I enjoyed your article on Hildegard but I noticed she had private revelations that seem to be accepted by the Church (WCR, Nov. 19). Today, it seems like thousands of people are having revelations, giving prophecies or having apparitions. How is a sane person to determine which are legitimate and which are pure hokum?
It's true that many seem to be having some kind of paranormal experiences. A few may be authentic but many are not. A careful discernment is necessary especially because of their abundance today.
We refer to people, such as Hildegard, who have extraordinary spiritual experiences as mystics. Mystics are holy persons who have reached some degree of perfection, usually experience deep prayer and who have received special gifts from God. These are not for their own benefit but for others and may include private revelations, stigmata, levitation, bilocation, etc.
True mysticism expresses itself in multiple ways. There may be an almost experiential knowledge of God or a profound insight into the meaning of revealed truth as Ignatius of Loyola describes his vision of the Trinity.
There may be a "dark night of the soul" as John of the Cross experienced with an almost total unawareness of God's presence and love while retaining a firm faith in God. Or it may be a continual awareness of God's presence leading to ecstasy and interior communications from Christ.
These will lead to the exercise of heroic virtue, deep joy and zeal for souls as Paul describes in his letters. The mystic will consult with a spiritual director to help prevent any illusions.
Here are some signs of God's action. God is truth and so can only inspire truth and move one to something beneficial, never something sinful or useless. God's actions produce enlightenment, not confusion. The person becomes more prudent, thoughtful, humble, patient in suffering, calm and peaceful.
Jesus mentions peace as a manifestation of the Spirit (John 14.27) and Paul frequently speaks of peace that comes from God (Romans 15.33, Philippians 4.9).
However, mystical experiences do not necessarily come from God. They may be the result of magic or natural psychic powers as Pharaoh's magicians performed feats to rival Moses.
They may come from sick minds or even demons who can produce a semblance of extraordinary events. However, the devil can never produce true supernatural phenomena.
Any revelation that contradicts dogma, morals or the common teaching of the Church is false, as are claims to improve or complete Christ's definitive revelation. If it is useful for the salvation of souls rather than mere curiosity, it is more likely to be from God. But the most telling sign of the source of the mystical experiences is obedience to Church authority.
There can be disillusionment in receiving revelations. This happened in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Quietist movement. This was an exaggerated form of contemplative prayer combined with the belief that because one had reached elevated forms of prayer, one could not commit sin, even while leading an immoral life.
The Church condemned this aberration. As a result, following this there was a pall over the whole idea of mysticism. That is likely why the medieval mystics were unheard of until recent times.
The Church is extremely careful before approving private revelations for "even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11.14). The Church follows Scriptural exhortations: "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying but test everything" (1 Thessalonians 5.19-20) and "Do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they are of God" (1 John 4.1).
Even when the Church approves a mystic's life or teaching, it does not necessarily mean every aspect is approved. We are not bound to believe in visionaries, although we give assent to the wisdom of the Church's action.
Remember, nothing new is added to the deposit of faith by private revelations, although these may clarify some aspect of revealed truths.
The normal procedure is for the local bishop to investigate fully the mystic and his or her teaching. Rarely, there is papal involvement. This process can take years.
It's not up to us to decide the authenticity of visionaries. What we can do is be prudent and wait for an affirmation from the Church instead of running after every exotic visionary or event. We can affirm our faith in God through Scripture and Church teaching, through Mass and the sacraments.
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