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St. John of the Cross and Private Revelations

Father David J. Centner, OCD

Originally printed in Carmelite Digest, Summer of 2000

Pious Christians are sometimes mystified by the way Carmelites attribute little importance to reported supernatural occurrences in different parts of the world. Their attitude has its origin in the experience and doctrine of the saints of Carmel.

There is an incident in the life of St. John of the Cross that can be very instructive for us. The friars had gathered together in Lisbon for a chapter, and many of them wanted to flock to visit a renowned visionary. John instead chose to go pray by the sea, which he had never seen, and to glorify God in the majesty of the ocean. As he predicted, the visionary was later found to be a fraud.

St. John of the Cross directed many people who had very elevated experiences of God. One would think that, as a consequence, he would esteem very much these special graces. In fact, his attitude was quite the opposite; and in chapter 22 of the second book of The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, he cites Scripture to show "God was unwilling that souls desire the supernatural communications of visions and locutions" [II Ascent 22, 2]. In a lengthy passage, which the Church uses in the office of readings on Monday of the second week in Advent, he tells us, "Now that the faith is established through Christ, and the Gospel law made manifest in this era of grace, there is no reason for inquiring of him in this way or expecting him to answer as before. In giving us his Son, his only word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole wordóand he has no more to say ... Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would not only be guilty of foolish behavior but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty" [II Ascent 22, 3&5]. He goes on to say, "We must be guided humanly and visibly in all by the law of Christ the man and that of his Church and his ministers. This is the method of remedying our spiritual ignorance and weaknesses; here we shall find abundant medicine for them all. Any departure from this road is not only curiosity but extraordinary boldness. One should disbelieve anything coming in a supernatural way and believe only the teaching of Christ, the man, as I say, and of his ministers who are men" [II Ascent 22,7].

These are very strong words, but the Church in making him a Doctor of the Church and then quoting from this chapter in its own liturgy is telling us that it recognizes this doctrine as its own.

Today there are many people who disseminate mistrust in the hierarchy and in the ministers of the Church. Instead, they turn to visionaries and locutionists and seek to be guided by them, even preferring their statements to the clear teaching of the Church.

In some cases, these visionaries are clearly frauds; because their messages contain things that are contrary to the faith. We recall how one visionaryís following dissolved overnight after she announced that Joseph was the incarnation of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes there are subtle errors mixed in with a lot of good. Like viruses, they are hardly noticed; but gradually they bear bad fruit. Most often, these visionaries simply repeat what we know from catechism and the study of our faith. The doctrine may be totally unobjectionable, but St. John of the Cross would still oppose turning to it. For to put it bluntly, if it is not from God, it is idolatry to take it as coming from God. It is here that we can begin to understand St. Johnís seemingly severe attitude.

Let us go back to what we know as the basic truth of the way God communicates himself to us. He does this through faith, through the theological virtue of faith. We assent to faith when we assent to the doctrinal propositions of the Church, but the content of faith cannot be reduced to any creature. Only because of the grace of the hypostatic union is Christ, the man, able to communicate to us the Divine Presence that is God. But when God speaks to us in faith in a "substantial" way, as St. John of the Cross would say, no creaturely concept can intervene. Our minds remain as "empty" as the Holy of Holies that was filled with the Divine Presence of God. To use a favorite phrase of the saint, no "clear and distinct knowledge" of God is God.

Well, then, what is it?

When God communicates himself to us, his presence may overflow into consciousness so that we experience words, touches, visions, feelings, or other sensible communications. The overflow, however, is not God, but a kind of "translation" of Godís presence. But we have no guarantee that what our minds perceive is an adequate "translation" of the truth of Godís presence or that it contains only the truth that God wishes to communicate to us. It invariably contains a lot of our own unconscious stuff, and the typical shape these visions and intuitions take follow very closely the pattern of dreams and can be likened to waking dream states. God may be involved in them, but there is a lot more of us in them. Souls experience a kind of spiritual "stimulus generalization" (to borrow a psychological term).

When we have a powerful interior experience, the senses want to make sense of it; and we may experience sense stimulation as a consequence. As St. John points out in book 1 of The Dark Night of the Soul, these sensible overflows ordinarily contain a lot of the capital vices.

As the philosopher says, whatever is received is received in the mode of the receiver. If I am an angry person, I may come away from prayer convinced that God is mad at the world. We are like children who may say, "Mommy is mad at me," when mommy really simply cares. Furthermore, the more transparent we are (or free from traces of sin and inordinate attachments), the less we experience these visions. For they are like motes of dust or smoke that make a ray of light in a room visible (and, by the way, also impede its passing). So experiences such as visions and locutions actually are due to the imperfections of the soul and are not a sign of virtue. It is therefore most important for the person who experiences them to report them to a confessor or spiritual director and not be guided by the experiences. If this is true of the visionary, how much more of followers and visionary wannabes.

Johnís general rule is to ignore them and to adhere to Christ and to the teachings of the Church as mediated through its human ministers. Yet there are times when a private revelation may clearly contain something that God wishes communicated to the Church. In this case, the revelation falls into the category that the Scriptures call prophecy.

In the New Testament, the gift of prophecy, according to best theological opinion, has two purposes. First of all, it reminds us of aspects of the faith we may tend to ignore or reproves us for falling away from Godís will. In both cases, essentially, prophecy calls us back to the Word of God. Examples of this are the apparitions to St. Margaret Mary or St. Catherine of Sienaís mission to bring the Holy Father back to Rome. There is a second purpose, which is to help the Church understand Godís manifest will in a concrete moment. There may be a prophetic message to preach the Gospel to a people. But this second function can never add anything to the basic message of the Gospel, and its authority has to be confirmed by the Church as humanly credible. It is never the object of theological faith.

When Church authority approves an apparition or a devotion, it simply permits it. It never imposes it. It does not even guarantee its authenticity. We may use these apparitions and devotions to help us to follow Christ more closely, but even they become an impediment if we substitute our attachment to them for the Gospel of Christ. Scripture is the Word of God. Christ speaks to us through it in a manner that is analogous to his mysterious presence in the Eucharist.

There is a famous incident in which a priest tried to test St. Catherine of Sienaís holiness by bringing to her an unconsecrated host as if it were the Eucharist. She was horrified and reproved him for occasioning the sin of idolatry, because people would adore mere bread as if it were the Real Presence. Similarly, we can never ascribe to words that are not part of Scripture the same reverence and devotion we ascribe to Godís own Word in Scripture. It would be like venerating an unconsecrated host.

In the Old Testament, God forbade any kind of direct representation of himself. When the kingdom of Israel was divided after the death of Solomon, the great sin of the king of Israel was to set up two royal sanctuaries to compete with the temple in Jerusalem. In these, he placed golden calves. Nobody imagined that they represented false gods or that they were adequate representations of Yahweh. But the commandments forbade any representation of God. The Holy of Holies, in fact, was empty. And the "deepest center" of anyone who truly loves God must also be empty of every representation that derives from human ingenuity. In fact, we can venerate the Sacred Humanity of Christ, which is a creature, only because by the grace of the incarnation it is the humanity of the Divine Person. Jesus alone is the visible manifestation of the Father.

Then how are we to respond to a prophetic message?

St. John of the Cross teaches that God gave Moses Aaron, and that we should not act on anything communicated in a supernatural way unless it is confirmed by the voice of reason. "God is so content that the rule and direction of man be through other men and that a person be governed by natural reason, that he definitely does not want us to bestow entire credence upon his supernatural communications, nor be confirmed in their strength and security until they pass through this human channel of the mouth of man. As often as he reveals something to a person, he confers upon his soul a kind of inclination to manifest this to the appropriate person. Until a man does this, he usually goes without complete satisfaction, for he has not received it from another man like himself" [II Ascent 22, 9].

St. Teresaís practice, if in prayer it seemed the Lord was asking of her a particular work, for example the foundation of a monastery, was to propose the idea to authorities as a good thing to do and let them decide on the basis of its intrinsic merit. And if authority decided differently, as in the case of the Burgos foundation, she knew it was better to obey; and that this was more pleasing to God. In this, she exactly confirmed the rule set by St. John of the Cross.

When John speaks of natural reason, he is not referring to rationalism or to individual opinion. He is actually talking about theological reflection by the Church as local community in the person of its ministers. "This is the trait of a humble person: he does not dare deal with God independently, nor can he be completely satisfied without human counsel and direction. God is desirous of this, for to declare and strengthen truth on the basis of natural reason, he draws near those who come together to know it ... This is why he also affirmed in the Gospel ... Where two or three are gathered to consider what is for the greater honor and glory of my name, there I am in the midst of themóthat is, clarifying and confirming divine truths in the hearts ...Thus God announces that he does not want the soul to believe only by itself the communications it thinks are of divine origin, nor that anyone be assured or confirmed in them without the Church or her ministers. For God will not bring clarification and confirmation of the truth to the heart of one who is alone" [II Ascent 22, 11].

The truth is, Carmelite spirituality is a spirituality of the desert, the very desert that God used to purify his people of attachment to their idols. We Carmelites ought to follow the example of Elijah and take care that faith not be sullied by any pious attachments to anything less than God.

If you read book 3 of The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, you will clearly see that there are a great many dangers to be had from attachment to anything less than God.

To my mind, the most pernicious of them in the Church today is to make us think that some one way is the only way or the best way and that anyone who does not agree with our opinion is in error. In subtle ways, they divide the church community, create cliques, draw attention to themselves, and undermine respect for the Churchís ordinary teachings. They are, what one writer has called so well, "The devilís plan for the pious."

St. Paul told people long ago that there was a better way than seeking extraordinary gifts. The better way was to seek charity. St. John of the Cross tells us that there is a better way than seeking extraordinary knowledge; it is to know Christ and him crucified. There is no other way.

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