|"All familiarity with women was to be avoided, and not less with those who are spiritual,|
or at least those who wish to appear so."
"To what?" I replied to my friend.
"To the teachings of the mystics."
"I was unaware they taught anything specifically requiring submission."
"Just admit St. Joseph wasn't some old crumb."
"He needed a nap."
Thus transpired a brief dialogue about a book called The Life of Mary as Seen by the Mystics. Call me a grouch, like Saint Joseph, but this writer holds in high suspicion any sort of mystical revelation, especially those coming from women, which purports to add to received Tradition, modify it, or fill in its purported holes. Divine Revelation is like a great feast: more than enough to slake one's hunger and fulfill one's curiosity, although what is served is not everything that grows in the garden. Similarly, God has given us more than just the means of salvation, but also the means to holiness in this life and to know the family that is the Church, but there is more to God and the life of Christ than what is known to us; He has not seen it necessary for us to know these things, either because they are not essential to our salvation or because we cannot begin to understand them. I, for one, am fine with that.
Private visions, which are not always revelations, present a difficulty in living the Christian life. One cannot live alone by the cold, manualistic outlook on the faith that died in the years after Vatican II, whereby the truth of Christ is reduced to trite formulations to be memorized and regurgitated in the decades that follow. "Every baptized person is a mystic," said a Romanian Catholic monk during my parish's Lentent retreat, and he is right. Every baptized person enjoys the inner dwelling of the Holy Trinity, the voice of God in his conscience, and the trials God presents in quotidian interactions and struggles. It is no extraordinary thing that a Christian have a vision of the Virgin encouraging repentance of one's poorly lived life or that a Catholic hear the voice of Christ tell him to do something pivotal to his own salvation.
Many of the most memorable saints were people who had visions. My own dear Saint Philip Neri had one ecstasy—which made him suspicious of ecstasies in general—that culminated in him receiving the Holy Spirit by fire and beginning the Oratory. Saint John of the Cross needs no introduction. Padre Pio, the last saint of the old school, seemed to be a daily visionary, seeing into the souls of his penitents to help them confess their sins well; he, like Francis before him, came to share in the sufferings of Christ and became a channel for others to desire the same.
Where visions go off track and muddy the cleansing waters of the faith is when they become "revelations". In short, the more information a vision contains, the less likely this poor soul is to trust it. And anything specifically promising salvation I ignore out of hand; if Baptism will not guarantee salvation then what good is a piece of brown fabric? This is not to say a private revelation is inherently impossible; the messages of Lourdes and Knock are fairly simple demands of penitence, regardless of how the religious tourism industry amplifies and extends their messages. Like the visions of Philip, John of the Cross, and Padre Pio, a private revelation can be true and contribute to the Church if it compels people to conversion, to fulfill whatever God desires of them, and to live and pray according to the established ways of the Church. Revelations that go beyond that warrant further scrutiny.
Private revelations full of what can only be called "additional information" are not new to the modern visionaries like Anne Catherine Emmerich, Maria Valtorta, and Adrienne von Speyr. In the middle ages the various "Oes", a series of invocations to God beginning with "O", held great currency in England and promised salvation to whoever devoutly recited them. It was also during the later middle ages that the Brown Scapular, in a form abbreviated for laity, was found to guarantee evasion of hell and a prompt escape from purgatory for all who wore it. It was in this context of visionary sensationalism that Saint Francis de Sales wrote in the Philothea that a devout soul ought not seek visions or consolations, but only to convert to God. In the same light Prospero Cardinal Lambertini, later Benedict XIV, forbade liturgical devotions to the Sacred Heart, which at least emphasized the Passion of Christ more than any additional information on the life of Christ.
Perhaps the most difficult thing for those who lend credence to private revelations is the problem of separating what is true, what is false, and what can be rejected without imputing judgment on the purported seer. At what point is a seer right? A pious fraud? Malicious? Faustina Kowalska comes across as a woman who very much wants to be a saint, but imagining Christ called her the most precious of her creatures is offensive to pious ears. Maria Valtorta imagines Christ teaching the Apostles how to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, part of a fascinating series of devout hallucinations that captivated both Bishop Richard Williamson and William F. Buckley Jr.
Less difficult in discernment but just as wrong is the fact that some revelations provide this "additional information" which corrects received tradition. Anne Catherine Emmerich saw the Virgin's home in Ephesus, but every ecclesiastical writer from St. Dionysius through John Damascene and until fairly modern times held she died a mortal death in Jerusalem, and they even read the account of her death at Mattins of her feast until 1950. Similarly, Saint Joseph did not receive much consideration, but as far as he received any, the Fathers agreed that he was an older man with some children who navigated the confusion of the Virgin birth with prudence and caution; the mystics of the aforementioned book, however, see a virginal man slightly older than Mary. This may agree with the devotional literature found at the time, but it conflicts in every sense with tradition. If Joseph was a young virgin then why believe in the Assumption of the Virgin? At first these two items seem unrelated, however they are quite related. Much of what we know of Mary's family, early life, and the circumstances of her betrothal derive from a similar source as that of the Assumption, first and early second century extra-Biblical books that met Patristic pedigree. Indeed, there are no sources for the Assumption except those which claim the Virgin died in Jerusalem. Perhaps we should blame this discrepancy on a poor translation? Or is that fault reserved for Sr. Faustina's diary?
I would not give the mystics such a hard time if only there existed reason to believe there was something so exceptional about what they have to say.