|St Mary of Egypt -A great sinner turned Saint|
When discerning the lives of visionaries, what weaknesses and faults are permissible?
We all like to think of our favorite Saints and mystics as overflowing with virtue, as "white as the driven snow" as the saying goes. Yet, we all recognize that no one is perfect, acknowledging the biblical principle that "all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). This however raises a question--one that all those who seek to discern alleged visionaries and mystics have to contend with: can an authentic mystic/visionary/prophet have serious faults? What weaknesses or sins are acceptable when discerning a visionary? Or put another way, what sins might inhibit a person from receiving communications and private revelations from heaven?
One thing is for sure--it is a very pertinent question for anyone who seeks to discern such persons. In fact, this very question just came up once again for the most recent purported mystic that I just published here on this website, a Good Shepherd nun from New York named Sr. Mary Crown of Thorns (1884-1937) who reportedly bore the stigmata. Just prior to her becoming a nun, and during a time which she had allegedly already been given some extraordinary mystical graces, she apparently wrote some very racy and inappropriate letters to a physician friend whom she was romantically interested in at the time.
In the Old Testament story of King David we find in David a visionary and servant of God who at one point committed two very grave "mortal" sins--adultery and then murder---yet because of his incredibly deep repentance afterwards, God continued to work with and through him throughout the rest of his remarkable life.
Or again, studying the life of the great St Augustine, the universally acclaimed Doctor of the Church, we find that in his early years prior to his extraordinary conversion he had lead quite an immoral life, having a son out of wedlock with his concubine, along with the giving of himself to various questionable worldly pursuits. And who could forget his noteworthy statement "Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet!" Nevertheless, in his defense we find that in the years after his conversion he led a life of solid piety and heroic virtue, as the Church itself has officially declared.
We can find another example in the story of St Mary of Egypt where we have a woman who, at the age of 12, runs away from home and soon afterwards becomes a prostitute in the city of Alexandria. She continued to live a extremely dissolute life until at age 17 when she traveled to Jerusalem for the great annual Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. She undertook the journey as a sort of "anti-pilgrimage," stating that she hoped to find in the pilgrim crowds at Jerusalem more abundant customers for her life of prostitution. Her biographers reveal how she helped to pay for her passage to Jeruselum by offering sexual favors to other pilgrims, and she continued her habitual lifestyle for a short time in Jerusalem.
"If you cross the Jordan, you will find rest for your soul."
She then went to the Jordan and ended up at the monastery of St. John the Baptist on the bank of the River Jordan, where she went to Confession and afterwards Holy Communion. The next morning, she crossed the Jordan and retired to the desert to live the rest of her life as a hermitess in penance and reparation for her sins.
And so, the simple fact is that Church history is replete with sinners turned saints, a portion of whom were, or became, mystics and visionaries.
Purported visionaries and sin -The Church speaks
However the question being posed here is must a visionary/mystic/prophet have a impeccable moral character? To what degree is sin permitted in their lives? We find much of the answer in the Vatican document entitled "Norms regarding the manner of proceeding in the discernment of presumed apparitions or revelations" where in the section entitled "Criteria for judging, at least with probability, the character of the presumed apparitions or revelations", under the title of "Negative criteria" we find the directive:
d) Gravely immoral acts committed by the subject or his or her followers when the fact [ie. apparition] occurred, or in connection with it.
Thus, according to the official Church position, "gravely immoral acts" would constitute negative criteria--meaning they would be reliable evidence that the mystic/visionary/prophet is false. But what about less serious sin, like a visionary who seems boastful at times or seemingly lacking a spirit of humility at times, or one that seems to lack charity in their statements and actions towards others, or one that is always quick to defend themselves instead of mostly suffering accusations with humility and silence, or perhaps one that seems to relish food and drink excessively, or lacks a spirit of mortification?
At the same time we recognize that lesser or "venial" sins are simply part of our everyday human condition, and that even the Saints are not perfect, but that they sincerely "seek to be perfect, as the heavenly Father is perfect." I often think of the saying "Christians are not perfect, just forgiven, because they ask to be forgiven".
Nevertheless, one should expect a visionary to be a person who seriously--even strenuously--seeks to live out the Gospel in all areas of their life, and endeavors to please God in all of their actions, obedient to the teachings of the Church, and living a penitential and sacrificial life in a spirit of prayer, joy and thanksgiving. In short, a person who fervently follows in the footsteps of Jesus.
And so, while we ought not necessarily be put off by a purported mystic who, for example, has a serious attachment to coffee, we can and should dismiss any alleged mystic who engages in any form of grave, serious sin. And when it comes to discerning mystics and visionaries, from the onset all mystics and visionaries should be given an initial presumption of sincerity and goodwill, and with neutrality one should cautiously discern their messages and mission, giving them a just and sincere hearing. For it is truly unfortunate to see that there have been more than a few purported mystics over the centuries who have been summarily dismissed by certain members within the Church, without even so much as a preliminary hearing or reasoned consideration.
We can close this contemplation regarding the moral character of purported mystics with a reflection concerning the life of St Paul from Acts 22:
"I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
"About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, `Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?'
Thus, in the life of St Paul we see how the infinite wisdom and mercy of God are so far above the thoughts and reason of man, for who would have ever have thought that Saul of Tarsus, the fervent persecutor of the early Christians, would become--through the intercession of Jesus--the great St Paul, the indefatigable apostle of the Church?
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