To continue from Part 1, it’s simplistic to say that all forms of mysticism are identical.
They may seem the same to some. But, by way of analogy, people with a tin ear can’t tell the difference between the Beatles and the Bee Gees. In practically every field of human activity we find experts and novices. Experts usually discern differences, great and small, in their subject matter while novices tend to miss them. Why would mysticism be any different?
Rev. Sidney Spencer says,
Before we can fruitfully generalize, we must know something of the different forms which mysticism has assumed through the ages.¹
Having said this, the following is not a comparative study. Readers looking for a good comparative analysis should take a look at Spencer’s book, Mysticism in World Religion (1963).
One could spend a lifetime researching and writing about comparative religion, something I don’t feel called to do. So this post will be limited to a select few Catholic saints and laypersons deemed to have lead holy lives.
Science and Mysticism
Contemporary researchers and skeptics often try to scientifically test the claims of mystics. But choosing a scientific methodology appropriate to mysticism isn’t easy. Science, itself, takes several forms and is variously defined.
Many theologians, for instance, believe that theology is the Queen of all Sciences – a “master science” – because its truth claims originate from God.
Clinical psychologists, on the other hand, tend to emphasize controlled experimental models that involve hypothesized cause and effect, correlation and statistically based predictions.
And, as noted, some philosophers and postmoderns spend untold hours questioning just what science is. Some, like Michel Foucault, tend to see science as nothing more than a modern myth, a discourse created and perpetuated by power.
From this, it seems the best approach for putting interior perception to the test would to combine several models—psychological, medical, sociological, philosophical and theological. Some attempts have been made to move things in this direction, most notably the work of C. G. Jung. But nothing has really become mainstream. Not yet, anyhow.²
The Saints Speak
My article Krishna, Buddha and Christ: The Same or Different? touches on the idea of universal salvation. Universal salvation suggests that hell isn’t eternal or, in some instances, that hell doesn’t exist.
Believers in universal salvation generally say that even cruel, perverse tyrants immediately (or eventually) enter into heaven along with those decent folk who’ve lead good lives.
This can be an intellectually attractive idea. After all, who really likes to think of souls suffering an eternal hellfire?
But after reading the diaries of Catholic saints and holy persons like St. Faustina Kowalska, St. Teresa of Avila, Sister Josefa Menéndez and the Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, among others, one might become skeptical of universal salvation.
These mystics relate their interior visions, which apparently reveal the state of souls on Earth and of souls in the afterlife. Some souls on Earth are inwardly seen as holy and deserving of heaven. But others are trapped within the snares of the devil and doomed to hell unless they repent and change for the better. These mystics also speak of souls residing somewhere between these two extremes. So-called “lukewarm” souls commit various venial sins, such as gossiping or indulging in dishonorable desires. And after death they will undergo purgatorial purification, which itself is no party but, at least, temporary.
These saintly, mystical perceptions are not always oriented towards others. St. Teresa of Avila, for instance, had a vision of a nasty spot in hell where she, herself, would apparently end up in if she didn’t change her ways. Teresa was very frank about her personal battle with evil. In her autobiography she recounts an incident where “my good angel prevailed over my evil one.”3
Josepha Menéndez had regular visions of the horrors of hell, visions which could only be described as disturbing.4
Anne Catherine Emmerich had interior perceptions of ordinary people who were saints, strategically placed by God near centers of great sin and corruption. According to Emmerich these unrecognized saints suffered dearly for others around them, calling to mind the two related ideas of intercession and the taking of sin.
Modern Catholics have picked up on this with the notion of “victim souls.” However, it seems that some fanatics use this as a crutch to make themselves look better than they really are, or as a kind of denial of their own shortcomings. It’s far more attractive for some to blame personal suffering on other people’s sins than to ask themselves what they are doing wrong.
The Polish Saint Faustina Kowalska, currently favored in Catholic circles, claimed to inwardly perceive and intercede for others in spiritual distress. She often suffered and prayed for, she writes, for other people located at a significant physical distance.
Critics of mystical diaries like Kowalska’s contend that Catholic copyists or editors probably added and deleted passages to conform to their Church’s teachings about the eternity of hell. The grand ideological scheme of the Church, critics say, would encourage clerics to meddle with autobiographical texts. In their minds this would be a justified means to an end—a “necessary sin.”
This, of course, is possible but seems doubtful, especially with the more recent saints like St. Kowalska.
The original handwritten pages of St. Kowalska’s diary are available for public scrutiny and not all that she writes about clerics and her religious sisters in the typed and published Divine Mercy Diary is complimentary by any stretch of the imagination. Faustina tells how her religious superiors regularly checked her bedsheets to make sure, so she implies, she wasn’t masturbating or having wet dreams. And she does this humorously, making her sisters conform to the old stereotype of the repressed and suspicious nun. She also tells of impure priests who aren’t worthy to hear a full, uncensored confession.
If covert editing was condoned to put a nice gloss on the Church and its often challenged teachings, why wouldn’t the alleged backroom editors have removed this unflattering material from St. Kowalska’s Diary?
Other critics rightly note that the religious diaries of saints would have been read by a Superior and ultimately by the Catholic hierarchy. The saints, so their argument goes, had to appease the known and imagined biases of their religious superiors, so wrote accordingly.
A good example of this might be found in the medieval saints’ intense disdain for women:
If God loves men and women equally, the critics contend, why would a leading mystic like St. Teresa of Avila – who apparently saw through the veil separating heaven from mere worldly appearances and social conventions – write about her female inferiority?
It is enough that I am a woman to make my sails droop: how much more, then, when I am a woman, and a wicked one?5
Did Teresa really believe in gender inequality or was she just conforming to the prevailing chauvinism of her times?
The idea that saints tailor their writings to please Catholic authorities could also apply to those passages describing the nature of heaven and hell.
Proponents of this view maintain that the medieval saints knew full well they would be risking a fiery death at the stake if they contradicted the Church’s teachings, enforced by the Holy Inquisition.
In a nutshell, some believe that saintly discourse was not just spiritually but also politically motivated. And who knows. In some instances they may be right.
¹ Sidney Spencer, Mysticism in World Religion (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963: Preface)
² In Intuition and Insight: Toward a Practical Theory of Knowledge I made a rough attempt to develop a working method to assess truth claims derived from interior perception, and to understand some of the factors that could contribute to error. This was an ambitious and daunting task, and the piece is currently in revision.
3 Follow this link » The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus and search for the relevant quotation.
5 Follow this link » The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus and search for the relevant quotation.
Part 1 – One or Many? | Part 3 – coming soon…