Healing put to the test, Part II

Taken from meetville.com

As a follow up to yesterday’s introduction to Mario Sacasa’s blog posts on various faith-based healing ministries, I wanted to share some (hopefully) relevant personal experiences with evaluating some of the claims associated with these healing ministries — claims to private revelation, mystical graces or out-of-the-ordinary charismatic experiences. There’s so much to say, so many issues at stake! But I will limit myself to whatever comes to mind as I sit here in the Denver airport waiting for a delayed plane. I will take my inspiration from a woman across from me who just said to her child after he knocked over a drink: “Wise up and learn from your mistakes!”

I broke my thoughts into 2 parts. I will post the other part tomorrow. They are really unorganized thoughts which I do not have time to tidy up, but hopefully they will offer some light.

A personal story

Beginning in 1987, I became involved with prayer groups that identified themselves with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. My early experiences were overall positive, mostly associated with humble parish-based prayer groups that would meet weekly for praise, worship, intercessory prayer and fellowship. Back then, I would have echoed St. John Paul II comment on the Renewal:

How many people have rediscovered their faith, a desire for prayer, the power and beauty of the Word of God, which is expressed in generous service for the mission of the Church! How many lives were deeply changed! For all of this I wish to praise and thank the Holy Spirit with you today.

But over ensuing years, I also have gotten involved with elements of the Renewal that are not so balanced, and some of them did me (and others I know) harm. In particular, those people who claimed to have gifts of prophetic knowledge and clairvoyant insight simultaneously asserted a certain divine authority to command unearned trust and wield unaccountable power. While there are certainly some saintly people out there who legitimately bear God’s power and authority for good, these people were not that. As a result of these troubling experiences, somewhere back around 1989, I received my first “wake up call” to the need for learning and practicing disciplined discernment in the face of such bold claims. By God’s grace, I had at the same time just begun gong to a first-rate spiritual director. 

After I shared with him what had happened, he asked me to immerse myself in St. John of the Cross’ two classic treatises on the spiritual life, The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night (which are really one book in four parts). He said to me, “John offers you a safe path, Tom. If you embrace him he’ll teach you the secure and simple way of faith, hope, charity and the royal way of the cross.” That was a defining moment for me. Over the next several years, he walked me through St. John and taught me how to apply it. 25 years later, John’s vision has come to dominate my approach to matters of faith and discernment. Indeed, my journey into John’s works eventually led me to write a PhD dissertation on the Ascent-Night. As I have said before, I  see my theological vocation to be translating John’s spiritual vision for all walks of life. But I have so far to go! My thinking continues to evolve daily under St. John’s tutelage, and I will, hopefully, remain under his sway the rest of my life.


As a direct response to my bad experience, the first thing my director gave me to read was St. John’s letter to Nicholas Doria, who was at the time to superior of the Discalced Carmelite Friars. The letter draws on the doctrine John articulates in detail in the Ascent-Night regarding how one should discern the origin and meaning of extraordinary spiritual experiences, i.e. visions, locutions, special “prophetic” knowledge and so on. The letter was written after John had, in response to a request from Doria, completed an investigation of a Discalced Carmelite nun claiming to be the recipient of extraordinary spiritual experiences.

For John, the bottom line is that extraordinary experiences in the spiritual life are an inherently ambiguous affair, both in terms of origin (where they come from) and reception (what they mean, what one is to do with them). As Denys Turner memorably words it, for John most mystical phenomena are at best “experiential feedback” from the encounter of the soul with God, and are not God himself. They are like “distant echoes of the Word” that require decoding, and are not worth much fuss. John argues that even when these experiences are genuinely “of God,” answers to how one is to understand them, why they are given, or what one is to do with them once they happen are simply not self-evident. Mystical phenomena are easily distorted, misunderstood, misapplied or misused by credulous recipients who lack proper discretion and judgment; or by those who are still too fragile and immature to resist placing them in the service of their un-redeemed and needy ego. For example, he says in the Night 2.3.2:

This is the stage in which the devil induces many into believing vain visions and false prophecies. He strives to make them presume that God and the saints speak with them, and frequently they believe their fantasy. It is here that the devil customarily fills them with presumption and pride. Drawn by vanity and arrogance, they allow themselves to be seen in exterior acts of apparent holiness, such as raptures and other exhibitions. They become audacious with God and lose holy fear, which is the key to and guardian of all the virtues.

While it is of course true, John says, that God does grant extraordinary graces to his servants, it is also true that the same God commands us to put those gifts to the test — placing them in service to unseeing faith (cf. John 20:29) and subordinating them to the “still more excellent way” of love of neighbor (1 Cor. 12:31).

Diagnosis and Prescription

In the letter, John reviews his investigation and judges the nuns claim to gifts of a supernatural origin to be false. Among the signs of distortion, he highlighted four in his letter.

First, she had mucha golosina de apetito, “a very greedy appetite” for extraordinary experiences, and being attached to such experiences is, for John, an wise open door to deception. Second, she was overly confident in the truth of her interior experiences and was averse to submitting them to the judgment of others. “She has too much confidence,” he said “and too little caution about erring internally, which is not the sign of a good spirit. Everything she says about ‘she said to God and God said to her’ seems nonsense [parece disparate].” Third, she lacked discretion and was overly eager to speak and convince others of the goodness and truth of her extraordinary experiences. She was also eager for more such experiences which is, he says, a very dangerous thing. Finally, she was very resistant to John’s critical inquest into of her claims. Humility, he said, is infallibly the fruit of genuine spiritual experiences that have been rightly received. When the humble “receive great favors” they are always eager to submit to being tested by others, anxious to be exposed, by faith and sound reason, to the light of truth.

At the end of his letter, John recommended to Doria a “test” for this nun. She must not, he said, write about or publicize these experiences any longer or even speak about them with her confessor. Rather, pruébenla en el ejercicio de las virtudes a secas, mayormente en el desprecio, humildad y obediencia, “test her harshly in the exercise of the virtues, particularly in self-contempt, humility and obedience.” “And,” he added, “the tests must be good ones because there is no devil who will not suffer anything for the sake of his honor.” He says of the humility he hopes this test will produce in this nun,

Yet these humble souls, far from desiring to be anyone’s teacher, are ready to take a road different from the one they are following, if told to do so. For they do not believe they could ever be right themselves. They rejoice when others receive praise, and their only sorrow is that they do not serve God as these others do. They have an inclination to seek direction from one who will have less esteem for their spirit and deeds. Such is the characteristic of a pure and simple and true spirit, one very pleasing to God. Since the wise Spirit of God dwells within these humble souls, he moves them to keep these treasures hidden, and to manifest only their faults. God gives this grace to the humble, together with the other virtues, just as he denies it to the proud.

More tomorrow…

13 comments on “Healing put to the test, Part II

  1. Thomas Jordan says:

    Excellent! I also recall an era of departure from dead orthodoxy into live error. I never knew where to return the magic decoder ring, every time I tried I got more spam and fundraising fodder.

    The pitch was pretty much always the same. “Is there a believer, named Sanford McKeever residing at this address? Then give him this letter, the sooner the better, because we are in financial distress!”

    In the Protestant circles I ran in, the”renewal” typically emerged at some geographical location related to petroleum of some sharp financial uptick. I do not miss

    Great Job!

  2. Ona says:

    This is a subject that interests me very much. I would agree with most everything you’ve said, but I also know that I was not much interested in hearing that point of view years ago. To believe without touching or seeing is tremendously challenging!

    We are wired, I think, to respond to intense emotions and sensations as signs of something being important. That’s how we know that we need to pay attention to our shouting boss and we can ignore the meek quiet guy at the other end of the conference table. Big and loud means Really Important. Adrenaline rushes mean Pay Attention!

    I think it takes a lot of guidance, a lot of courage and a lot of maturity, I think, to have faith without touching, feeling, seeing. It certainly seems some people are prone to fall further into that trap of being carried away by exciting phenomena than others, but it seems a universal tendency. It also seems that we cannot hear good teaching until we happen to be ready to hear it. You could have told me good sensible truth all day long some years ago and watched me roll my eyes. More shouting or arm waving wouldn’t have helped, either.

    The totally cool thing is God will wait all day long, for years if necessary, for us to get over ourselves. 🙂

    • Thanks, Ona! I always appreciate your informed and enlightening comments. Yes, you are in many ways right and indeed John in his prologue to the Ascent is very realistic with his prospective audience, and is clear that few “spiritual” people will like his doctrine. He says, “…if any persons find themselves disagreeing with this instruction, it will be due to my ignorance and poor style; for in itself the matter is good and of the first importance. But I think that, even were it written in a more excellent and perfect manner than it is, only the minority would profit by it, for we shall not here set down things that are very moral and pleasing for all spiritual persons who desire to travel toward God by sweet and satisfying ways, but solid and substantial instruction, as well suited to one kind of person as to another, if they desire to reach this detachment of spirit which is here treated.”
      And it is important to note that my main interest here, as was John’s in his evaluation of this publicly influential Carmelite nun, is with those people who claim to be “mystical adepts” and employ those claims to influence others’ lives and assert their authority. Without the safeties in place, such can be very dangerous people!
      Thanks again, Ona, for your balanced voice. Always a joy.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for exploring this issue. This is such a tough, pervasive issue in wider Christianity! (And judging from St. John of the Cross it’s not a new issue). I have been a person who was awed by a “prophetic” message that spoke to me. I have also been a person who has said things that others took to be a prophetic message and they held me up as having a gift. I am guilty of having been swept up by the ooh-ahh of the whole thing and really, like in your message above, I was so eager for the experience and made this into an idol. To my shame, I do not doubt that I harmed others. It certainly damaged my relationship with that group of people. Around that time I read some of St. John of the Cross’ commentary on Dark Night of the Soul in which he was associating seeking for signs etc as a sign of spiritual immaturity. I so IMMATURELY pouted and rejected his wisdom! Thankfully i have been encouraged to read St. John of the Cross again (in part from your writing and referrals to his).

    As for faith-healing, I have seen and heard of too many people who have been really hurt. Blamed for their illness as though it was strictly due to lack of faith. Blamed for horrible things that befell them. People in need were dismissed. The thing is, miraculous healings and resolutions to problems do happen, I am happy for the outcome but I am so wary of these things, i struggle with the balance of not having as much faith as a mustard seed with not putting my hopes in signs and wonders. The thing is I am more often brought to my knees in awe by hearing of “but if not” acts of obedience in horrible situations than of miraculous rescues from fiery furnaces.

    I am working on a unit study on Saint John Paul for my grade 7 and 8 students and I am struck over and over again by that man and his life and his wisdom! I pray that my students will get a sense of the true healing power which is obediently carrying one’s cross. I pray that I will remember too.

    Tomorrow, a group of Irish parents of children who were born with conditions such as Trisomy 13 and 18, anencephaly, microcephaly and other life-limiting things, will be speaking in front of the UN to demand that the UN stops using the term “incompatible with life” when describing children such as theirs as it is discriminatory and is used to justify their abortion or lack of health care. These families are not petitioning for more research to put an end to these genetic and congenital diseases, but simply that these children, made in God’s image, would be valued as such. These families, these children, they are witnesses to God’s glory in such magnificent ways. Pray for them tomorrow! (everychildcounts.ie)

    and if you managed to read through all my rambling thoughts, thanks! blessings to you and your family

    • Wow. Thank you, Jennifer, for all your comments. Insightful. The other day, a seminarian asked me to share my preferred “theological school” and I said, “the cross.” The more I learn, the more I see that everything else is commentary. And your prayer intention is certainly mine now. What a noble group of people those parents are to speak on behalf of God’s little ones. God bless you and your family. Your students are blessed!

  4. Jennifer says:

    oops, that website is everylifecounts.ie, not what I wrote above.

  5. Rosary Maker says:

    I enjoyed the articles very much. I would add, drawing from my personal experience with illness, the article misses in an explicit way the role of loneliness in these Inner Healing Prayers. As I have attempted to take a message of hope and mercy ground in Christ to others, many I encounter have profound sadness and loneliness which can draw someone to a desire for a “feeling” of being heard, a “feeling” of being healed and a “feeling” of belonging. That is why many times as the article says they are willing to “expose your deepest wounds to a stranger or the group at large” – just to be heard by another. Those offering the “healing prayers” are ready to listen, are readily accessible and frequently and actively seek out these persons in need.

    While ideally there should be many who are trained in Catholic spirituality, the reality is that the Church is seeing at least a second generation of Religious Education [from children to adults] which is all class and lecture and very little embracing of faith. The harvest in plenty and the laborers are few. How do we connect those who have this training with those who need someone-with those that need Christ? This remains to be seen on a large scale. At minimum, let’s keep the discussion going.

  6. Anthony says:

    Mi queridísimo amigo Tomás,

    I’ve been following this new series with great interest. Mario’s articles were very good. It’s a delicate balance. I may be misremembering but it makes me think of Chesterton referring to Catholicism as a great boulder like one sees in the desert, with parts jutting out wildly but somehow precariously and precisely balanced — and don’t change it one bit or it will fall!

    As you know, I’m a publicly committed member of a covenant community. I feel very blessed that we have the experience of older communities to guide ours as we grow and figure things out. It sounds like few communities from back in the day haven’t had rough patches and schisms. We work hard to carefully discern things like prophetic words, especially to see how they play out over time, which ones have been confirmed and which ones were for the moment or were just someone’s fancy. It’s a delicate balance. The Holy Spirit is real, He really does speak even today, and dramatic spiritual experiences can happen — although this is not the norm. I’ll paraphrase Fr Riccardo who said recently that one of the most beautiful conversion stories one can hear is simply “I was born, baptized, confirmed, and Jesus Christ is Lord of my life”.

    On a side note I really need to read San Juan de la Cruz. Assuming the language isn’t too archaic, I should be able to read it in the original Spanish! 🙂 I read my three year old some of his poetry the other day and he listened very attentively.

  7. castaway5555 says:

    Thanks for this … it was in the mid-70s, that I gave it a good try with Catholic and Presbyterian Renewal Movements … I had folks praying over me, and with some tapes, I learned to “prime the pump” and taught myself “tongues” to give the Spirit a little assistance. I simply said to the LORD, “If there’s something here, I don’t want to deny it, or miss it.” After some years, I decided there is very little there … a lot of superstition, and a lot of “worked up” stuff, but of substance, not much; surely not anything that can’t be had from St. John of the Cross and the whole of the mystical tradition which was generally well aware of “emotions” out of bounds. American “renewalists” of various sorts have to keep “proving” to themselves that they’re close to God; it’s very sad, and leads to all kinds of distortions. I like what you note from Fr. Ricarrdo – in the simplicity of our life, we find the glory of God finding us.

  8. Chris Thomas says:

    Thanks for sharing, I look forward to reading more. I recently dusted off my own Ascent and began poking around in it. I was looking for a particular passage I had read some 30 odd years before.

    As for his critique of spiritual thrill seeking, are you familiar with the Jesse Penn-Lewis or Watchman Nee on the subject of soul vs. spirit power?

    • I am not — though as they were in the revivalist evangelical tradition I would not be surprised if they were familiar with Jonathan Edwards’ classic “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections,” which addressed the more volatile emotivist aspects of the great awakenings. Monsignor Ronald Knox later would offer a catholic version of Edwards’ critique in his book “Enthusiasm.” Thanks for the comment. I hope you enjoy the dust off, Chris!

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