By Charlie Johnston
“I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it;
And even yet you are not ready.” – 1 Cor 3:2
When I was a young fellow, it was very striking to me that different preachers and different people in my little fundamentalist denomination would routinely claim that the Holy Spirit told them things that were directly contradictory to what the Holy Spirit was “telling” others in the same denomination. I thought, wryly, that either people were deceiving themselves or the Holy Spirit was the author of confusion. As a very small boy, I remember adults I knew saying the most peculiar things and claiming it was God Who said it. One was that the addition of zip codes to mailing addresses (yes, I am old enough that I was there when that system was first instituted) was the “mark of the beast.” Another was that God would not allow man to land on the moon. There was a whole host of such things I heard every week. When such supposedly divinely revealed claims turned out to be specious alarmism or flatly wrong, I asked about what the adults had to say only a few times. (People do not like admitting they are wrong – and it can be dangerous for a child to ask about it.) I learned to shut up, but it sure did not inspire confidence in their version or understanding of God.
It did not disturb me too much. I had my own direct experience of God to reassure me. But when I was seven or eight, I came to realize how peculiar my direct experiences were. I could not see how, ultimately, they were any different in terms of reliability (just more internally consistent) than the conflicting claims of so many of the adults I knew. In fact, they weren’t significantly more reliable than the delusions of a crazy person, except for their consistency and good effect on me. That was when I told my angel that while I would continue the training exercises, I would not act unless and until there was an authority on earth to which I could consent with my whole heart. As I have recounted several times before, my angel was delighted, not angry, with my determination. Though I could not have formulated it clearly at the time, I knew very well that to base my faith on interior feelings or even perceived external visitations was to found it on sand. If even the early things I was shown were true, we were going to need a much more reliable foundation than sand. I was far more interested in getting it right than having whatever transient notion entered my head being proved right. And I already knew that a stubborn determination to stick with whatever notion one already had, regardless of evidence, was a formula for disaster. If what I was called to was real, people would need – and deserve – a lot better than a willful man who would not even consider whether or not he was wrong on a particular.
In the late summer and then fall of 1990 I found my authority on earth, the Catholic Church. Though my conversion was sparked by my first reading of St. Augutine’s “Confessions” that summer, I had been so often disappointed that I started with the intention to find the catch, the flaw that would help me dismiss the Catholic Church along with all the other denominations I had left on my personal ash heap.
That a system is internally coherent does not make it true; but if not internally coherent, it can’t be true. While I certainly heard some contradictions and errors come from the mouths of a few Priests and Deacons early on, I was not interested in the occasional errors of those who were transient guardians of the faith. I wanted to see what the faith had to say about itself in its internal documents. As I always do when examining something important, I plunged into study. In my first month and a half of RCIA, I read voraciously – at least 20 books from among the Fathers, all the Documents of Vatican II, various Encyclicals, and others, determined to find the insurmountable sticking point. A spark of hope erupted in me as, though occasionally an authority would speak something errant, when I examined the Church’s formal teaching, it all held. One might think I became insufferable, eagerly correcting every error that came up. No, I had such dawning joy that I was overwhelmingly eager for others to have the same. I did not summarily correct error when I heard it; but would engage in wonderful exchanges where we would flesh out what was authentic and what was not. It was so easy and respectful, that beginning in my first year of teaching RCIA, our Pastor would sometimes pass a question off to me, saying it was more in my line of knowledge. All those involved were a true team, working with and relying on each other. In some ways, it was a forerunner of what the community at this website has become. Finally, after all those years as a spiritual orphan, I was home.
After I was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 1991, my visions and visitations stopped cold. Even my normally powerful ordinary intuition became defective. I thought that, perhaps, now that I had received the pearl of great price, it would be gone for good. After some thought, I concluded that if that was the case, it was still a good bargain, indeed, for now I had a rock I could count on. Nine months later it all returned more intensely than ever. I have since thought God was proving to me that I valued substance more than sizzle.
In truth, it was more than a little relief to me when I was, figuratively, struck blind. I get testy sometimes when people speak gushingly and longingly wishing for such experiences, as they have no clue of the reality of what they seek. I am certainly conscious of the honor, the satisfaction that comes with it. The things revealed are useful, but ever so enigmatic to be uncertain. The simplest things are often the most easily misconstrued so, if you are serious, you are always walking on treacherous ground. Even more, when you do get some semblance of understanding, it does not make you special; it imposes on you heavy obligations. You must make certain sacrifices it is improper to speak freely of – and you must set your mind resolutely to the oar of getting it right and living it as well as you can. You do all of this knowing you are doomed to failure because it is so far beyond you, but obligated to give it your best, most refined effort. Over time, you come to know both how incompetent you are AND how magnanimous God is – that if you devote yourself entirely to a project way too big for you in service to Him and His people, He will help steer you from error and, in fact, make use of your errors to accomplish His will. Two episodes with my son might help to illuminate the reality of it.
In December of 2002 my son was watching TV while I sat on the couch beside him reading a book. I can be an inveterate mutterer when I am distracted – but when my son revealed how closely he listened to my mutterings, I disciplined myself against it. On a news segment, there was speculation that the US was about to invade Iraq. Suddenly, my son was inflamed, jumped up and demanded of me, “What, are all current events just reruns to you?” I had not a clue what he was talking about – and asked him what this was all about. He told me that when they said an invasion was likely the next week, I had muttered, “No, that doesn’t come until March.” I had no idea I had said anything at all – and I had no conscious knowledge of when the invasion would begin. Again, he demanded to know if current events were just reruns to me. I thought for a while and told him, no, it’s not like that at all. It is more like brief previews. The information you get is accurate, but is so truncated that you easily mislead yourself by filling in the holes wrongly. Imagine trying to precisely, fully and accurately lay out the plot line of a two-hour movie from only a 30-second preview. It is impossible, yet that is analogous to what I have to work with.
In 2010, my son confided to me that he had been praying that he might get some touch of my experiences. To his astonishment, I was utterly horrified and earnestly (almost tearfully) begged him not to do that. The very idea created such horror in me that I could not hide how viscerally I opposed it. He promised to forswear any such prayers in the future, but was visibly shaken by how violently I remonstrated with him over it. After a few days, I spoke with him more calmly. I told him I did not want him to think I regret my situation – that in fact I deeply cherished the honor inherent in it. But, I said, it is kind of like the honor of throwing yourself on a hand grenade to save your friends. You do it in the profound hope that none you love will ever have to do the same. I noted that I have had a gloriously joyful life, but the price of dealing with the extraordinary so continuously was that I have not had a normal life. I cherish normality. I often prayed that he would have a completely ordinary life marked by extraordinary love and fellowship with those around him – and lived vicariously (though unobtrusively) through sharing in that with him.
There are, of course, some real ecstatic joys to be had through such communion. The price, though, is resolute fortitude in navigating what are ever murky, tumultuous waters, engulfed by ever treacherous reefs. The only motivation that is strong enough to sustain such a purpose is love of your fellows. Ambition won’t do it, nor vanity. For the former, the price is too high and consistent; for the latter, vanity will crush any possibility of success. You have to treat honors and attacks as two sides of the same coin. Both will come as a result of your work…and if either seriously distorts your focus, you are lost. But I had seen a world gone mad with people perishing in unprecedented numbers – and I had promised if it were true, I would persist to the end to hearten God’s people and help them weather the great Storm. I drop the ball on little things with way too much regularity, but on the big things I am as stubborn as a bulldog with a rag: you won’t pull it from my jaws. What could be bigger than a solemn promise to God?
In the Church there is safety – and far more certainty than in mystical events. Here was solid rock I could walk with safety on with the confidence that Christ, Himself, had given binding authority to her. Here was the means of salvation. A particular mission, no matter how weighty, may accomplish good things for the Lord’s people, but that is not where the missionary’s salvation lies. It lies in Christ and is defined by how you live your ordinary relationships and obligations to His people, your fellows. If I had to choose between the Church without visitations or visitations without the Church, I would choose the Church without hesitation. I know, because I did so choose in the spring of 1991, even if ultimately it pleased the Lord that I should have both. I would so choose because the Church is the road to salvation – while obsession with mystical experiences can easily become the road to madness and ruin.
Given these sensibilities, I have been startled in the last few weeks to discover how many here have founded their faith on the shifting sands of apparitions and private revelation. I suppose I should have expected it, given that this site is informed somewhat by private revelation. Yet the Church, supported by Scripture and the Magisterium are the purveyors of the bread that nourishes us. All private revelation, no matter how lustrous and pure, is merely the seasoning that makes a particular serving of bread savory and vivid to our spiritual taste buds. If we have bread but no seasoning, we are still nourished. If we have seasoning but no bread, we perish.
Doctrine is not founded upon private revelation. The potential authenticity of any private revelation is based, in part, on whether it comports with formal Church teaching. That is how Christ, Himself, set it up. If it contradicts Church teaching, it cannot be true. An addiction to mystical experiences, unbound to the Church, is more deadly to the soul than an addiction to heroin is to the body.
In speaking of the Church’s teaching authority, I do not mean the random comments of those who transiently occupy the teaching offices of the Church and are appointed guardians of the faith. There has never been an age where there were not some Judases among the shepherds. In some ages, the Judases have seemed to outnumber the shepherds, and so the Church would be rocked by controversy and scandal. In those times, God has raised up great reformers – such as St. Francis and, even, on a corporate scale, the monastery movement. Never has this happened in order to overthrow the hierarchy, the legitimate authority over the Church. Rather, it has always been to recall the hierarchy to its proper function as guardian of the faith, rather than corrupter or author. On more than a few occasions, reform has required that a corrupt generation of leaders pass away before it is accomplished. The people who hold office are corruptible: Scripture and the Magisterium are not.
When contemplating any article of faith, my first question is, what does the Church teach about it. After ascertaining that, I may move on to how private revelation may help illuminate and inform the teaching involved. But interest in private revelation is always subordinate to what the Church teaches. That is a path that can be counted on, even when individuals can’t be.
I always read 10-20 pages from eight books from different categories each day. Religion is one of the permanent categories. (to forestall questions, the other categories are World History, American History, Russian History, Biography, Literature, a Random Category, and various popular novels – in each of the first three categories, occasional solid historical fiction or cultural studies are acceptable). The first time I read any private revelation was in 1993, about Fatima. I had never heard of it (I am not a cradle Catholic), and my angel had directed me to study it, because it was critical for these times. My spiritual directors were pleased I did not have a taste for private revelation – and forbade me from reading any for many years. It has been, maybe, a decade and a half since that ban was lifted, but my preference remains Church history, theology and such. I read 10 books of hard history and doctrine for every soft book of private revelation. Right now, I am reading a marvelous tome, “A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament” that a friend gave me as a gift.
Over the last decade and a half, I have found many apparitions to be edifying and helpful. Fatima is key to me. I also have great regard for Lourdes, Tepeyac Hill (commonly called Guadalupe), OL of America, Kibejo, Akita, Medjugorje. I have respect for Garabandal, though I have been wondering of late whether its fruit is being drowned out by advocates who think it has given them a simple, obvious roadmap of God’s plan – an abuse and distortion of the meaning and very purpose of private revelation. I have much respect for the work of Maria Esperanza. Even so, all of these are ornamental, designed to draw attention to a particular feature of the existing house, never foundational.
Private revelation can deeply enrich our understanding of the revealed truth in Christ, when considered in its proper perspective. I spoke with Beckita about what has caused so many to think the doctrine of our faith is founded on a random series of private revelations. I frankly thought it was primarily because so many so love a spectacle. She corrected me by noting that the hierarchy is so nervous about any private revelation, including those fully approved, that it does not show the clergy how to teach about such things. Since the clergy will not – or rarely – discusses it, people are going out untaught on the proper approach. This made complete sense to me. I blame the hierarchy, in part, for the modern fascination with “New Age” fantasies (none of which is new – it is all very old pantheism and paganism, decisively refuted a millennium ago. It is all a function of modern ignorance, not insight). When the hierarchy and the normal clergy insist on giving the bland food of “feel good” homilies that don’t touch on the foundations of faith or the trials that ordinary people routinely face, it deprives the faithful of meat. If they can’t get the meat of truth at official functions, they will go looking for where they can – and this will lead them to some rancid places. At bottom, the refusal to even discuss private revelation and the preponderance of meaningless “feel-good” homilies hint at a terribly grave problem. I sometimes wonder how many of our clergy and officials do not believe in God at all. Some have come to think the Church is merely a man-made construct that offers them a path to power, prestige and influence. That would explain why so many high officials think they can blithely correct the “errors” of Christ, the Apostles, and the Fathers of the Church; to force doctrine to conform to their idle fantasies rather than to conform themselves to the Living God.
If I was startled to realize how many people ground their faith in private revelation, I was shocked to see a few who call themselves Catholic candidly reject formal Church teaching when it is in contradiction to their own settled, but unformed, personal ideas about how things are. Such a one has no right to complain of the assaults of heterodox officials, for he embraces heterodoxy, himself, when it suits his fancy.
I have said that all faithful Christians and Jews are full partners in the work before us – and so we are. Our Protestant brethren are not subject to the teachings of the Magisterium. I respect their conscience – and the brave work so many do – even when I disagree with them. But one who calls himself a Catholic while rejecting Magisterial teaching when it suits him is not a Catholic at all. He may enjoy the trappings of Catholic worship, but if he denies the teaching authority of the Church, he is a Protestant of a different color, however much he may protest that designation. It is perfectly fine to look to approved (or at least un-condemned) private revelation for insight on how to deal with the challenges of our time in history, but the first thing you must ask is, “what does the Church teach?” If you can quote a dozen sayings from apparition sites on a matter but remain ignorant of what the Church teaches on that matter, you are ignorant, indeed. I do not call it shameful unless it becomes willful and intentional ignorance.
What we need, now, are heroes of faith. Our Priests have been given a great blessing (even if it is in deep disguise): None who are currently standing in the pulpit will be place-holders. They will either be heroes or goats. There is no longer a safe place of neutrality. Right now, all Priests are under adverse scrutiny from the laity and the general public. Unlike a generation or two ago, they are not greeted with honor and deference. They are viewed with suspicion until they have proven themselves worthy of respect. Even then, strangers still give them the gimlet eye of suspicion. Internally, it has not escaped Priests’ notice that those who are candidly orthodox are often censured from above, while those who are candidly heterodox are promoted and honored. Thus, in many Dioceses – and certainly in Rome – to be honored from above you must deny the faith, which discredits you with the faithful. To preach honestly the Gospel and formal Church teaching will endear you to the faithful (though it will have those internal enemies of the faith who occupy the pews screaming for your head) but bring down censure from the top. Now Priests must choose: do they believe in God and His ultimate justice or do they not? If they do, they will accept censure from above, and preach truly the Gospels, trusting that God will redeem them. In doing so, they will draw fire from those members of the laity who want only the Church of “nice.” If they can do this with both sensitivity and courage, they will certainly share in the sufferings of Christ, but they will share in His glory, too, and will help to hearten the faithful and renew the Church. A Bishop who keeps faith with the Gospels and Magisterium may not be taken out, as Bishop Robert Finn and Cardinal George Pell have been, but he has to know that his fidelity forecloses any hope of advancement during this pontificate. It is a fiery trial for these men, but many of them will be honored as true heroes just a generation hence. They are the blocks rejected by the upper levels of the hierarchy, who will become the cornerstones of the renewed Church.
Those of us in the laity are also called to be heroes. We live in evil times. Everyone who views things rationally sees that politically, culturally and spiritually, we are in deep and growing trouble throughout the world. Without God, it is hard to see how we could avoid a new and brutal dark age of intolerance and violent oppression. It is written that, “…the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.” (2 Tim: 4-3,4). That time is upon us, but in the very next verse, St. Paul tells us what is expected of us: “As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
Right now you have many US Senators who consider anyone who takes their Christian or Jewish faith seriously as unfit to hold office. To belong to the Knights of Columbus, or to teach in a Christian School, disqualifies you from polite society. Never mind that such a religious qualification is clearly forbidden by the Constitution; the barbarians of the left don’t care what the Constitution dictates and most of those on the right are too timid to hold the barbarians to account. Civil “rights” commissions around the country are eager to destroy you if you refuse to actively participate in and celebrate things that violate your conscience. You need not violate any law for the state to maliciously prosecute you if you are a high-profile Christian or conservative. You need not heed any law if you are a high-profile leftist Democrat. This is the time of fiery trial. There is great irony here. We resist because we know that if the anti-God left succeeded, it would lead to complete and utter worldwide collapse marked by universal misery, poverty and enslavement. Such doom would come also to those who advocate for it, though they are ignorant of it. In working to resist it, we are all actually advocating on behalf of our persecutors as well as ourselves.
In the first place, when you find a noble Priest who courageously teaches truth and addresses the real trials of our age, honor him as a true father. Do more than this, though. Treat him with the affection and hospitality you would a beloved uncle. When he is under fire for his fidelity, stand firmly and publicly with him. Sadly, many in orthodox circles are far more eager to attack heterodoxy than to defend courageous leaders under fire. If you find yourself in a Parish where the Priest busies himself attacking the faith and explaining why Christ was wrong, or that the Magisterium is a dated relic, vote with your feet and go to a new Parish. If you have the challenge of living in a Diocese where the Bishop does the same, find a Parish that is faithful and boldly support it. There are many perilous circumstances and we can’t control them all. But we can always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill our ministry. In an evil age, we are called to be truly counter-cultural – just as the original Apostles, as St. Patrick, St. Boniface and a host of other heroes were counter-cultural in dangerous times and hostile territory. A crown awaits fidelity.
To live this with fortitude, though, we must be firmly grounded in the truth. That means our starting points must be the Bible and the Magisterium. Private revelation is useful in illuminating ways of applying actual truth. When your only citation for a position is a favored private revelation, your roots in the faith do not go deep enough to withstand this time of trial, for private revelation is almost always subject to mitigation and change – and is colored by the honest lens through which the one to whom it is revealed sees – sometimes mistakenly.
Going forward, to raise the level of our discussion, to prepare us to be true evangelists in evil times, when you cite any private revelation, it is best that you refer to which Biblical or Magisterial truth it illuminates. The greatest experts are not always right. But when you challenge an authority of acknowledged expertise, explain carefully your reasoning. To cite some obscure source is not appropriate. When a novice differs from an expert, it is the novice’s job to justify his position, not the expert’s. You need not agree with St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine on all matters (that are not defined doctrine), but when you disagree, the presumption goes to them unless you provide a truly compelling, closely reasoned case. You can’t do that unless you first know what the Church – and true experts – teach. When you contemplate deeply, it is inevitable that you will venture occasionally into error. That’s not a problem. What is a problem is when you get so vested in an error that you reject formal teaching when you discover it.
It is not necessary to get this deep. One of the most marvelous, even miraculous, things about Christianity is that it is fully accessible no matter what level of knowledge you are at. It is sufficient to acknowledge God, take the next right step, and be a sign of hope to those around you. But if you venture into actual evangelization, talking at any level about theological matters, you are obligated to give your full heart, mind and soul to getting it right – and abandoning error as soon as you know it as such.
For those who want to venture further into some solid materials, I suggest three introductory books:
First is “Mere Christianity” by that great Anglican evangelist, C.S. Lewis. This is not dense theology, but is the best introductory book to what Christianity authentically is – and is not – that I have ever read. Over the years, I have given away a good 20 copies to people who were trying to find the way of authentic faith, as an introduction.
Second is “Confessions of St. Augustine.” I have mentioned before that this was the catalyst that led to my conversion. It is a short book, with much sound theology. It is not near as difficult for the newcomer as, say, “The City of God” by the same sainted author. In it you may find echoes of some of your own struggles, along with how to rigorously hold yourself to account by sound doctrine and sound reasoning.
Third is a book edited by the great Thomist, Peter Kreeft, entitled “Summa of the Summa.” It is a one-volume compilation of St. Thomas Aquinas’ major teaching in the massive “Summa Theolgica” using Aquinas’ own words, bolstered by insightful commentary from Kreeft. This will give you an introduction to the precise, refined logic that goes into the development of theology while leading you to consider points that had probably never occurred to you before. While still challenging, it is rich and accessible to the layman who takes learning the basics of the faith seriously. I read this again every two years or so. I admire St. Thomas and his methodical, detailed mind, ever in fidelity to the Church. He was effective in combatting heresy specifically because he always met heretics on their own ground, respectfully – then proceeded with logic and reason to destroy their error on its own terms.
Of course, for Catholics, having a copy of “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” tells authoritatively what the Church teaches. The three volumes I cited earlier give you a greater glimpse into how doctrine is developed. The authentic development of doctrine is neither arbitrary nor capricious – and the greatest saints know that faith and reason are like two oxen yoked together to the same plow. Faith may occasionally transcend reason, but it never contradicts it. Anytime reason seems to contradict faith, it is a prod to dig deeper, for contradictions can only be apparent, not actual. Do not be appalled at error or contradiction: it is from these irritants that the pearls which form authentic doctrine are made and refined. These are evil times, but times when many pearls are being formed. Those who keep faith will be jubilantly acknowledged as heroes by generations to come in the renewed faith that God has appointed each of us to herald.
It might be fruitful for you to read through the Old Testament book of Judges and the book that immediately follows it, Ruth. Judges is a depressing account of the serial faithlessness of the Israelites and the hideous, evil, and violent consequences which arise from such faithlessness. It is followed by Ruth, the story of the marvelous faith of one woman – a Gentile, at that. That woman’s faithfulness led her to become the great-grandmother of King David so she became a pillar of the renewal of faith. It is well worth contemplating in these evil times, what the fidelity of one person can accomplish because of the prodigal generosity of God.
I encourage each of you to be rigorous with yourselves and generous with others. Found your faith on the rock which is authentic Biblical and Magisterial teaching. Let no bumper sticker theology, which removes from context and completeness, any teaching, lead you to contribute to the growing chaos rather than authentic renewal.
It is a time for heroes – and heroes do not build their houses on sand.