Mystical Phenomena

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In popular usage, the term mystical phenomena is sometimes used to embrace all those unusual and mysterious phenomena that surpass the known, normal powers of the human soul and imply the operation of some being superior to the soul or of some unfamiliar factor within the human soul. So understood, the subject would belong to the field of parapsychology, which investigates phenomena of this kind in religion and mysticism, spiritualism, occultism, diabolism, psychology, physiology, physics, and chemistry (Omez, 1117).

In Christian spirituality, however, the term is taken in a stricter sense and includes only: (1) those internal and external manifestations that ordinarily proceed from the authentic mystical activity of a soul (concomitant mystical phenomena); and (2) the extraordinary graces, charisms, or miracles that sometimes accompany mystical activity but are not essentially related to mystical operations as such (charismatic mystical phenomena). Concomitant mystical phenomena are called ordinary mystical phenomena and are supernatural quoad substantiam; charismatic mystical phenomena are called extraordinary and are supernatural quoad modum [R. Garrigou-Lagrange, Christian Perfection and Contemplation (St. Louis 1937) 235238].

From the point of view of Christian spirituality an authentic mystical contemplation of the purely natural order is a contradiction in terms, and an intimate experience of God can occur only through grace (J. Maritain, Les Degrés du savoir, 4th French ed., 534). However it would seem that an authentic mystical experience and the concomitant phenomena are possible among non-Christians who possess a high degree of sanctifying grace and sufficient intensity of charity. Moreover, it is possible that certain persons, psychologically so gifted, may enjoy a profound awareness of God that although less intense than authentic mystical experience, is yet beyond the religious experience of the average believer. Into this latter category would fall numerous Buddhist, Hindu, and other non-Christian "mystics" whose experiences are tentatively explained by some parapsychologists as a psi -function of the human soul [Omez, 2026; H. Brémond, Prière et Poesie (Paris 1926); A. Wiesenger, 396].

The present treatment of mystical phenomena is restricted to those manifestations that ordinarily proceed from authentic mystical activity (concomitant mystical phenomena) and those extraordinary psychosomatic manifestations that sometimes occur in authentic mystics (charismatic mystical phenomena).

Concomitant Mystical Phenomena. The concomitant phenomena vary with the degree of intensity of mystical activity and serve as an indication of the soul's progress in the mystical life, although each soul does not necessarily experience all the concomitant phenomena or even all the phenomena proper to a given stage, for mystical activity is the work of God, who can lead souls as He will. Moreover, mystical activity is possible in the life of a person who is not in the mystical state. Theologians commonly agree that mystical activity is essentially an experience of God, more or less intensely felt through the operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit; and since the gifts themselves pertain to the supernatural organism of the spiritual life, whatever proceeds from the activity of the gifts should be classified as concomitant and ordinary phenomena.

The division of concomitant mystical phenomena given by St. Teresa of Avila (cf. Interior Castle, 4th7th Mansions ) has been adopted by most theologians since her time. She lists the mystical phenomena in connection with the various grades of mystical prayer, and the same approach is used by St. John of the Cross and St. Francis de Sales (cf. Treatise on the Love of God ch. 67). [For the mystical activity of the active life, see John of St. Thomas, The Gifts of the Holy Ghost (New York 1951);G. G. Carluccio, The Seven Steps to Spiritual Perfection (Ottawa, Canada 1949); and J. Maritain, Prayer and Intelligence (London 1928).]

The following are the principal and concomitant mystical phenomena, from the beginning to the end of the mystical state: 1. An intuition of God or divine things, as distinct from discursive knowledge, with a profound penetration of divine mysteries. 2. An experimental or quasi-experimental knowledge of God or divine things. This is the essential phenomenon of the mystical life and is usually accompanied by spiritual joy, interior absorption in God, disdain for wordly pleasures, and a desire for greater perfection (cf. Poulain, 2, 56; Arintero, 2, 3). 3. Passive purification of the senses, which presupposes the active purgations of senses and spirit (see purification, spiritual). 4. Continued awareness of the presence of God, accompanied by "sleep" or suspension of the faculties, filial fear of God, love of suffering, divine touches, spiritual sensations, flights of the spirit leading to ecstasy, wounds of love, and interior communications (see St. Teresa, Interior Castle, 5th6th Mansions ; Arintero, 2:4, 7).5. Passive purgation of the spirit (see St. John of the Cross, Dark Night ; Arintero, 2:184204). 6. Total death to self, heroism in the practice of virtue, joy in persecution, zeal for the salvation of souls, and relative confirmation in grace.

Charismatic Mystical Phenomena. Extraordinary mystical phenomena do not occur in the normal development of the spiritual life, but proceed from a supernatural cause distinct from sanctifying grace, the virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Therefore they are classified as charisms (gratiae gratis datae ) and since charisms neither presuppose grace in the soul of the individual nor flow from sanctifying grace, they are no proof of the sanctity of the individual. Some charisms are true miracles; others are supernatural in cause but do not necessarily surpass the powers of created nature and thus are called "epiphenomena" of the mystical life and are "paranormal" in relation to mystical activity (cf. the charisms listed in 1 Cor 12.4, which pertain to the apostolate).

Considered exclusively as paranormal, extraordinary phenomena could be attributed to one of three possible causes: God, occult natural powers, or diabolical influence. Hence the rule established by Pope Benedict XIV in De Beatificatione et Canonizatione Servorum Dei: No phenomenon is to be attributed to a supernatural power until all possible natural or diabolical explanation has been investigated and excluded. The difficulty involved in discerning the cause of paranormal mystical phenomena is that the psychosomatic structure can react to stimuli in a limited number of ways. Sometimes the same psychic or bodily reaction will occur in a seizure of hysteria as in a true mystical ecstasy (e.g., visions, locutions, or revelations). In many instances the most that can be concluded is that a phenomenon could have proceeded from God, from some occult natural power, or from a diabolic influence. In view of the foregoing, the following statements serve as rules of discernment concerning paranormal phenomena: 1. No extraordinary phenomenon may be attributed to a supernatural, i.e., divine, cause as long as a natural or diabolical explanation is possible. 2. The extraordinary phenomenon is not of itself an indication of the sanctity of the individual, for God could grant charisms to a person in mortal sin and even work miracles through such persons. 3. Normally it would be temerarious to petition God for charisms or miracles, since none of these phenomena flow from sanctifying grace, the virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit; and privileges of this kind could in fact be damaging to the spiritual life of an individual. 4. No extraordinary phenomenon is necessary for the attainment of sanctity. 5. The extraordinary phenomena, when they come from God, are generally classified as gratiae gratis datae, and are primarily for the good of the faithful and not for the one who receives them, although accidentally the individual may benefit from them. 6. Because of the impossibility of identifying the cause of some of the extraordinary phenomena, the investigator should consider primarily the effects of the phenomena on the life of the individual who has experienced them. (For the signs of the spirit of God, the diabolic spirit, and the human spirit see Arintero, 2:7; Aumann, 28.)

Is it possible that a person could be subject to the influence of several of these spirits at the same time? Or in other words, could a true mystic be subject to diabolical influence at the same time that he is acting under the impulses of the gift of the Holy Spirit? Or is it possible for a person to be acted upon by a gift of the Holy Spirit (a truly mystical operation) and at the same time suffer from a pathological mental or organic condition? The answer to these questions can best be stated in a series of conclusions: 1. Any deliberately willed phenomenon that involves a defect in any virtue is incompatible with the perfection of charity that constitutes Christian perfection and sanctity. 2. Any phenomenon that flows from the weakness of the individual or from any other cause that is not deliberately willed may coexist with mystical phenomena, so that a genuine mystic may exhibit truly neurotic or psychotic symptoms. 3. It is possible that a true mystic may, with God's permission, be given over to the influence and power of the devil (diabolical obsession).4. Any person, even one in mortal sin, could be the recipient of any of the gratiae gratis datae or be the instrument of God in working a miracle.

Since grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 1.8 ad 2), and since each person is unique, certain individuals will be better or worse disposed for the perfection of virtue by reason of temperament and other characteristics that influence the workings of grace. Because of these predispositions, certain types will be more inclined to manifest paranormal phenomena, charisms, or truly mystical phenomena. Thus, the choleric and the melancholic temperaments are more receptive to ecstasy, trance, visions, raptures, revelations, and locutions (see St. Teresa, Book of Foundations, ch. 7); the sanguine temperament is more disposed to interior touches, caresses, consoling visions, or any phenomenon of the affective order. The history of spirituality shows that women are more prone to illusion than men, and more women among the saints have been remarkable for extraordinary phenomena. Other factors that dispose for extraordinary phenomena are a vivid imagination, uncontrolled emotions, badly regulated mental prayer, exhausting mental labor, and excessive austerities.

Charismatic Phenomena. The following are the principal charismatic phenomena.

Visions. By visions we mean the perception of an object that is naturally invisible to man. Visions can be divided into corporeal (perception by bodily eyes), imaginative (result of a phantasm in the imagination), or intellectual (result of intelligible species impressed on the intellect); (see species, intentional). Corporeal and imaginative visions may be caused by some natural power or by the devil, and therefore such possibilities must be investigated. The intellectual vision could not be caused immediately by the devil, who has no direct access to the human intellect, but it could proceed from a natural or a supernatural cause (see visions).

Locutions. These are interior illuminations by means of words or statements, sometimes accompanied by a vision and seeming to proceed from the object represented. They can be divided into auricular (words heard with the bodily ear), imaginative (words perceived in the imagination), and intellectual (concepts perceived immediately by the intellect). Unlike prophecy, locutions are generally for the consolation or enlightenment of the one who receives them and thus differ from gratiae gratis datae in the strict definition. Auricular or imaginative locutions could proceed from any one of three causes: natural, diabolical, or supernatural; intellectual locutions could proceed from natural or supernatural causes (see locutions).

Revelations. These are manifestations of hidden truths that are not normally accessible to man. Truly mystical revelation is usually accompanied by the gift of prophecy and its interpretation requires the gift of discernment of spirits. Revelations may be absolute (simple statement of a truth or mystery), conditioned (usually a threat or promise based on some condition), or denunciatory (a condemnation or threat of punishment). Private revelations may proceed from a natural, a diabolical, or a supernatural source, and even if the revelation is super-natural in origin, the seer may unwittingly distort its meaning (see revelations, private).

Reading of Hearts. The knowledge of the secret thoughts of others or of their internal state without communication is known as reading of hearts. The certain knowledge of the secret thoughts of others is truly super-natural, since the devil has no access to the spiritual faculties of men and no human being can know the mind of another unless it is in some way communicated. But knowledge of the secrets of another's heart may be conjectured by the devil and transmitted to a person, or they may be surmised by a deluded individual who takes his conjectures to be supernatural illuminations.

Hierognosis. This is the ability to recognize a person or object as holy or blessed and to distinguish what is genuinely so from what is not. A similar phenomenon with regard to holy objects is sometimes found in sinners and therefore the phenomenon is not necessarily super-natural but could also proceed from a diabolical power.

Flames of Love. These are burning sensations in the body without apparent cause. They admit of degrees: simple interior heat (usually a sensation around the heart, which gradually extends to other parts of the body), intense ardors (when the heat becomes unbearable and cold applications must be used), and material burning (when the heat reaches the point of scorching the clothing or blistering the skin, especially around the heart). This phenomenon could be caused by the devil or some pathological condition and therefore is not necessarily to be attributed to a supernatural cause.

Stigmata. These phenomena are the spontaneous appearance of wounds and bleeding that resemble the wounds of Christ. Sometimes the entire body is covered with wounds, as if from a scourging, or the forehead is punctured as if by thorns. These wounds usually appear during ecstasy and the wounds do not become inflamed or infected. Stigmatization could be produced by natural causes (autosuggestion, hypnosis, fraud), by the devil, or by supernatural power (see stigmatization).

Tears of Blood and Bloody Sweat (Hematidrosis). The effusion of blood from the eyes, as in weeping, or from the pores of the skin, as in perspiring, could be caused by the devil or it could be the effect of some physical or psychic pathology.

Exchange of Hearts. The substitution of the heart of the mystic for the symbolic heart of Christ, or the bestowal of a ring to designate the mystical espousal or mystical marriage, could also be effected in an imaginative vision.

Bilocation. This phenomenon is the simultaneous presence of a material body in two distinct places at the same time. It is physically impossible that a physical body can be in two places at the same time by a circumscriptive presence, although this is denied by Leibniz, Suárez (De Eucharistia, 48.5.4), and Bellarmine (De Sacramento Eucharist., 3.3.662). True bilocation with circumscriptive presence could not occur even by a miracle. What is miraculous in this phenomenon is that while the physical body is circumscriptively present in a given place, the same body is present by a sensible representation in a distinct place.

Agility. This is evidenced in the instantaneous movement of a material body from one place to another without passing through the intervening space. The agility could only be apparent if the movement were not instantaneous, but simply faster than the human eye could follow.

Levitation. This is the elevation of the human body above the ground without visible cause and its suspension in the air without natural support. It may also appear in the form of ecstatic flight or ecstatic walk. True levitation cannot as yet be naturally explained. Apparent levitation has been witnessed at spiritualistic séances and in certain cases of psychosomatic pathology (see Thurston).

Compenetration of Bodies. This occurs when one material body appears to pass through another material body. It is generally held to be philosophically impossible although much remains to be learned concerning the quantity, weight, and distribution of parts in a body. In the apparent compenetration of bodies, one of the bodies could be an immaterial representation of a body; or it is possible that a body might enjoy the anticipated quality of subtlety that is characteristic of a glorified body.

Bodily Incombustibility. This is the ability of bodies to withstand the natural laws of combustibility. It may be due to some occult natural cause or to the devil. If mystical, it could be interpreted as a testimony of the holiness of the individual or, in cases of a test by fire, of the truth of doctrine.

Bodily Elongation or Shrinking. Sudden reduction or increase in size of the body may occur for no apparent reason. This is said to have occurred in spiritualistic séances (see Thurston, 192208) and could also be caused by occult natural powers or by the intervention of the devil. It is not generally accepted as a mystical phenomenon because of its morbidity and apparent lack of purpose.

Inedia. This is an absolute and total abstinence from all nourishment beyond the limits of nature. Some investigators are not convinced that inedia is necessarily miraculous.

Mystical Aureoles and Illuminations. Resplendent light may emanate from the body of an individual, especially during ecstasy or contemplation. It is considered an anticipation of the radiant splendor of a glorified body. Illumination and phosphorescence have been verified of certain plants and animals.

Sweet Odors. These have been noted as emanating from the living or dead body of a person. They are classified as miraculous by Benedict XIV, although the phenomenon could be caused by the devil or by autosuggestion. If it is a true mystical phenomenon, it is interpreted as the sign of the sweet odor of glory and a testimony to the holiness of an individual.

Blood Prodigies, Bodily Incorruptibility, and Absence of Rigor Mortis. These phenomena are well attested in the lives of the saints. Many cases could possibly have a natural explanation or be caused by diabolical power. Some are accepted as true mystical phenomena and testimonies from God concerning the holiness of an individual; others seem to be purely morbid and serve no spiritual purpose.

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[j. aumann]