psychiatry and extraordinary phenomena, mystical phenomena, apparitions and mental health, true seers or hallucinations

Extraordinary phenomena: in search of some answers

Psychiatrist Massimo Bettetini explains the frequency of extraordinary phenomena, and how to distinguish real ones from pathological ones.

How frequent and true are extraordinary mystical phenomena?

To answer this question, a certain amount of psychotherapeutic experience may be useful in the search for a discernment that knows how to distinguish extraordinary epiphenomena given by God from situations sometimes arising from a psyche in difficulty or from other, subjective, situations.

In a medium-sized town, there are often more than seven people who say they speak visually with Our Lady every day, but perhaps they are talking to themselves.

Mystical phenomena, it is useless to deny it, always attract attention for the dose of the extraordinary they contain. But they do not always respond to truth. Nor can one fall into a meaningless denialism. This is what the great mystics have always taught us.

We agree that the Church has always advised us, in the first instance, to be precautiously wary of extraordinary mystical phenomena; but the same Church is attentive to discern, and make a correct differential analysis, for the good of souls.

We know that nothing can be added to the contents of Revelation; we also know that Our Lady, as a good Mother, wants to show herself close to her children on their way on earth, sometimes in a tangible way, with visible, tangible signs, especially in certain historical moments. The field of visions, of apparitions, is a difficult one to deal with and several disciplines are involved: theology (Dogmatic, Sacred Scripture, Magisterium, History of Religions), anthropology, psychology, psychiatry, pedagogy and neurology.

Psychic equilibrium and extraordinary phenomena

To avoid any form of false mysticism it is essential to verify the psychic balance of the person affected by the phenomenon, without medicalizing the situation. The production of images, sounds, sensations not coming from reality, accompanies, for example, the schizophrenic mind. But we cannot run the danger of analyzing certain events with categories devoid of transcendence. This is not a terrain of easy definition.

Even a psychic lability can coexist with a possible mystical phenomenology. A patient who reported some psychological problems, for example, experienced a phenomenon of conversion to authentic Christianity, entirely consistent with his history, accompanied by an extraordinary phenomenon; in his case it was a matter of separating what came from God from what he himself produced as "excess" thinking, a paranoid construct but on a real basis, a typical mixed case.

Elements for discerning between true and false mystical phenomena

So what can differential analysis consist of? On what parameters can I base myself to avoid errors by excess or by defect?

First of all, a hallucinatory event must be excluded. By hallucination we mean the certain and uncritical perception, through any of the senses, of something that does not exist: perception, therefore, with lack of object. The hallucination can be caused by several factors: ingestion of hallucinogenic substances, psycho-sensory over-excitement, use of drugs, psychiatric morbidity, but also macro or micro brain scars that result in phenomena similar to epilepsy and / or, indeed, hallucinations, even some drugs can produce hallucinations as a side effect.

Some elements for the differential analysis of mystical phenomena

Modesty occupies the first place. Those who really have mystical phenomena do not usually want it to be known; they do not proclaim right and left that they have seen the Virgin or angels. They choose very carefully the person to whom they entrust their experience, and they make sure that the content of what they have seen, heard and felt is passed on, if necessary, to the proper authorities.

Humble modesty also implies in the seer a willingness to submit to medical and psychiatric examinations. If he is honest, he will not resist because he knows he has nothing to hide or be ashamed of.

The logicality of the content is another important element. If the content is rambling and illogical, it is easy to see that it is an imposture or a pathological product or psychosis.

Fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church is another element. The truthfulness of the apparitions to Bernadette was made clear when she herself said what she called the woman she was seeing: "I am the Immaculate Conception," Mary said, two months after the dogma had been declared, which was certainly unknown to the young peasant girl.

There are also cases in which the contents of the locutions definitely deviate from the Magisterium of the Church. If they do not derive from the psycho-sensory over-excitement of the subject, or from pharmacological substances (i.e. drugs that heavily influence ideation), it is very likely that they are demonic actions aimed at making the subject lose his way, up to induce him to sin against the Holy Spirit: one can come to deny convinced ethical principles and believe and make others believe that a sin is no longer a sin. In this the mystifying evil action is clear.

Fruits of holiness of true mystical phenomena

The fruits of holiness are consequential, but almost necessary elements. An extraordinary gift of the Lord implies an adequate response that can only be a response of holiness in normality, in everyday life.

An apparition, a theophany, is unlikely to be for the individual person; it is easy for it to be manifested to one or a few people in service to a community, the local Church and/or the universal Church.

Historical significance is another point that can be decisive as to the validity of a vision; just think of Fatima and Russia, or Medjugorje and the former Yugoslavia, further down the line, Our Lady of Caravaggio and the Lansquenets.

The Evil One and extraordinary phenomena

The Evil One, in his extraordinary actions, can also act in various ways, and here a proper discernment becomes even more necessary.

In this area it is more difficult to discern diabolic possession from psychic disturbances; even here we can have the coexistence of several factors and encounter mixed cases. I report a personal fact. At the request of an exorcist priest, I went to witness the exorcism he was going to perform on a person I did not know.

As soon as the possessed person saw me, the evil presence was immediately unleashed by saying a phrase that only I could understand in its real content. The exorcisms that followed confirmed the presence of evil spirits and at the same time a slight disturbance in the psychic sphere, consequent to the possession.

Humility and obedience as signs of truthfulness

Teresa of Avila, when the nuns told her that they had experienced any mystical phenomenon, had a very appropriate and wise reaction. She did not deny, nor did she doubt, she listened and gave advice for the good of the soul; more simply she asked them not to stop attending to even humble services.

What interested her most was that they not lose touch with the reality of things and especially with the virtue of obedience. If the mystical phenomenon led to disobedience or rebellion, it was clearly a deception. She herself tells of being subjected to supernatural phenomena among pots and pans. She knew and had experienced that true mysticism does not deter from the path.

When Faustina Kowalska began to think that in order to faithfully fulfill what the Lord was asking of her, that is, the full revelation of his mercy to the world, she would have done well to leave his order, Jesus appeared to her scourged and bloodied, telling her that if she abandoned the path she would leave him reduced to this state.

Teresa herself, with fine psychological intuition, explains how the apparitions she was subjected to were related more to a mental vision than physical. And they were not projections of her thoughts because they maintained all the characteristics of objectivity, that is, in her case, of being an external object that presents itself intellectually.

Pope Francis and the apparitions of Medjugorje

Interesting is Pope Francis' commentary on the material compiled by the commission chaired by Card. Ruini on the apparitions of Medjugorje.

The Pope, following the conclusions of the commission which he highly praised, divides the problematic into three moments: the visions of the beginnings, admitting great importance to them; today's visions, somewhat marred by a certain way of religious tourism and by an image of Mary which risks losing its maternal connotations; finally, the pastoral phenomenon in action, which is very relevant, bearing in mind the graces which are poured out on pilgrims in conversions, vocations, etc.; and the pastoral phenomenon of the apparitions, which is very important.

By dividing the different dimensions of the phenomenon so clearly, the deeper meanings can be fully understood, thus overcoming blind denial and facile enthusiasm, which leave no time to find the truth.

Massimo Bettetini