Revised: 26 March, A.D. 2001, Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin
From: Adolphe Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology (Tournai: Desclee)
1489. In describing contemplation, we made no mention of the extraordinary phenomena such as visions, revelations, etc., which frequently accompany it, especially after the soul has reached the stage of ecstatic union. Since the devil apes divine works, diabolical phenomena are known to occur at times among the mystics, true or false. We shall speak first of the divine, and then of the diabolical phenomena.
Article I. Extraordinary Divine Phenomena
#I. Divine Intellectual Phenomena
I. Private Revelations
1st. Nature of Private Revelations
Private revelations have been made in every age: Holy Scripture and the processes of canonization furnish us with abundant examples. These revelations do not form a part of the Catholic faith, which rests solely upon the deposit of truth contained in Scripture and Tradition, and which has been confided to the Church for interpretation. Hence, there is no obligation for the faithful to believe them. Even when the Church approves them she does not make them the object of Catholic faith, but as Benedict XIV states, she simply permits them to be published for the instruction and edification of the faithful. The assent to be given them is not therefore an act of Catholic faith, but one of human faith, based upon the fact that these revelations are "probable and worthy of credence." (Benedict XIV, De Serv. Dei Beatif., 1.II.c.32.n.11: "Although an assent of Catholic faith may not and can not be given to revelations thus approved, still, an assent of human faith, made according to the rules of prudence, is due them; for according to these rules such revelations are probable and worthy of credence." [Note that the word "probable" has a technical sense in moral theology, closer to meaning "reasonable" or "allowable" than "likely." -- Editor]) Private revelations may not be published without ecclesiastical approbation. (Decrees of Urban VIII, March 13, 1625 and of Clement IX, May 23, 1668.)
Still, many theologians are of the opinion that the persons themselves to whom such revelations are made and those for whom they are destined may believe in them with real faith, provided they have clear proof of their authenticity.
1491. B) The Manner in Which Revelations are Made. They are made in three different ways: through visions, supernatural words, and divine touches.
a) Visions are supernatural perceptions of some object naturally invisible to man. They are revelations only when they disclose hidden truths. They are of three kinds, sensible, imaginative, or purely intellectual.
1) Sensible or corporeal visions, also called apparitions, are those in which the senses perceive some real object that is naturally invisible to man. It is not necessary that the object be a real human body; it suffices that it be a sensible or luminous form.
The opinion of St. Thomas, which is generally held, is that after His Ascension, Our Lord rarely appeared in Person; He merely appeared in a visible form, but not in His real body. His apparitions in the Eucharist may be explained in two ways, says St. Thomas: either by a miraculous impression made on the sense of sight (which is the case when He manifests Himself to a single person) or by a from that is real and visible, but distinct from His own body; for, the Saint adds, the body of Our Savior cannot be seen in its own proper form except in the one place which actually contains it. (Sum. theol. iii.q.76.a.8. The same conclusion is deduced from the testimony of St. Teresa, Relation XIII, where she says: "By some things which He told me, I understood that after He ascended into heaven He never descended on earth to converse with anyone, except in the Holy Sacrament.")
What has been said of our Lord applies also the Blessed Virgin. When she appeared at Lourdes for instance, Her body remained in heaven, and at the spot of the apparition there was but a sensible form which represented her. This explains how she could appear now under one aspect, now under another.
1492. 2) Imaginative visions are those produced in the imagination by God or by the Angels, either during sleep or while one is awake. Thus an angel appeared several times to St. Joseph in his sleep, and St. Teresa relates several imaginative visions she had of Our Lord while she was awake (S. Teresa, Life, C. XXVIII). These visions are frequently accompanied by an intellectual vision which explains their meaning (St. Teresa, Life, C.XXIX). At times, one travels in vision through distant countries: such visions are for the most part imaginative.
1493. 3) Intellectual visions are those in which the mind perceives a spiritual truth without the aid of sensible impressions: such was St. Teresa's vision of the Holy Trinity, to which we referred in number 1473. These visions take place either through ideas _already_ acquired, but which are coordinated or modified by God, or through _infused_ ideas which represent divine things even better than do acquired ideas. Sometimes these visions are obscure and manifest only the presence of the object ((St. Teresa, Life, C.XXVII); at other times they are clear, but last only for a moment: they are like intuitions which leave a deep impression (Interior Castle, VI Mansion, C.X.).
Some visions are at once sensible, imaginative, and intellectual. Such was St. Paul's vision on the road to Damascus. He beheld with his eyes blinding light; he saw with his imagination the traits of Ananias; and his mind understood God's will.
1494. b) Supernatural Words are manifestations of the divine thought conveyed to the exterior or to the interior senses, or directly to the intelligence. They are called "auricular" when they come to the ear in the form of sound waves, miraculously produced; "imaginative" when such manifestations are directed to the imagination; "intellectual" when addressed directly to the intellect (St. John of the Cross treats at length of these three different kinds of supernatural words, "successive," "formal," and "substantial" in Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk.II, C.XXVI-XXIX.)
1495. c) Divine touches are spiritual sentiments full of sweetness, impressed upon the will by a kind of divine contact and accompanied by a vivid intellectual light.
We may distinguish two kinds of such touches: ordinary divine touches, and substantial divine touches; the latter, though they affect but the will, make such a deep impression that they seem to take place within the very substance of the soul.
Hence the expressions of mystics describing their experiences as a contact of substance with substance. In reality these touches take place in the superior part of the will and the intellect, and according to St. Thomas (I-I q.113, a.8; De Veritate q.28, a.3; cfr Garrigou Lagrange, Perfect. et Contemplation, t.II, p.560) it is the faculties, and not the substance, which receive these impressions.
1496. C) Attitude to be taken toward these Extraordinary Graces. The great mystics are unanimous in teaching that one must neither desire nor ask for these extraordinary favors. They are not necessary means to the divine union; nay, at times they are rather obstacles owing to our evil tendencies. St. John of the Cross in particular points this out. He asserts that the desire for revelations deprives faith of its purity, develops a dangerous curiosity which becomes a source of illusions, fills the mind with vain fancies, and often proves the want of humility and submission to Our Lord, Who, through His public revelations has given all that is need for salvation.
The Saint forcefully denounces imprudent directors who encourage the desire of visions: "They suffer their penitents to make much of their visions, which is the reason why they walk not according to the pure and perfect spirit of faith, while they attach so much importance to these visions. This kind of direction shows that they themselves consider visions matters of importance; and their penitents, observing this, follow their example, dwelling upon these visions, not building themselves up in faith; neither do they withdraw, nor detach themselves from them... The soul is no longer humble, but thinks itself to be something good, and that God makes much of it... Some directors, when they see that their penitents have visions from God, bid them to pray to Him to reveal to them such and such things concerning themselves or others, and the simple souls obey them... when in truth it is not pleasing to Him, and contrary to His will" (Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Bk. II, C.XVIII).
Since in this matter there is great danger of illusion, we must have some rules by which to discern the true from the false.
2nd - Rules for the Discernment of Revelations
1497. In order to know true revelations and learn to recognize the human element that may enter into them, very precise rules must be drawn up concerning the subjects, the object, the effects of revelations, and the signs which accompany them.
A) Rules Concerning the Subjects of Revelations
1498. God can no doubt make revelations to whomever He pleases, even to sinners; but invariably, He makes them only to persons who are not only fervent, but already raised to the mystic state. Moreover, even for the interpretation of true revelations, it is necessary to know the qualities and defects of those who think themselves favored with revelations. Hence we must study their natural and supernatural qualities.
a) Natural Qualities:
2) We must examine whether the persons in question are possessed of common sense, of sound judgment, or rather of a vivid imagination together with excessive emotionalism; whether they have received an education, and if so from whom; whether their mind has been weakened by disease or long fasts.
3) We must see whether such persons are thoroughly sincere or whether they have the habit of exaggerating and of drawing on their imagination; whether they are self-possessed or passionate.
The mere verification of these particulars will not of itself prove the existence or non-existence of a revelation, but it will aid greatly in judging the value of the testimony proffered by those who claim to have received them.
1499. b) As to Supernatural Qualities, we must examine whether the persons concerned: 1) are endowed with solid and tried virtue, or merely with more or less sensible fervor; 2) whether they are sincerely and deeply humble, or whether on the contrary they delight in being noticed and in telling everybody about their spiritual favors; true humility is the touchstone of sanctity and the lack of it argues against a revelation; 3) whether they make the revelations known to their spiritual director instead of communicating them to other persons, and whether they readily follow his advice; 4) whether they have already passed through the passive trials and the first stages of contemplation; especially, whether they have practiced the virtues in a heroic degree; for God generally reserves these visions for perfect souls.
1500. The presence of these qualities does not prove the existence of a revelation, but simply renders more worthy of credence the word of those who claim to have received it; their absence does not disprove the fact of revelation, but makes it quite unlikely.
The information thus obtained will enable us to discover more easily the lies or the illusions of the alleged seers. There are some persons who, through pride or through the desire for recognition, voluntarily simulate ecstasies and visions (1). There are others, more numerous, who owing to a lively imagination are the victims of illusions, and mistake their own thoughts for visions or for interior words (2). [See notes 1 & 2 below.]
(Note 1) A notable instance was that of Magdalen of the Cross, a Franciscan Nun of Cordova of the XVI Century, who after having given herself over to the devil from infancy, entered the convent at the age of seventeen and was three times Abbess of her monastery. Aided by the demon, she simulated all the mystical phenomena of ecstasy, levitation, stigmata, revelations and prophecies repeatedly fulfilled. Thinking herself at the point of death, she made a confession which she later retracted, was exorcised and moved to another convent of her order. See Poulain, Graces of Interior Prayer, C.XXI, n.36.).
(Note 2) St. Teresa in several places speaks of such persons: "It happens that some persons (and I know this to be true, for not three or four, but many persons have spoken with me on the subject) are of so weak an imagination that whatever they think upon, they say they see it clearly, as indeed it seems to them: they have also so vigorous an understanding, or whatever else it may be, for I know not, that they become quite certain of everything in their imagination." (Interior Castle, C.IX).
B) Rules Concerning the Object of Revelations
1501. It is particularly to this point that our attention must be directed, for all revelations contrary to faith or morals must be rejected, according to the unanimous teaching of the Doctors of the Church based on the words of St. Paul: "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema" (Galatians i: 8). God cannot contradict Himself, nor can He reveal things opposed to what He teaches through His Church. From this fact follow a number of rules which we shall now recall.
a) We must consider as false every private revelation in opposition to any truth of the faith: such are for example the alleged revelations of spiritualists which deny several of our dogmas, particularly eternal punishment. The same holds true if the revelations are opposed to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers and Theologians, for this forms part of the ordinary teaching of the Church.
Any revelation pretending to solve a problem freely discussed among theologians must be suspected, for example on claiming to settle the controversy between the Thomists and the Molinists. God is not wont to pronounce on such questions.
1502. b) We must likewise reject visions opposed to morality or decency, for instance apparitions of nude human forms, vulgar and immodest language, detailed or meticulous descriptions of shameful vices which cannot but offend modesty. God, Who makes revelations for the good of souls, cannot, it is evident, be the author of such visions as lead by their very nature to vice.
For the same reason we suspect such apparitions as lack dignity or proper reserve, above all, such as are ridiculous. This last characteristic is a mark of human or diabolical machination.
c) Nor are we, considering the laws of Providence and the miracles which God is accustomed to work, to admit as coming from God commands impossible of realization, for God does not demand the impossible. (In the life of St. Catherine of Bologna, it is related that the devil sometimes appeared to her in the form of the crucified Christ and demanded of her, under the appearance of perfection, the most impossible things, in order to drive her to despair. (Vita altera, cap.II, 10-13 in the Bollandists March 9)).
C) Rules concerning the Effects of Revelations
1503. A tree is judged by its fruits; hence we can judge revelations by the effects they produce in the soul.
a) According to St. Ignatius and St. Teresa, a divine vision causes at first a sense of wonderment and fear, soon to be followed by a sense of deep and lasting peace, of joy and security. The contrary is true with regard to diabolical visions; if at the outset they produce joy, they soon cause uneasiness, sadness, and discouragement. It is thus that the devil brings about the downfall of souls.
1504. b) True revelations strengthen the soul in humility, obedience, patience, and conformity to the divine will; false ones beget pride, presumption, and disobedience.
St. Teresa says: "This is a favor of Our Lord which brings great confusion of oneself and humility; but were it from the devil, the effect would be quite the opposite. Since then, it clearly proves itself to be given by God... whoever receives it can in no way whatever imagine that it is a favor of his own, but that it comes from the hand of God... It is attended with immense gain and interior effects, which could not be, were melancholy the cause; much less could the devil effect so much good, nor would the soul enjoy such great peace, or such continual desires of pleasing God, or such contempt for whatever does not conduce to unite us with Him." (Interior Castle, VI Mansion, C.VIII)
1505. c) Here the question arises whether one may ask for signs in confirmation of private revelations. a) If the thing is of importance, one may do so, but humbly and conditionally; for God is not bound to perform miracles in order to prove the truth of these visions. b) If signs are asked for, it is well to leave their choice to God. The parish priest of Lourdes requested Our Lady in apparition to make a sweetbrier bloom in the midst winter; the sign was not granted, but she did cause a miraculous spring to well forth which was destined to heal both body and soul. c) The careful verification of the requested miracle and its relation to the apparition affords a convincing proof.
D) Rules for Discerning the True from the False in Revelations.
1506. A revelation may be true in the main and yet contain some incidental errors. God does not multiply miracles without reason, and He does not right the prejudices or errors that they may lodge in the minds of the seers; He has in view their spiritual welfare, not their intellectual formation. We shall understand this better if we analyze the causes of error met with in some private revelations.
a) The first cause is the uniting of human activity with supernatural action, especially if the imagination and the mind are very active.
1) Thus, in private revelations we find the errors of the times in what relates to the physical or historical sciences. St. Frances of Rome asserts that she beheld a heaven of crystal between the empyreal and the starry heavens and attributed the blueness of the sky to the starry heaven. Mary of Agreda thought she knew through revelation that this crystal heaven was divided into eleven parts at the moment of the Incarnation (The Mystic City, Pt.II, n.128; Pt.I, n.122.).
2) At times we also meet with the prejudices and the systems of the spiritual directors of the seers. Relying upon her directors, St.Colletta thought that she had seen in visions that St. Anne had been thrice married and was coming to visit her with her numerous family (Bollandists, March 25th, p.247). Sometimes Dominican and Franciscan Saints speak in their visions according to the systems peculiar to their Orders.
3) Historical errors also find their way into revelations: God is not wont to reveal the precise details of the life of Our Lord or of our Blessed Lady, when these have but little bearing on piety. Now, many seers intertwining their own devout meditations with the revelations they receive, give details, numbers, dates, which contradict historical documents or other revelations. Thus among the various accounts of the Passion, many details related in visions, are either contradictory (for example, details regarding the number of strokes Christ received in His flagellation) or in opposition to the best historical authorities (Bollandists, January 13th, preface to the life of Blessed Veronica of Binasco; St. Alphonsus Liguori, Horologue of the Passion).
1507. b) A divine revelation may be wrongly interpreted. For example, St. Joan of Arc having asked of her "voices" whether she would be burnt, received the reply that she should trust in Our Lord, Who would assist her, and that she would be delivered through a great victory. In reality, her deliverance and victory were her martyrdom and her entrance into heaven. St. Norbert affirmed that he knew through revelation and with certainty that the Antichrist would come in his generation (XII Century). Questioned closely by St. Bernard, he said that at least he would not die before seeing a general persecution of the Church (St. Bernard, Letters, No.LVI). St. Vincent Ferrer announced the Last Judgment as nigh, and seemed to confirm this prediction by miracles (Father Fages, O.P., in the Histoire de S.V.Ferrier, explains that this was a conditional prophecy, like that of Jonas against Niniveh, and that the world was saved precisely on account of the many conversions the Saint brought about).
1508. c) A revelation may be unwittingly altered by the seer himself when he attempts to explain, or, still oftener, by those to whom he dictates his revelations.
St. Brigid realized herself that at times she retouched her revelations, the better to explain them (Supplementary Revelations, C.XLIX); these added revelations are not always free from errors. It is acknowledged today that the scribes who wrote the revelations of Mary of Agreda, of Catherine Emmerich, and of Marie Lataste modified them to an extent difficult to determine (In the Works of Marie Lataste we find among her revelations passages translated from the Summa of St. Thomas).
For all of these reasons, we can not be too prudent when examining private revelations.
1509. a) We cannot do better than to imitate the judicious reserve of the Church and of the Saints. The Church accepts no revelations except after long and careful investigation, and even then She does not force them on the faithful. Moreover, when it is a question of inaugurating some feast of public undertaking, She waits long years before pronouncing, and decides only after the matter itself and its bearing on Dogma and Liturgy have been carefully considered.
Thus Blessed Julienne of Liege, chosen by God to bring about the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi, did not submit her project to the theologians until twenty-two years after her first visions; fully sixteen years elapsed before the Bishop of Liege instituted the feast in his diocese, and it was six years after the death of Blessed Julienne herself that Pope Urban IV made it a feast of the entire Church. In like manner, the feast of the Sacred Heart was not approved until long after the revelations had been made to St. Margaret Mary, and then for reasons quite apart from these revelations.
In all this the Church has given us an example which we should follow.
1510. b) We must not therefore pronounce with certitude on the existence of a private revelation until we have had convincing proofs which are well summarized by Benedict XIV in his work on Canonizations. Generally, we must not rest satisfied with but one proof, and we should see whether the various proofs agree with and lend support to one another. The more numerous the proofs, the greater assurance we shall have.
1511. c) When a spiritual director is told by a penitent of his supposed revelations, he should carefully refrain from showing any admiration, for this would lead the seer at once to consider these visions as true, and perhaps to take pride in them. He must rather explain that such things are of far less importance than the practice of virtue, that one can easily be deceived in these matters and that one must therefore suspect, and at the beginning discount such visions, rather than take stock in them.
This is the rule laid down by the Saints. St. Teresa says: "Sometimes, and often, it may be only fancy, especially if the persons have a weak imagination, or are subject to great melancholy. No attention is, in my opinion, to be paid to these two kinds of persons... Such things are always to be feared until the spirit is understood. I consider it best to resist these "discourses" at first, because if they come from God they are a great help to advance us onwards; they also increase when they are thus tried. This is the case; but the soul should not be troubled too much, for truly she cannot do otherwise" (Interior Castle, VI Mansion, C.III). St. John of the Cross is still more emphatic, pointing out the six main drawbacks of a too ready acceptance of such visions, he adds: "The devil rejoices greatly when a soul seeks after revelations and is ready to accept them; for such conduct furnishes him with many opportunities of insinuating delusions, and derogating from faith as much as he possibly can; for such a soul becomes rough and rude, and falls frequently into many temptations and unseemly habits" (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk.II, C.XI; The entire chapter should be read).
1512. d) However, the spiritual director should treat kindly those who think they have received revelations. He will thus succeed in gaining their confidence and he will more easily obtain the details which will enable him, after mature reflection, to pass judgement. Then, should he find the visions to be illusory, his decision will be more readily accepted.
This is the advice of St. John of the Cross, severe as he is with visions: But remember, though I say that these communications are to be set aside, and that confessors should be careful not to discuss them with their penitents, it is not right for spiritual directors to show themselves severe in the matter, or to betray any contempt or aversion; lest their penitents should shrink within themselves , and be afraid to reveal their condition, and so fall into many inconveniences which would be the case if the door were thus shut against them" (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk.II, C.XXIII).
1513. e) If it be a question of initiating some public enterprise, the director should carefully refrain from encouraging the venture without having previously well examined in the light of supernatural prudence the reasons for and against.
This is what the saints did. St. Teresa, who was favored with so many revelations, did not want her directors to be guided in their decision solely by her visions. When Our Lord bade her to found the reformed monastery of Avila, she humbly submitted her plan to her director, and when the latter hesitated, she consulted St. Peter of Alcantara, St. Francis Borgia, and St. Louis Bertrand (Histoire de Ste Therese par un Carmelite, ch.XII).
As to the seers themselves, they have but one rule to follow, to make their revelations known to some prudent director, and humbly follow his instructions. This is the surest way of not going wrong.
II. The Charisms
1514. The revelations of which we have just spoken are accorded chiefly for the personal benefit of the recipient; the charisms are bestowed principally for the benefit of others. They are gratuitous gifts of an extraordinary and transitory nature, conferred directly for the good of others, though indirectly they may be made to minister to one's personal sanctification. St. Paul in the First Epistle to the Corinthians distinguishes nine charisms, all of which proceed from the same Spirit:
2) The word of knowledge, which helps us to make use of human knowledge in order to explain truths of the faith.
3) The gift of faith, not the virtue of faith itself, but a special assurance capable of working wonders.
4) The grace of healing, or the power over disease.
5) The working of miracles, which confirms divine revelation.
6) The gift of prophecy, or the power to teach in God's name, and, if needbe, to confirm this teaching by prophecies.
7) The discerning of spirits, or the infuse gift of reading the secrets of hearts and discerning the good spirit from the evil one.
8) Diverse kinds of tongues, which for St. Paul means the power to pray with exalted feeling in strange tongues; according to theologians it is the gift of speaking divers tongues.
9) Interpretation of speeches, or the power to interpret the aforesaid strange tongues. (St. Thomas in an interesting article (I-II, q.111, a.4) summarizes these divers graces and shows how useful they are to the preacher of the Word: 1) they give him a full knowledge of divine things; 2) they confirm his preaching by miracles; 3) they help him to preach the word of God more effectively.)
St. Paul and St. Thomas rightly remind us that these charisms are far inferior to charity and sanctifying grace.