The Passionists - Compassion

Christian Mystics and the Passion of Jesus, continued

What authority do mystics have?

SpaceWhat credence should we give to the mystics? They are usually the first to offer disclaimers for themselves and their work. The unknown 13th century Tuscan Franciscan who wrote "The Meditations on the Life of Christ," a medieval best-seller, invites his original reader, probably a Poor Clare nun whose name was Cecilia, to take the book and read it --- not as a scholar, but as a believer trying to nourish her mind and heart.

SpaceNot everything Jesus did is found in scripture, he says; we can use our own imaginative powers to consider his life. And so the writer adds details to the gospel story in order to help his reader enter and see, hear and feel the gospel incidents. His stories are plausible enough; they might have happened that way.

SpaceStories flow colorfully from his pen; he is a medieval scriptwriter who knows how to capture his readers" attention. Yet, he admits that his stories are not the same as the scripture, God"s word. That is the supreme authority from which one begins and to which one returns. It is the norm for all prayer and meditation. What he writes is secondary; you can take it or leave it.

Judging the mystics

Benedict IVSpacePope Benedict XIV (illustration, right) , probably the best official church guide for judging saintly mystics and their revelations, offers this recommendation: "We say that their revelations, although approved, cannot be assented to by Catholic faith, but only human faith, following the rules of prudence."(De canon.III, liii,no15)

SpaceThe theologian, Melchior Cano, puts it this way: "It matters little whether or not one believes in St. Bridget's revelations or those of other saints. These things have nothing to do with faith." (De locis theologicis, Bk XII,iii)

SpaceThe church teaches, then, that the writings of the mystics must conform to the teachings of faith; they may nourish faith, but they do not decide the substance of faith. Their writings do not supplant the scriptures, which along with the sacraments are the most important sources that Christians have for nourishing their faith. They should not wander too far away from the paths of scripture. What mystics say should be examined prudently, which means there should be a certain reasonableness and plausibility in their words, especially when they deal with scriptural events.

SpaceThe church respects mystics because they open our eyes to a spiritual world. Some of them she recognizes as saints. However, she does not vouch for the visions of her saints, but only the heroic virtues of their lives.

Historically reliable?

SpaceJesuit Father Auguste Poulain, an authority on mystical prayer, advises a cautious approach to writings of the mystics when they describe the life of Jesus and biblical events. In his extensive study "The Graces of Interior Prayer" (St. Louis 1911), in which he examines the works of 31 mystics, including Catherine Emmerich and Mary of Agreda, he finds occasional errors and contradictions, as one tells the story differently from another.

SpaceSome argue that divine guidance preserves the mystics from error because of their closeness to God. But Poulain disagrees, especially when it comes to historical details. "We see, then, that it is imprudent to seek to remake history by the help of the saints' revelations," he writes, likening the mystics to various painters who paint the same scene differently according to their personal styles.


SpaceThe Gibson movie raises other concerns about the mystics besides their historical accuracy. Do some of them fuel anti-Semitic views by their writings on the Passion of Jesus? Certainly, their aims are quite different. For them the Passion of Jesus primarily involves us all; we were all there when Jesus was crucified and we all share the blame and the blessing of this mystery.

SpaceYet, did they reflect some of the anti-Semitism present in their own society in their writings? Sometimes they did, and so any anti-Semitic element found in them must be discounted.


Finding Jesus with the mystics


also in this issue:
Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" | "Seeing" the Passion of Jesus
Christian Mystics and the Passion | Dramatizing the Passion
Act with Compassion


home page for this issuedirectory of past issues

Sign of the Passion

email questions or comments
Copyright 2003 - all rights reserved - Passionist Missionaries of Union City, NJ, USA