No matter what it is -- healings, apparitions, weeping statues, locutions,
stigmata, even deliverance -- mystical manifestations are subject to discernment
and -- usually -- dispute.
It's why some shy away from them.
But when we do, we risk losing out on manifest Grace.
(We occasionally had these discussions with Mother Angelica, who believed
strongly in the mystical aspect and before taking ill often viewed Spirit
Daily; see remembrance later this week.)
It is a challenge of life, discernment: not just in religion and between
religions and within denominations (there are disputes at every turn), but in
all walks of life.
A political election is a process of public discernment.
So are many scientific interpretations (see global "warming").
When it comes to mysticism, there is also the relatively "new" category of
"near-death experiences." That's of course when someone clinically dies but is
brought back. According to one well-known researcher, John Burke -- author of
the acclaimed Imagine Heaven (which combines scientific and biblical
viewpoints) -- about one in 25 Americans has reported such an episode, especially
prevalent in our time due to vastly enhanced medical techniques of
"More than 900 articles on NDEs have been published in scholarly literature
like the Journal of the American Medical Association and Psychiatry, many
showing NDEs as evidence of consciousness beyond death," he notes.
But really, there is nothing new about them. They were alluded to by Plato,
and the first to record them with detail in Catholicism was Pope Gregory the
Great, a doctor of the Church who lived in the fourth or fifth century. In the
New Testament, Saint Paul alluded to a man he knew who had left his body and
visited the second or third heaven (there are levels).
They are obviously a part of Christianity. Do they, asked Fox News on Easter
Sunday, prove the Resurrection?
No, they assuredly do not. Folks who have near-death experiences may provide strong evidence of
eternity, but those who are revived don't appear after death in the flesh (as
did Jesus) to others; they do
not show their wounds; they are not touched, as Christ was touched; they have
not been "assumed" into the afterlife; they do not
ascend on a cloud.
But the consistency between those
many thousands who have had them, in whatever walk of
life, in whatever part of the world -- and in whatever religion -- is astonishing.
They give us all the reason for joie de vivre (as the French say).
Difficult it is, however, when we try to view such experiences with a legalistic or
naturalistic perspective -- for this is a realm beyond anything seen in nature, on earth,
much broader than can be viewed solely through the lens of religion. Many also
bear lessons about how to live, plus other insights, that certainly are not
available through theologians. It was Saint Thomas Aquinas -- the epitome of a
theologian -- who after his own glimpse into eternity just before dying said
that after what he had just experienced, all his theological musing -- his
writings -- were nothing more than "straw."
When a person "comes back" from the other side, they often have
interpretations and "spin" that fit their own life experiences and religious
Therein lies a problem.
Like any mysticism, there is imperfection -- and like great mystics such as
Saint Faustina and Padre Pio and Joseph Cupertino and innumerable others, they are
often initially rejected. If the observations and recollections of the person do
not strictly fit someone's view, there is the temptation to toss an entire
experience out -- the baby with the bathwater.
When we do, we are in danger of neglecting what Paul told us in 1
Thessalonians 21: "But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which
is good; abstain from
every form of evil."
Take what is good from something and leave the rest. Yet, exercise sophrosyne. If you're not comfortable with
something, either because it seems in error, or goes beyond what you have
imagined (or previously read), set it aside; be cautious, however, not to quickly
besmirch it. We
recall that Jesus was accused of the heretical, as were seers at places such as
Lourdes and Fatima.
Take what is good. It's our approach with all such material: a cautious openness
-- for many potential benefits are contained in such experiences, despite
certain flaws, as long as
they are not heresy (a good number do have elements of the New Age;
it is in fact a time of deception).
Difficulties? There are Protestants who glimpse a dark place and immediately
label it "hell'; they do so because they do not believe in deepest purgatory
(which they may describing when they come back saying souls are eventually released from
darkness). For all we know, others describe the top of purgatory or a holding
area just before paradise as "heaven." Some may be shown Heaven -- what they are
missing -- before the spiral downward!
We see the problem with semantics -- trying to read descriptions of the supernal, the
ineffable, the infinite, in extremely finite human terms.
Be ready, when you pass over, to encounter glorious surprise at every turn.
Be very discerning at the same time that you are careful not to bear any
resemblance to the Sadducees and Pharisees (who were always trying to undermine
Jesus on legalistic grounds and who in the case of Sadducess believed in
religion but not the afterlife!)
Sometimes we should reject claims of mysticism, including near-death
experiences; there can be deception in this realm, as with any mysticism and
anything else (again, see politics); the devil can come as an
angel of light (most who have the near-death experience encounter a great
light). Some speak of reincarnation, or otherwise provide a "new age" spin (new
age being a term used to express anything that seems unorthodox in a way that
may mask the occult).
Sometimes, we overuse such terms. By the "fruits" will we know it -- not
always by what we understand (for our knowledge and experience are limited). We
should not reject something just because the person is not Catholic. Our Popes
teach two things: that Christ is the only mediator between Heaven on earth and
also that those outside the formal Church may (if they accept Christ) find salvation.
Take what is good. Leave the rest. Exercise
prudent, prayerful openness. If something truly oppresses the spirit, yes, then,
toss out the bathwater.
Not everything unfamiliar is wrong, but careful discernment is always in order.