What authority do mystics have?
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.
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
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 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)
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yet, 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
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