MYSTICS PROPHETS AND SEERS
Father Felix Bourdier TODC
Rules for the discernment of ordinary and extraordinary phenomena
in the spiritual life, from the works of great mystical saints and
other notable authorities
Father Bourdier wrote this study to help souls with the difficult
task, when considering supernatural manifestations, of finding out
whether they might be false, so as to reject them, or whether they
might be authentic, so as to accept them.
This is to follow the wise middle way of St. Paul, who was himself
carried up into the third heaven, and who advised: "Despise not prophecies, but prove all things. Hold fast that which is good." (1 Thess. 5: 19-21).
The author draws on the Church's deep knowledge of these matters,
and sets out very clear-cut rules drawn principally from the writings
of some of the greatest saints of the spiritual life.
This translation has been prepared from Father Bourdier's
Discernement des Faux Mystiques et des Faux Proph
by T. Tindal-Robertson.
It was originally published in English by Augustine Publishing Co,
in 1988 (ISBN 0 85172 667 4) and we are grateful for permission to
reproduce it here.
copyright Real Press 1996
22 Surbiton Hill Park, Surbiton, Surrey KT5 8ET, England
another Mark Alder initiative
Rules for Discerning Ordinary Phenomena in the Spiritual Life, such
as Consolations, Desolations and Inspirations
1. What are the spirits we seek to discern? 7
2. What action do they exercise? 7
3. Why is it necessary to have rules for the discernment of spirits? 8
4. What are the signs and effects of the good spirit? 8
5. What are the signs and effects of the bad spirit? 10
6. What should one do in consolations and movements of the good spirit? 12
7. What should one do in desolation and movements of the bad spirit?
Rules for the Approbation of Extraordinary Phenomena
of the Spiritual Life
(Visions, Apparitions, Revelations, Messages, Missions, Prophecies)
1. Resum of the rules of approbation 14
2. The doctrinal foundation of these rules, in the case of seers. 14
3. The doctrinal foundation of these rules, in the case of the faithful.
Rules for the Discernment of Extraordinary Phenomena
in the Spiritual Life
1. Five causes of error 17
2. The five causes of a false message 18
3. Study whether the person gives divine signs 19
4. Study the person himself 20
5. Study the revelation itself 21
6. Is stigmatisation a divine sign? 24
7. Study the effects produced by the revelation 25
Works of reference 26
It is not the intention of this study to say anything new on this
subject, because almost everything that should be known about it has
already been said.
In fact very few people today have either the time or the opportunity
to study the numerous works which deal with this question. And yet,
in our times which are so abounding with false mystics, false seers,
and false prophets, who has not at some time wanted to know how they
can recognise the true from the false, and thus avoid falling victim
to the deceptions of the angel of darkness.
It is neither reasonable nor Christian to reject everything on the
pretext that people have been misled and that Revelation closed with
the Apostles. Heaven has sent mankind numerous warnings in the course
of history, as the lives of various well-known saints attest. On the
other hand, it is equally unreasonable and dangerous to accept everything without testing it; Satan knows how to come as an angel of light, and in the past, just as today, has raised up a host of false seers and illuminists, who have led astray a great many sincere people.
Accordingly, we must be neither incredulous, for spiritual manifestations are possible; nor credulous, for they are frequently illusory. They should be examined seriously, and for a long time, and if they are seen to be of doubtful or diabolical origin, they should be completely disregarded; but on the other hand, they should be accepted when they are supernatural. This was Saint Paul's advice: "Extinguish not the spirit, despise not prophecies; but prove all things. Hold fast that which is good." (Thess. 5:19-21).
It is to help souls keep in this correct middle way and preserve this
Pauline attitude of wisdom that we have resumed, classified and adapted some of the works dealing with the rules for the discernment of spirits in ordinary and extraordinary phenomena of the spiritual life. We accept in advance the decisions of the Church on this delicate subject.
Father Felix Bourdier, T. O. C. D.
RULES FOR DISCERNING ORDINARY PHENOMENA IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
such as Consolations, Desolations, Inspirations
1 What are the spirits we seek to discern?
By this question we ask from whence come the thoughts, feelings or
desires which we experience internally, above all when we reflect
or when we pray?
In the first place they come from ourselves, from our own spirit.
The role of our spirit is to think, to reason, to compare, to judge,
and to adopt this or that opinion, or this or that decision. But it
can happen and it does happen that we are mistaken. It is necessary
to recognise this, to beware of it, and to know what means we should
take to control our spirit in its supernatural activity.
There is also the world and the demons, which unceasingly exert their
pressures and attractions, to ensnare us in their prejudices, their
errors or their false line of conduct. They are condemned by Our Lord
and by the Church: "Woe to the world because of scandals" (Matt. 18:7).
On the other hand, there is the Holy Spirit, Our Lord, the Blessed
Virgin, and the good angels, who seek to enlighten us and urge us
to turn away from evil and to do good.
So it is important to be able to distinguish between them.
2. What action do they exercise?
This action is threefold, and operates on our senses and on our faculties, through consolations, through desolations, and through inspirations.
Consolations are those sentiments of peace and joy which are sometimes given to souls, principally during prayer. Sometimes they are sensible, as with tears and emotions which are perceived by the senses; and sometimes they are spiritual or interior, such as illuminations on some truth or an impulse of love towards God. These latter are called mystical or contemplative when they are directly infused by God and arouse a certain admiration or taste for God.
Desolations are aridity and dryness in prayer, temptations and the
impressions of sadness and discouragement, and disgust and aversion
for any effort at virtue, etc.,
Inspirations are the desires, projects or resolutions to undertake
or to accomplish an act of virtue or a practise of piety.
3. Why is it necessary to have rules for the discernment of spirits?
Such rules are necessary because on most occasions, the action which
different spirits carry out is mixed with good and bad elements. As
Father Rigoleux explains: "When God gives us a grace, the devil comes
at the same time in an attempt to snatch it away, or at least to weaken or tarnish it".
Furthermore, this action is very subtle, hence troublesome to discern, and consequently subject to errors of interpretation.
Besides, an action can be bad while appearing to be good, for Satan
excels in coming as an angel of light in order to turn us aside from
the right path.
Finally, the action of one's spirit is frequently misunderstood or
incorrectly interpreted as a result of the widespread ignorance of
the rules for the discernment of spirits.
4. What the are signs and effects of the good spirit?
According to the Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, they are:
(a) Spiritual joy, peace of the soul, and the absence of agitation;
(b) Courage to undertake good, virtue, and perfection;
(c) Tenacious and strong remorse in the case of serious sinners;
(d) Good feelings produced without previous cause. Feelings which
are the result of a cause, such as preaching, a hymn, an emotion,
a memory, the sight of an object, a thought, a prodigy, an apparition, a vision, or a message, etc., can come from the bad spirit just as much as from the good spirit. So they must be discussed.
(e) The other good feelings which lead to good and to the best, and
which are good in every respect, from the beginning right through
to the end, should also be discussed, and with care, when it is a
question of taking decisions.
According to Saint Margaret Mary, the signs and effects of the good
(a) The fear of being deceived by Satan, coming as an angel of light;
(b) Feelings of humility, and the conviction of our nothingness, our
unworthiness, our powerlessness to do any good;
(c) Attributing to God all good, and every grace, consolation, virtue, success: "nothing of myself, everything from God";
(d) Distrust of oneself, above all in the cases of exalted contemplation and virtue, as well as the absence of a feeling of security in one's perseverance; a relapse is possible at any time.
"He that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall"
(l Cor. 10:12). "Never become so assured that you cease to fear the
possibility of relapse, and beware of occasions of sin." (St. Teresa);
(e) Praying against temptations and the snares of the devil;
(f) Contempt and humiliations, drawn by the graces a person has received and coming from creatures, very often from one's superiors. A mystic without this sign is a false mystic, contrary to the common opinion, which is even prevalent in the Church, and which wrongly considers failure to be a bad sign. This is to forget that Christ failed humanly because He is "a sign exposed to contradiction";
(g) The absence of disesteem for our neighbour and the growth of compassionate charity towards him;
(h) The pain of being well thought of by others, for seeking popularity is a very bad sign;
(i) Obedience and submission to the Church, to our superiors, and
to the duties of our state in life;
(j) Openness of conscience with one's spiritual director, who need
not necessarily be one's confessor;
(k) Conformity and attachment to holy Scripture and to the Church.
On this subject Saint Teresa says in her Life (chapters 25, 26, 32):
"I am ready to endure a thousand deaths in order to defend one single
article of the Credo; A favour can only be considered as coming from
God as long as it is in conformity with holy Scripture. If it departs
from it in the slightest, I would be led to see in it a trap of the
devil. . . I do not regard a revelation as true unless it is in no
way contrary to holy Scripture and to the laws of the Church which
we are obliged to follow".
(l) The love of crosses and the thirst for humiliations;
(m) The desire for death as a motive of virtue: e.g., in order not
to sin any more, to see God and to glorify Him;
(n) The thirst for God, for perfect love, and for complete union with
(o) Faith in and abandonment to Providence in all one's circumstances, especially in one's crosses;
(p) The hunger for Communion, for the Eucharist.
All these signs as listed above are also indicated by the two great
Carmelite Saints, Theresa and John of the Cross. They insist above
all on the love of the cross, and also mention the following signs and effects of the good spirit:
(a) Confidence in God, faith, and hope in the victory of grace;
(b) Refusing to pray to be delivered from trials, and even having recourse to prayer in order to be given trials;
(c) Struggling to make progress in virtue: "It is by their fruit that you shall know them" (Matt. 7:16);
(d) The immediate production in one's soul of the good effects promised by supernatural utterances.
5. What are the signs and the effects of the bad spirit?
According to Saint Ignatius they are:
(a) Sadness, discouragement, anxiety above all if it is vain and without cause.
Sadness on account of God, however, when it is caused by sin and by the loss of souls is not a bad but a good sign;
(b) Subtle motives and tortuous and confused arguments, to determine, this or that;
(c) Everything which incites to evil;
(d) Everything which, first of all presented as good, evolves towards the less good, the easy, the bad. "Enter ye in at the narrow gate" said Jesus (Lk. 13:24), and in his letter 26 and countersign 194, Saint John of the Cross declared:
"If at any time any person, whoever he may be, and whether he is your superior or not, attempts to teach you a broad and easy doctrine, do not believe him, and do not accept it, even if he were to confirm it by miracles, but embrace penance and even more penance";
(e) Whatever is suggested brutally and with a jolt, for the Holy Spirit acts sweetly.
According to Saint John of the Cross and Saint Theresa the, signs and effect of the bad spirit are:
(a) Fruitless self-satisfaction and vanity;
(b) Anguish, as opposed to remorse or compunction, about the gravity of one's own sins; true repentance does not consist in being scrupulous;
(c) Spiritual security; believing in one's own virtue, in one's immunity and confirmation in grace. Saint John of the Cross refused to attribute to the true Spirit of God the lofty prayer of a nun "because she maintained an attitude of imprudent security without fearing that she might lose her way interiorly, whereas the Spirit of God never advances without this salutary fear, in order as Wisdom says, to preserve the soul from evil";
(d) Lack of confidence in God; if it is impossible for the soul to rediscover confidence, that is a sign that the temptation does not come from God;
(e) Impatience and murmuring when one is under trial; "he who complains or murmurs is not perfect; he is not even a good Christian", said Saint John of the Cross (countersign 173);
(f) Penances which are either indiscreet or above our strength, and
especially those penances which prevent us from fulfilling the duties
of our state or the service of God;
(g) Extravagant, inopportune or extraordinary things which attract
esteem and publicity in the practice of the virtues and of perfection;
(h) Contempt for little things;
(i) Impressions or ways of doing things lacking in purity of conduct,
in one's prayers, and in visions and revelations;
(j) Dissimulation and the lack of openness with one's confessor and
spiritual director. The devil loves to remain hidden, not to be discovered, to act incognito;
(k) Disobedience and lack of submission to the Church, to one's superiors, and to the duties of one's state;
(l) Contempt for the liturgy, for the guidelines of the Church, and
for the priest;
(m) Non-conformity with Scripture and Tradition: "It is not necessary
to look for any other sign," wrote Saint Theresa in her Life, chapter 25; "this mark alone is sufficient to uncover the tricks of the evil spirit";
(n) That type of false humility which, under the pretext of compunction, takes away all taste for the spiritual life and renders us incapable of praying or acting. "When humility comes from God", says Saint Theresa in her Life, chapter 30, "it is true that the soul recognises and bewails its own misery, and becomes vividly aware of its own malice; but this sight causes it no trouble, anxiety, or dryness; on the contrary, the soul diffuses in itself joy, peace, gentleness and light."
6. What should our attitude be to consolations and movements of the
According to all the saints whom we have been citing above, we should:
(a) Recognise that such things come from God and not from ourselves;
(b) Thus not glorify ourselves on account of it, but refer all the
merit for it to God, and thank Him for it:
(c) Consider our own nothingness, above all at the beginning and at
the end of each prayer, however inspired it may have been;
(d) Consider in advance what it will be like when we will be deprived
of these good sentiments;
(e) Keep to reason, Holy Scripture and the Church, and never depart
from them, when decisions have to be taken.
"Whether such things come from the good or the bad spirit, the best
thing is not to be in the least concerned about that, and to allow
ourselves to be guided in everything according to the lights of reason, the teachings of the Church and the doctrine of Christ", wrote Saint John of the Cross (Works, pp. 253, 291, 1191, 1195).
7. What should one do in desolation and the movements of the bad spirit?
According to the saints whom we have cited above, we must:
(a) Persevere in our state of life and the resolutions which we have
(b) Give ourselves up all the more fervently to prayer and penance;
(c) Hope and wait patiently for the return of God's grace;
(d) Remember and believe that the grace of God will not fail us;
(e) Examine our conscience to see if we have been unfaithful to our
exercises of piety or resolutions and, if so, to take them up again;
(f) Humble ourselves by confessing that we are powerless to do any
good, and by recognising that when we were consoled this good came
(g) Do the opposite to what the devil suggests, such as praying, singing, etc.;
(h) Open our hearts to our spiritual director or confessor or to someone in whose judgment we have confidence. Satan is horrified at this openness of conscience;
(i) Take not of our weak point, for it is here that the devil will
attack us again and again, unceasingly;
(j) Remember that salvation is in the cross and self-renunciation,
suffering, trials, humiliations.
"God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Our Lord Jesus
Christ," says St. Paul. (Gal. 6:14).
Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus says the same thing: "I found joy
and happiness on earth, but only in suffering, because I suffered
a great deal here on earth; it is necessary that souls should know
In his Living Flames (pp. 961, 962), Saint John of the Cross says:
"The reason why so few souls reach the state of perfection is because
these souls flee from suffering... Many have the desire to advance
and insistently ask God to raise them to that state of perfection
which consists in full union with God; but as soon as God begins to
make them feel the first trials, these souls withdraw and flee from
suffering, and so they flee from the narrow path and seek the broad
path of consolations. They wish to arrive at the state of perfection
without having to pass through that state of trials which is the path
of perfection. "
RULES FOR THE APPROBATION OF
EXTRAORDINARY PHENOMENA OF THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
(Visions. . . Apparitions. . . Revelations. . .
Messages. . . Missions. . . Prophecies)
1. Resume of the rules of approbation
First of all, the seer should believe in the revelations which have
been given to him, as soon as he is certain of the fact and of the
supernatural nature of the revelation.
Secondly, the faithful may believe in them as soon as they are likewise certain of the supernatural nature of the revelations. Indeed, they should not despise them, if they are probably certain. When the revelations are approved by the Church, the faithful would sin in despising them, but it would not be a sin against faith.
Thirdly, the Church believes that such revelations are possible, because she consents to examine them and does not reject them systematically. The Church even believes that they are real, because she has approved several such revelations. But the Church does not believe that they happen frequently, and moreover she judges that they are difficult to recognise, on account of the many forms of illusion which can be found in them.
Finally, the Church does not accept them as superior to general revelation, and does not expect to find new dogmas in these private revelations.
2. The doctrinal foundation of these rules, in the case of seers
According to Hurter's Manual of Theology, (Vol 1, pp. 516, 517): "The
person to whom a private revelation is given can and even should believe it by an act of divine faith as soon as he is certain of the fact of this revelation".
According to Pope Benedict XIV, in his Treatise on the Canonisation
of Saints: "The person who receives a particular revelation and those
to whom it is transmitted by order (par ordre), can and should examine its titles of belief. If these titles are recognised as valid, they have not the right in conscience to refuse to give it their adhesion."
Pope John XXIII, in his message on the closure of the Marian Year,
on 18 February 1959, stated:
"We urge you to listen to the salutary warnings of the Mother of God
with simplicity of heart and uprightness of spirit. The Roman Pontiffs are constituted the guardians and interpreters of divine Revelation, as contained in Holy Scripture and Tradition; but they also have the duty to recommend to the attention of the faithful - when, following mature examination, they judge it opportune for the general good - those supernatural lights which it pleases God to dispense freely to certain privileged souls, not in order to propose new doctrines, but in order to guide our conduct." (cf. Saint Thomas Aquinas, II. 11 , q. 174, art. 6 ad 3m).
3. The doctrinal foundation of these rules, in the case of the faithful
Hurter tells us: "The faithful are not obliged to believe them. However, they are not permitted to despise them, since they could be and even probably are divine, and the presumption is in their favour.
"They are permitted to believe them as soon as their authenticity
has been established with certitude. They can still believe them,
even if their authenticity is only probable, but in this case their
assent will not be an act of theological faith, but of simple prudence".
Pope Benedict XIV, in his Treatise on the Canonisation of Saints,
states: "As for what concerns private revelations, they should not
be received with a sense of Catholic faith, but only with human faith, according to the rules of prudence which present such revelations to us as probably and piously believable. This is not to say that these revelations cannot or are not destined to be the instrument of great graces, even for the faithful; but as they are not the object of a theological act of faith, putting them in doubt or denying them is not a sin of heresy.
"However, when the Church has approved them, and even more so, when
the Church has established or recommended certain practices which
flow from these revelations, to protest against them would be gravely
lacking in the respect and the assent of mind and will which we owe
to the directions and teaching of the Church even when she does not
invoke her privilege of infallibility."
Mgr. Saudreau's book The Mystical State. deals with this whole subject, in chapter 18 (pp. 209-270). On page 223, discussing the responsibility of those who disdain private revelations, he writes the following:
"There is no obligation to believe unless there is certitude, but
the motives for belief can be such that all prudent doubt is rendered
impossible. In such a situation, whoever refused to believe and obey
would lack respect and submission to God, and would sin gravely. When
a person who is favoured with an apparition or with a heavenly revelation has strong enough proof and believes without hesitating... he makes an act, not of Catholic, but of divine and theological faith. This act is very meritorious and can be the mainspring of great graces."
The author then quotes numerous examples of punishments or sudden
death inflicted on incredulous priests and religious, and affirms
that "the majority of those whom God has favoured with His communications have at first been contradicted, mocked, and treated as visionaries or people suffering from hallucinations" (p. 231).
"We considered it necessary to demonstrate the advantages of revelations, and the danger and the fault which there is or can be in despising them, because in our era there is no lack of sceptics; the tendency to minimise the importance of the supernatural, and to reduce it to the lowest possible level, has never been more accentuated, it is important to guard oneself against this attitude and not to forget the recommendation of Scripture: Despise not prophecies, but prove all things (1 Thess. 5:20, 21)." (ibid., p. 233).
Mgr. Saudreau also says (pp. 268, 269) that, according to some privileged souls, there will be terrible punishments in the future on account of the contemporary scepticism on this subject.
Saint Theresa states, in the Book of Foundations (chap. 8): "When
a soul is truly humble, even if a vision were to come to it from the
spirit of darkness, it could not cause it any injury; but it is also
true that when humility is lacking, even if a vision were to come
to it from God, it would not bring that soul any profit".
According to Saint John of the Cross: "The second kind of revelations
concerns the manifestation of secrets or hidden mysteries. . . and
divine promises or threats, as well as with events which should or
which shall take place, either throughout the universe in general,
or in a particular kingdom, a province, a state, a family or a certain person: our holy letters contain numerous examples of these revelations... God still grants them in our times to whomever it pleases Him. He is accustomed to reveal to certain souls what will happen to such and such a person, or what will take place in such and such a kingdom, etc."
RULES FOR THE DISCERNMENT OF EXTRAORDINARY
PHENOMENA IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
It is necessary to know that errors are possible and real. They arise
less frequently in the case of saints than with ordinary people who
are not very advanced in virtue; but people should know that errors
can happen even with the saints. Father Poulain names 32 saints who
were deceived, on pages 355 and 356 of his Treatise on the Graces
1. Five causes of errors
(a) A revelation can sometimes be incorrectly interpreted by the
person who receives it, because it is obscure, either for the reason
that God does not make it fully known, or on account of conditions
which are implied in the prophecy or the revelation. (See Saint John
of the Cross, Ascent, Book 2, chap. 19). Such was the case with Saint
Peter who, hearing a voice tell him three times: "Rise, kill and eat", (Acts 10:13), thought that it was a question of his food and not an order to baptise the pagans.
(b) When the visions represent historical scenes, they do so often
in a manner which is only approximative and probable. So one would
be mistaken in attributing to them an absolute exactitude, but God
does not deceive us when He modifies certain details. He does so for
a motive, namely, to make us better understand the secret thought
which He has hidden in the mystery. In fact there have been revelations, made to holy persons and approved by the Church, which contradict each other; this demonstrates that it is lacking in prudence to attempt to reconstruct history by means of revelations made to saints.
(c) It can happen that during a vision, the human spirit keeps its
power to mix its own action to a certain extent with the divine action; accordingly, on such occasions it will be self-deception to attribute purely to God the knowledge which is thus obtained: On one occasion it will be the power of invention which is being exercised, and at another time it will be the recollections of the memory.
Even those who often have true revelations can become negligent in
the care with which they discern them, and hence they may issue a
Furthermore, the seers are often led to attribute falsely to the divine influence, during the ecstasy or the moments of intense union with God, those ideas which flatter their own desires, and their preconceived ideas on questions of doctrine and history. The activity of the spirit of the seers themselves is one of the principal causes of error. We find examples of visions filled with historical errors in the cases of Saint Elizabeth de Schoenau, Blessed Hermann Josef, Saint Hildegarde, Saint Catherine de Ricci, and Mary of Agreda, etc.
(d) It can happen that a true revelation may be involuntarily altered, after the event, by the seer himself; this danger is very great when the written revelation is very long, but nevertheless was received in an almost instantaneous manner. In such a case it is not excessive to say that not only were all the words not furnished by the revelation, but that as the thinking in the revelation was not detailed, the seer developed it himself subsequently.
(e) It is also easily possible for secretaries to alter the text,
without bad will, and in good faith to insert their own choice of
expressions in it.
2. The five causes of a false message
It is possible a message not only to contain errors for the five causes which we have just listed above, but it can also be false in itself for the five following causes:
(a) It can happen that the person who says he has received revelations is a liar and in bad faith.
(b) A person can invent things in good faith, either as a result of
an illusion, or arising from a certain disorder of the memory which
consists in believing and recalling certain facts, although they have
(c) A person can be deceived by his own imagination or by his own
spirit, if they are too lively.
(d) The devil can give false revelations or visions, as in the case
of Nicholas of Rheims in the 17th century. The devil can also produce
an alienation of the person's senses, in an attempt to produce a counterfeit of divine ecstasy. But this case is extremely rare, and almost no known and certain examples can be cited.
(e) A revelation can be the invention of forgers. Political prophecies have often been their work, being motivated by political or pecuniary interest, or by the desire to fool the public. Such prophecies abound in times of great political or religious trouble. One suspicious characteristic, which is noteworthy in modern political prophecies, is that they never urge people to take up the struggle against the wicked, and do not indicate any serious means of resisting them; they maintain that the world will change suddenly, by a miracle, without a prior conversion of hearts and morals.
In the first half of this part dealing with the rules for the discernment of extraordinary phenomena in the spiritual life, we have been studying what it is necessary to know about them.
In the remaining half, we are going to study what action should be
3. Study whether the person gives divine signs
This means that it is necessary to examine if the seer is absolutely
certain of the supernatural nature of his or her revelations, and
if he or she works miracles or issues prophecies. If the answer is
yes, the revelations come from God and not from the devil nor from
nature. We will see below if stigmatisation can be a divine sign.
But revelations are in fact only rarely accompanied by such decisive
divine signs; so it is necessary to reach a judgment following the
rules of prudence, and after examining the reasons for and the reasons against. To do this, one must study the subject, the purport of the revelations and their attendant circumstances, and the effects of the revelation.
Some people propose that one should prove that neither the devil nor
one's personal ideas have had any influence on the action of God,
but this procedure only differs from the preceding one we have outlined by the way in which the information is classified and the conclusions are drawn.
4. Study the person himself
(a) First of all, what are his qualities and defects? Is the person
sincere, from the physical, intellectual and moral point of view?
Is he mentally well-balanced? Gifted with sane judgment? Given to
exaggeration or invention? Weakened by illness, vigils or fasting?
If the answers are favourable, it is probable that there is no reason
to fear the principal causes of error.
(b) What degree of instruction has this person received? What reading
has he done? It is necessary to ensure that the knowledge which is
said to have been revealed has not been drawn from the books or conversations of theologians, as was the case with Saint Hildegarde.
(c) What progress has the person made in virtue since the revelations? The important point to know is whether the person has made much progress, following the revelations; if yes, then there is a strong probability in favour of the supernatural; but if not, the revelations should be regarded as suspect.
The devil cannot lead souls to the practice of solid virtues in a
true and durable manner. By trickery he can pretend to encourage them
for some time, but it will end up in exaggerations and peculiarities;
under his influence, penances will be increased to the extent of ruining one's health, and they will be accompanied by disobedience; purity of conscience will degenerate into scrupulosity, and humility into discouragement; zeal will become indiscreet, and it will entice the soul out of its present state and throw it into adventures which end in a cul-de-sac.
(d) Has the person made predictions, and have they all been clearly
expressed and clearly realized, without having to invoke subtleties
of interpretation. When only one isolated prediction has been realized, there is only a probability that it is divine, for it could have been thrown up at random, and the devil can conjecture many future events in the light of the usual pattern traced by the divine and human wills in similar circumstances.
If the prophecies are not realized, and there are no serious reasons
to believe that they are conditional, it should be presumed that they
are not divine. "And if in silent thought thou answer: How shall I
know the word that the Lord hath not spoken? Thou shalt have this
sign. Whatsoever that same prophet foretelleth in the name of Lord,
and it cometh not to pass; that thing the Lord hath not spoken, but
the prophet hath forged it by the pride of his mind, and therefore
thou shalt not fear him." (Deut. 18:21, 22)
(e) What extraordinary graces of union with God does this person believe he received previously, and what was his judgment about them? Apart from exceptional cases, these graces are only granted when the person is advanced in the ways of prayer.
(f) Has the person been sent great trials before or after the revelations? For example, illness, contradictions, failure, and delays in carrying out certain enterprises which the person had at heart? If the answer is yes, it is a good sign, for the life of saints is full of these trials, and it is impossible for extraordinary graces not to be accompanied by crosses; they are a mark of the friendship of God. If there are no crosses, the revelations are suspect.
The most usual trial of these extraordinary favours is that the public, if it gets to hear about them, adopts a sceptical or hostile attitude. Its criticisms and doubts are an excellent touch-stone with which to judge the humility of the seer, his patience and his confidence.
(g) Has the person taken the three indispensable precautions in order
to avoid illusions? Namely, the fear of being deceived, openness to
one's spiritual director, and not having desired the revelations?
It is clear that believing oneself preserved from illusions is just
the disposition required to have them. Similarly, being unwilling
to be open and considering oneself a good judge in the matter is favourable to the snares of the devil, who does not want to see his tricks being uncovered. Finally, a revelation should generally be regarded as suspect if it has been desired.
5. Study the revelation itself
(a) Is the text truly authentic? Or has there been any correction
or even suppression of certain expressions and certain passages, as
inexact or obscure?
(b) Is the revelation in full agreement with dogma and with the teachings of the Church, as also with the certain affirmations of history and the sciences? "I do not regard a revelation as true unless there is absolutely nothing at all in it contrary to Holy Scripture and to the laws of the Church which we are obliged to follow", says Saint Theresa in her Life, (chap. 32, p. 354).
(c) Does it contain any teaching or is it accompanied by any action
contrary to decency and to good morals? Saint John of the Cross said:
"One of the traps of the evil spirit is to divulge the sins of another with as much falsehood as apparent light. His object is defamatory."
(d) Is the revelation useful from the point of view of eternal salvation? One can be sure that revelations are not divine when their object is simply to make known vulgar matters which have no usefulness for the good of souls. God is not going to occasion a revelation in order to satisfy curiosity, but only for a grave motive. Despite their apparently religious scenario, therefore, one must regard as taletellers those people who, in the name of some celestial spirit, are ready to hold whatever consultation they are asked for at any hour and in any place, on the subject of births, marriages, lawsuits, illnesses and the outcome of political events.
A revelation is equally suspect when its unique object is to settle
a disputed question of theology, history or astronomy. It should be
clearly understood that eternal salvation is the only thing which
is important in the sight of God. Saint John of the Cross says that
"for the rest, His intention is that men should have recourse to human means". (Ascent, Book 2, chap. 22).
The revelation should also be regarded as suspect if, although very
good, it is commonplace, and can be found in ascetical books. In such
a case it is probable that the seer, without being aware of it, is
repeating what he has learnt in his reading; or else he is being abused by the devil, who wants to gain his confidence in order to lead him into one of his audacious traps.
If the revelations or the visions are very numerous, this circumstance, taken by itself, is not an unfavourable sign, for to regard it as such would be to condemn a host of saints. On the contrary, if the revelations are long and numerous and do not contain anything false, dishonest or futile, it can be concluded, with probability, that they do not come from the devil; for otherwise he would fail in his objective, since it is not possible for the devil to hide himself for long.
(e) Does the revelation conform to that dignity and seriousness which
is appropriate to the Divine Majesty, or is it on the contrary characterised by peculiarities, grotesque behaviour, convulsions, and an unworthy lack of restraint even in the case of people who are quite reasonable and well brought up, when the attitudes, the gestures, the words and the circumstances which accompany the vision are examined in detail?
Many authors state that the devil would never have permission to take
the form of a dove or of a lamb in his apparitions, because these
are the symbols of the Holy Spirit and of Christ. But this twofold
assertion is contradicted by the facts. Hence Saint Fran
one day saw the devil take the form of a lamb, which came and lay
down gently on the feet of the saint; she recognised it, and the devil transformed himself into a furious wolf.
On another occasion she saw seven demons which appeared to her as
seven white lambs, declaring that they symbolised the seven gifts
of the Holy Spirit; but again she recognised them, and they changed
into wolves which attempted to attack her.
The celebrated Magdalen of the Cross, who worked prodigies through
the action of the evil spirit, one day saw the devil appear to her
in the shape of a dove.
(f) What peace or what trouble did the person experience during and
after the revelation? This is a most important means of discernment.
With people of goodwill, the action of the good spirit is characterised by giving peace, joy, security and courage, except, perhaps, at the first instant. The action of the demon, on the contrary, produces diametrically opposite effects: when he acts upon persons of good will, he produces trouble, sadness discouragement, agitation and darkness.
It follows, therefore, that the peaceful or troubled state of the
person gives an unquestionable means for distinguishing true revelations from false, when one of these characteristics is well defined. However, there is also the action of our own spirit to consider; it is possible that this spirit can introduce itself into the revelation, when it takes place during a period of profound recollection and great peace coming from God. Consequently, the sense of peace is not enough, by itself, to prove that everything is divine; it only makes it a probability.
(g) Does the revelation urge specific enterprises, such as a new devotion, the construction of a sanctuary, the creation of a work for which there are not sufficient resources, a new congregation?
If this is the case, the work should be examined to see whether it
is: good in itself and in conformity with the mind of the Church;
useful, and of a utility which explains the need for it to be made
known by a means as exceptional as a revelation; opportune, that is
to say, whether it responds to a new need; and whether it might harm
any other work which it would be better to support. On this subject,
Cardinal Pitra has said: "It is entirely permitted to discard such
revelations, even if they have been approved, when one does so for
solid reasons, and when above all the contrary doctrine is established by inassailable documents and unquestionable experience."
It should be noted that the revelations of women are probably false
when, through this means, they seek to direct clerics and princes,
and to teach them when speaking about authority.
(h) Finally, have the revelations been subject to the test of the
times and of discussion? Without this condition, no revelation can
be regarded as unquestionable, despite any favourable judgment it
may have received.
6. Is stigmatisation a divine sign?
The answer must be in the affirmative, if the stigmatic wounds are:
durable, incorruptible, and without suppuration or infection; if they
are incurable by medication and dressings, even though they sometimes
suddenly heal up; if they bleed abundantly and periodically at the
hours, days or liturgical feasts of the Passion of Christ; if they
are produced on persons of heroic virtue; and if they display all
the characteristics of their supernatural origin when their effects
and various circumstances are examined.
But the answer should be in the negative, if the wounds do not yield
the guarantees enumerated above; for auto-suggestion, fraud and the
demon can sometimes produce wounds which are apparently and superficially similar to true stigmata. However such cases are very rare, and do not stand up to a critical examination and the passage of time, which results in them being quickly unmasked and condemned.
The question was dealt with at the Congress of Avon of 17-19 April
1936, and its discussions and conclusions were reported in the issue
of October of Carmelite Studies. It is also excellently summarised
in volume 11 of Father Garrigou Lagrange's work, The Three Ways of
The Spiritual Life, from pages 775 onwards.
Finally, it should be noted that the great majority of theologians,
psychologists and doctors all agree with the above opinion, and do
not accept the insubstantial arguments of a very few doctors who maintain that it is possible to produce stigmata by auto-suggestion.
7. Study the effects produced by the revelation
In volume II of his work, the Three Ages of the Spiritual Life, (pp.
325, 796-798), Father Garrigou Lagrange gives a few good indications
as to how one should examine the question. In practice it is sufficient to ask just one question: Yes or no, has the revelation produced good fruits of grace?
(a) The principle of discernment is given in the Gospels. Our Lord
says: "Beware of false prophets. By their fruits ye shall know them.
Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, and the evil tree bringeth
forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither
can an evil tree bring forth good fruit." (Matt. 7:15-18).
In the light of this principle, that "the tree should be judged by
its fruit", we can judge what spirit moves the favoured soul. One
must look at the results of its influence and compare them with what
the Gospel tells us of the principal Christian virtues; if these virtues are increased, it is the sign of a good spirit, above all if these fruits are enduring; those, indeed, who are animated by a bad intention cannot remain hidden for long.
(b) True mystics and ecstatics also produce fruit.
With them, following upon revelations or other phenomena, there is
always a development in their understanding of divine matters, those
concerning the interior life, the life of the Church, and of everything which touches the salvation or loss of souls; there is also a constant increase in love of God, and in devotion to one's neighbour, which becomes evident in the works which they undertake and bring to a successful conclusion. Their foundations often endure for centuries; such was the case with Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Theresa, and Saint Catherine of Sienna who, although she died aged only 32, and did not know how to read or write, nevertheless for a long time played one of the most important roles in the affairs of her times, in particular by securing the return of the Pope to Rome.
With true mystics, there is a dominating idea which subordinates itself to all others in perfect harmony with them, as for example: the thought of the all-powerful nature of God and of His love, the desire to respond to His love above everything else, the passion for the salvation of souls, the pursuit of divine union, etc.
In The Psychology of Mystics, Mr. de Montmorand, who is himself an
unbeliever, writes on pages 20 and 21:
"True mystics are practical people of action, not people of reasoning
and theory. They know how to organise, and have the gift of commanding. They are very capable in handling affairs. The works which they found are viable and enduring; their crowning masterpiece would seem to be good sense, a good sense which is not troubled by any morbid exaltation or any disordered imagination, and which is accompanied by the very rare power of penetration."
(c) This is how the same author describes the fruits of forgers, and
especially of hysterics:
"With forgers and hysterics in particular, instability increases,
and with it dissimulation and lying. Finally, they become completely
dominated by capricious sensitivity."
Works of Reference
Apart from the works he has already cited in the text, the author
also lists the following authorities which the reader may wish to
consult on the subject. Some of these, however, may only be available
First of all, there are the detailed treatises of Father Scaramelli;
pages 311 to 418 of Father Poulain's Graces of Prayer (Graces d'Oraison); and lessons 24 and 25 of Father de Guibert's Spiritual Theology.
There are also more condensed studies in Dictionnaire du Catholicisme, cols. 874 to 877; pages 321 to 328, of Father Albert Valensin's Initiation to the Exercises; and numbers 953 to 957 and 1281 to 1285 of Mgr. Tanquerey's Manual.
Finally, there are the excellent rules of St. Ignatius in his Exercises and those contained in the Imitation of Christ, Book 3, chapters 54 and 55.