Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Your Old [Wo]men Will Dream Dreams: Mysticism and Its Pitfalls

"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."
"When will you finally submit, Rad Trad?"
"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.


  1. Some good thoughts in here, but it's clear what NLM piece prompted this reflection, and equally clear that you haven't taken into account my responses to the various readers who objected to the mere fact of my bringing up Anne Catherine Emmerich. Not sure, though, why you are so relentlessly ornery about devotions that can have a legitimate place in Catholic life.

    Also, I suppose you reject the archaeological and devotional evidence pointing to a house of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus, where she lived with John? Yes, it isn't the tradition about Mary's death in Jerusalem, but my understanding is that that tradition was not unanimous. Beyond that, there is surely no consensus, not least among traditionalists, that the Virgin died, as opposed to "slept" in a way that should not be called death univocally.

    1. The Rad Trad can defend himself, but I like to point out that in the circles I've been in, if you even question a devotion's origins or some apparitions (for example, Mount Carmel), you'll be instantly condemned as a Modernist. If you don't follow what every Traditionalist "must do" (i.e., enroll in the Brown Scapular, Five First Saturdays, First Fridays, etc.), you are a Modernist! The Rad Trad and I have had our exposure to many people insisting on some private devotion or another as a sure way to be saved!!

    2. I am curious: what "archaeological evidence" does proof that the Mother of God lived in Ephesus?

    3. I believe Dr K may be referring to the first century house/fourth century church found by a nun in 19th century Ephesus after reading Emmerich’s visions and assuming the house must also still exist (I’m not sure if this conflicts with the separate Loreto tradition based on a house from Jerusalem).

      The basic problem with the Ephesians house is obvious: ancient churches loved to brag of their apostolicity. Rome still lives on Peter & Paul, Alexandria on Mark, India on Thomas etc. Christianity in Ephesus dates from the time of Saint Paul and probably enjoyed some interactions with John the Evangelist, too, which reflect in written history. Would not the presence of the Virgin herself warrant such a prestige and tradition?

      Moreover, a first century house turned into a church is also fairly unremarkable. Buildings were used until they collapsed in those days and Christians met in houses until the Edict of Milan, and even then some houses became churches because of martyrdoms and what not that had taken place there.

      Lastly, the NLM article’s comments were my impetus to publish this post, but the inspiration and even decision to write something came during a conversation with a friend a month ago, and I was not specifically reacting to anything on NLM, interesting as the comments were.

      And to clarify, I have little against devotions on their own—in fact they are a symptom of a healthy prayer life—but like other aspects of prayer they have their place. The dominant culture of devotionalism in the years after the Reformation did great damage to the place of the Latin liturgy and its continued presence in some quarters of the Traditionalist world thwart both parish life and the broader restoration of the liturgy. When I first went into the FSSP church in Dallas three different people tried to force a scapular on my neck, which is extreme but does reflect a cultural under current.

  2. In the case of Anne Catherine Emmerich, there's the additional problem that the writer of her biography and other visions, Clemens Brentano, embellished a lot of things, with his own words, so that nearly all his books are worthless, according to the postulator for Anne Katherine's cause for beatification. In fact, all the writings were discarded by the Vatican; they only focused on her personal piety, to declare her Blessed.

    1. Not everyone has such a negative evaluation of Brentano's collaboration. As for anyone who has anything to do with the Vatican and its saints factory, I will trust them when I see that they are not infected with modernism.

      Here is what James Wetmore writes about Brentano in these new volumes:

      "Brentano, a novelist and Romantic poet then living in Berlin, was associated with leading members of the Romantic Movement in Germany. He settled his affairs and moved from Berlin to Dülmen early in 1819. Thereafter he visited Anne Catherine every morning, noting down briefly all she related to him. After writing out a full report at home, he returned later the same day to read it back to her. She would then often expand upon certain points, or, if necessary, correct details.

      "Anyone who does even minimal research on the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich as depicted in the works attributed to Brentano’s notes will soon discover that there are conflicting opinions regarding their fidelity to the words of Anne Catherine herself. This would be a subject in itself, but some remarks may be offered here. First, Anne Catherine, who had little formal education, spoke in a Low-German dialect that even Brentano, at the outset, had some difficulty understanding. Secondly, the material that was eventually fit together into a connected account in the published versions often represents a collation of as many as a dozen or more passages gleaned from visions separated sometimes by months, or even years. This can be partially explained by the fact that the visions were often related to events in the ecclesiastical year, to feasts of saints, to individuals with specific needs or requests, or to the presence of relics.

      "And so a great deal of work had to be done to organize and knit together related segments of visions, and to then arrange them in a meaningful sequence. Then again, it was deemed necessary to refine the language sufficiently to render it in a more contemporary idiom. There is, then, a legitimate concern that so famous and gifted a literary figure as Clemens Brentano might, even if unintentionally, have introduced some of his own impressions, interpretations, and sensitivities into his renditions.

      "It needs to be said also, in response to assertions (made mostly without benefit of access to his actual notes) that Brentano misrepresented Anne Catherine, or, even worse, took advantage of his notes to compile an independent literary work that might
      embellish his reputation, that in fact, in his notes, Brentano candidly reports exactly what he heard Anne Catherine say, no matter how extraordinary, puzzling, or even apparently contradictory. He himself offers many instances where only later—sometimes years after Anne Catherine had died—he (often with the help of academic experts) finally began to understand previously incomprehensible passages in the visions. He steadfastly refused—according to his own account and that of others—to edit out “difficulties,” feeling himself, rather, under a sacred obligation to preserve his record intact and unaltered for posterity. And when the notes passed to his brother Christian, the latter adhered to the same policy."

  3. Without wishing to impugn anyone's point of view the most shocking thing I find is how modern ideas trump those of considerable age and usage in the Church. St. John Damascene's writings, amongst others, on the death of the Virgin can just be cast aside and binned. The relative weight given to ancient liturgical texts in comparison to visions is quite extraordinary. Such disregard for our liturgical and patristic heritage is not healthy to say the least.

    1. This is the a Reason why from the Eastern Schism onwards,Our Roman Liturgy became messed up slowly.

  4. Is there any contradiction between the 'Ephesus' version and that of Jerusalem? If according to a solid tradition St. John lived for some time in Ephesus and according to the Gospel took our Lady to himself, then she may have lived there and then made her last earthly journey to Jerusalem.

  5. I was relieved and rejuvenated upon first learning that Private Revelation is not required belief for Catholics.
    Putting my faith and eternal salvation into the hands of 3 Shepard children from 1917 Portugal is not theologically sound while insulting practical logic.