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Our Lady of the Rock: Vision and Pilgrimage in the Mojave Desert

by Lisa Bitel Cornell University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 200 pages
AU$63.00 NZ$66.09
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For more than twenty years, Maria Paula Acuña has claimed to see the Virgin Mary, once a month, at a place called Our Lady of the Rock in the Mojave Desert of California. Hundreds of men, women, and children follow her into the desert to watch her see what they cannot. While she sees and speaks with the Virgin, onlookers search the skies for signs from heaven, snapping photographs of the sun and sky. Not all of them are convinced that Maria Paula can see the Virgin, yet at each vision event they watch for subtle clues to Mary’s presence, such as the unexpected scent of roses or a cloud in the shape of an angel. The visionary depends on her audience to witness and authenticate her visions, while observers rely on Maria Paula and the Virgin to create a sacred space and moment where they, too, can experience firsthand one of the oldest and most fundamental promises of Christianity: direct contact with the divine. Together, visionary and witnesses negotiate and enact their monthly liturgy of revelations.


Our Lady of the Rock, which features text by Lisa M. Bitel and more than sixty photographs by Matt Gainer, shows readers what happens in the Mojave Desert each month and tells us how two thousand years of Christian revelatory tradition prepared Maria Paula and her followers to meet in the desert. Based on six years of observation and interviews, chapters analyze the rituals, iconographies, and physical environment of Our Lady of the Rock. Bitel and Gainer also provide vivid portraits of the pilgrims—who they are, where they come from, and how they practice the traditional Christian discernment of spirits and visions. They follow three pilgrims as they return home with relics and proofs of visions where, out of Maria Paula’s sight, they too have learned to see the Virgin. The book also documents the public response from the Catholic Church and popular news media to Maria Paula and other contemporary visionaries.


Throughout, Our Lady of the Rock locates Maria Paula and her followers in the context of recent demographic and cultural shifts in the American Southwest, the astonishing increase in reported apparitions and miracles from around the world, the latest developments in communications and visual technologies, and the never-ending debate among academics, faith leaders, scientists, and citizen observers about sight, perception, reason, and belief.


Preface: Looking the Wrong Way

1. Déj+á Vu

2. The Desert Is Wide

Visual Essay: Our Lady of the Rock, 2006–2011

3. The Model Visionary

4. Looking Like Pilgrims

5. From Witness to Visionary

6. Discernment at a Distance: The Global Culture of Witnessing

Conclusion: The Longue Durée of Christian Religious Vision


'Our Lady of the Rock examines the development of a contemporary devotion to the Virgin Mary in the Mojave Desert, led by the visionary Maria Paula AcuA±a. Lisa Bitel and Matt Gainer brilliantly combine historical and ethnographic analysis with visual documentation of the apparition site and the leader of the group. Fundamental to the devotion of those assembled around AcuA±a is the fascinating practice of photographing the sky where Our Lady appears. As a result, luminous photographs mediate the relationship of pilgrim and heavenly figure, revealing particular messages that keep the pilgrims coming back to the stark place of revelation year after year.'aDavid Morgan, Duke University, author of The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America 'Our Lady of the Rock makes important contributions to American religious history, American Catholic history, Marian studies, sociology/anthropology of religion, and women's and gender studies, as well as Christian history.'aKristy Nabhan-Warren, V. O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Fellow in Catholic Studies, University of Iowa, author of The Virgin of el Barrio: Marian Apparitions, Catholic Evangelizing, and Mexican American Activism ''Besides intercessors,' writes Lisa Bitel, 'genuine Christian epiphany also involves . . . humans.' Her collaboration with photographer Matt Gainer invites readers within a stunningly fine-grained exploration of the everyday making of religion, as two thousand years of Christian revelatory tradition are brought to bear on purportedly modern ways of seeing and explaining, doubting and believing.'aKenneth Mills, J. Frederick Hoffman Professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, coeditor of Lexikon of the Hispanic Baroque
Lisa M. Bitel is Professor of History and Religion at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Land of Women and Isle of the Saints, both from Cornell, as well as Landscape with Two Saints and Women in Early Medieval Europe, 400–1100.