On Discerning the Difference Between Religious Phenomena from Upgraded Old Catholic “Mystical Experiences” and Truth

Phyllis Beveridge Nissila

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Galatians 1:6-9, NIV).

The video my friend sent me was shocking. I won’t link it here because I don’t want to draw attention to practices I believe are not Biblical, and are, in fact, dangerous to believers. Many are practices, however, rampant in Roman Catholic lore, legend, and literature. And now elsewhere, too.

My friend had been following a ministry that, of late, has taken a sharp turn toward trendy churches that are now espousing some old Roman Catholic mystical practices, re-packaged of course, in the modern quest for a more experiential religion that arguably goes outside the bounds of the Word of God. Specifically, such fellowships are now “into” Catholic mysticism.

How do I know this?

Having been raised as a “cradle Catholic” in the Roman Catholic religious system (at home, church, and school), I have “insider’s” knowledge and experience, from both the pre- and post-Vatican II eras until I became a Christian in November of 1973. And some of what is going on now, as illustrated in the video, is very familiar.

In old Roman Catholicism in particular, there are a lot of outside-the-bounds experiential manifestations in the stories of bygone R.C. “saints” that many of today’s unwary are now seemingly enamored of–and seduced by.

Such experiences are not limited to re-packaged old Roman Catholic saints phenomena, of course. There are plenty of new teachings and belief systems, as well, that are a mix of various and sundry New Age eclectica.*

But since Roman Catholicism is one of the oldest, if not the oldest Christian-offshoot religious system (most scholars cite the official establishment as in the 3rd century with many doctrines and practices added since), I would argue many of today’s out-of-bounds practices and beliefs stem from that church.

As a big part of my initial “coming out” of Roman Catholicism, I engaged in extensive research and investigation concerning just what was taught us in that religious system which  was very different from and added to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. I have shared the results of this investigation along with my personal story in posts listed here and here. Of course innumerable other former Catholics have also provided research and testimonies.

To what concerns me greatly about the video, specifically, as well as the direction of the ministry that produced it, are numerous old-school stories from Roman Catholicism espoused therein that include several levitating saints, one saint being pierced by an angel wielding a flaming spear, and “stigmata” wounds suddenly appearing on hands and side, to name just a few. And, most alarmingly, these examples, along with others, are promoted as evidence of a kind of greater spirituality by those who experienced them.

But where is the real Jesus Christ in all this?

I refer to the same Jesus the Holy Spirit is sent to glorify versus the glorification of people who have experienced all manner of physiological phenomena (aka “canonized saints” in the Roman system who are decidedly different from Biblical “saints“). Or perhaps the glorification applies to secret, or even well-advertised, places seekers pilgrimage to for greater revelation or to, say, sit in a deceased mystic’s chair for perhaps a special “anointing” to name two such experiences touted in the video.

(Here I am reminded of all manner of “sacramentals” in the Roman Catholic system available for purchase via which one might receive special “graces” and “blessings” and/or to “secure [one’s] sanctification”).

But most importantly, where is He, Who said, “I have spoken openly to the world”…”I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret” (John 18:20)?

Here, some might argue, but what about when Jesus took his disciples aside to explain certain parables to them and not to the crowds at large? Note: they were His disciples. Are we? If not, Jesus teaches how to become a disciple to one, Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews.” The encounter is detailed here.

In contrast to the several featured phenomena in the video, Jesus, Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, advertised no special places wherein one might receive secret revelations, no mystical experiences for set-apart mystics, or artifacts such as Bibles continuously oozing oil as some kind of spiritual focal point.

But those who participated in and flocked to such phenomena and others featured in the film are nevertheless quite emotional about them, equating feelings with spirituality, which may be a valid test, but often is not. I would argue in this case, they are not.

So again, where is the real Jesus Christ in all of this?

Where is discernment to know the difference between the “special revelations” of the latest, hip, religious figurehead selling a special message for a special people and the genuine Word of God; to know the difference between the visceral “ecstasies” of certain religious experiences and the sometimes but not always feelings associated with genuine spiritual awareness and growth;  and to know the difference between the words of any old (or modern) god and the unvarnished Word of God?

I think the best I can contribute to the discernment discussion–and discernment is the focal point of awareness–is by re-posting a previous essay on going to that very Word of God for confirmation or condemnation of whatever shines today, for there seems to always be something or someone new (or seeming new) drawing the eye, ear, mind, and spirit away from the true God to some other god.

This post, copied below, is just one example of how to determine “what’s happening in today’s ‘new’ church” that is not only not new but also, in my view, dangerous. See what you think.

The topic is how to “closely read” the Word of God to be able to derive the context of the message so one can know when some new, self-appointed holy man or woman comes along with a seductive new spiritual event or experience based on some scrap of Scripture that does not align with the rest of the Word of God.

And, please, get back in the Word for a serious “Berean” study of whatever new experience or interpretation of an old one you might encounter on your journey closer to, and in, Christ Jesus while also keeping in mind:

11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood,but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people (Ephesians 6:11-18).

Such “new,” deceptive paths of enlightenment and/or experience usually begin with the often sincere Christian citing the following verse from Psalm 46:10 which is incorporated in the title of this May 30, 2012, post, below.

“Be Still and Know that I Am God”: A “Closer Read” of the Contemplatives’ “Poster Verse”

 

THE POSTER VERSE
It has been said that Psalm 46:10, that is to say the first half of it, is the poster verse of contemplative prayer advocates. The portion reads, “Be still, and know that I am God […]” (KJV).

Apparently, by using just this piece of the verse contemplatives have been successful in promoting self-validating presumptions about the entire context of the verse, specifically, the presumption that by “silencing” or “quieting” the mind and awaiting an affirming feeling of some sort one can know God better if not become one with Him in some kind of “mystical state.” [1]

Believers, on the other hand, verify knowledge of God through His Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and we have the help of the Holy Spirit, sent of Jesus, Who said that the Spirit would “guide (us) into all truth, for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will (show us) things to come./He shall glorify (Jesus); for he shall receive of (Jesus’), and shall (show) it unto (us)” (John 16:13-14).

But if Scripture in context is rarely taught anymore in our church; and if we’ve been bowled over by popular new/ancient practices that hype feelings and promise special, experiential knowledge of God; and if we come from a religious system that applies equal parts sacred to Scripture and Tradition, how to discern?

YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT CONTEXT AND ELEPHANTS
There’s a saying that comes to mind when parting out the written word for purposes other than was originally intended: “A text out of context is a pretext.” [2]. Nibbling on a dollop of an idea here, a wedge of an argument there (or half of one verse in a psalm comprised of eleven verses) does not a full-meal-exposition make. Readers are likely to get a bad taste, or the wrong taste of what’s on the plate especially if they don’t take a few minutes to reference the text in its plain meaning.

The relevancy of the old anecdote about several visually impaired people each describing an entire elephant by just one body part also comes to mind. One version goes like this: ”The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.” [3]

Truncating Scriptures (like truncating the elephant) and assigning doctrine to hand-selected bits and parts does not leave something for everyone; rather, it leaves gaps of information and interpretation that are hazardous to intellectual, not to mention spiritual, health.

A “CLOSE READ”
To help our literature and writing students think critically and write analytically my colleagues and I pose a number of questions students must answer in order to accomplish what’s called a “close read” of a text and/or to write an adequate paper. Applying just three of the questions to the half-verse in Psalm 46 that contemplatives stand behind, as well as the Psalm in its entirety, will, I hope, encourage discernment—and discourage presumption. And although most of us don’t think in terms of applying specific questions to what we read, as may be required in the classroom, we do it naturally anyway, on some level.

The mind wants comprehension, as we teach in effective learning classes. It wants to be able to connect new “dots” with at least some “old dots” to maintain or create coherence. It wants to make immediate sense of a “differently shaped” thought, so to speak. That’s why radically new ideas require a complete paradigm (or worldview) shift, which takes time. But if everyone is in a hurry to change, new ideas (or re-cycled old ideas) require some pretty potent payoffs such as, say, a feeling of “ecstatic union” with the most powerful force in the universe, God. And if one is convinced that the first requirement of the new idea or experience is to silence the naturally analytical mind “things” can progress at an alarming rate. Whatever those “things” really are. But, to the essential questions:

THE QUESTIONS
# 1: What does the author hope to accomplish through writing the piece?
David’s motives in writing “Be still, and know that I am God” are found in the second half of the verse, “[…]: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” David’s plain motive is to speak in a prophetic tone of God’s ultimate exaltation over His enemies.

David’s motives are also plain in the Psalm, or song, as a whole which is about God helping His people in hard times. Verse after verse reminds the “chief Musician for sons of the Korah” and reminds us that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (1).

The psalmist also verifies that the God he writes of is the same God of “old,” the God of Jacob (7, 11).

In addition, Psalm 46 is a song, and good lyrics, like good poetry, develop a unifying theme. Any sub-themes present are crafted carefully to expand the primary message. Each verse is a key to the whole, like puzzle pieces make up a picture. In this song, David the lyricist is telling us, by means of plain language as well as metaphor, that we can trust God to help us in even the most trying times.

Nowhere in the context of this Psalm is there any reference to clearing one’s mind by means of chanting or “quieting” until a “mystical union (with God) reaches a degree of “ecstasy” which may lead to “visions” or “miraculous bodily phenomena.” [4]. Miraculous bodily phenomena occur elsewhere in Scripture, two quite spectacular examples being the account of Elijah being “taken up” into heaven (2 Kings, 2:11) and the account of Philip who was “caught away” and seen “no more” immediately after he finished ministering to the man from Ethiopia (Acts 8: 26-39), but a contextual reading of these passages (and other examples) indicates no mind-numbing pre-requisite.

#2: What is the author’s purpose in writing?
To remind his listeners and readers of God’s power, His nearness, and His faithfulness.

#3: What does the author want the reader to do as a result of reading the piece?
The author wants the hearers/readers to remember that we can rely upon God and take refuge in Him because “the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (7). In other words, we don’t have to seek Him by means of extra- and non-biblical means. And because He is already here with us, we can forsake fear though “the earth be moved, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea” (2).

David wants us to “take away” encouragement, confidence, and courage because of the greatness, goodness and Lordship of our God.

OUT OF CONTEXT AND INTO TROUBLE
Nothing in the plain, in-context reading of Psalm 46 suggests supporting an updated version of a centuries-old form of “(Roman Catholic) contemplative meditation to offset the movement of young Catholics toward Eastern meditation techniques.” [5]

Nothing in the plain, in-context reading of Psalm 46 suggests “a belief system that uses ancient mystical practices to induce altered states of consciousness (the silence) and is often wrapped in Christian terminology; the premise of (which) […] is pantheistic (God is all) and panentheistic (God is in all).” [6]

And, nothing in the plain, in-context reading of Psalm 46 suggests an attempt to “return to a more intuitively received knowledge (of God),” or to “move beyond the intellect, beyond doctrine, and beyond words to a deeper union with God (by achieving a) […] mystical union with God through contemplation (wordless ‘prayer’) […].” [7]

In short, the selection of one half of one verse in an entire Psalm in an attempt to validate a spiritual practice that resembles more New Age prayer than the prayer of a new age is to torture the text, at best.

“Spiritual highs” are very seductive, and our main adversary, the “angel of light,” is very opportunistic. I believe contemplative prayer, a.k.a. centering/soaking prayer, is an opportunity Satan is NOT refusing. And it is potent.

Having grown up in Roman Catholicism and during that time having studied, both in school and out, various books on the lives and practices of the Catholic saints I can verify that many very strange and highly unusual manifestations occurred when the ancient monks and nuns “contemplated” in ways now re-emerging in the so-called Emergent Church. And contemporary practitioners “ain’t seen nothin’ yet” (as it were).

But aside from concerns over the bizarre nature of some of the “events,” the most important question is this: do such experiences glorify Jesus, which is the role of the Holy Spirit, Who, contemplatives claim, is the originator of such mystical experiences?

Or is there another entity who wants the glory and attention…if we would only suppress what the mind is designed to do…for just a little while…and wait for “it”…whatever “it” may manifest…

IFs, ANDs, AND BUTs
Contemplatives argue:
But if David danced naked in HIS ecstasy, then why can’t we laugh and swoon and achieve our own ecstasy in unique ways today? (From the contemplatives I’ve talked with, this seems to be a popular comeback.)

And, says another, all those old rituals and dogmas and works systems just don’t get the young people in the doors today. We need something new and fresh and appealing because, like the priest said in reference # 5, young folks are turning to other religions. We’d better get some pew cred or we’ll lose them! Besides, even though this kind of prayer resembles Hindu meditation, everybody’s religion is okay, now, in the postmodern era, no? That’s what the postmoderns claim, anyway. We just want the kids to come back.

And from yet another contemplative, these questions: But can’t God do anything He wants because he’s God? Anyway, doesn’t the Bible advise us to meditate?

ANOTHER LOOK
Compelling arguments. But consider:

Was David really nude?
For a studied look at David’s “nakedness,” which is easy to visualize as David sans apparel of any sort, see reference # 8, below for a good discussion of the related passages. As it turns out, David wasn’t really completely naked, as presumed by contemplatives and used to suggest worship with some kind of wild abandon. He was still, as Scripture notes, “girded with a linen ephod,” that is to say, a common covering that had religious significance, just not the social significance of a king’s garb.

Which is not to say, however, worshippers might not feel joy and happiness as a result of praising God and considering what he has done for us and for Who He is. It’s just not the goal of worship. Feelings may result from praising and worshipping God, and often do, but not necessarily. In addition, there are all kinds of circumstances, and all kinds of physiological and psychological phenomena and manipulative mechanisms that cause emotional responses and many have nothing to do with God.

Is new necessarily better?
To respond to the concern that old systems just don’t work, now, it depends upon the “system.” We can replace worn out musical instruments, outdated technology, old, Word-based lyrics for new, Word-based lyrics if we desire. But not classic Christian prayer that glorifies God and makes our requests known, with “new” forms of prayer that alter consciousness and produce New Age “fruit”. And, of course, the core tenets of Christian doctrine remain. Consider: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever. /Be not carried about with divers and strange doctrines […]” (Hebrews 13:8-9).

Just another circular argument?
And yes, God can do anything He wants because He is God, but He has chosen to remain within the parameters of His own Word. Consider Matthew 4:4, “But he (Jesus) answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” Consider also, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (1 John 5:7). In other words, the Holy Spirit will not lead God’s people off into some practice or experience that is not also “agreed upon” by God the Father, and God the Son, Jesus.

Some might counter that the term “Trinity” is not used in Scripture either, just as the practice of emptying the mind to achieve ecstatic union with God is not explicitly stated. But the evidence of God as Triune is there (see reference #9 for a lengthy but good discussion of this topic).

It is hard for us to understand the concept of the Trinity via human intellectual abilities alone, but God has given verification of the concept throughout the Scriptures and scholars and apologists through the centuries have verified this through a careful exegesis of the text.

Therefore, the absence of the literal word “Trinity” in Bible lexicons does not justify artificially imposing an alien idea such as contemplative prayer on a scrap of Scripture torn from its original context and re-purposed to suggest something contemplatives want it to suggest.

Jesus Himself testified to His own alignment with the law and the prophets in context; He testified to what IS there: “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, (Jesus) expounded unto them (the travelers on Emmaus road) in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24: 27). Jesus never taught contemplative, soaking, or centering prayer as was developed in part by the so-called desert fathers and mothers in the early centuries, A.D., nor did the apostles or the prophets teach it.

As for meditation, Scripture endorses this practice for several purposes, all based on the Word of God: to worship God, to learn of Him, to be encouraged and corrected by Him, and to be transformed into the image of Christ. For a good treatise on biblical meditation, see http://bible.org/article/biblical-meditation.

BACK TO THE BOOK
Neither emptying one’s mind to achieve a nebulous “ecstatic union” with God nor awaiting some sort of spiritual manifestation that produces miraculous bodily phenomena are found in a methodical, appropriate study of, or meditation on, the Scriptures.

And contemplative prayer experiences cannot be justified via a discordant interpretation based on a mere one-half of one verse in an eleven-verse psalm, itself one entry in a book of one-hundred fifty psalms, itself one book in a sixty-six book anthology of writings in multiple genres that have been proven through the centuries to be cohesive in both the literary sense [10] and the spiritual sense [11].

MY PLEA(S)
To contemplatives: please give the partial verse another read in its full context.

To those just now considering this “alternate prayer experience”: step aside and investigate. Thoroughly. And don’t turn back.

Or how I prefer to put it: “Run, screaming!”

~~~~~

[1] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04324b.htm
[2] D.A. Carson
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant
[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_contemplation
[5] http://www.contemplativeprayer.net/
[6] http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/cp.htm
[7] http://www.faithalone.org/journal/1997ii/Caddock.html
[8] http://www.doesgodexist.org/JulAug06/DancingNakedorUnderstandingBadly.html
[9] http://bible.org/article/trinity-triunity-god
[10] http://www.bible.gen.nz/amos/literary/literat.htm
[11] http://www.2pi.info/bible/theoffer/WhatsInTheBible.html
(The references above are just a few of many that can help clarify this issue.)

~~~~~

*Read here for more information on what is happening, and variations thereof, in many of the “new,” “Emergent,” “Seeker Friendly,” type churches. But if you do go to or visit one–or any church for that matter–DON’T FORGET YOUR BIBLE.

POST SCRIPT, 8/17: I almost forgot another “spiritual experience” featured in the video that concerned a purported Catholic saint who allegedly sprouted wings and flew about…

 

This entry was posted in Commentaries, Contemplative/Mysticism, cult and occult, education and teaching, end times spiritual survival, Ex-Roman Catholic/Catholicism, most recent posts, Out of the Fire: On Leaving Roman Catholicism, Postmodern/Emergent Church, spiritual survival, survival tools and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On Discerning the Difference Between Religious Phenomena from Upgraded Old Catholic “Mystical Experiences” and Truth

  1. Colin Markham says:

    Thank you Phyllis. You cover a lot of ground in your article and all of it relevant to what is happening in some of the churches today. ‘Spiritual’ and ‘experiential’ don’t necessarily converge with some of the practices being encouraged, which are more New Age than Christian. It’s all about offering gimmicks to fill the pews and it appeals to many who are hungry for answers to big questions about life, death and the universe. They need look no further than Holy Scripture for enlightenment, not fake Christianity slickly marketed. They need to pray for the Holy Spirit to fill them with knowledge and discernment, not indulge in false holiness by seeking to bury themselves in contemplative prayer. Bible study, prayer and meditation is the way to go. Centering prayer and emptying the mind is all about the self, not Christ. Creating a mental vacuum is the complete negation of a God-given human intellect, reminiscent of pagan eastern spirituality and transcendental meditation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pmb says:

      Thank you, Colin.

      Another few Scriptures I would tuck in there if if were not already a packed post would be the following:

      “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if [it were] possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Matthew 24:24),

      “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1), and

      “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves”(Matthew 7:15).

      Blessings and cheers,
      Phyllis

      Like

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