Friday, March 23, 2012

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.

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