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.

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