First she began hearing messages from her angel. Then, miraculously, she said, God spoke to her. Soon she was speaking directly with Jesus and Mary as well.
Now, for 10 years, she has been speaking to believers throughout the world about what she says are her encounters with the holy, as she did last weekend before a crowd estimated at 4,000 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
She is Vassula Ryden, a 53-year-old Greek mother of two, who lives in Switzerland and belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church.
To her followers, Vassula--as she is called--is God's alter ego and faithful purveyor of messages from on high to repent, love God, and unify the churches. To skeptics, including a number of Roman Catholic bishops and theologians, she is a former tennis player who takes in the well-meaning and those of simple faith--and sometimes snookers a bishop here and there into allowing her to speak in his cathedral, as she did in 1993 in Sacramento.
Whatever the case, her popularity on the lecture circuit comes at a time when many believe there is a growing search for spirituality. Her appeal seems to be strongest among Roman Catholics who are enthralled by reports of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, particularly reported appearances of Mary at Medjugorje in the war-torn former Yugoslavia.
For example, the audience sat in awe as Vassula told the crowd of the day she said she was visited by Jesus and Mary.
"He said to me, 'Can you discern who is with me?' I said . . . 'It is your mother who is with you!' And he turned around and he said, 'Your mother, too.' "
She told how she rode on a bus with Jesus, and the time he hid his face from her because he didn't want her to see that he was sad.
Once, she said, Jesus stood and watched silently as she ate ravenously, because she was hungry. "Finally," she said, "he asked, 'Is it good?' " The audience broke into laughter. "And I said, 'Yes, Jesus. Thank you.' There was nothing wrong, so I continued eating. After awhile he said, 'Don't you want me to bless it?' "
At other times, the messages she said she received closely follow biblical accounts of Jesus' sayings or the writings of the Apostle Paul. Her messages are filled with unattributed biblical quotations and allusions to biblical accounts. But in an interview, she said she was ignorant of such things and that it was God who told her what to say.
Indeed, this self-described "wretched" woman said she has become so unified with God and Jesus that when she writes down their messages her handwriting changes so that it no longer is recognizable as hers, but becomes the distinct penmanship of the author of creation himself.
Sharing the podium with her that day was Matthew Kelly, a 21-year-old Australian who dropped out of college while majoring in marketing to embark on a worldwide speaking tour after he, too, said he began receiving direct messages from God.
Like Vassula, Kelly has published the messages in books and on tapes which are sold during their appearances. Both said that only their travel expenses are paid and that they do not profit from the sales of their books and tapes.
As she spoke to the crowd, Vassula stood close to a portrait she had painted of Jesus. The resemblance between her rendition of Jesus and her own features is striking--it is almost a self-portrait, except that she has no beard.
Critics like Father Brian Harrison, chairman of the department of theology at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, said that aside from major doctrinal errors, what bothers him about her writings are the changes Vassula makes in later editions of her books after someone points out poor English grammar or contradictions.
In a telephone interview, Harrison asked--as have others--that if the messages are authentically from God to begin with, how dare she change them later? The other question, of course, is if a perfect God speaks perfect English, is it possible the words are not his, but hers?
Vassula has an explanation. In an interview, she said God gave her permission to make the changes, even going so far as to suggest deleting a paragraph here or a saying there. She said it is possible for a perfect God to regret something he said, just as he regretted creating a race that would fall from grace, as he did in the Book of Genesis.
All of this is too much for some, among them Father Gregory Coiro, spokesman for Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles.
"My biggest problem with Vassula is that she's not Catholic and she calls the Catholic Church apostate and yet she reaches out to Catholics and peddles her wares, including her incipient writings," Coiro said.
"People want to have a supernatural experience or be close to someone claiming to have a supernatural experience," he said. "I think that's why you have reports of visions and locutions. I think it shows a real spiritual hunger. But what people need is authenticity."