WHAT TO THINK OF "CHARISMATIC EXPERIENCES"

By Fr. Bertrand de Margerie, S.J.


Ed. noteThe following article reproduces the comments of one of the finest theologians of the post-conciliar period, the internationally known Jesuit theologian Fr. Bertrand de Margerie (now deceased), who spoke in Buffalo for the Credo Chapter of CUF on April 29, 1976. When he was asked what to think of alleged "Charismatic Experiences" in a Question and Answer session after his magnificent Lecture "The Gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Church" (published in Social Justice Review, February 1977), he replied as reported below.
James Likoudis


Immediate and Mediated Experiences:
Problems about the Charisms

As far as the questions of our friend James Likoudis are concerned, I would say that there are indeed difficult problems. People who claim the gift of speaking in tongues, of causing healings, well, if this be the case, if they claim such gifts, this would leave me rather perplexed and particularly make me fear that if the gifts were authentic, they might be lost if they are claimed. That is, I do remember that in general (and though one might quote St. Peter, Acts 3: 1-12, in a contrary sense), the Saints who have these gifts, particularly miracles, healings, etc., were rather wanting to hide these gifts than to claim them. Now, this does not, of course, exhaust the problem, and so, I think you know well that in the world of today, there is not on the part of many a great interest in the mysteries of angels and devils. No, and you know also that a small minority of apostles of satanic cults are very fascinated. However, it seems to me that one cannot understand the Mystery of the Church and various gifts without having recourse to the consideration of the holy angels in the Church and of the possible activities of devils against it.

This afternoon, preparing myself for our meeting, I was reading the articles from St. Thomasí Summa dealing with the possibilities of the devils to prophesy, to make miracles. In the treatise on Prophecy in the II Part of the II Part, Question 173, art. 5, I was very impressed to see that St. Thomas Aquinas recognized that, after all, devils can, as they are angels, as they are pure spirits, and as dominating the cosmic world, can do many things that we men and women of this earth can not do.

They know many things, even in an actual way, that we can not know. And so, they can on the basis of their knowledge, simulate prophecies, simulate miracles. The Angelic Doctor does not believe they can do true miracles, that they can be truly prophets, but they can, he says, communicate some aspects of their knowledge to man. It seems to me, if we read the Gospel of St. Matthew, Chapter 7, that Christ explicitly foresees that a certain number of extraordinary things will be done by the devils – apparently extraordinary things – and will somehow put in difficulty His own disciples.

"Many will say to Me on that day! Lord, Lord, was it not in Your Name that we prophesy, and in Your Name that we drove out demons, and by Your Name that we did many mighty acts. Then, I will say to them, I never knew you, Go away from Me, you who do wrong."
(Matt. 7: 22)

And the Fathers of the Church, the Doctors of the Church, reflecting on such texts, have recognized that there could be things claimed by men as prophecies and miracles, and in reality operated by the devils on the basis of their natural power. This does not mean, of course, that all the healings, all the prophecies we hear about, are coming from devils. This means that it is not so easy to be sure from whence they come.

And I recognize that they may come also, a certain number of them, from the Holy Spirit; some of them may be purely natural phenomena. However, I think that the main point is to do what the Saints do — to relativize all this : gifts of tongues, gifts of healing – all this is secondary. In the eyes of Paul, the gift of prophecy (i.e., the charismatic explanation of the Scriptures) is in its turn secondary in comparison with the supreme charism of Charity. Indeed, it seems to me that there is today in our world a fascination (especially, I must acknowledge in the Anglo-Saxon world, but not only) – a fascination around this term "EXPERIENCE". And, of course, the charismatics, in the sense of the members of the Charismatic Renewal, know much better than I do, what are not only the advantages but the perils included in the Movement. And so, they also know probably better than I do, how this recourse (which we hear so often today) to experience — is really the occasion of grave confusions.

If you look at philosophical dictionaries, if you look at the definition of what is experience, you will find unanimity that experience implies evidence and intuition. In other words, experience is an immediate knowledge. Well, it is precisely against the pretension of an earthly immediate knowledge of God and of the action of God, that St. Paul in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapters 13 and 14, warned the Corinthians. It is a doctrine of the faith which Paul exposed in Chapter 13 when he said that "Here below we see as in a mirror" and that it is only after death (except, of course, in the hypothesis of an act of beatific vision before our death which some theologians have thought possible) that we come to the evidence, the intuition, the immediate experience of God – if hopefully, we come to it.

And so, I see today the urgent necessity of recalling such truths which seem to me to be amazingly absent from the contemporary theological panorama, and again, particularly amazingly absent from the in-general cautiously-elaborated rules, theological criteria about charisms set forth in Belgium about three or four years ago by an international group of Catholic theologians who also gave in to this so fascinating fashion of the exaltation of experience. After all this, I would wish to add that one can speak of the mediated experience. And I think that this is really what many people inside and outside the Charismatic Renewal, have in view. They really do not want, if they are reasonable, to speak of an immediate experience. They want to speak of a mediated experience.

But the consequences of such a distinction are very far reaching. For instance, this group of international theologians at Louvain was speaking of a more or less immediate experience of the Holy Spirit. Well, I regret to say that as long as we are in this world there is no immediate experience of the Holy Spirit. I cannot on the level not only of my senses but even of my ideas – without the revelation in words and deeds (the revelation through the mediation of human words and human deeds) – I cannot distinguish the Holy Spirit from the Father or the Son, nor can I here below ever see (if not admitted to the beatific vision) the divine essence of the Holy Spirit. And I canít, of course, on the basis of the convictions of faith (which is different from experience, for faith is a knowledge through human concepts of the divine word in human language) — on the basis of faith I can say that I probably experience the action of the Spirit; I can judge without pretending to an infallible certitude that I am in a state of grace. If I had immediate experience of the Spirit, I could be absolutely sure of being in a state of grace. And this is, without private revelation (in words), impossible here below.

And so, it seems that we ought to correct our ways of speaking to avoid the language of experience or to justify it with the adjective mediated. Otherwise, since those who hear us also read and hear persons who use this word "experience" in its normal, universally accepted philosophical meaning of immediate evidence, we are inducing them in error. Even though our charity reaches God immediately, and though Godís action on us can also be immediate, we have no immediate experience of it.

So, I would say that nonetheless there exists, there has always existed in the Church during the last 20 centuries extraordinary gifts of healing, of prophecy (in the sense of revealing in advance future events, acts of contingent freedom, etc.), of speaking in tongues. But I would say that precisely it is one of the snares of the devil to try and retain too much of our attention about these secondary things to the detriment of the major charism of prophecy (in the sense of the transmission of Divine Revelation) and of the still greater charism of Charity. So the very discernment of spirits inclines us to relativize all these secondary things, recognizing in them possible gifts of God and declaring that, after all, for our own salvation and for the salvation of others, we donít need to know. We just go on building up the Church with the charisms we have already received and of which we donít declare ourselves too sure.


[in Reply to another question]

What I said exactly was this: that one could know through a private revelation if one is in a state of grace and know it with moral certitude. However, of course, there is the teaching of St. John of the Cross inviting us to be very careful of private revelations. And so the problem of the authenticity of a private revelation returns to us. We see how Saints suffered with this problem. I did not mean to say – when I said that through private revelation one could know one was in a state of grace – that this private revelation by itself was an immediate experience of God (because a private Revelation is in words or deeds). But the object of the private revelation: to know that one is in a state of grace, well, transcends somehow words. So I do not deny under this angle the possibility of knowing that one is in a state of grace with moral certitude. But still, knowing that is not yet the immediate experience of God which can only be the Vision face-to-face.

As long as I am only in a state of grace and not yet in a state of glory (even knowing eventually with absolute certitude that I am in a state of grace), Iím not in the immediate experience of God. So, in other words, what all this means is that we are still in a vale of tears; we are not yet in Paradise, in Heaven; and there is a danger which was precisely the danger that St. Paul pointed out to the Corinthians in his First Letter : of thinking that we have already purely and simply, risen from the dead. In other words, we are still in the Pilgrim Church. We are not yet in the Triumphant Church. And behind all this fascination for experience there is an unconscious Triumphalism. This is an expression perhaps not so much used here but very much used in Europe, i.e., the feelings, the state of mind of those Christians who are always triumphing as if heaven and earth had already passed and as if they were installed in the glory of God.


[in Reply to the last question]

I think that this question (accusing the Charismatic Renewal of subjectivism, elitism, and gnosticism) recalls to us that there are perils which have been pointed out, for instance, in the collective Pastoral Letter of the Canadian Episcopal Conference. But there are not only perils. In that same letter, the Canadian bishops also point to a certain number of values to which people, many people among the Catholic charismatics are deeply attached. And so I would recognize that subjectivism is a peril not only to Catholic charismatics but to each and all of us. And I would say that is is precisely because I think too great an accent has been put on "Iís", individuality, etc., that I chose as the title of my lecture, "The Charisms given by the Holy Spirit to the Church" — through the Church, for the Church, in the Church. And so indeed I recognize with the person who asked that question – and this would be my humble plea to our charismatic brethren – that in their way of speaking, they would much less, if possible, allude to any kind of individual experience, because these individual experiences are doubtful, and even if true, uncommunicable.

And so, it seems highly desirable that we detach ourselves from our own particular feelings, etc. – to incorporate ourselves in the mediated experience of the Church, and that we replace the language of individual experience by the language of the ecclesial mediated experience.





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