Pope Benedict on Mystical Experiences
Right now in his weekly catecheses, Pope Benedict is giving a series of meditations on female saints from the Middle Ages. Many of them are mystics, and in the first meditation—on St. Hildegard of Bingen—he offers his thoughts on some of the marks of a genuine mystic.
During the years when she was superior of the Monastery of St Disibodenberg, Hildegard began to dictate the mystical visions that she had been receiving for some time to the monk Volmar, her spiritual director, and to Richardis di Strade, her secretary, a sister of whom she was very fond. As always happens in the life of true mystics, Hildegard too wanted to put herself under the authority of wise people to discern the origin of her visions, fearing that they were the product of illusions and did not come from God.
I think it would be a mistake, here, to assume that the Pope is saying that all genuine mystics must have the kind of fears that St. Hildegard did regarding the authenticity of her visions. One can easily imagine a child visionary, for example, being utterly convinced of the divine origin of his or her experiences. But with the reflectivity of adulthood, a visionary should be willing to acknowledge the possibility that their experiences might be the product of the imagination or otherwise not come from God. The key thing, though, was St. Hildegard’s willingness to submit the phenomena she experienced to evaluation by others—something that indeed should be the response of a true visionary, for Scripture tells us:
Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good [1 Th. 5:19-21].
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world [1 Jn. 4:1].
Pope Benedict continues:
She thus turned to a person who was most highly esteemed in the Church in those times: St Bernard of Clairvaux, of whom I have already spoken in several Catecheses. He calmed and encouraged Hildegard. However, in 1147 she received a further, very important approval. Pope Eugene iii, who was presiding at a Synod in Trier, read a text dictated by Hildegard presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz. The Pope authorized the mystic to write down her visions and to speak in public. From that moment Hildegard’s spiritual prestige continued to grow so that her contemporaries called her the “Teutonic prophetess”. This, dear friends, is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority. Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church and the Church, through her Pastors, recognizes its authenticity.
Given that, right now, there is a commission appointed by the Holy See evaluating the mystical phenomena reported at Medjugorje, it is hard not to review the Medjugorje situation in terms of what Pope Benedict says about St. Hildegard—particularly with the noted controversy between the visionary community and the local bishops.
While we will have to wait and see what the commission determines regarding that situation, Pope Benedict’s remarks on St. Hildegard provide a window into the kind of thinking that the commission is likely to apply.
What do you think?