Guest Commentary


Carmelite Saints and Private Revelation



According to St. John of the Cross (1541-1591), as prayer develops in our spiritual life, so does faith, which is the proximate means to union with God.  Thus, one's prayer becomes simply a loving attention to God in faith.  St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) called this "the prayer of recollection," which almost unnoticeably can become an infused or supernatural prayer.  This prayer of a simple loving gaze in faith or recollection is, Teresa says, what we can do ourselves and in all stages of prayer, whether we are beginners, proficient or perfect.  Through this prayer of recollection we are disposed for whatever God wishes to do with us.  The rest belongs to God and how he wants to deal with us.  Some, like St. Teresa, received many locutions, visions, and ecstasies in their journey to God.  Both Teresa and John are strong in their teaching that we should never desire these extraordinary graces, but always seek God in this simple prayer of recollection in faith.


Teresa writes in her Foundations, "the favors the Lord grants in these houses are so many that if there are one or two in each house that God leads now by meditation, all the rest reach perfect contemplation (the prayer of union).  Some are so advanced that they attain to rapture.  To others the Lord grants a favor of another kind, giving them, along with rapture, revelations and visions that one clearly understands to be from God.  There is no house now that does not have one or two or three who do not receive this latter favor.  Well do I understand that sanctity does not lie in these favors."  (F 4.8)


We don't always know why God leads souls by these different paths.  Generally it is because He has a particular plan for them.  But in St. Teresa's case, she had visions and locutions from Our Lady and St. Joseph and St. Clare and other saints encouraging her and telling her what to do in order to found her new monastery.  The Lord at one point told her how to make the petition to Rome so that it would be granted.  Her life was filled with such supernatural interventions by God.


So when St. John of the Cross speaks of journeying to union with God by faith, he is speaking to all of us.  But there do come times when God may intervene in a supernatural way in our lives and give us locutions or ecstasies or visions.  Then what is important is that we do not seek these experiences or think we are any better than others because we receive them.  We must by no means desire them, for we would be then leaving ourselves open to deception.


Why does God give these apparitions?  He has done so from early Biblical times up to the present.  I will answer this question briefly only from the teaching of Sts. Teresa and John of the Cross.  We really don't always know why God communicates Himself to an individual in supernatural ways---ways beyond our ordinary way of coming to know and love Him.  St. John of the Cross teaches that "in these apprehensions coming from above (imaginative or any other kind; it matters not if they be visions, locutions, spiritual feelings, or revelations), individuals should only advert to the Love of God that is interiorly caused.  They should pay no attention to the letter and kind (what is signified, represented, or made known).  Thus they should pay heed not to the feelings of delight or sweetness, not to the images, but to the feelings of love that are caused.  Only for the sake of moving the spirit to love should the soul at times recall the images and apprehensions that produced love.  The effect produced by the remembrances of the communication is not as strong as the effect at the time the communication was received; yet, when the communication is recalled, there is a renewal of love and an elevation of the mind to God.  This is especially true when the soul remembers some figures, images, or supernatural feelings."  (A III. 13.6).  This was with regard to one's personal spiritual experiences and how they should help us always to grow in the Love of God.


But what about the messages received from God in these ways for the Church at large or at least for some in the Church who will listen?  What are we to say about the numerous Marian apparitions and revelations reported during the past 50 year or so?  Many Catholics, especially clergy and theologians, have reacted with indifference, or even antipathy regarding these events as most probably delusions, if not outright frauds.  Such a reaction on the part of the general public may be understandable, but it seems incongruous on the part of believers whose faith originated completely in prophetic visions and messages.  Why are so many reluctant to consider seriously the possibility that God may be sending messengers today?  Jesus Himself said, "I am sending you prophets."  (Mt 23:34).  The main rationale given for this attitude is that we no longer have need of "private revelations," since all that we need to know for our salvation was given to us in the doctrine imparted by Jesus Christ through His apostles, recorded in Sacred Scripture, and perpetuated in the Tradition of the Church.  But the purpose of apparitions is not to add to the Doctrine of the Faith; it is to remind us of things we may have neglected or not noticed, to help us to direct our lives in accord with the faith, and to encourage us when we are tempted to lose heart.  "Private revelations do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help us live more fully by it in a certain period of history."  (CCC 67).


Of course, we have to discern the authenticity of these apparitions, an often very difficult task.  And nobody is required to believe in a private revelation, even in the ones so popular and acceptable to the Church, such as Lourdes and Fatima.  Sometimes the recipient of private revelations is able to remain hidden, and sometimes the nature of the revelation requires that he or she become publicly known.  Then, they must also often undergo rejection and persecution.  But they must then remember the words of Jesus:  "Blessed shall you be when men hate you, when they ostracize you and insult you and proscribe your name as evil because of the Son of Man.  On that day they do so, rejoice and exult…." (Lk 6: 22-23)  The recipient(s) should not fight back, but remain at peace and pray for their persecutors, and leave their defense to God.  This peace of soul is a gift from God to the recipient.  Teresa says that the devil can counterfeit the Sprit of Light, but that he will not be able to counterfeit the effects of peace and light that are given to the soul; on the contrary, he leaves restlessness and disturbance.  Teresa experienced this great calm and peace during her experiences from God.  But when they passed, she was often full of fears and tormented because of what priests and others said about her and her experiences.  It was not until she went on in her spiritual life that all these fears were gradually taken from her, and she lived in complete peace with God and abandonment to His Will.


It is important then that we always at least treat the recipient with the respect and charity due to any other human being.


Certainly we must discern whether the recipient of messages from Heaven is not being deceived.  St. Teresa suffered very much from priests and others who said she was being deceived by the devil in regards to her extraordinary experiences.  But she did have experiences that were from the devil, and these enabled her to help her spiritual directors and the Church discern when an experience comes from the devil and when it is from God.  When they were from the devil, Teresa experienced an inner conflict or disturbance.  When they were from God, she experienced inner peace even though oftentimes she was disturbed by the external actions and attitudes of some of those around her.  No matter how hard the devil tried to distract her, the inner peace and calm from God within could not be disrupted.  God had gradually given her both a deep peace in the habitual awareness of His Presence and an intense desire to spend her life in loving and serving Him.


Fr. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD

October 15, 2008

The Feast of St. Teresa of Avila