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Visionaries and Visions

— Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


Let me begin by quoting from a standard dictionary. "A vision is something seen otherwise than by the ordinary sight: an imaging, supernatural, or prophetic sight beheld in sleep or ecstasy; especially one that conveys a revelation."

A visionary is a person capable of seeing visions; "a person who sees visions; one that relies or tends to rely on dreams and fancies or on imaginary or ideal conceptions or projects having little basis in reality; an impractical person."

Clearly, these definitions are not much help for our conference on "Visionaries and Visions." Our focus here is on the widespread phenomena in the modern world, especially in the Catholic Church since the middle of the present century: so many mystics and revelations, so many locutions and apparitions reported in our day that someone had better evaluate these experiences from an authentically Catholic perspective.

There are two subjects on which I would like to speak to you, namely, Mystics and Mysticism.

You will notice that I have changed the words of our title: Visionaries and Visions to Mystics and Mysticism. The reason is that Catholic Visionaries and visions can mean almost anything, and the terms would be useless for what I want to share with you.

Even words like mystic, mystical and mysticism are so widely used that it is important at the outset to explain what we mean when we use these words. We say it makes a great deal of difference whether we know the Catholic Church's understanding of what a mystic is.

There are Protestant theologians who claim that mysticism is essentially non-Christian. They fail to distinguish between the mysticism in Christianity and the pseudo-mysticism among the Hindus or Buddhists.

Others look on mysticism as a form of pantheism. They too, have no norms by which to recognize the mysticism.

Still others consider mysticism a form of psycho-pathology. Writers like William James will simply not admit the existence of a personal God, who is constantly and freely active (in a miraculous way in the world of human beings whom He has made). In one of his most widely read books, William James identifies Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross as victims of psycho-pathology. In his judgment, these and other great mystics of Christianity were insane.

Moreover, oriental religions have deeply penetrated into western society. There is literally a deluge of so-called mysticism, mystical cults, and meditations that we had better have some basic principles to pass judgment on the non-Christian oriental world.

My purpose here is to first answer the question raised at the beginning, "What is a mystic?"

The language of Catholic theology is fluid in this matter. That is why we describe a mystic in three ways. He or she may be any one or all three. For the present, we shall simply explain the quality of these persons that in the Catholic vocabulary are called mystic.

Mystics are holy persons who have reached Christian perfection. They are no longer beginners, proficients. They may, of course, still grow in virtue. But their main concern is to remain united with God.

Mystics are gifted contemplatives. We must carefully note that a person can be very holy and pleasing to God without being a gifted contemplative. On this level mystics possess what is called infused contemplation. The most authoritative description of a mystic as a gifted contemplative is given by St. Teresa of Avila in her masterful work, The Interior Castle. The description is given in the 4th to the 7th mansions of St. Teresa's description of infused contemplation.

Mystics may finally be persons who manifest charismatic phenomena. Such phenomena do not occur in the normal development of the spiritual life. They are called charisms because they are given by God for the benefit of others than the mystic. In other words, these phenomena are apostolic by nature. They may be true miracles, like private revelations, divine locutions, the stigmata, speaking in tongues, levitation, transportation through space, knowing events at a great distance of space, the gift of prophecy.

It is here, especially, that we must carefully distinguish between the mystic and these phenomena. It does not follow that because a person has these phenomenal gifts that he or she is necessarily either very holy or even gifted with infused contemplation. The single most important thing to remember about these charismatic gifts is that they are not for the benefit of the person who possesses them. If genuine, such charismata are always for the benefit of others. They are apostolic and not personal gifts from God.

We shall say more on the subject before this conference is over. For the present, it is enough to note that what are commonly called mystical phenomena may be produced by persons and forces that are not only not spiritual or supernatural. They may be abnormal indeed, but either the result of natural, psychic powers, or even demonic in their origin.

In God's providence, I have had occasion to deal professionally with persons who in my judgment were authentic mystics. They were people who had reached a high degree of sanctity. I remember the woman bedridden with agonizing pain for over 17 years. She was totally resigned to God's mysterious providence in her life. She saw the divine will in her sufferings and was a personification of peaceful and loving acceptance of the divine will. But I have also met and again dealt with professionally those who had the reputation of being mystics. But in my judgment they had neither reached Christian perfection nor were they gifted contemplatives. They had powerful imaginations, far above normal. They were so immersed in what they thought were either visions or locutions from God or specially inspired revelations from on high. Nothing I could say could change their complete conviction that they were specially chosen agents of the Most High with a special mission to the people of our day.


Mysticism


As we enter the immense subject of mystical phenomena we must immediately distinguish between the experiences of authentic mystics and those who may sincerely believe they are inspired by God but actually are not. One reason for my changing the subject of our conference from Visionaries and Visions to Mystics and Mysticism is that the Catholic Church has some very definite norms for judging authentic mystical phenomena.

Authentic Mystical Phenomena. The range of true mystical phenomena is immense. What follows is not an exhaustive list, nor do all mystic contemplatives experience all these phenomena, nor all in the same degree.

  1. Intuition of God, of the Holy Trinity or of the Person of Jesus Christ is a profound understanding of revealed mysteries. Saints like Augustine and Catherine of Sienna, Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila are obvious examples of persons whose mystical experiences that have become part of the Catholic Church's spiritual heritage. St. Ignatius of Loyola said that a single intuitive vision of the Holy Trinity taught him more than he had ever learned about the mysteries of faith throughout his whole lifetime. The key word is understanding, which means a profound insight into the meaning of a revealed truth of Christianity.

  2. A quasi-experiential knowledge of God and what pertains to God is accompanied by spiritual joy for which there is no natural counterpart in human experience. One effect is a profound disdain for worldly pleasure accompanied by a strong desire for greater holiness.

  3. What is called passive purification of the senses. This presumes that a person has faithfully practiced mortification of his natural desires not only of the senses of the body but of the emotions of the soul.

  4. Authentic mystics may have a continual awareness of God. Sometimes this awareness is accompanied by suspension of their faculties, by a deep, filial fear of God, by a great love of suffering, extraordinary spiritual sensations, flights of the spirit, leading to ecstasy, agonizing wounds of love and interior communications from the mind of Christ to the mind of the mystic.

  5. St. John of the Cross speaks of the dark night of the soul which the mind remains firm in its faith in God while being tried by an almost blind unawareness of God's presence and His love.

  6. The heights of mystical phenomena are reached in what the saints call total death to self. In practice, this will mean the exercise of heroic virtue; the experience of deep joy in persecution and such zeal for the salvation of souls as St. Paul describes in his letters to the faithful.

So far we have been speaking of the mystical phenomena which are mainly interior. They are phenomena indeed, but known principally by the mystics themselves. In popular language, however, the phenomena of mysticism are commonly associated with extraordinary effects or events that are perceptible to the sense and considered marvelous to those who witness them. Just to make an incomplete list of such phenomena may be useful. They are: levitation of the human body in space, sudden appearance or disappearance of a person from human sight, speaking in a language that a person had never learned, surviving without food or drink for months and even years, the ability to see events or hear words that may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away, making statues to weep or to move in space, speaking in one language and having people of different languages understand what is being said, foretelling future events in precise detail and then having these events fulfilled, causing the sudden movement of the earth or suddenly stilling a violent storm. These are just examples of what most literature on the subject has in mind when it writes about mystical phenomena.

Needless to say, great prudence and discernment must be used in passing judgment on these phenomena. The need for discernment is not only because some enthusiastic people may consider something as supernatural which is actually, not only natural but even pathological. No one has ever made an estimate of the authenticity of what we call private revelations. In my judgment most of these alleged private revelations are illusory.

What complicates the issue is that these visionaries, as we may call them, are often so persuasive that not just a few, but hundreds and even thousands of people may believe them.

At this point we may set down a few basic norms by which visions, apparitions, or revelations can be judged for their authenticity. By authenticity we mean their supernatural, even miraculous, origin and purpose.

A basic norm for identifying an authentic revelation is its full consistency with the Catholic faith. This consistency does not, of course, prove that the revelation is supernatural. It does, however, indicate whether what is supposedly revealed is credible. God never contradicts Himself.

In order for a revelation to be miraculously supernatural, it must have been received in what are provable miraculous circumstances. During His visible stay on earth, Christ made many revelations. He proclaimed statements, which His followers were to believe, and prescribed actions to be performed that were humanly unexplainable or humanly impossible to put into practice. He claimed to be one with the Father. He said He would be the one to come to judge the human race on the last day. He told the multitude that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood to reach their heavenly destiny. He told His followers not only to love those who do not love them but even to love their worst enemies. He told married people that they would be two in one flesh, faithful to each other until death. He forbade His followers even to consent to unchaste thoughts and desires.

So the litany of rationally inconceivable mysteries and humanly impossible actions prescribed by Christ goes on. It would be impossible for the human reason to accept either Christ's teaching or His commandments unless He had confirmed what He taught and prescribed by working miracles.

The moment we say this, we place a heavy responsibility on those who claim to have received revelations from God and expect others to believe that these (revelations) are to be accepted as supernatural communications from on high.

One of the norms, which the Church requires in her acceptance of private revelations, is that the seers have either performed provable miracles, or have lived miraculously holy lives, or that Christ had performed miraculous phenomena as the fruit of these professedly revealed communications.

Once we say this, we open the door to an ocean of ideas that, as Catholics, we had better have definite norms by which to judge whether these ideas have been supernaturally communicated by God through those who claim to be speaking in His name.

Before we go any further, let me share with you some of the most fundamental norms by which we can judge whether an alleged visionary is even telling the truth, not to say receiving supernatural communications from God. The visionary must be a person of at least ordinary virtue. The one virtue, which is indispensable, is sincere humility. Authentic mystics do not publicize their mystical experiences. The last thing that a Teresa of Avila wanted was to broadcast her locutions from our Lord. The widespread publicity that so many visionaries are not only accepting but promoting is a bedrock proof that they are mystics only in their own minds.

Moreover, true mystics are obedient to the Church's authority. This authority is not always vested in holy people. How well I remember the Protestant minister in Washington, D.C. who was taking instructions in the Catholic faith. He would come for a meeting every week to Georgetown University. Some two months after he began his instructions, the first question he asked me was what do you think of Pope Leo X. I told him Pope Leo X would never be canonized. Then my Protestant minister friend broke into a rage. He shouted, "Leo X was a scoundrel. He was an evil man." When he quieted down, I asked him why he was so curious about the character of Pope Leo X. He told me that Martin Luther had received communications from God, telling him to break with the Bishop of Rome. The Bishop of Rome then proceeded to excommunicate Martin Luther as a heretic. My friend asked me, "How could an evil man like Leo X condemn a holy monk like Martin Luther." I told him, "Leo X will never be canonized. But we Catholics believe that those in Church authority have the right from God to teach and to govern as long as their teaching and governing is consistent with the Church's doctrinal history." The would-be convert to Catholicism left the room where we were speaking and never returned.

In some ways this is the most difficult standard by which to judge the validity of a visionary's locutions. Does the visionary submit to ecclesiastical authority expressed by the bishop of the diocese or the Bishop of Rome. In an age like ours, one reason for the flood of "revelations" is that the Church's Authority is so widely ignored or even rejected.



©1997 Inter Mirifica
May not be reproduced without prior written permission.





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