has a red face, walks with a limp and has "soup stains down the front of his soutane". It seems we are expected to dismiss the man's point of view based upon his unprepossessing appearance and poor table manners rather than his arguments.
The author's slightly cringe-making attraction to the dynamic revivalist Nun Sr Griege McKenna is also a little intrusive (although Cornwell is quick to ensure that he in no way implies any flirtateous behaviour on her part) and far more than the "bat squeak of feminine allure" that the author admits to.
For all that, its a fascinating read and a very open and honest account of mid-life spiritual crisis and religious conusion.
A must-read for anyone with an interest in Catholic spirtituallity or the paranormal.