Randall Sullivan The Miracle Detective Reviewed by Rick Kleffel

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The Miracle Detective

Randall Sullivan

Atlantic Monthly Press / Atlantic/Grove Publishing

US Hardcover First Edition

ISBN 0-871-13916-2

Publication Date: 04-09-2004

450 Pages; $25.00

Date Reviewed: 05-12-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Non-Fiction, Horror, General Fiction

It's been the hope of many a rational investigator that irrational phenomena will reveal the clockwork within when looked at with a dispassionate eye. The most inscrutable mysteries are supposed to melt under the calm gaze of systematic investigation. Start simple, get the facts, write everything down, and even the most complex conundrums will unfold into a series of simple cause-and-effect steps.

But it was a physicist, that most rational, that most disciplined of scientists who put the lie to this assumption. Werner Heisenberg suggested that the observer affects the observation. He was talking about particle physics, and called his idea The Uncertainty Principle. But it's one of those simple scientific laws that have a much broader application.

As he began to write 'The Miracle Detective', Randall Sullivan planned a simple, straightforward investigation into how the Catholic Church investigates miracles. He'd interviewed a woman who had experienced a miracle. The Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared in a cheap painting in the trailer where she lived with her parents. She had video, and the testimony of hundreds of witnesses.

Sullivan was intrigued, and even more intrigued by the bureaucracy the Catholic Church employed to investigate such events. He proposed the title of book to his publisher, who jumped at the chance. A visit to Rome would follow, and then to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A series of simple steps would reveal the clockwork behind the Catholic Church's investigation and inevitably result in a better understanding of the Church, the beliefs it espoused and those who believed them.

More than ten years later, Sullivan's book is completed; his investigation is ongoing. 'The Miracle Detective' tells a number of stories. It's tricky and complex, just like the phenomena it describes. As Sullivan starts his journey, he's a confident reporter for one of the most respected publications in the world, sure of himself and rational. But as he's immersed in the immensely complex situations that serve up these apparitions, he finds that what he is observing is affecting how he is observing. The feedback loop between the investigator and the investigated becomes a fascinating phenomenon in itself.

'The Miracle Detective' is a book packed with dense, intense action from beginning to end. Sullivan pops off information that boggles the mind so regularly it almost becomes overwhelming. When he's in the Vatican, for example, he learns that the arm of the Church tasked with investigating modern day miracles is an outgrowth of those who conducted the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects that; and that's only the beginning. Once Sullivan gets to Bosnia-Herzegovina, he finds himself in a maelstrom of horror and wonder, terror and joy.

The circumstances that yield up an instance of Blessed Virgin Mary apparitions worthy of close attention are fairly well understood. The apparitions at Medjugorje offer a textbook example and prove to be the most thoroughly investigated supernatural events in history. Sullivan arrives nearly 15 years after their inception, and they are still going strong. His immersion in the world of Medjugorje is utterly compelling reading. He meets the seers -- there are six of them -- and finds them full of conviction and utterly convincing. From his descriptions, it seems that most readers would as well. He puts you on the ground in a city surrounded by death, in countryside so devastated that it looks as if a nuclear bomb has been detonated.

But even as he observes the scene at ground zero, so to speak, he begins to affect his own observations. Like John Keel in Point Pleasant, Virginia, investigating the Mothman Prophecies, he finds himself immersed in supernatural experiences of the sort he once thought to be investigating from an objective point of view. Surrounded by events that do not yield to easy explanation, Sullivan's simplistic point of view begins to shift. He's no longer hoping to simply interview the miracle detective; he has become the miracle detective.

As the book shifts from an investigative report to a spiritual journey, Sullivan becomes despondent. He returns to the United States, depressed and confused. There, he decides to look into a series of Blessed Virgin Mary apparitions in Scottsdale, Arizona. The voyage from the sacred to the seedy is disturbing reading. The events in Scottsdale have none of the ring of truth that those in Medjugorje have. The seers are busy writing books and producing videos. None of the rigorous scientific investigations are made, and the few desultory attempts yield nothing to redeem the visionaries.

By this time Sullivan actively wants to believe. His own experiences in Medjugorje have left him thirsty for more. But the Scottsdale apparitions read like the K-Mart version of those in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is easy for the reader to see, and Sullivan does a great job of laying himself bare so that the reader is free to judge the veracity of all that he reports. Sullivan cleverly finishes the book in a series of conversations with Father Benedict Groeschel, who provides a balancing influence for both the reader and the writer.

Like 'The Mothman Prophecies', 'The Miracle Detective' depicts an investigator of the supernatural (events influenced by beings or realities beyond human ken) and the paranormal (abilities of the human mind not yet discovered or documented by science) who becomes a part of his own investigation. It's packed with details and a fascinating, apocalyptic portrait of a so-called tiny war that literally tore a country apart. It offers insight into the depths of religious fervor and the heights of the human imagination. It's not devotional, worshipful or evangelical. Glory gives way to the tawdry; revelation morphs into self-deception, and there's no easy line that's crossed, no simple rules to tell where one ends and the other begins. 'The Miracle Detective' might result in more questions than it answers. But it amply, entertainingly demonstrates that asking questions alters the mind every bit as much as finding the answers.