PART of the struggle many Catholics have with private revelation is that there is an improper understanding of the calling of seers and visionaries. If these “prophets” aren’t shunned altogether as fringe misfits in the culture of the Church, they are often the objects of envy by others who feel the seer must be more special than themselves. Both views do much harm to the central role of these individuals: to carry a message or mission from Heaven.
A CROSS, NOT A CROWN
Few understand the burden that is borne when the Lord charges a soul to carry a prophetic word or vision to the masses… which is why I cringe when I read the often merciless assessments of those engaged in personal campaigns to root out “false prophets.” They often forget that these are human beings they are dealing with, and at worst, deceived souls who require our compassion and prayers as much as the Church’s necessary guidance. I am often sent book titles and articles that outline why this or that apparition is false. Ninety percent of the time they read like a gossip tabloid of “she said that” and “he saw this.” Even if there is some truth to it, they often lack an essential ingredient: charity. To be honest, I am sometimes more suspicious of the person who goes to great lengths to discredit another person than I am about the one who genuinely believes they have a mission from Heaven. Wherever there is a failure in charity there is inevitably a failure in discernment. The critic may get some of the facts right but miss the truth of the whole.
For whatever reason, the Lord has “connected” me with several mystics and seers in North America. The ones who seem authentic to me are down to earth, humble, and not surprisingly, the product of broken or difficult pasts. Jesus often chose the impoverished, such as Matthew, Mary Magdalene or Zacchaeus to keep Him company, to become, like Peter, a living stone upon which His Church would be built. In weakness, Christ’s power is made perfect; in their weakness, they are strong (2 Cor 12:9-10). These souls, who seem to have a profound understanding of their own spiritual poverty, know that they are mere instruments, earthen vessels who contain Christ not because they are worthy, but because He is so good and merciful. These souls admit that they would not seek out this calling because of the dangers it brings, but willingly and joyfully carry it because they understand the great privilege of serving Jesus—and identifying with the rejection and mockery He received.
…these humble souls, far from desiring to be anyone’s teacher, are ready to take a road different from the one they are following, if told to do so. —St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, Book One, Chapter 3, n. 7
Most authentic seers would rather hide before the Tabernacle than face the throngs, since they are aware of their nothingness and wish all the more that the adulation they receive would be given to the Lord. The genuine seer, once having encountered Christ or Mary, often begins to count the material things of this world as nothing, as “rubbish” compared to knowing Jesus. This only adds to the cross they are called to carry, since their longing for Heaven and the presence of God increases. They are caught between wanting to stay and be a light to their brothers while at the same time desiring to plunge eternally into the heart of God.
And all this, all these feelings, they often keep hidden. But many are the tears and terrible bouts of discouragement, doubt, and dryness that they encounter as the Lord Himself, like a good gardener, prunes and nurtures the branch so that it does not become puffed up with pride and choke off the sap of the Holy Spirit, thus bearing no fruit. They quietly but deliberately carry out their divine task, even though they are sometimes misunderstood, even by their confessors and spiritual directors. In the world’s eyes, they are fools… yes, fools for Christ. But not just the world’s view—often the authentic seer must pass through the fiery furnace in his own backyard. The ensuing silence of family, the abandonment by friends, and the aloof (but sometimes necessary) stance of the ecclesial authorities creates a desert of loneliness, one the Lord often experienced Himself, but especially upon the desert hill of Calvary.
No, to be called upon to be a visionary or seer is not a crown in this life, but a cross.
SOME ARE DECEIVED
As I wrote in On Private Revelation, the Church not only welcomes but needs private revelation insofar as it illuminates for the faithful a coming turn in the Road, a dangerous intersection, or steep unexpected descent into a deep valley.
We urge you to listen with simplicity of heart and sincerity of mind to the salutary warnings of the Mother of God… The Roman Pontiffs… If they are instituted the guardians and interpreters of divine Revelation, contained in Holy Scripture and Tradition, they also take it as their duty to recommend to the attention of the faithful—when, after responsible examination, they judge it for the common good—the supernatural lights which it has pleased God to dispense freely to certain privileged souls, not for proposing new doctrines, but to guide us in our conduct. —Blessed POPE JOHN XXIII, Papal Radio Message, February 18th, 1959; L’Osservatore Romano.
However, the Church’s experience reveals that the area of mysticism can also be tangled with self-deception as well as the demonic. And for this reason, she urges great caution. One of the great writers of mysticism knew from experience the dangers that may be present to the soul of one who believes they are receiving divine lights. There is the possibility of self-deception…
I am appalled at what happens in these days—namely, when some soul with the very smallest experience of meditation, if it be conscious of certain locutions of this kind in some state of recollection, at once christens them all as coming from God, and assumes that this is the case, saying: “God said to me…”; “God answered me…”; whereas it is not so at all, but, as we have said, it is for the most part they who are saying these things to themselves. And, over and above this, the desire which people have for locutions, and the pleasure which comes to their spirits from them, lead them to make answer to themselves and then to think that it is God Who is answering them and speaking to them. —St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chapter 29, n.4-5
…and then the possible influences of evil:
[The devil] fascinates and deludes [the soul] with great ease unless it takes the precaution of resigning itself to God, and of protecting itself strongly, by means of faith, from all these visions and feelings. For in this state the devil causes many to believe in vain visions and false prophecies; and strives to make them presume that God and the saints are speaking with them; and they often trust their own fancy. And the devil is also accustomed, in this state, to fill them with presumption and pride, so that they become attracted by vanity and arrogance, and allow themselves to be seen engaging in outward acts which appear holy, such as raptures and other manifestations. Thus they become bold with God, and lose holy fear, which is the key and the custodian of all the virtues… —St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, Book II, n. 3
Aside from “holy fear,” that is humility, St. John of the Cross gives the salutary remedy to all of us, which is to never attach ourselves to visions, locutions, or apparitions. Whenever we cling to those things experienced by the senses, we move away from faith since faith transcends the senses, and faith is the means to union with God.
It is always well, then, that the soul should reject these things, and close its eyes to them, whencesoever they come. For, unless it does so, it will prepare the way for those things that come from the devil, and will give him such influence that, not only will his visions come in place of God’s, but his visions will begin to increase, and those of God to cease, in such manner that the devil will have all the power and God will have none. So it has happened to many incautious and ignorant souls, who rely on these things to such an extent that many of them have found it hard to return to God in purity of faith… For, by the rejection of evil visions, the errors of the devil are avoided, and by the rejection of good visions no hindrance is offered to faith and the spirit harvests the fruit of them. —The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Chapter XI, n. 8
Harvest what is good and holy, and then quickly fix one’s eyes again upon the Road revealed through the holy Gospels and Sacred Tradition, and traveled by the means of faith—prayer, Sacramental communion, and deeds of love.
The authentic seer is marked by a humble obedience. First, it is an obedience to the message itself if, through careful prayer, discernment and spiritual direction, the soul believes these divine lights to be from Heaven.
Are they to whom a revelation is made, and who are certain it comes from God, bound to give a firm assent thereto? The answer is in the affirmative… —POPE BENEDICT XIV, Heroic Virtue, Vol III, p.390
The seer should place himself in humble submission to the guidance of a wise and holy spiritual director if at all possible. It has long been part of the Church’s tradition to have a “father” over one’s soul whom God will use to help discern what is of Him and what isn’t. We see this beautiful companionship in the Scriptures themselves:
This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare… You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus… But Timothy’s worth you know, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. (1 Tim 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:1; Phil. 2:22)
I urge you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment… (Philemon 10); Note: St. Paul also means a “father” as priest and bishop. Hence, the Church from the earliest of times adopted the title “Fr.” in reference to ecclesiastical authorities.
Lastly, the visionary must willingly submit all revelations to the scrutiny of the Church.
Those who have charge over the Church should judge the genuineness and proper use of these gifts, through their office not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good. —Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, n. 12
I have noticed in correspondence from emails I have received that there are several false expectations of Christian prophets. One, is that the visionary is to be a living saint. We expect this of seers, but not of ourselves, of course. But Pope Benedict XIV clarifies that there is no natural predisposition required for an individual to receive revelations:
…union with God by charity is not requisite in order to have the gift of prophecy, and thus it was at times bestowed even upon sinners; that prophecy was never habitually possessed by any mere man… —Heroic Virtue, Vol. III, p. 160
Indeed, the Lord spoke through Balaam’s ass! (Numbers 22:28). However, one of the scrutinies the Church applies after revelations are received is how they are affecting the seer. For example, if the person was an alcoholic in the past, have they turned away from their egregious lifestyle, etc.?
One reader said that the true mark of a prophet is “100% accuracy”. While a prophet is certainly proven true by having given true prophecies, the Church, in her discernment of private revelation, recognizes that the vision comes through a human instrument who may also interpret a pure word of God differently than what God intended, or, in exercising the prophetic habit, think they are speaking in the Spirit, when it is their own spirit speaking.
Such occasional occurrences of flawed prophetic habit should not lead to the condemnation of the entire body of the supernatural knowledge communicated by the prophet, if it is properly discerned to constitute authentic prophecy. Nor, in cases of the examination of such individuals for beatification or canonization, should their cases be dismissed, according to Benedict XIV, as long as the individual humbly acknowledges his error when it is brought to his attention. —Dr. Mark Miravalle, Private Revelation: Discerning With the Church, p. 21
The faithful must also be aware of “conditional prophecy” whereby an authentic word is spoken, but is mitigated or eliminated through prayer and conversion or by God’s Divine Will, proving not that the prophet is inauthentic, but that God is omnipotent.
And so, humility is required not only of the seer and visionary, but also of the recipients of the message. While believers are free to reject an ecclesiastically approved private revelation, to speak publicly against it would be reprehensible. Benedict XIV also affirms that:
He to whom that private revelation is proposed and announced, ought to believe and obey the command or message of God, if it be proposed to him on sufficient evidence… For God speaks to him, at least by means of another, and therefore requires him to believe; hence it is, that he is bound to believe God, Who requires him to do so. —Heroic Virtue, Vol III, p. 394
At this time in our world when dark storm clouds are billowing and the twilight of this era is fading, we should thank God that He is sending us divine lights to illuminate the Road for so many who have gone astray. Rather than be quick to condemn those who are called to these extraordinary missions, we should ask God for wisdom to discern what is of Him, and charity to love those who are not.