Apparitions, Visions, Revelations
Date: July 21, 2005 , Originally published November 10, 2001
Author: Dr. fra Ivan Dugandzic, OFM
Category: Theology reports , Priests of Medjugorje
Content of the article
Natural, Parapsychological and Supernatural Manifestations
Starting from the simple fact that for God our human boundaries between the natural, parapsychological and supernatural realms do not present any kind of barrier whatsoever, and that God is acting in every good deed done by man, K. Rahner warns that the formulation "this vision originates from God" is, in fact, in itself quite indefinite and open to many meanings. Since from the viewpoint of his salvation, man can discover God's grace and inspiration for his personal salvation also in an event that can be explained in a completely natural way, "some 'vision that is able to be interpreted in a natural way,' in so far as it remains within the boundaries of Christian faith and morals, and in so far as it does not harm the mental health of the visionary, but uplifts him morally and religiously, could then be accepted as 'done by God' and as a grace, although that vision has its direct, natural foundation in psychical mechanisms . . ."
From the theological viewpoint, there is no obstacle whatsoever for God to use the completely natural possibilities of human nature for the realization of extraordinary goals with regard to human salvation. It is difficult, actually it is impossible, to answer the question, why would God always have to make use of some extraordinary means for that which he can achieve through ordinary human capabilities and possibilities. The German philosopher, Robert Spämann, criticizes the approach of modern experimental sciences to spiritual reality because of their "homogenisation of experience," i.e. due to the attempt to classify all experiences into some kind of preconceived experimental framework. Others speak of reductionism when thinking of the same manifestations, especially in modern psychology. They use the term "psychologism" by means of which "the spiritual is reduced to the mental and that again reduces to the mechanics or hydraulics of some kind of fictional 'psychical apparatus' which is later on then adopted as real. . . The very overcoming of psychologism will enable an unobstructed observation and evaluation of the spiritual in man, and, in particular, of the religious in its sovereignty."
In opposition to the tendency to immediately assign all parapsychological manifestations to the negative realm, K. Rahner wonders why the parapsychological natural capacities of telepathy, clairvoyance, psychometry etc. in some religious person could not be directed in the same way as 'normal' capacities to objects of religious nature, and thus be an impetus for religiously relevant acts, and why would such acts not be allowed to be evaluated as 'done by God,' as 'grace?'
All these are important premises in order to be able correctly to evaluate also that vision, in the particular sense, that has its origin in a special divine intervention. That kind of vision, that is regularly accompanied by some special sign which is recognizable to all, is not, accordingly, the only whatsoever authentic vision. In light of that, a question indeed presents itself, "Why would not the ecclesiastical recognition of some vision make sense, even when it is limited only to the assertion that such a vision according to its content and its impact on the visionary and others, is only positive and, in that sense, that it "originates from God" or when it is a legitimate echo of the real mystical experience of the visionary which corresponds to the norms of faith and reason, without necessitating that the Church in both cases must presume the actual, miraculous intervention of God?"
According to that, even if in some vision there is no miraculous sign that clearly surpasses natural laws and the ordinary courses of events, but can in everything be interpreted as a natural and parapsychological manifestation, there is still not here that kind of theological reason to deny to such a vision all possibility of originating from God. As a matter of fact, the greatest mistake is made when everything as a whole without any distinctions is characterized too hastily as possible or impossible, as done by God or as the devil's delusion or a human illusion. For this reason, many theologians with Rahner in the lead ask for a particular "leniency" toward visionary experiences, and they are of the opinion that they can be accepted as inspired by God, even then when we cannot accept every detail in them. On the other hand, one should bear in mind that, even then when their authenticity is in some way already recognized by the church (particularly on the grounds of external criteria about which more will be said later), it does not mean thereby that every particular in the content is correct and that we must agree with it. There are cases when obviously individual errors were proven in the visions and prophecies of the saints. Johannes Torello lists three types of these manifestations and their causes:
1) the possibility that a real revelation should be misunderstood wrongly because of insufficient clarity. St. Joan of Arc in the dungeon heard a voice that, "A savoir will help" her and that, "through great victories she will obtain freedom," which she interpreted as her liberation from the dungeon which never happened.
2) It may happen that the receiver of a revelation does not notice some important condition, and he understands the message absolutely. St. Vincent Ferrer, on the basis of a certain revelations of his, prophesied the end of the world for the last 21 years of his life, and even performed miracles in confirmation of that prophecy.
3) One must not try to compare visions of historical events with the course of history in minute detail, because these kind of revelations aim only at the global and the essential. Different mystics disagreed about the number of nails with which Jesus was nailed to the cross, and they claimed equally to have seen it (St. Gertrude, St. Bridget, St Catherine of Sienna).
Even in an authentic vision, errors may occur in regard to the image and the message some person transmits. It is possible that visionaries unconsciously and accidentally connect their opinions, the desires, the suggestions of others, the hopes or fears of their environment, with the actual message. All of that can be conditioned by the circumstances of the environment, the times, the theological knowledge of the visionaries as well as by their temperament, which is particularly reflected on the manner of their transmitting the message received. . . K. Rahner mentions the piece of information that little Francisco in Fatima did not always hear everything that the Blessed Mother spoke to the visionaries, but he only saw the motion of her lips and it is not considered an argument against, but on the contrary, a good sign of the authenticity of the little visionaries.
Maybe it will not hurt to draw a parallel with the New Testament reports about the apparitions of the Risen Lord. The vision the women had at Jesus' grave Mark describes as "a young man. . . dressed in a white robe" (Mk 16:5). Matthew as "the angel of the Lord" (Matt 28:2), and Luke speaks of "two men in dazzling garments" (Luke 24:4). John is the closest to him when he mentions "two angels in white garments" (John 20:12). Biblical science has discovered in these places different theological intentions of the evangelists and the different traditions they used, but we wonder, has everything been said by that? Why do the witnesses of the Risen Lord not recognize Jesus immediately in him? Why is he "appearing in different forms" (Mark 16:12), once as a fellow traveller whom they cannot recognize because "their eyes were restrained" (Lk 24:16), another time as "spirit" (Luke 24:37) or again as "a gardener" (John 20:15)? The disciples see Jesus regularly, but they do not know that it is Jesus (John 21:4), until he begins to speak. And then, as soon as they recognize him, he disappears before their eyes. Accordingly, also even here on the basis of Revelation itself, it is not an exact seeing that is the most important thing, but the message and faith. The Risen One lets himself be experienced, but it is obvious that he nowhere gives himself completely up to man. All this tells us that apparitions and visions are generally a very complex manifestation, really difficult to describe, in which it is difficult to draw the line between the objective happening and the subjective experiencing of the visionaries. God, even when he reveals himself to men in the clearest manner, remains inexpressible - inefabilis. That is why, when there is a question of any kind of revelation, enough questions and ambiguity always remain. It cannot be otherwise, because the role of faith can never be replaced by any kind of knowledge. Faith played the decisive role in the miracles performed by Jesus, in the recognition of the Risen Lord, and also in the proclamation of the message of resurrection. It also played that kind of role in later visions and revelations. Naturally, one should guard against extremism and take care that we do not understand this meaning of faith in the sense that it was known to be used to reproach Christianity, "A miracle is the dearest child of faith!" Accordingly, it is not a faith that invents miracles, but it is faith as unconditional readiness to recognize and to accept the supernatural activity of God. Of course, it should be complimented also by the definite, objective signs, which that manifestation offers, and which fall under the criteria for discernment.