Thursday, 12 January 2012

Discernment and mystics

Recent comments about Vassula made me think I should post something about discernment. The fact that I have been a spiritual director to a mystic for over 25 years might not qualify me as an expert, but it surely suggests that I might have something useful to say on this topic.
The lady I direct is known to some by the name of Alice Winifride because we published a very small selection of her writings. Going back many years, I spoke to my (then) bishop about this lady and he asked me to look after her - or words to that effect. He gave me other advice which was very sound and which I followed. Although I had not intended necessarily to become her director, that is how things worked out. The former bishop - who also knew about her and, at one time, because of "complaints" from some priests, had instructed me to quieten her - came to accept that she was genuine. In retirement at the end of his life I believe he drew great encouragement from her. He told her he had never understood the "Song of Songs" so well as when he read what she had written. A priest who took his PhD in a study of mysticism also believes she is genuine. My experiences as her director have taught me a great deal about mystical theology and discernment.

I noted recently, that Fr. Benedict Groeschel, whom many people quote on this topic (from his book "A Still Small Voice") has reacted favourably to the apparitions of Our Lady of Kibeho ("approved" by the Vatican). Some people have assumed that he would not accept anything. This is not the case. He believes in the Divine Mercy messages amongst others. What is needed is a proper understanding of mystical theology which includes at least some nodding of the head in the direction of psychology. Also, we need a good barrel of common sense. Anyone trying to discern such things also needs a good grasp of orthodox Catholic teaching and a fair amount of humility.

I want to make a few points here which I think are important.
Firstly, because someone is seeing visions or receiving locutions DOES NOT MEAN that he/she does not make mistakes now and then or sins or gets mixed up sometimes.
Secondly, because some people react badly to some messages or apparitions DOES NOT MEAN that those phenomena are necessarily suspect. We need to take a look at the person so badly affected - is there anything wrong there? Sometimes there is, whether it be ignorance of doctrine, lack of experience, serious misunderstandings or even some kind of neurosis or a lack of emotional balance.
Thirdly, mystical writings are notoriously difficult to interpret in all cases. This is sometimes due to translation from one language to another - sometimes due to a lack in the mystic or writer (inability to use grammar etc) - sometimes due to a lack of understanding on the part of the reader (see below).
Fourthly, reading mystical writings is not as easy as reading the newspaper. Those who have fears of one kind or another or prejudices or who are just too skeptical or dismissive will usually NOT read them correctly and so will misjudge them. We need a balanced view. We must not be too credulous (or else we might be fooled by a false mystic etc) we must not view such things in a fundamentalist way (believing that everything there must necessarily be directly dictated, word for word, by the Holy Spirit). Nor must we be too dismissive or treat such things with contempt.
Fifthly, because the Vatican or a Bishop says that this or that apparition, message, mystic etc is not to be trusted or that there is "no evidence of any supernatural event" (or words to that effect) DOES NOT MEAN that the matter is settled. If this was the case, the lady above - St. Faustina - would still be in a file somewhere. Such statements are not infallible. From the point of view of a bishop's jurisdictional powers we should not presume to visit sites in his diocese in any "official" sense as though the place, apparition etc was approved. Here there have been many mistakes regarding Medjugorje. We ARE allowed to visit and pray there in a private capacity or with a group, BUT NOT as part of an official pilgrimage. We are allowed our private judgement in such matters, but it would not be right, in my opinion, to refer to Our Lady's "messages" there in the context of the Liturgy (sorry if this offends anyone).
Finally, there are different levels of pronouncements regarding such things. Let's remind ourselves that the most authoritative Church document - in the Catholic Church - outside a Papal Pronouncement invoking infallibility - is the Encyclical. In terms of guidance regarding mystical phenomena we normally rely on the local bishop, but a negative judgement does not mean that we have no right of appeal. Also, a Notification IS NOT A CONDEMNATION, nor is it a ban on reading any writings. If a warning is given we are meant to take this seriously, but a warning is not a ban. If a sign says "entrance prohibited" there is no argument. If a sign says "warning, danger ahead" we may proceed with great caution if we choose to do so. If a sign says, "trespassers will be prosecuted" the meaning is clear enough. If a sign says "come in here at your own risk" then we have choices to make. This is by no means an exact parallel to the case of TLIG and Vassula, but I am trying to make a simple point. In the case of the "warning" in this matter, some more information has been made available in the form of Vassula's answers which Cardinal Ratzinger called "useful clarifications". So useful, perhaps, as to remove - for some people - any sense of spiritual danger. In fact, reading the messages soon dispels that fear anyway.

My experience in dealing with mystical phenomena has taught me that there is still so much that we do not know or understand. Also, I have come to see that being rigid and inflexible about things does not help. Some people apply Canon Law with greater rigidity than the best Canon Lawyers! We must always remember Our Lord's example when He was faced with rigid interpretations of the Jewish laws and customs. In all things we must try to be charitable and just. Even when someone IS discovered to be false or mistaken, that is NOT a signal that we are free to denigrate, abuse or insult that person. When someone is still being assessed or there is still freedom regarding his/her writings, this is especially so. In that case, displaying contempt and indulging in name-calling runs the risk of being seriously sinful because it may be rash and unjust. We have nothing to lose by being careful and considerate - nothing to lose by treating each other - whoever we are - with respect.


  1. Thank you for your commonsense approach to a contentious topic. Your words of wisdom are much appreciated.

  2. I am new visitor to your Blog, I occasionally comment on Dylan Parry's Blog (thats how I discovered your site). I found this post very interesting. I have often wondered why Mystics have differing descriptions of the same event etc. You have a down to earth and easy to follow way of writing, that doesn't lose me along the way in the forest of Theology. I appreciate the devotional quality and leanings of your layout which is loving and wise, ardent and moving.

    In Amor Christi.

  3. Thank you Anne. You have a great title for your own blog!