Editor’s note: We present this past weekend’s homily from Father Alex Roche a day late due to technical difficulties.
In 1554, St. Teresa of Avila began experiencing visions that would continue in some form throughout her life–visions of Christ, her soul, and angels, among other things. Initially and under her spiritual directors’ advice, Teresa cautiously approached these visions. While today we know St. Teresa as one of the great spiritual masters in the history of the Church, during her time, these mystical experiences were viewed with skepticism. They even warranted surveillance and investigation by none other than the Spanish Inquisition.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is tempting to view this as an instance of an unjust bureaucracy attempting to stifle the authentic action of the Holy Spirit, but a more careful analysis is probably necessary. Even in the sixteenth century, for every Teresa of Avila, there were a dozen wild, unreliable, and even dangerous false visionaries. While 99 percent of the time, the simple narrative “St. Teresa good, Inquisition bad” is appropriate, in this case, the Church was simply exercising its duty of cautiously and judiciously approaching claims of mystical visions and prophecies.
The book of Deuteronomy contains the closing remarks of the great prophet Moses, instructing the Israelite community on how to be faithful to God’s commands in his absence. Among these instructions are his recounting of the Lord’s teaching regarding prophets. Moses states that the Lord commands Israel to be faithful to the prophets he raises up. As Christians, we should instinctively be drawn to the importance of prophets in our midst. Throughout the Old Testament, prophets offer a corrective to complacency and infidelity in religious institutions and the general population. Some of Israel’s prophets, like Samuel, exercise some institutional power, while others, like John the Baptist, are outsiders. All of them are inspired by a unique and mystical access to the will of God, and each of them, to a different extent, is asked to preach a message that requires disruption and correction.
While in the Christian tradition all of the baptized are called to carry out a prophetic role, it has often fallen to mystics like St. Teresa of Avila to pronounce a new and different message in the Church. This prophetic, mystical role is central to the life of the Church. When the theologian Karl Rahner said, “the devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all,” he was reminding us of the central role of the outsider who offers us unique access to God’s will. The prophetic and mystical role in the Church, as in Israel, is necessary if we are to avoid the complacency and infidelity that often plague institutions.
On the other hand, Moses warns the people of Israel of the danger of false prophets. The prophet who presumes to speak an oracle that he has not commanded shall die. The Book of Deuteronomy establishes the indispensability of prophets who have a mystical experience of God’s will but does not do so without limits and protections. We are often reminded in the Old Testament of the need for disruptive prophets, but at the heart of the Hebrew scriptures lays the Torah, the book of law. The Israelites needed prophets to protect them from complacency and corruption, but they also required an institution to vet and sift through false prophetic messages.
This is true in the New Testament as well. St. Paul emphasizes mystical charismatic gifts like tongues and prophecy but never allows them to be self-interpreting. Tongues and prophecy are tempered by the gifts of interpretation and administration. In this way, Paul provides a vision of the Church that protects against charismatic false prophets and ecstatic visions that are more delusional than mystical.
We know that Teresa of Avila’s mystical experiences were legitimate because they were initially viewed with skepticism and underwent extensive investigation. Without this investigation, her authentic visions would be lost amid a sea of false or destructive messages. Without external investigation, the believer has no means of determining which mystical experience to trust.
Today, there seems to be a surplus of visions, prophecies, and mystical warnings, each proclaiming themselves indispensable and urgent correctives to complacency and corruption in the institutional Church. While the prominence of great past mystics, like St. Teresa of Avila or even Moses himself, at first glance seems to encourage us to take these divine messages at face value, their example should also remind us to proceed cautiously. Teresa and Moses were great because they were authentic prophets whose accounts of their experiences stood up to harsh scrutiny. What is required of us now, as in most parts of our faith, is a both/and approach. The message of Deuteronomy reminds us to take God’s authentic prophets seriously in their call to push back against the complacency of our institutions but also to recall that those same institutions are tasked with sifting through the sea of false prophets to help us interpret the genuine will of God.
Image: “Santa Teresa de Jesús” by Eduardo Balaca. From Wikimedia Commons.
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.