On Visions and Believing
Updated: Sep 2, 2019
In Rome, back in 1977, I saw a screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Leaving the cinema with friends at the end of the movie, as we walked out into the narrow crowded streets of Trastevere, I noticed that people were pointing up to the sky. Looking up I saw something bright, oval, large and flashing, moving very slowly across the bit of dark sky visible between the buildings. I imagine that I was no different from most of the people who had just left the cinema, in that for a few moments I was convinced that we were witnessing the appearance of a UFO.
It was in fact nothing more sinister than the Goodyear blimp.
People are susceptible to visions, and this susceptibility is all the more prevalent when they find themselves in extreme circumstances, such as in battle. Nor is it unusual for people who hear about visions by someone who is convincing, not only to believe that this person has actually witnessed what he describes, but in some cases, to come to believe that they themselves have witnessed it.
During the First Crusade, when, after a prolonged siege the crusader army occupied the city of Antioch, the Christians in turn found themselves besieged by a vast Muslim army under the leadership of Kherboga, the governor of Mosul. After some desperation, the miraculous discovery of what was claimed to be the Holy Lance (the lance that pierced Christ on the cross) renewed the crusaders' faith that God was on their side. They plucked up the courage and attacked the besieging enemy, and according to a near contemporary account, the Gesta Francorum:
There came out from the mountains, also, countless armies with white horses, whose standards were all white. And so, when our leaders saw this army, they were entirely ignorant as to what it was, and who they were, until they recognised the aid of Christ, whose leaders were St. George, Mercurius and Demetrius. This is to be believed, for many of our men saw it.*
This was not the only example of heavenly assistance rendered in desperate times. Raymond of Aguilers describing a vision experienced during the siege of Jerusalem:
On this day, the Ides of July, Lord Adhemar, Bishop of Puy, [who had died earlier, at Antioch] was seen in the city by many people. Many also testified that he was the first to scale the wall, and that he summoned the knights and people to follow him.*
We might be tempted to put these stories down to a gullibility that belongs to the distant past. However (UFO sightings aside) there are examples of very similar occurrences of more recent date.
On 30 April 1915 a London-based Roman Catholic newspaper, The Universe, carried a story under the headline "On A White Horse: St. George and Phantom Army". It described an event that supposedly occurred during to the opening phase of the First World War, in August 1914. At the time, the British Expeditionary Force was desperately trying to stave off the German advance through Belgium. Claiming to be a letter written by a British officer from the front, as he led a company of about thirty men in an attempt to break out from their surrounded trench, the writer became aware that they were joined by a phantom army, a large company of men with bows and arrows led by an officer riding on a great white horse.
The story was not original, nor was it trustworthy. It was in fact a rather transparent lifting of a fictional account published in the London Evening News the previous year, called The Bowmen, written by Arthur Machen, a Welshman best known as an author of supernatural, fantasy, and horror fiction. Although there was no truth at all to the story in The Universe, following its publication, numerous “eyewitness” accounts appeared supporting this claimed vision.
These apparitions and the widespread support they received, certainly seem to suggest that there is a case for amending the saying "Seeing is believing" to "Believing is seeing".
Gesta Francorum and Raymond of Aguilers quoted from The First Crusade, ed. Edward Peters, Philadelphia, 1998, p. 223 and p. 260.