By Hilda C. Graef
WHEN Jesus went up to the Mount of Beatitudes to lay down the charter of sanctity by which His Church was to live, He said : Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are the meek . . . Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice . . . Blessed are the merciful. . . . Blessed are you when they shall revile you and persecute you. . . . But if we look at much of what is today taken for holiness it might almost seem as if Our Lord had said something quite different, somewhat like this: Blessed are the ecstatics; blessed are the visionaries; blessed are the stigmatics; blessed are you when you receive private revelations.
It is disturbing to see the nalvetd with which the Catholic public absorbs a whole literature of visions, revelations and other unusual experiences.
Though the editors of these volumes in some cautious preface claim, indeed, only "human credibility" for the wonders they are about to relate, yet, in the course of the narrative, these are usually treated quite happily as "supernatural" or "miraculous."
Now in a great many cases the experiences recorded are very doubtful, and the editors have generally too little knowledge of psychology and frequently also of the principles of mystical theology to be able to sift the truly supernatural from mere unusual psychological phenomena. This is especially dangerous if the subjects held up for admiration display very little solid virtue but a vast number of sensational experiences of not much moral or religious value.
A fineries' n masseuse
AGOOD example of this kind of thing is the case of the American masseuse and one-time spiritualist, Susanna Mary Beardsworth.
Her story has been written by Fr. Pascal P. Parente, a doctor of theology and professor of mystical and ascetical theology at the Catholic University of America.
In this strange book we are given specimens of "mystic experiences" such as these. St. Ignatius of Loyola is giving this "message" to Mrs. Beardsworth. "Let all your [sic] thoughts entering into thy [sin] mind be written down. Saint Ignatius. Ever be ready to receive messages . . . Press thy thumb against the middle of thy forehead; make a cross; now press; close thy eyes. What do you see?"
What is one to say of these directions for inducing hallucinations, which may perhaps suit a spiritualist seance but which are poles apart from anything related to mystic experience? All she saw after these elaborate preparations was, by the way, a large city with "something like the shape of the Washington Capitol dome."
Then there follow detailed and most trivial instructions, all purporting to be given by the founder of the Jesuits, who is invariably addressed as "dear Saint Ignatius" and declares to be delighted if she writes letters to him.
To give one more example. She complains that her "heart seems to throb" and he tells her: "Take a drink of water. Drink it slow! That's all right now, child, you were just passing through. When you feel that way, take a few deep breaths; have a tumbler of water near at hand. From time to time drink slowly. That's better. Saint Francis (Xavier) waits."
This is just a random quotation; the book is full of such.
Mrs. Beardsworth had dabbled in spiritualism before her conversion—is it surprising that now, as a Catholic, she receives "messages" from the saints instead of from the "spirits"? These messages themselves are as trivial and childish as any "spirit-messages" received by an uneducated medium; but that they should be described as "mystic experiences" by Catholic authors may well bring into disrepute not only true mysticism but confuse the minds of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
HIS craze for visions and won ders even of the lowest type, which has recently attracted the attention of the highest ecclesiastical authorities, is a disturbing sign.
There is one fundamental difference between the teaching of the Beatitudes and the devotion to strange phenomena. It is that, with the help of the virtues and gifts infused into each soul at Baptism, these Beatitudes can be lived in our daily life, if we but contribute the necessary cooperation with the grace that is given us.
We can all try to live in a spirit of poverty, to master our temperament so as to become meek, to be eager for justice in our own lives and in society, to suffer persecution when it comes our way. But we cannot aim at having visions and revelations, at falling into ecstasies and receiving the stigmata—unless, indeed, we should wish to become subject to illusions.
UT, it may be argued, even
though we ourselves do not desire such experience is it not a great source of edification to read about people who had them? A Sister Josefa Menendez, for example, who was an intimate of the Sacred Heart and from whose revelations we can learn what Our Lord is like and what Ile would have us do?
The answer to that is. surely, that there is, in the first place, no guarantee whatever, seeing that the Church has so far made no statement, that Sister Josefa's, or any
other person's, experiences were really supernatural. Certain passages seem, in fact, much more consonant with the mentality of a somewhat sentimental woman than with the personality of Our Lord. and this is the case with very many of such "revelations."
But if we are so eager to learn more about Our Lord and what He would have us do. why do we nut go where we are absolutely certain of finding Him as He is? In the Gospels we have Our Lord's authentic words and deeds, guaranteed by the infallible inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
It was St. John of the Cross, the Mystical Doctor of the Church, who wrote: "It is not fitting, then, to enquire of God in any supernatural manner . . . since all the faith has been given us in Christ. . . . We must not expect, then, to receive instruction, or aught else, in a supernatural manner. . . . We must now be guided in all things by the law of Christ made man, and by that of His Church, and of His ministers, in a human and visible manner, and by these means we must remedy our spiritual weaknesses and ignorances, since in these means we shall find abundant medicine for them all." (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. 11 ch. 22. 7).
Why we like them
giF we want to know what Our it Lord really was like we should read the Gospels and make them the food of our prayer and meditation. If we desire a deeper understanding of the doctrines of the Church, there are enough books, beginning with the Catechism, to give us information. It is from these sources that the saints nourish the life of their souls.
Perhaps one of the reasons why we prefer visions and revelations is that they can be absorbed quite passively, without the effort of thought; whereas if the Scriptures and the doctrines of the Church are to reveal their beauty we must be active ourselves, think about them and try to integrate them into our lives. We have to use the highest powers of our soul, our mind to understand, our will to put the teaching into effect; without the exercise of these, a truly spiritual life cannot be lived.
The lives of the saints, their virtues and sufferings, their mystic union with God, are indeed an inspiration to us; but the pious imaginings and strange psychological states so often presented as "mysticism" should be carefully scrutinised.
True spirituality does not consist in such, but in living the Beatitudes. These are not a prerogative of the "mystics," but are given to all of us; and in as far as we, too, are doing our best to follow them, our feet will be set on the road that will ultimately lead us to the goal of all Christian life, union with God.