EMMITSBURG, Md. - Some say that when the Virgin Mary comes down, they smell roses. Some say they see the sun wheeling in the sky. When she appears, some see her blue robe shimmer.
Some say she turns the chains of their rosaries to gold.
When the Blessed Virgin comes to Donna Pendleton, the young mother from this rural part of Maryland says, Mary just slips quietly into her heart.
Nothing "like a lightning bolt," says Mrs. Pendleton, whose face is radiant as she stands on the dark sidewalk outside St. Joseph's Church.
Her visit feels like "a tingle," says Mrs. Pendleton, who wears her little boy's crystal rosary around her neck, inside her ski jacket. Then "everything opens up and becomes clearer."
Snow may or may not come this night to Emmitsburg, a town with one street light, surrounded by farms. Mrs. Pendleton thinks not.
But the Virgin Mary will be here, because this is a Thursday and she comes every Thursday night, believers say. Mrs. Pendleton is one of the many who regularly flock to this gray stucco church to hear her weekly message, and feel her mysterious presence.
With incense and candles burning, they gather in the sanctuary and murmur "Hail Mary" after "Hail Mary," the beads of their rosaries slipping through their fingers as they wait.
In these times of sin and confusion, in these days of the approaching millennium, believers say the Mother of God is visiting Earth with increasing regularity.
" Oh yeah," says David Zappardino, a musician and a regular here at St. Joseph's Church, "... she is part of the plan."
Believers say she is visiting them all over the world, not just in Emmitsburg, Md., but in Phoenix and in Steubenville, Ohio, in Conyers, Ga., in Akita, Japan, and Kibeho, Rwanda, and Medjugorje, Bosnia.
"It's a tremendous outburst. She's appearing everywhere," says Tammy Ouellette, a spokeswoman at the national headquarters of the Marian Movement of Priests in St. Francis, Maine. "She's calling people back to her."
Every year, the organization updates a book of appeals for prayer and apocalyptic warnings: messages said to be received directly from the Virgin by the group's founder, Stefano Gobbi, an Italian priest. The book is now 1,088 pages long.
While little is actually known of Mary's life on earth, the fascination with her has endured for centuries.
The Bible contains sparse references to the mother of Jesus, but that has not stopped scholars from delving the scriptures for clues to her character. It has not stopped generations of devotees from shaping her to their disparate needs.
She's been portrayed as both virgin and mother, saint and fertility goddess. She's ridden to battle with the Crusaders and rallied the followers of labor organizer Cesar Chavez. She is Notre Dame, lady of all the cathedrals of France, and La Morenita, the dark little Virgin of Guadalupe, midwife of peasant mothers throughout Latin America.
She is the patroness of legions of unchurched spiritual searchers and she also receives the daily devotions of Pope John Paul II. The Pope says that in 1981, Mary saved him from an assassin's bullet, noting the attempt on his life came on the anniversary of her 1917 appearance to three children in Fatima, Portugal.
Some have seen her as a New Testament Miriam, the prophetess, who in the Book of Exodus danced in victory with her timbrel on the edge of the Red Sea. Others find her in the Book of Revelations, the woman clothed in the sun, crowned by 12 stars. Others have called her a Risen Eve, with the power to correct the sins of the past.
"Ave Maria," the angel Gabriel was said to have greeted Mary, and millions have since prayed "Ave Maria."
Eve in Latin is Eva, and Eva spelled backward is Ave, observes Jaroslav Pelikan, a scholar and collector of the mysterious symmetries of Mary. Dr. Pelikan is a professor emeritus of history at Yale and author of one of a spate of new books about her, Mary Through the Centuries (Yale University Press).
He sees no end to her mystery.
"I call her Our Lady of the Paradoxes," he says.
While history testifies that devotion to, even obsession with Mary goes back to ancient times, Dr. Pelikan concludes in his book that this century has witnessed "probably an acceleration of the phenomenon of her apparitions."
But, he adds in an interview, it is not for him to say if she really appears.
"That's not my business as a historian," he says. "That people experience her is a historical fact."
In Mexico, millions still crowd to a shrine built to honor five visits the Virgin Mother is said to have paid in 1531.
Her presence is still felt there so powerfully that "there is no question that in Mexico, God is a woman," says Ana Castillo, editor of Goddess of the Americas -writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe (Riverside Books), another of the new volumes about Mary.
A year ago this time Ms. Castillo was in Mexico, amid a crush of pilgrims to the Guadalupe shrine. God the Father may be a stern patriarch, Ms. Castillo says, but Mary, "she is someone who embraces you."
In collecting essays for her book, Ms. Castillo felt she was tapping into something beyond words. She felt in some cases like writers found themselves trying to describe the primal feelings an infant has for its mother: "The first love," says Ms. Castillo. "We go searching for it all our life."
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No one can say for sure if Mary was an agent of free will or a picture of submission.
In the scores of paintings of the Annunciation, we study her face as she stares into the eyes of the angel bringing her tidings of her conception of God's son.
Some have wondered if she had a choice, bearing Jesus? Did she want to become the mother of the world, the mother of all God's orphans?
When God seems far away, there is an urge to return to the comfort of the mother, to the safety of the womb. Psychologists and philosophers say the inner child is an orphan and always will be.
Scott Sparrow, a psychologist, knows that intense longing after the mother. He has just written Blessed Among Women (Harmony Books), which includes interviews with dozens of people who say Mary has appeared to them.
Dr. Sparrow, raised a Protestant, says he has not always been a believer in the higher powers of Mary.
"I had a lot of skepticism until I smelled roses twice," he said.
But Dr. Sparrow's book includes accounts of his own visions, too. In one, he says he felt his entire mind filled with her blue cloak. Another left him with the image of a woman's breast and "the purest, most exquisite joy I've ever known."
He can only compare the feeling with nursing as an infant. "And then I was back on my office sofa. ... A wave of love gently washed through me and I could feel it working to heal and restore me ... ."
In Emmitsburg, as the crowd prays, a small brunette woman sits bolt upright in the first row of the church. The face of Gianna Talone Sullivan becomes suffused with a seeming ecstasy.
Dr. Sullivan, a pharmacologist who now dedicates her life to providing medical care to the rural poor, appears to listen in rapture, lost in conversation with a Virgin the others cannot see.
Then Dr. Sullivan blesses herself with the sign of the cross, takes up a pen and an ordinary steno pad and writes down the week's message. It is handed up to the altar. The priest reads the message to the crowd. "My dear little children, praise be Jesus," the Virgin Mary is said to say. "You must remove distractions."
The message contains Mary's usual appeal for purity and devotion.
"I am here to guide you. ... It is my joy to do so, because Jesus is my joy."
For all their warmth, there is an antique quality to the words, as if they have traveled light years to get to Emmitsburg.