Cover Stories

Mountain Mystic

GT1517 CoverWEBWhen Cora Evans died in Boulder Creek in 1957, her thousands of pages of religious writings hadn’t yet been published. More than a half a century later, Evans’ fiery visions and spiritual devotion have inspired a crusade within Catholicism to make her the Santa Cruz Mountains’ first saint

There are things Cora Evans knows about Jesus that aren’t in the Bible—like the names of his childhood pets (Bobin, a rabbit, and a trained mouse he called Twitchy Ears). She was there the first time he met Saint Peter. She even transcended the boundaries of space and time with which we construct our very reality, and outside of those bounds talked directly with Jesus. The year was 1947. They met up on a bridge, see, and Jesus was getting ready to give her a private violin concert (yes, he plays) but just before he lowered his bow a dove came and perched on his instrument’s strings, snapping one of them. Jesus smiled a wry smile at Evans then, and told her the concert would have to wait.

It was just as well. He’d told her before, another time when they were hanging out, that when she heard him play the violin it would mean she was dying, and it was time for her to go to heaven with him. This would have been fine with Evans, who later wrote that she felt no concern as to whether she lived or died because she had attained a state of “holy indifferentism and detachment to my own will.” Her life belonged to Jesus anyway; he could take it back if he wanted to. If she was going to stay alive, though, she figured she might as well make it count. She told Jesus, “My beloved, if I can glorify thee by staying on earth I am willing to stay for the love I have for thee.”

Jesus told Evans that she needed to begin praying three times a day, in order to prepare for “a great ecstasy which will take you into greater depths of knowledge than you have ever received.” He told her she would soon be speaking face to face with John the Baptist. There would be others, too. She would basically be granted a backstage pass to the events of the New Testament as they unfolded. She would see it all—under one condition: Jesus told her, “I want you to use the gift of writing which I have given you. I want you to write with perfect freedom.”

So that’s what she did. Throughout the course of her life, Cora Evans composed enough material for 14 manuscripts, including “Refugee from Heaven”, a 450-page novel-like telling of the life of Jesus, from the last supper to the crucifixion and resurrection. She did much of this work in Southern California, before moving to Boulder Creek in 1956, where she lived out the last year and a half of her life. (Sources don’t know what compelled her to move to Boulder Creek, aside from “God’s will.”)

Most of Evans’ writings were published years after her death, by a Half Moon Bay man named Michael McDevitt, who founded a publishing house in her honor. Called Mystical Humanity of Christ Publishing, the company is one part of his multi-part plan to turn Cora Evans into a household name. The other part of the plan? Make her a saint.
 
The process of canonization by the Catholic Church is no joke. It takes years, untold resources, and, as McDevitt puts it, “The bar is very high.” Only 13 Americans have been canonized as saints; the Vatican announced this month that California’s Junipero Serra will be canonized when Pope Francis makes his first trip to the U.S. in September, amidst a fair amount of controversy around Serra’s treatment of Native Americans in the building of California’s early missions. There is no process in place for unmaking a saint, either, so once the Vatican makes a decision it has to stand behind it.

Canonization happens in four stages. The first designation is called “Servant of God,” which is awarded to an individual when the bishop of the diocese in which she died agrees to open an investigation into the virtues of the person. After that comes Venerable, and then Blessed—Blessed is what Mother Teresa is currently. Finally, there is Sainthood.

McDevitt first got involved with Cora’s writings in 1992 when his uncle, who had been Evans’ spiritual director in Los Angeles, asked him to be the custodian of her many written works. He agreed, without giving much thought to what that meant, and began infusing her writings into Catholic retreats he was leading. Five years ago, he decided to do more. “I thought Cora’s life story ought to be in the hands of the Catholic Church formally,” McDevitt says. “They weren’t aware of her.”
McDevitt composed a petition outlining why Evans should be considered for canonization, a process for which there are no formal guidelines. “You just have to do it,” he says. A layperson with no experience in canon law, McDevitt was left to use his own judgment when describing in writing why Evans should be appointed a saint. Fortunately, he was “on fire for this work” and, perhaps, more notably, spent years working as an executive at a number of advertising agencies. He was successful, and Evans’ case is currently being reviewed by Bishop Richard John Garcia of Monterey—granting her Servant of God status, the first step on the path to sainthood.
 
The first and most pressing question that I had once I started researching the life and works of Cora Evans, I saved for my second interview with McDevitt, after we had gotten to know each other a bit, because it was potentially an extremely insulting one. I wanted to know if he had considered the possibility that Evans was completely and hopelessly insane. Religious experiences are one of the more common markers of schizophrenia—patients will believe that God is talking to them directly; they’ll have visions of divine beings and auditory hallucinations. Private violin concerts from the son of God seemed to fit in well with what I knew of the psychotic disorder.

And then there was her writing. In addition to “Refugee from Heaven,” McDevitt has uncovered diary entries and accounts of what Evans experienced during her numerous ecstasies—blackout periods in which she supposedly had direct, first-person religious experiences. They are full of bizarre claims, such as Jesus gifting Evans a ruby ring which she then wore around in real life, Evans teleporting to China to baptize infants there, and Evans arranging for rose petals to be dropped from the heavens onto the heads of prisoners in a German concentration camp during World War II. They are also full of the sort of rambling, extremist-sounding sentences that one might not be surprised to read from a writer who chose to live her life off the grid in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1950s:

“The devil was angry with me for I threatened to use the cross which they hate and suffer under when we command in the name of Jesus for them to kneel before it (I have done this before and have actually heard them moan and cry for release),” she wrote in one entry. In another: “My Son’s Justice was about to strike upon America … but the merciful love of seven victim souls of love in America lowered His sword-clad hand. He burned the chart of His will and cast it into the sea of mystical America.”

I sat across from McDevitt on a Friday morning at a strip-mall Starbucks in San Mateo. As we sipped decaffeinated coffees, I paged through the spiral-bound “Selected Writings of Cora Evans: Volume One,” which bears a bright red sticker on the front cover that reads, “Vatican Declares Cora Evans Servant of God,” as if it were a novel boasting, “Now a major motion picture!”

“I have to ask about the connection between mental illness and religious experience,” I began. Before I could elaborate he nonchalantly finished my question for me: “You’re asking if Cora was for real?”

“Exactly.”

McDevitt took a sip of his decaf and shrugged. “That’s what this process is about right now,” he answered simply. “It’s called inquiry.”
 
The inquiry, currently being executed by Bishop Richard John Garcia in Monterey, and to be potentially continued by the Vatican at some point, involves examining Evans’ life and choices. “There is a consistent theme in the lives of the Saints,” writes McDevitt in his introduction to Evans’ “Selected Writings.” “Their lives were given freely to the Lord … It is the story of their lives, how they responded to grace, the intervention of God in their lives, their impact on others, combined with God’s proof by miracles in their name that led the Pope to declare ‘we know for certain this person is with God in heaven.’”

Evans was born in 1904 and was baptized and brought up in the Mormon Church in Utah. She was married in the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, and that ceremony marked the beginning of her disillusionment with the Mormon faith. It seemed artificial to her. She balked at Mormonism’s “counterfeit Jesus,” as McDevitt puts it. After that, she explored other religions for 10 years before stumbling upon Catholicism while listening to a Catholic Hour radio program when she was sick in bed, too weak to get up and change the station.

She converted to Catholicism in 1935, followed by her husband and two daughters a few months later. She had her first mystical experience in 1938, an ecstasy during which she described a complete intimate union with God. “By loaning Jesus my humanity for Him to govern as well as dwell within, would make my life a living prayer,” she wrote.

In 1941 she and her family moved to Southern California to escape prejudice from their former Mormon community in Utah. There, she was linked up with Father Frank Parrish (McDevitt’s uncle), who was appointed her spiritual director by the Provincial of the Society of Jesuits in Los Angeles. She began having more and more ecstasies. (“So many,” according to McDevitt.) During these periods, her body would go as rigid as a corpse. Parrish later wrote that it was impossible for him to move her during these periods—lifting her just a few inches took multiple strong men. She would often hold her stiffened arms extended above her head, like Jesus on the cross, for hours. Parrish couldn’t budge them. “While in the state of ecstasy, Cora seems to acquire weight,” he wrote in a testimonial of Evans in the early 1950s. “The weight of the knowledge imparted has a bearing on the weight that her body acquires.”

Evans also reportedly felt the wounds of Jesus—the stigmata appeared on her hands, and Parrish recorded the scent of roses emanating from her on numerous occasions, a phenomenon traditionally associated with holy people and saints.

All this begs the question of why so few people were aware of Evans and the shocking experiences she was having back then. McDevitt calls her a “hidden mystic,” and explains that the Cardinal in Los Angeles, who was aware of Evans, did not want to attract fanfare. “You know how when people say they see Jesus’ face on their burnt piece of toast or whatever, and then they’re all over the news for a week? That person rather than our lord becomes the focus,” says McDevitt.
When I asked what she typically did with her days McDevitt responded, “She went to mass and communion frequently, if not daily. And she had numerous ecstasies—during some periods she had them daily or almost daily. And then she would write.”

Evans wrote on a manual typewriter with lightweight onionskin and carbon paper. Sometimes she wrote after her ecstasies, sometimes she wrote during them, sitting up and typing with her eyes closed. McDevitt has 22 crates of these original writings in his home.
 
Mother Mary knelt near the lower end of the log, and she shuddered and closed her eyes when she saw the large, square nails. Tears streamed down her face, but she made no sound. Then she heard the blow of the mallet. She opened her eyes to see a half-drunken man wield the hammer again and again. It missed the head of the nail and smashed savagely into her Son’s hand. His beauty was now crushed, open and bleeding, revealing bare bones as part payment for the sins of men.

Those words are from Evans’ telling of the life of Jesus, “Refugee from Heaven.” Compared to some of her other writings, the book is shockingly lucid. It is suspenseful and its characters have depth. It is inarguably a gripping, well-written text. What’s more, Evans composed it with no training as a writer. Her formal education barely extended beyond grade school—a year and a half of high school and nothing beyond that.

According to Parrish’s written testimonial of Evans, the quality of “Refugee” can be offered as proof that Evans’ religious experiences were genuine. “It is impossible to explain naturally the hidden depth of spiritual knowledge that has come to her through rapture and ecstasy. Neither her own imagination, nor her subconscious mind, nor the devil could have caused those visions and revelations,” he wrote.
“She was shown something,” says McDevitt. “It reads like an eye-witness account.”
 
With the majority of Evans’ written works—14 books, in all—published, and her case for sainthood officially opened, one would think McDevitt, who has been working on Cora Evans’ stuff full time for the past 15 years, is a guy who would be taking a beating right about now. Instead, he’s accelerating. He has contracted with Lance Johnson, the fast-talking founder of Green Egg Media, a San Francisco-based web development company, who has a plan to “build out a large-scale media enterprise that surrounds the mission.”

In addition to designing a website and Facebook presence for Evans, Johnson, who is also a parishioner at San Francisco’s St. Dominic Church, has been developing ideas for bringing awareness of Evans and her ideals to a younger generation—a task that, at 74, McDevitt wasn’t sure how to achieve. Johnson is 33. “The perfect age,” he jokes to me when I speak with him on the phone. (“Trinity—Double trinity!” I fire back, to which he responds with exactly one polite chuckle.) He maintains that people under age 35 aren’t accustomed to buying printed books anymore. “Everything’s digital,” he says. To that end his future goals include videos, a podcast, and a series of short e-books written by young Catholic authors.

“What we’re doing is not all reliant on the writings of one single author,” he says, meaning Evans. “It goes well beyond that. Anything that is true, good and beautiful goes well beyond any individual person.”
The site Johnson developed to promote Evans had 20,000 unique visitors the first quarter of this year. Individual blog posts have been shared as many as 1,000 times, and often generate hundreds of comments. To McDevitt, this growth is more than welcome. Because it turns out getting Evans’ books published was not the end goal. Getting her designated a saint isn’t even the end goal. “I don’t have any vested interest in Cora becoming a saint,” McDevitt tells me flatly one afternoon.

No. The end goal, friends, is world domination. Except, you know, in a peaceful way.

“We’re not doing what we do because we want Cora to be famous,” he says. “Canonization is another vehicle for getting her message out there.” McDevitt is well aware that when someone progresses on the path of sainthood, more and more people know about her. Especially once the person is declared “venerable,” because that’s when people can pray to her for things like medical intercessions, otherwise known as miracles.

“When someone is declared venerable the word really gets out,” says McDevitt. Tens of thousands of people know about Cora now. If she’s declared venerable it will be in the millions.”

Through her writings—both directly and indirectly—Evans described a style of prayer that encourages people to live with a heightened awareness of the indwelling presence of Jesus in their daily lives. This is the “Mystical Humanity of Christ,” the mission McDevitt says was entrusted to Evans by Jesus, which he is working to carry out today through his myriad vehicles. “It means Christ in you,” he says. I think of the Buddhist greeting namaste which can be translated to mean, “the god in me honors the god in you.” Except in this case, having Jesus dwelling in you is contingent on the eucharist—eating the holy, living bread, or Catholic communion.

“It is a spiritual communion that is about Jesus and the incarnation and the purpose for which he came into the world. He said that he would not leave us as orphans and he gave us the eucharist,” McDevitt explains. I ask how the mission of promoting the “Mystical Humanity of Christ” is different than just a straight-up mission to convert people to Catholicism. He says the message is unique in that it places more of an emphasis on daily living—making a spiritual communion at all times, whether you’re in church or at the grocery store. He maintains the mission is not to convert people. “But on the other hand, it’s all about the word of God,” he says. “To the degree that that influences people to come into the church, then that’s a byproduct of what we’re doing.”

Toward the end of a second interview with McDevitt, he rests his chin on his palm and asks me a question that I know he, too, has been waiting to ask from the beginning. What is my religious background? Am I a Christian?
I tell him I was raised without religion. That my parents are agnostics, and when you grow up the way I did, you basically dismiss God.

He asks what I thought of “Refugee from Heaven,” which I’d read cover-to-cover. I tell him that it was beautifully written—and admit I was surprised how gripping it was. I tell him I’ve tried to read the Bible before, on occasion, just out of curiosity, but found the language and structure of it prohibitive. “I gave up at the part where they were just listing the dozens of names of people’s sons for like 10 pages,” I say.

McDevitt just nods and smiles. He says he doesn’t compare “Refugee from Heaven” to the Bible. “It stands on its own as a beautiful story that shows us over and over again the personality of Christ,” he says. To that end, he says the overwhelming feeling he’s gotten from Evans’ depictions of Jesus is “how much Jesus loves me—knows me and loves me.”

He meets my eyes, his gaze soft and steady. I know that in this moment he wants the same thing Cora Evans wanted—perhaps the reason she felt called to write “Refugee” in such an accessible way, a way that could reach people like me who have never had the overwhelming feeling he described. He wants me to get it. He wants to save me. All I can do is look down, thumb though my copy and say I’m grateful to have read it.

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