The Penny Catechism warned against misleading signs and wonders. As yet another visionary descends on the
parishes of North London, Peter Stanford asks – should we take the prophets of doom seriously?
For some reason known only to herself, she chose to come up the external fire escape staircase, not via the main entrance. It was the day after publication in the Catholic Herald offices back in the late 1980s and we were all feeling relaxed after a good week’s work when suddenly a woman’s face, hidden by big, round sunglasses and a capacious headscarf, appeared in the window next to the fire door. Cristina Odone – later my successor as editor – was nearest the window and shrieked. Martin Newland – now editor of the Daily Telegraph – was calmer and went to let her in.
Our unexpected and unannounced guest didn’t want, she explained to him in a whisper, to step inside. Instead she thrust a package into his hand, clutched his other and implored him to read it, and then disappeared as quickly as she had materialised.
We gathered to open the envelope, which contained a mass of densely typed sheets about alleged visions in Willesden, north London. Our eyes were drawn to the picture of the seer. Despite her disguise we knew at once that it was the woman who had just ascended the fire escape. We quickly rushed out onto the metal staircase to bring her back, but at that precise moment she was getting into a black cab and ignored our shouts as if in a trance.
When we sat down and read the papers she had left, the reason for her urgency became clear. The previous Sunday, in Willesden, this seer believed she had received a message from the Blessed Virgin asking for repentance before the end of the world which would come the following Saturday. That, we realised with a jolt, was tomorrow.
We managed eventually to talk ourselves into dismissing this prediction after a series of calls to local figures in Willesden who had seen the seer in action and who doubted the authenticity of her claims. And, we reassured ourselves, it wasn’t the first or last time such a message had been received at the Catholic Herald offices.
But all through that Saturday, I couldn’t quite banish the thought that this may be the end, that I had been given forewarning but had chosen to ignore it and was therefore damned. When we reassembled at our desks on Monday, thankfully all still here, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and laughed it off.
It’s always the way with such visionaries. Every rational bone in your body tells you that it can’t be true. If the Virgin wanted to predict the end of the world, why would she choose dull old Willesden in godless Britain? But then a still, small Catholic voice inside says: Why not? Presumably people said the same of the great mystics and visionaries down the ages – why Avila, why Norwich, why Lourdes, why Fatima? Those ambiguous feelings bubbled up to the surface of my mind again with the news that the French Canadian Micheline Boisvert will be in north London this weekend, visiting what is now my local church at Quex Road in Kilburn, and Our Lady of Willesden, just up the road. What is it with Willesden?
It was, to be honest, more than the local link and those memories of that previous, mistaken visionary from Willesden that caught my eye. Micheline, a 51-year-old Canadian, has multiple sclerosis and believes that it has been cured by divine intervention. She says she receives messages from Our Lady and that she is so joined to Christ’s suffering in the Eucharist that she is often transfixed for several hours.
My own mother had MS – for 39 long years. When she would read of miracle cures – certain friends thought it kind to send cuttings about them to her – it always put her into a spin. Should she continue battling the advance through her once athletic body of a pitiless disease by willpower and whatever help medicine could provide, or should she, as
Most mystics have been treated with suspicion. Teresa of Avila was regarded as mad or bad – or both
she put it, have more faith and travel to Lourdes?
In the end she chose to stick with her own resources and those of the NHS, but also to seek the spiritual strength to endure through her prayer life, rather than stake all on being relieved of the curse of MS by a magician God. Yet the doubts in her mind remained to the end.
Micheline does not only claim cure for herself. She says she has healing powers and produces testimonies to back that up. “During this first meeting with the prayer group,” she has written, “we prayed for a girl who had leukaemia and had asked us for prayers. The Lord then seized me very strongly in His light. I felt all the diseased cells of this young lady in my body with much pain and a great intensity of love. Nowadays this person is in good health.” Micheline comes to our shores with the support of her parish priest back in Canada and claims the backing of her bishop, though this is disputed. What is plain is that she has received no prior approval from the Archdiocese of Westminster. Such a blessing is not strictly necessary but the Church as a whole does urge caution on individual Catholics in assessing the claims of visionaries like Micheline. A statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last year pointed to almost 300 similar reports that had crossed its desks throughout the twentieth century. After examining them – no doubt more thoroughly than we did that afternoon at the Catholic Herald – they found only 11 could be described as authentic. The others were the misleading signs and wonders that the old Penny Catechism used to warn us against.
This is an extremely tricky area for the church authorities because there is a part of all of us that wants reports of the supernatural to be true; we want there to be tangible proof of God that we can put under a microscope and so know with certainty. What is much harder is to have faith and to await with confidence the proof that will only come after death.
The Church’s dilemma is made tougher still by its actions in allowing through a small number of supernatural claims. That, inevitably, just invites many more.
Mystics and visionaries have rarely found favour in their lifetime with the Church. Most have been treated with a good deal of suspicion and have only been venerated after their deaths.
Teresa of Avila is a good example. Many of her contemporaries regarded her as mad or bad – or both. Yet in 1970 she was declared a Doctor of the Church sadly, a rare honour for a woman.
The mystical tradition in the Church has always been a marginalised one. One of the problems is that in a highly centralised and authoritarian organisation, mystics and visionaries have a tendency to be the sort of mavericks who throw the system into panic. The Church has its rules, hierarchies and practices, most designed with the best of intentions, to keep the faithful from going off the straight and narrow and putting their eternal souls in peril. Yet such an approach to faith is inevitably rigid and inflexible and therefore struggles when confronted by something or someone breaking all the moulds. We can see it today, for instance, in official attitudes to Medjugorje. In a hundred years, the shrine in the former Yugoslavia will, no doubt, be officially on a par with Lourdes or Fatima. Persistence will out.
Which brings me to another point of conflict. There is usually a terrible urgency about visionaries – they have a message to give to the world right now. But for the church authorities, any claims such people make have to be scrutinised and that just can’t be done quickly. Certainly not as quickly as the supporters of the seers would want.
The recent encroachment of science onto the process of discernment of claims of miracles has made the whole thing move even slower. And then there is the complexity of the tests applied. Effectively, in looking at these claims, the church authorities are attempting to do that very hard thing – prove a negative. They are seeking every other rational explanation going for what is happening, and it is only when they run out of alternatives that they can admit some element of truth. Yet that list of alternatives can be endless – especially as our understanding of the science of how the brain works gets ever more detailed – and so verdicts are years and At times it can seem as if visionaries and mystics inhabit a parallel world to the official Church, a world in which they speak a different language. But at this point, it is vital to introduce a note of caution.
For the language of mystics and visionaries historically has been some of the most inspiring in our canon. It can cut through to the heart of our relationship with God, a place rarely entered by the exact formulations of theologians and academics.
When, for instance, I was researching my book on heaven – a concept that theologians have tended to fight shy of, despite the huge hold it has on the imaginations and aspi rations of those in the pews – it was precisely the mystics and visionaries who came closest to putting into words and pictures our deepest spiritual yearnings for afterlife. Hildegard of Bingen and Mechthild of Magdeburg immediately spring to mind within the bosom of the Church.
So extreme caution and even scepticism are probably advisable when it comes to Micheline Boisvert, but not simple dismissal. There is just a chance – very slight, admittedly, but not utterly unprecedented – that she may have something to share with us within that mystical tradition that has been and remains an important though all too often neglected thread in the pattern of our faith.
And since she will be just up the road, I may just go along more in hope than expectation. Just as long as she doesn’t predict the imminent end of the world and disappear off in a taxi.