Friday, March 30, 2012

Dealing with Alleged Private Revelations: Some Tips (Part III)

(Part I here, and Part II here)

In his book A Still Small Voice, Fr. Groeschel doesn’t dwell long on what to do about fraudulent revelations--those in which the visions or messages are complete fabrications by a con-man/woman who is seeking either attention or money. I suppose that's because he feels that it the plan of action is fairly straightforward in those cases: get far away from such people.  That's pretty simple.

Or is it?

Once a revelation has been exposed as false, it is certainly sound advice to counsel flight. Conniving, manipulating, deceitful power/money hungry people are pretty unpleasant to be around anyway, so most folks don't need much convincing.

But what about beforehand? How to tell the difference between a false or a fraudulent revelation? Fr. Groeschel doesn't directly take that question on within his book. He writes instead about the difference between an authentic revelation, and a false one. He is mainly interested in discussing revelations that fall into one of these three categories: approved, alleged and false.*

At the end of the day, though, many of the warning signs for a false revelation are present in fraudulent ones, too. For the purposes of this series, I will summarize the points Fr. Groeschel makes in Chapters 8 and 9 (respectively entitled “Dealing sensibly with an alleged private revelation” and “Practical guide for spiritual directors”) as I believe they will be helpful in weeding out both the false and the fraudulent from the Real Deal. As a general rule of thumb, if something seems odd and out of place, it probably is. Furthermore, whether the message is intentionally concocted by a swindler or the product of a complex and psychologically disturbed mind is really irrelevant--if it's not true, it's just not true. That's all that matters when it comes to where you should be (and let me repeat where that should be: very, very far away!).

#1: Remain calm; be cautious and thorough and discerning. Neither the Blessed Mother, nor God the Father, the Son or the Holy Ghost will fault you for this!  Avoid dangerous emotional-intellectual extremes. In case you are wondering what those are, they include both passionate enthusiasm and aggressive/cynical rejection, as the author explained much earlier in his introductory chapter. He appealed to the example of the bishop of Mostar, whose denial of the authenticity of the happenings at Medjugorje is known throughout the world.

It's a no-lose situation, according to Fr. Groeschel because the worst that can happen is that, should the messages be proved authentic, the bishop will have to apologize. But if they are determined to be false, he will have saved the Church a whole lot of embarrassment. And then Fr. Groeschel gives this warning: but be careful that you do not become so certain of your own position that you lose your objectivity. "If time proves the revelation authentic, false, or ultimately doubtful, the person who has followed a reasonable middle road will have served the Kingdom of God well." (p.106)

#2: Learn as much as possible before coming to conclusions. It is simply not enough that a person is devout or a member of a religious congretation. What else do we know about the alleged visionary/ies? Their background, and their lifestyle and attitude now?** Are they emotionally stable? Are they involved in the occult? Are they self-important, openly defiant or proud, or are they open to instruction? Do they seek out publicity, are they engaged in promoting their own message, or instead are they satisfied to leave that in the hands of others?  From Chapter 9:
The desire for further revelations or spiritual favors is a very bad sign… Such self-centered desires are a sign not only of spiritual immaturity, but also growing egotism. Certainly this is not what special grace is all about. Another sign suggesting false revelation is of the recipient’s insistence that the decisions of others must be made on the basis of what is allegedly revealed to the visionary. (p114)
Moving forward with that line of questioning, then, what else do you know about the revelation/visionary?  When it comes to finances: do they profit from the revelations? As to the revelation: is it sound theologically? Is it re-hash or does it smack of mimicry? Has there been subjective distortion? Does it contain slander or a message of damnation for its critics? Have there been any erroneous prophecies (those are usually a bad sign)? Have there been any miracles related to the revelation?

Let's take an extra moment to discuss the matter of miracles: Fr. Groeschel realizes there is a temptation to make definitive statements about revelations based on anecdotal or personal experiences of the miraculous. "Well, it must be true because how else can you explain all these conversions?!?" Not so, he says. There may indeed be real experiences and/or interior transformations taking place at particular pilgrimage sites (or related in some way to the revelation), but this is simply not relevant:
"The fact is that we cannot judge the reported revelation by its fruit." (p.100) The conversions might be very real, but the revelation just might not be, that's all there is to it.

#3: If the visionary has a spiritual director, how has the director behaved or proceeded in regards to the alleged revelation? This isn't explicitly on Fr. Groeschel's list, but he does have an entire chapter devoted to counseling those who find themselves in the position of spiritual guide to someone who is claiming to have received/be receiving supernatural messages. 

Poulain and GroeschelGroeschel advises a director to seek out counsel from others and, if the visionary intends to spread the message more broadly to the public, to notify the proper ecclesiastical authorities. A spiritual director should be discerning and to watch out for signs that he/she might be personally manipulated.  Most of all, however, he/she ought always to keep in mind that his/her primary role is as spiritual guide, and not as "consultant and supporter of the supposed recipient." (p.116)
It is worth noting briefly that several informed spiritual authors on the subject also warn the spiritual director against being emotionally drawn in by the supposed recipient of the revelation...Those [involved], even if they have never met the assumed visionary (who by this time may be dead) share a sort of secret knowledge of which the rest of the world is oblivious. This awareness of secret knowledge (called arcana) generates a sense of comradeship and special importance. (...) The belief that all involved have a special divine call or destiny will inevitably lead them to be deluded into thinking that all they do or express is virtuous, that they are all under a charmed star.  (p.118)
#4:  Be patient; resist hastiness.  Once, again although this point doesn't show up on any of Father's official lists within the book, I believe it is not unfaithful to his overall message to include it here.  The following story I found to be especially persuasive: 

Even more caution is necessary when some work is suggested by the revelation, such as building a shrine or starting a new devotion. Those who believe that they have received such a revelation must be tested for patience over a period of time. God does not rush. […] Poulain offers as an example the case of Saint Juliana of Mont-Cornillon, near Liege in Beglium (1192-1258). She had a revelation instructing her to work for the establishment of a feast in honor of the Blessed Sacrament, but she did not present this instruction to theologians for almost twenty years. […] Only long after her death did her revelations get any real hearing, because a priest whom she knew in Liegebecame Pope Urban IV. The Feast of Corpus Christi was finally celebrated in the universal Church over one hundred years after Saint Juliana had her revelation. (p.112)

How about that, eh?  I never knew that the Feast of Corpus Christi originated as a private revelation.  But maybe you, fair readers, did.  The point is, almost 800 years later, it just doesn't matter as much as it is important for us, lay Catholics of the 21st century, to celebrate and reverence the Sacrament of the Body and Blood that is Christ's life for us.  The Church, through Pope Urban IV, ultimately determined that a feast day in honor of the most holy Eucharist should be instituted because the Eucharist is worthy of honor.  That is the still and small voice of God, taught by and witnessed to, by his Church.  That is a voice we can trust.

What is compelling about Fr. Groeschel’s guide is that he does indeed have faith.  He does not discount all divine revelation nor the possibility of receiving more communications from God.  He himself believes in God, and furthermore that God is in the habit of speaking to and visiting his people.  It's just that usually, that's done quietly and humbly. 

Religious experience is real and we are right to seek it.  Most often, though, it may look different from what we expect.  Do you want to commune with God?  Do you want to see his face?  Then read the Gospels and get to know Jesus because this is what He said about Himself: you will know Me in a special way in the outcast and in the poor.  You will see me in the faces of those you encounter; "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to Me."  Jesus, during His earthly ministry, spent more time hiding from the crowds and praying that working miracles.  He wanted us to know this about God: He is glorious, and quiet, and humble.  He is so quiet that some who saw him would fail to recognize him.  Those who want to know God, to become like God, to be filled with the very Spirit of God must themselves begin and end their seeking with humility.


Father Groeschel opens and concludes his book with lessons from St. Therese of Lisieux, who is known not for her religious ecstasies or visions but her "Little Way."  She ascended to holiness by her love of God, as manifested by the way she "sacrificed," embracing the smallest and most unpleasant chores in the convent.  So it will be for us, whether we experience visions or not, that it is in the "monotony of sacrifice, fidelity, and generosity" that we will find the "safest and most productive of all religious experience, and it is there waiting for us all." (p15)
(For further reading, I recommend this document by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith)

*in which "false” refers to those revelations in which the seer is completely sincere, but is herself/himself somehow deceived--never underestimate the powers of the human conscious or unconscious mind, says Fr. Groeschel!

**I have written about this in previous posts and I cannot emphasize it enough: if the answer to the question "What do we know about the visionary?" is "not much" because they seek to remain in mysterious anonymity, then we are right to remain guarded (see point #4 in this post). Alternatively, if there have been negative reports from former associates, take them seriously.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dealing with Alleged Private Revelations: Some Tips (Part II)

(read Part I here)

Let’s dive right in, then, to Augustin Poulain’s (via Fr. Benedict Groeschel) operating instructions regarding alleged revelations.

Rule #1: Keep Perspective.

This is a good starting place when dealing with any form of private revelation: remember that as Catholics, our faith—our Church—never compels us to accept or embrace private revelations, ever.  Why?  Because:

a)      Revelation-with-a-capital-R is understood to be complete; the divine was fully visible in the person of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  Sacred Scripture is also complete and although specific historical persons were chosen to write parts of it, we do not believe that the Holy Spirit works in that same way anymore.

b)      Private revelations do not add or change anything substantial to the deposit of faith and certainly not to doctrine.  They are for our encouragement (Lourdes) or perhaps they are meant to serve as a warning (Fatima). 

c)      Even in the case of approved revelations, the Church is merely saying, “This is probably authentic, most likely.  It is in harmony with all of the publicly revealed tradition of faith.” But it is never an absolute.

That third one was the most striking to me.  I’m not sure I ever heard it explained quite that way before, where a degree of uncertainty (even a very small one) is never ruled out.  In that sense, approved private revelations are never meant to instruct (in the same way that Sacred Scripture does) nor to replace aspects of public revelation. 

But don’t take it from me—why not listen to a pope!  Here is an excerpt from Fr. Groeschel’s book, quoting Benedict XIV, on the subject of the partially approved revelations of Saints Hildegaard, Bridget, and of Catherine of Sienna:
"What is to be said of those private revelations which the Apostolic See has approved of, those of the Blessed Hildegaard (which were approved in part by Eugene III), of St. Bridget [by Boniface IX], and of St. Catherine of Siena [by Gregory XI], and of St. Catherine of Siena [by Gregory XI]?  We have already said that those revelations, although approved of, ought not to, and cannot, receive from us any assent of Catholic, but only of human faith, according to the rules of prudence, according to which the aforesaid revelations are probable, and piously to be believed.”  (p.28)
Fr. Groeschel goes on to emphasize that distinction between faith as theological virtue and “human faith” that causes us to believe in what is real but unseen (love, or the merits of a democratic system, to borrow his examples).  He says: “When I am asked if I believe in a particular private revelation (even my favorite, Lourdes), I always reply that I believe in the Catholic Christian Faith and I think that Lourdes is a special gift of God to us all.” (pp. 28,29)

Rule #2: “No private revelation comes directly from God and therefore none can be assumed to be inerrantly true.

According to Fr. Groeschel, the simple reason we cannot consider any “message” to be directly from God, outside of Sacred Scripture, is that it has come through an intermediary whose own background, intellect, psychology—any number of forces—might have in some way negatively influenced the purity of the message.  For example, in the case of Lourdes, it is not that “Our Lady said” but that “St. Bernadette said our Lady said.”

Rule #3: "A private revelation by definition is personal and therefore must be carefully applied by those for whom it was meant and only within the limits of ordinary human prudence and never in an unreasonable way or against the teaching of the Church.  It must never be considered an infallible guide in any situation." 

Father Groeschel anticipates the objection: “But what about the papal encyclicals on the Sacred Heart?  A reading of any of these profound documents…will demonstrate that the popes as well as theologians do not derive their teaching from private revelations but from Sacred Scripture.  The several encyclicals over the centuries avoid all but the most circumspect mention of the revelations to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque in the seventeenth century.” (p.30)  It is not that Margaret Mary or her revelations were insignificant but that the love of God, as symbolized by the Sacred Heart, is infinitely more so.

Rule #4: “A person who is the recipient of an authentic revelation, even a canonized saint, may indeed make errors in understanding that revelation or in reporting experiences which are not authentic revelations.”

Several times within the book, he mentions the case of the unfulfilled prophecies reported by St. Catherine of Laboure.  Not all of what she predicted would occur did in fact take place.  When questioned, St. Catherine is reported to have said that she (herself) must have misunderstood.  In other words, she was certain of the source of the revelations, but not so certain that she had understood or reported them accurately.  This can and does happen, even to saints, and it is all the more reason we are not wrong to expect that a visionary would have a healthy degree of self-doubt and humility.  The absence of these qualities should be suspicious.  If it has not occurred to a visionary that they might be deceived in some way, they are being overly-confident.


All of this leads us right back to the very first operating rule—the one that states that private revelations should never be all-important in the spiritual life of a Catholic.  The Sacraments are essential, and so is Scripture reading.  Miracles and visions are not.  Nor are the claims of any living or deceased person, regardless how holy or sincere.  We’ve known that many holy people and even canonized saints who have made mistakes and a lot of them have even disagreed with each other and reported contradictory visions.  Sanctity then, refers, not to an error free life but rather a holy and virtuous life of persevering faith, and we already have everything we need to do that.


But what about the unapproved revelations?  The ones that are still under discernment and might fall anywhere from “probable” or “likely” to “suspect” and “fraudulent”?   Stay tuned for Part III. 

(Click here for Part III)

Dealing with Alleged Private Revelations: Some Tips (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, Korrectiv had a post up on the subject of the authenticity of private revelations such as those claimed by a woman in Ireland,* prompted by something Bad Catholic wrote.**  Although the post sparked lengthy conversation in the combox, the subject did not go beyond the specifics of this particular movement (except when it expanded into the question of trustworthiness among celebrity priests).  

Usually that’s how these things go, and whether it is Medjugorje or other as-yet-unapproved visions or messages from on high (allegedly), the folks who write in with comments do not (typically) have much to offer in the way of systematic analysis.  Usually, they appeal more to gut feelings or anecdotal evidence of one kind or another, and sooner or later someone will pop in to say one, or all, of the following:
“It seems like it this could be true; who are we to say it isn’t?”
“But there is nothing in here that contradicts Scripture or Tradition.”
“There has been so much good that has come from this” and sometimes the addendum: “so how could it be wrong?”
“The alleged visionary/locutionist should be considered ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ ”
Or, on the other hand: “I don’t go in for private revelations at all.  There are too many quacks out there.”

I don't mean to pick on the brilliant minds over at Korrectiv because if anything they veered from the standard fare one usually finds in such online discussion boards.  One contributor was thinking ahead to the devastation many would suffer should "Anne" turn out to be a charlatan.  Another had clearly distinguished between the "fruit" of the movement and the question of the authenticity of its source.  And yet, there was still no reference to a previously-charted roadmap on what to do when confronted with a claim of private revelation.

You could almost come away from such a conversation without a clear way to think about how to determine, systematically, fact from fiction.  As if we are destined to drift in helpless and perpetual uncertainty.

In her extensive lifetime, Holy Mother Church has seen saints, levitators and mystics aplenty, and all manner of frauds and con artists, too.  As you might expect from any person who had lived for a couple of millenia, she has had plenty of time to articulate logical, coherent, and faith-filled responses to them all.  She has learned a few things in her days and those of us who belong to her, although we may have to endure some variety of growing pains along the way, are spared others.  Now, clearly the Church has not always gotten it right, nor is it even always possible to discern what's what, or who is who, immediately.  Wolves are sometimes mistaken for sheep and that's why there is no point, for example, in establishing a new Church policy that would resolve "not to ordain pedophiles as priests."  Instead, there are new and firm policies that do not allow priests ever to be alone and unsupervised with a child.  And if they do, this is reason enough for removal.  These rules are safety precautions and prudent priests and lay persons will do well to abide by them.

The authenticity of a private revelation and the sincerity of the recipient is no less of a safety issue.  We must be prepared to protect our minds and hearts from willful (or unintentional) distortions in matters of faith because those are, well...dangerous. 

So what can we learn, from over two millennia of church life history, about how to tell the Real Deal mystic expriences from the all the fake out there?  And is that something we should even be striving for, or could it be an excuse to engage in judgmentalism?  Because, for as often as it is brought up in conversations about private revelations, this is yet another remark that probably belonged on that earlier list: “It is not our place to judge saint from sinner and therefore we have no business judging an alleged revelation.”

As if the safer course of action, when it comes to messages that might be divine in origin, is to believe first and question later.  As if it is a graver error to ignore or deny a message from God, instead of patiently and soberly reflecting and reserving judgment until we (the Church) have more information and clarity.

Is this really the appropriate default position when it comes to spiritual communications?  Because it certainly isn't when it comes to protecting our children from predators and it would be foolish to argue that it should be.

In 1993, Father Benedict Groeschel wrote a book on this very subject.  He claimed to have had so many people approach him about this or that miracle and such-and-such apparition that he compiled his book, A Still Small Voice to serve as “a practical guide on reported revelations,” the book’s subtitle.  I really wish I had read this book in 1993, or even 2000; maybe it would have saved me some pain and trouble.***  The book has nothing substantially new, but it re-articulates in an accessible way to today’s modern reader what some of the wisest minds have said and written on the subject, relying primarily on Father Augustin Poulain's difficult-to-find volume, The Graces of Interior Prayer.  Groeschel’s project was to synthesize Poulain’s work and that of other classical writers within a new book that would offer operating rules that are both sensible and easy enough to put into practice. ****

Maybe you noticed that I said “easy enough.”  That’s because for 1) the person who is on the receiving end of a revelation that may or may not be divine in origin, it is not so easy to sort out what’s what.  Nor is it an easy road for 2) the person who is serving as their spiritual guide (a priest or spiritual director).  For the rest of us, however, who might be interested in current or ongoing alleged revelations, things are much simpler.  In fact, it is possible—it is just fine—to live a full and rich life of faith without ever relying on private revelations.

(click here for Part II)

* Kevin Symonds has since written an expose on the troubling financial happenings over at DFOT.
** BadCatholic's author seems to have removed that link.  I don't know why but it's making me very curious.
*** understatement!
**** for further reading and instruction on alleged apparitions, go here.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

the personal is universal. (more lenten reflections.)

Henri Nouwen, from "Bread for the Journey" (found at NBCC)

We like to make a distinction between our private and public lives and say, "Whatever I do in my private life is nobody else's business." But anyone trying to live a spiritual life will soon discover that the most personal is the most universal, the most hidden is the most public, and the most solitary is the most communal. What we live in the most intimate places of our beings is not just for us but for all people. That is why our inner lives are lives for others. That is why our solitude is a gift to our community, and that is why our most secret thoughts affect our common life.

Jesus says, "No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on a lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house" (Matthew 5 14-15). The most inner light is a light for the world. Let's not have "double lives"; let us allow what we live in private to be known in public.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Stations of the Cross

On Fridays during Lent, it is traditional to pray the Stations of the Cross.   Every Catholic (and Anglican, I believe) church has some kind of representation of each of the fourteen stations on its walls.  At the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona, they are no images or titles--just Roman numerals in nails. 

Not too long ago, I discovered these reflections, by Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Ben. XVI) which I highy recommend taking along if you intend to pray the Stations privately.