Is it necessary for an authentic mystic to have an impeccable character?

St Mary of Egypt -A great sinner turned Saint
A key question: Visionaries and holiness: Is it necessary for an authentic mystic to have an impeccable moral character?

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.

God however had other plans her. As she tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the celebration, she was barred from doing so by an unseen force. Realizing that this was because of her impurity, she was struck with remorse, and upon seeing an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) outside the church, she prayed for forgiveness and promised to give up her life of sin. Once again she attempted to enter the church, and this time was permitted in. After venerating the relic of the true cross, she returned to the icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary to give thanks, and suddenly she heard the Virgin Mary speak to her, telling her:
"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?

Given the Church's position in this matter, strictly speaking a visionary/mystic/prophet cannot (or no longer would) remain an authentic mystic during the time that he/she engages in grave, serious sin, because the effects of willful mortal sin inhibits and precludes God's direct revelation in such a person. For example, after David's sins of adultery and murder, we see from the scripture that God no longer spoke to him directly, but spoke to him through the prophet Nathan.

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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Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article!

Anonymous said...

Yes, but by not including the positive criteria I think your argument is somewhat flawed. The positive criteria refer to moral rectitude and personal qualities such as honesty and psychological equilibrium as well as spiritual fruit such as love, gentleness, peace being present in the mystic. So if a mystic were to write racy letters, call people dimwits or puff on ecigartettes or engage in unseemly sexual conduct and still claim to be experiencing visions etc it would give the Church reason to question the person's authenticity. This is a question already answered by Jesus and St Paul.

Brother Michael of the Cross said...

Saint Paul was on his way to find more Christians to kill when Jesus knocked him off his horse and asked him why he was persecuting Him. Yet, the church accepts his writings as divinely inspired and are included in Mass and Liturgy of the Hours and other things. When the woman was caught in adultery and a crowd was gathering to kill her by stoning, one of the people asked if what they were planning was right. Jesus said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone". All the would-be killers dropped their stones and went away. Jesus then asked her, "Where are your accusers?". The only other thing He said further that was recorded is that He told her to go her way, and not commit the same sin again so nothing worse occurred.
The essence of forgiveness is the intention never to commit the same sin again. People who have a fault, fall to the same fault over and over again. Saint Jerome, the great Scripture scholar is said to have a ferocious temper, yet his works remain treasures of the Church. I think we should look for good in what people say or write and observe their actions. If they are doing good, how can they have been abandoned by God? If what they say sways souls to salvation, we should keep what is good and throw away what is trash. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God in the end will be like a great catch of fish in which what was good was collected and kept and what was trash was discarded. We need to try but if we sin and have no hope we cannot repent because we have no hope. Clearly the question involves God's mercy as opposed to His justice. We know there is a limit to His forgiveness and that some things are too much. Yet I have read of a vision in which Mary asked Jesus to accept a soul that had lived a sinful life and Jesus refused Her two times. The third time She asked Him because She was His Mother, and He relented. We should not tempt God, nor should we give up. Salvation depends on hope and hope is derived from the faith to believe we can be saved. As for people whom God uses, He uses what He can, whether it is dressed in splendor or something less. Let us strive to have faith, to hope, to do better, to overcome sin, because salvation depends on it. Let us not hold faults against people.

Unknown said...

Great article, as always. Thanks for your work. I really apreciate it and I think you are doing a magnificent and very christian job. Being a ferocious reader of the lives of the saints, there is not a single work (book) of a saint or a biography that does not put the good seed inside our heart and soul, if only we give it good ground to prosper. Sadly nowadays priests do not talk often about the saints of the church, their lifes, their works, the wonderous Love of God in their lifes, and, indirectly in our own (by the example that the saints give). By doing so people are not aroused to the things of God, become lukewarm and soon bored with the things of God and the spiritual life, and soon put their faith in more physical things or completely lose faith, or even put all in the same bag, not knowing what to believe anymore. This is a tragedy that I keep seeing in people: a long range of them find interess in the satanic pratices of wicca, spiritualism, etc... (and at the same time they continue to say they are christian or, worse, catholics. This makes my soul weep of sadness).
I hope this can change. One learns in all these revelations not only to better understand the dogmas, the mystic knowdlege about the souls and the things of God but also and especially about the real infinite Love of God. If one wants to love God, one seeks him... continually.

I am currently re-reading the works of Maria Valtorta and each page is a real treasure that only does not attract to God the soul that really does not want anything to do with Him. I believe, in the end, these are the only souls that are already lost, the ones that refuse to love God. Matter for another day...
But, in what concerns the subject above, I believe that all souls (except the ones that God wants pure their all lifes and creates the means to do so) commit sin, even if they are mystic or in the process of santifying themselves. What is important in their life is the effort they do during their existence (and especially since their true conversion), trying their best not to sin again. We will always have imperfections, only by our own will and work can we overcome it and change ourselves. That is why the saints practice virtue at an heroic level, which means they continually struggle to perfect themselves and overcome their faults. I often say that more important than achieving perfection is the effort and struggle to attain it. And that is what every saint did: since Peter to Mother Teresa, until they scorned their own self-will to do the will of God in every little thing. That is the true humility, without which nobody will attain sanctity.

Anonymous said...

I would think if a purported mystic caused scandal it would be a good indication they were not authentic. And if a purported mystic did not leave off sin immediately once the mystical experiences started, and become wholly focused on God, then I would be suspicious of their reports. In my mind, any kind of life they led before the mystical experiences is not important. I believe a sign of a true mystical encounter with God is authentic conversion and deep repentance and loathing for even venial sins. If a such a person committed a venial sin and is not concerned about it, then I would think they are not authentic. If such a person committed a mortal sin, I would not listen to them at all.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me, those who are graced with a mystical experience are big targets for the devil who seeks to discredit them and God's work through them. Judge not, lest ye be judged. It's better to believe and be wrong than to disbelieve contrary to God's will.

Anonymous said...

"Saint Paul was on his way to find more Christians to kill when Jesus knocked him off his horse.." This image is derived from a painting by Caravaggio. Scripture does not verify this. “As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (Acts 22:6-7)

“Thus I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (Acts 26:12-14)
Did Saul actually fall off his horse on the road to Damascus?
Hector Molina

September 19, 2014

danhesko said...

A sinner, even a big one can become by God's grace a Saint or mystic. But a mystic who living a questionable lifestyle, at the same time claiming mystical experience is either a fraud, or deceived by the devil.

danhesko said...

Or psychologically imbalanced

andyjourn said...

The positive criteria looked for in the person claiming to have such an experience are these.

Personal qualities of the subject or of the subjects (in particular, psychological equilibrium, honesty and rectitude of moral life, sincerity and habitual docility towards Ecclesiastical Authority, the capacity to return to a normal regimen of a life of faith, etc.

So while they don't have to practice the faith heroically, certain standards of credibility in the moral area are needed, to demonstrate that the person is receiving heavenly visitations.

DJR said...

Anonymous said... I believe a sign of a true mystical encounter with God is authentic conversion and deep repentance and loathing for even venial sins. If a such a person committed a venial sin and is not concerned about it, then I would think they are not authentic. If such a person committed a mortal sin, I would not listen to them at all.

Under pressure, Saint Joan of Arc signed a perjurious statement (thereby committing a mortal sin) in order to escape punishment by the authorities. Our Lady appeared to her and stated, "You have damned yourself." Saint Joan immediately repented and shortly after died a martyr.

The Church recognizes the mystical character of her "voices."

Anonymous said...

Don't like the article and the way it was written.How bout studying the Saints.They all had one virtue they excelled in and they failed in others.Since you wrote this personally I can say beware and go back to prayer because this article makes no sense.

Unknown said...

To the last "anonymous" post, I just want to say, in friendship:

I do not know the author of this blog, but I have to say he does a Great job. As for the article that you (anonymous!; a name at least is proof of straightforwardness when we are bold enough to criticize) do not like, which you are in your right not to, but at least elaborate the reasons why, I find it is a very pertinent post. Saint John cleary states (4:1):

"Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world";

And in Mathew 7:15: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves".

So, even the saints encourage us to be vigilant; so, I do not understand why you dislike the article so much.

I have read dozens of lives and works of the saints, and if you have read it too, surely you know that even the saints often doubt themselves, fearful that what they experience might be an hoax from the devil. It is important to always be vigilant, discern the spirits and then accept the mistics, because, if they truly follow the work of God, though they might falter here and there, in the end God's will will be done. Some saints even had loads of trouble to be accepted by their priests. Saint Catherine of Siena, i.e, was sometimes denied to receive comunion, and so on... God allows this kind of thing often to try the person's humility. None can improve without trial.

And, please, pray for all of us. God surely listens more to our true prayer than our righteousness (which can always falter, especially when we let pride take over) ...

Anonymous said...

Let's think about it in this context.

A key question: Priests and holiness: Is it necessary for an authentic priest to have an impeccable moral character..

Unknown said...

In these days, more than ever. I would like to hear St. John Vianney, or St. Louis de Montfort, or loads and loads more saintly priests that with their almost impeccable moral character (surely there were imperfectations, because God alone is perfect) led saintly lives, becoming example for priests that want to attain sanctity (and the important word here is "WANT"), would say to modern priests. More than ever priests are tremendously tempted to sin; never in human history was so easy to have access to porn, ilicit money making, and so on...

I accept that priests are human and therefore prone to commit sin, as we all are, and so I do not want to commit a fault against charity judging them harshly. But, priests should be the example to the flock, and we do learn from the lives of the saints and mistics that priests will be more severely judged by God because of their responsability on the salvation of souls (many souls abandon the path of salvation due to bad example from priests).

Anyway, we should more than judge, pray for those that live in fault and sin. That is what God teaches us. Still, Jesus was clear:

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect". (which applies to all of us)

Anonymous said...

Luis,I reread it and I was harsh but can't remove it.I guess my point is you can't put limitations on God.

Unknown said...

No worries. I completely agree with you on that point, but man still thinks he can even control God!
Let's all hope every heart can see the truth and change its ways. God bless.

Unknown said...

In the old testament God made balaam prophecy and he was a pagan. I read in the mystical city of God that God can give preternatural graces to both saints and to those that are not so holy. If holiness were a requirement for receiving mystical experiences,all the just would receive it. And there were many saints that did not receive visions,revelations and ecstasies. Many saints have wrote that private revelations are not proof of holiness. God can grant those graces to unbelievers,like in zeitoun Egypt. The virgin Mary appeared in Egypt and thousands of people saw her(christians,atheists,etc.) and many of them weren't saints. The message is more important than the messenger. Only the virgin Mary was conceived without sin. God has his reasons. Not all Catholics in a state of grace or even living saintly lives are mystics. Mystics can even commit mortal sin and repent of it immediately, bad habits are hard to get rid of. The difference is that great sinners fall and not care and saints fall and rise again a thousand times if necessary and don't fall into discouragement and keep trying, but at least they are not indifferent to their sin and keep trying. Saint Peter denied Jesus three times,the apostles abandoned Him,except st.john. King David and Salomon also sinned gravely. No one is without sin.