A Conversation about Bogus Mysticism and the Rule of Fear

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Blog Master’s note: As I put the finishing touches on my next blog post on the recent motu proprio from Pope Francis I got this wonderful and delightful essay from my Australian friend and reader of this blog Phillipa Martyr. She is a widely published author and I am fortunate she has allowed me to post her musings on my blog. This is a scathing indictment of the false apocalypiticism so rampant in the Church today. And it should be noted it is not without significance with regard to the destructive narrative of the Vigano wing of the Church. Enjoy!

by Dr. Phillipa Martyr

On 23 March, I received the following text message from a friend I will call Theodora. It’s a good name for her, because she’s an amazing lady who genuinely loves God with all her heart. Theodora chose singleness for the sake of the Kingdom, is in the Legion of Mary, has been a long-time catechist, and is a prayer powerhouse. She’s recently retired from her professional job. 

“Hi Philippa. Would I be able to have a chat with you sometime about St Padre Pio and the 3 days of darkness? Should I go out and buy a big beeswax candle? Regards Theodora.”

This isn’t the first time Theodora and I have broached this topic. She’s blessed with a parish priest who, while mostly orthodox in his beliefs, is addicted to the worst kind of (usually unauthorised) mystic revelations. 

Week after week, he will preach not so much on the Scriptural readings and Gospel, but on whatever hunk of apocalypto-porn he’s been reading online lately. 

Present him with authentic mystics of the Church, and he is immediately bored. He wants secrets, promises, lists, scathing denunciations, chastisements, and he wants it all now – or rather, just round the corner, waiting for us when we wake up one unspecified day soon.

So I thought that I could do a lot worse than share what I texted back to Theodora, because it’s a good brief summary of exactly what I think, and of just how unhelpful this kind of thing is to most Catholics. I’ve now inserted grammar and punctuation where I left it out in my haste.

“Theodora, your decisions are your own, but I am of the view that the three days of darkness is piffle. If it’s real, then I will certainly die under a street-light, and that will be God’s Holy Will for me, because he has the very minute of my death planned already. I am very content with this outcome.

If it’s true, we are powerless to stop it, and are in the hands of a tender and merciful God. If it’s all nonsense – which I suspect it is – it’s put about by people who thrive on religious melodrama, and who also quite like frightening other people with religion. This makes me sad rather than angry these days.

All prophecy is conditional – the Book of Jonah is a good example. God is constantly working with our free will to change our future and other people’s. I have known many Catholics go through a three-days-of-darkness phase, and they eventually come around, and then they have to eat all the stockpiled beans and rice. 

There’s a whole industry of this prophecy stuff on the internet, and it’s infected a lot of otherwise good and trusting people. It’s one of the sad side effects of poor catechesis and such a lot of terrible scandal in the Church. 

But if God let us have three Popes at once, and Popes fathering children, and even back to the days of the Arian heresy, and if He didn’t send three days of darkness then, it’s hard to see Him doing it now, even if the abortion rate is high. We’re awful creatures, but He came to save us.” 

Theodora got a word in edgewise:

“Fr [Apocalypto, the parish priest] is hot on it and I’ve been ignoring it. But then I read St Padre Pio’s letter about it and he seemed to be a trustworthy source so for the first time I got spooked.”

I saw red at this point, but held back. 

“Yes, but is that document authentic? I’ve seen all sorts of bogus attributed letters etc by all sorts of saints – feeding the industry. People are shameless; they just make this stuff up sometimes. 

Lots of people believe everything they read because it’s ‘holy’. I think it’s good to be skeptical about these circulated documents. 

Fr [Apocalypto] is a goose, but we knew that already. 

People want to believe it, and it’s pointless to try to convince them otherwise because they’ve got a nice circular argument going: only Special Holy People get the Special Messages. It cheers them up to have secret knowledge, and they’re scared and want the magic candle that will save them. 

None of this is why Jesus came on earth, and lived a boring life for 30 years, and then died a horrific death, and then went to all the trouble of coming back to life. In fact, He was repeatedly critical of people who tried to make religion difficult and painful and scary for other people. 

The things that we are actually required as Catholics to believe are comparatively few.”

Theodora went away consoled, but I went away ruffled and unhappy. If someone as good and as well-catechised as her can be frightened by Fr Apocalypto’s nonsensical unfiltered preaching, it’s a pretty poor outcome. And even if the Padre Pio letter is genuine, that doesn’t put it on a par with Holy Writ. 

The current state of the Church has lured way too many Catholics down the apocalyptic rabbit-hole. I certainly believe we’re living in the end times, because the Scriptures say that we are. The era since the descent of the Holy Spirit has been the end times; the last age. 

These end times have also been going on for around 2,000 years now. I have no idea how much longer they’re going to go on. And neither do you – no matter what the Little Secretary of God, Dorothea von Bumpf, said in 1899 in Ansbach-im-Tyrol to her spiritual director whose second cousin was later beatified, or what St Pio is alleged to have said to Pope Benedict XV one day when there were no witnesses and neither of them wrote it down afterwards. 

I richly deserve to be struck down for saying such things, but I’ve had years of this, and I’m sick to death of it. What galls me is that good and decent Catholics are being ruled by fear – terrified into prayer and reparation, fearing always the great and terrible day of the Lord. 

Fear like this casts out love. And it replaces love with a desire for revenge upon ghastly sinners, and an equally perverse but very human desire to see other people punished while we remain safe. 

This has been running in my head alongside Larry Chapp’s recent excellent unpacking of the massa damnata school of thinking. Apocalypto-porn is utterly contrary to the life of Jesus Christ Himself, to the testament He left His Church, and to the most recent and glowingly authentic unpacking of the jewels of divine revelation which is the Divine Mercy devotion. (I find it interesting that a certain brand of Tradicals refuse to accept this devotion. These would be the Tradicals who call all Popes since Pius XII by their surnames only).

What is wrong with us, that we need to terrify ourselves and other people in order to pray and make sacrifices? What is so freaking wrong with us?

Let me answer my own question: We’re human beings. We suffer from the just world fallacy, in which bad things only happen to bad people. When bad things happen to good people, we turn into Job’s comforters, every single time. 

And we can’t control anything. We think we can, but we can’t, and it confronts us all the time. So we seek control through superstition – and apocalypto-porn is very closely related to superstition. 

Don’t get me wrong: there are real mystics, and always have been. Not all of them have been prophets. There are also real prophets, not all of whom have been mystics. Some of these people have been rather woo-woo and have spent a lot of time in bed dictating messages. Others, surprisingly, were very down-to-earth people who could unblock a drain and gut a chicken with the best of them. 

And for every genuine mystic of whom the Church has said, cocking Her head sideways and squinting, ‘Yeah, look – if you absolutely must believe them, you can,’ there are a dozen screwballs, wingnuts, neurotics, hysterics, and attention-seekers who you should flee like poison. 

And that’s before we get to the genuine bad eggs who are in the grip of forces they don’t understand, and who have been permitted by God to muddy the waters around a genuine mystic. 

The same goes for apparitions and locutions. It’s always best to be deeply skeptical of people who have these experiences and insist on talking about them to others (outside of the spiritual direction relationship). Visions of the imagination and locutions are hugely common among quite ordinary Catholics. Revelations of this sort are called ‘private’ for a reason. They need to stay that way. 

Now is a good time to be talking about this. We’re in the grip of a global pandemic of still-uncertain origins, uncertain likely duration, uncertain infectivity, and uncertain fatality rate. It’s spawned an additional wing in the Crazy Galleries already available to the average bored middle-aged man of very average education, limited reading, and a hunger for something that will give his life purpose. 

There are plenty of these men in the Catholic Church. They’re almost all long-married, and in the 1970s and 1980s they used to obsess to each other about the Shroud of Turin. I didn’t mind that; I love the Shroud and I think it’s got a lot to say to us. 

But then Medjugorje happened. I have been through every argument for and against the supernatural origins of these alleged apparitions. I don’t believe they were ever real. I do believe several young people were manipulated by the local corrupt Franciscans into joining their internecine war with their local bishop. Being a keen student of human nature, I also strongly suspect we will never get to the bottom of this one. 

But Medjugorje spawned an entire mystical industry of its own, with DIY visions, apparitions, messages, prophecies, secrets, and everything but the free decoding ring. In fact, you could either buy the free decoding ring, or you could just make up your own join-the-dots version of the potted nonsense that’s absolutely flooded the internet ever since. 

And it’s an equal-opportunity employer. Let me give you a tragic example. I know of an enclosed religious order which since around 2000 has been prone to conspiracy theories. This is because they suited the then-superior’s personal narrative about her persecution by evil modernists in Rome over matters relating to her (admittedly sub-par) governance. 

I will not weary you with the details, but at least the old superior never allowed the internet in the convent. One of her successors has allowed it, with the result that she – the successor – is now a self-appointed prophetess. 

Someone I know spoke to her recently and came away disturbed by a long monologue of prophecies. The new superior has clearly been trawling the darker corners of the internet and has stitched together an elaborate unified field conspiracy theory of her own. She has ‘predicted’ the Muslim invasion of Rome (a hugely common internet prophecy), the great illumination of consciences (St Faustina), and an invasion of Australia by the Chinese in October. 

I’m happy to believe all of these in a very general way, as two of them are politically possible, and the third is in God’s hands. Reverend Mother didn’t say October of which year the invasion would happen, but certainly even quite un-holy Australians who can read and write have been foretelling Chinese invasions of Australia since the 1860s. Chinese aggression is on the increase. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. 

This would be faintly comical if the superior hadn’t also intimated that she had received these special powers of prophecy when she became superior, as part of her graces of state. And if she hadn’t closed the Rome house of the order because she feared the Muslim invasion. And if her community didn’t have a following of good but gullible lay people who believe every word because heck, she’s a nun, after all. Her community is also breeding rabbits to eat in the great famine that’s coming when society returns to anarchy. 

So much for the fervent desire for martyrdom in the modern Church, which appears to have jumped into bed instead with the doomsday-preppers. My own sister nailed it, as she so often does. ‘They have the Blessed Sacrament right there’, she said, ‘what more doomsday prepping does anyone need?’

And Reverend Mother may well be right about all her prophecies, even though they weren’t hers to begin with. Oddly enough, when I read stuff like this, I find myself more and more resigned to martyrdom. Martyrdom – whether in a Muslim or Chinese invasion – is infinitely preferable to living under oppressive political regimes. 

It’s also infinitely preferable to living with wingnuts who can’t stay off the internet and who thrill to threatening their pet malefactors with terrible chastisements. Most doomsday preppers – Catholic or not – are men with guns who have unreconstructed ideas about women. This is not a world in which I want to survive. If there’s a zombie apocalypse right before it, I’ll be making an act of perfect contrition and then lining up to get my face bitten off. 

And that’s the nasty bit – the relish with which these people will describe the anarchy and/or chastisements that are coming, and what will happen to the abortionists and the Jews and the Freemasons and the women who wear yoga pants. There’s an authentic whiff of sulfur there that’s unmistakeable in its origins. 

If I am to be on the receiving end of the great chastisements and the illumination of conscience, I’m okay with that. I have pretty regular illuminations of conscience as it is, which is why I am a frequent confessor. And then this morning, the reading for Lauds for today (Monday of Week 16 of Ordinary Time) reminded me of the following:

“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God who, as he tested our ancestors, is now testing us. Remember how he treated Abraham, all the ordeals of Isaac and all that happened to Jacob. For as these ordeals were intended by him to search their hearts, so now this is not vengeance that God exacts against us, but a warning inflicted by the Lord on those who are near his heart.” (Judith 8:25-26, 27) 

To be chastised by the Lord means you are close to His Heart. To fall into the hands of the Lord God is to fall into warm hands which have delicately and tenderly set your inner dials from your conception through to your death. So that must include the abortionists and the Jews and the Freemasons and – bless them – the women who wear yoga pants. 

And that’s good enough for me. 

12 comments

  1. If I don’t reply straight away, it’s because I’m 12 hours ahead of you and I want to go to sleep right now.

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  2. I don’t know what their charism is as a religious order but I’ve never understood why you’d ever allow internet use (outside of necessary functions) for enclosed religious. If I were to enter a monastery as a novitiate I would probably want to never to see the internet again.

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  3. I agree with the thrust of this argument. Personally, I like to think that the human race has millennia ahead, and will one day inhabit other planets, and that we are in fact “early Christians”. So I have no emotional investment in apocalypse soon, rather that would disappoint me.
    I have watched the Padre Pio/Medjugorie and other strange claims on you-tube with scepticism, but I have also been able to find rebuttals of this stuff on you-tube. As can anyone – the question is will he/she do a cross-check?

    I think men get an unjustified kick in this article:
    “…the Crazy Galleries already available to the average bored middle-aged man of very average education, limited reading, and a hunger for something that will give his life purpose.
    There are plenty of these men in the Catholic Church. They’re almost all long-married, and in the 1970s and 1980s they used to obsess to each other about the Shroud of Turin.”
    “Most doomsday preppers – Catholic or not – are men with guns who have unreconstructed ideas about women.”

    I participate in a men’s prayer group, in another all male discussion group, in a mixed charity group with several men involved. Most participants are long-married, and nearly all were adults by the 1980s. None of them have any interest in any of these prophecies. I don’t know if any of them was ever obsessed over the Shroud of Turin. I suppose I am guilty, because I read a book about it in my 20s, thought that was interesting, and then put it on the shelf where I suppose it is today.

    I once knew a long-married Catholic man with 8 children who had a gun (very rare in Australia). His hobby was pig shooting in the outback and otherwise running marathons. He had no interest in apocalypses. Maybe he had unreconstructed ideas about women, but he didn’t mention them. My guess is that if a man is doomsday prepping, 50/50 his wife is pressing him to get the bunker finished yesterday.

    What really strikes me is that the only people who have ever spoken to me about the three days of darkness, the illumination, or Medjugore, were women, and only three that I can remember. One was a long-married charismatic woman, the other two also married but one later divorced. I didn’t express any opinion to the charismatic woman about the three days of darkness, because I thought it more important to dissuade her from her belief that another planet had entered the solar system and was hiding near the sun. She had been to university at a time when few went.

    Since when has long-married been used as a slur? Does Phillipa recommend being short-married?

    I would also like to comment on the phrase “very average education, limited reading,…”. I think that it is possible to reach the highest levels of education (PhD?) and have read very widely, and hold false views because of your education. And this even if you go to a Catholic institution; where you might find the prescribed reading is heavy on dissident theologians, and the staff seem to prefer them. I think it’s also the case in non-religious matters, from personal experience with university study.

    Otherwise, I enjoyed the article, and I agree that there’s some damaging nonsense out there.

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    1. Thank you for reading!

      1) Relating my experience of bonkers Catholic doomsday-prepping prophecy-obsessed men (some of whom are also MIGTOWs) is not giving all men an unjustified kicking. I am sure you are perfectly sane and lovely, as are all your friends. You will notice I also say that this kind of crazy is an equal opportunity employer, and use an example of a women’s religious order to demonstrate this.
      2) Most of the people I’ve met who are deep into this stuff (male and female) are not well educated, or well catechised. There is the odd outlier, but mostly they are too trusting of what they read on the internet and in print. This doesn’t preclude educated people holding false beliefs as well.
      3) All the long-married devout Catholic people I know have some kind of Thing that keeps them going. In these cases it’s chasing signs and wonders. The short-married are usually knee-deep in babies and are too tired to worry about this nonsense. You need leisure time to pursue the latest rabbit holes to their bitter ends, which makes it more of a middle-aged hobby.

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      1. Thanks for replying. I mistook what you meant by long-married. I am long married with 5 children and a 4 days overdue 5th grandchild.
        I agreed with the point about private revelation. There is probably a book out there which not only describes the basics of the Catholic faith, but also how to approach the tempting sidelines and rabbit-holes that a modern Catholic will encounter. There are plenty of books on the basics, but I can’t think of any that deals with the latter – things that appear ready to enhance and strengthen your faith but really won’t.

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  4. So much of this is on target. We are commanded to love our enemies, and so we cannot desire they come to harm, even at God’s hands. Like Abraham we have to ask if there are ten good men, and if there aren’t we still have to love them and pray for them.

    And there are so many good lines in here. ‘They have the Blessed Sacrament right there, what more doomsday prepping does anyone need?’

    I do have a few quibbles.

    1) I don’t think prepping is a bad thing. The ‘fool’ of the parable who God calls to account that night after he fills his barns was a fool because he put having ahead of sharing. It would have been a different story if he had prepped for others, as Joseph did for Pharaoh and all of Egypt. Prepping in the right manner could be seen as a Christian virtue, though I think it must be rare.

    2) Few Christians care about martyrdom and all of its implications. I have a web site on it that few visit. I have a book on it that I cannot get published.

    3) Yes, we have been in the end times for 20 centuries almost. I would argue that they have all been apocalyptic (in the sense of horrendous), more or less. Anyone who doesn’t think the 20th century wasn’t apocalyptic just wasn’t paying attention. Anyone who thinks the 21st will be significantly better is on thin ice. I know you said much the same, but I found the way this was de-emphasized to be perplexing. I guess the reason is I tend to think statistically: a Fr Apocalypto with a 100% certainty of doom is to me crazy, but a Fr Mystic with an undefined but practically low certainty of doom is much more reasonable. Covid with a Case Fatality Rate of 1.8% was certainly apocalyptic. I must say I’ve been expecting something like Covid for years, because they show up about every 25 years on average. I must also say that there has been another whiff of sulfur with Covid denialism, with fabricating false stats to get the Eucharist publicly administered again (not that it worked, most bishops were reasonable).

    And this brings me to 4) the 3 days of darkness (TDD). I agree, we need to look with honest skepticism at reports of St. Padre Pio letters and beeswax candles. Pious frauds are real, though I make no accusations – again, the likelihood of an uncertainty is always statistical. I ask: don’t be too dismissive. I recall the scandal that Benson’s The Lord of the World caused in 1907 with euthanasia, city-destroying bombs, and gas chambers for religious minorities, and I would have said then to not be dismissive. I have a room full of books on astronomy and astrophysics, and part of one shelf has books with equations – the best is from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory – that describe how it would naturally happen (look up Revelation 8:8 for a similar visualization), what is the annual likelihood (very low), and how many would survive it (many would, it’s not THE END). In fact 3 days of darkness yields a rather precise size limitation for the object in question, about 0.5 kilometers. Science says not only that it can happen but that it eventually will (assuming that humans will refuse their God-given gifts to develop the technology to prevent it, an assumption that is safe to make given our fallen natures). I can’t say when, and I wouldn’t trust anyone who claimed to know: we are right to be skeptical of such claims. Yet I have to admit that I can’t dismiss it the way you did: if the announcement is made the day before such a thing happens that it has been seen to be on the way, then we will all get our ‘great illumination of conscience’. For sure.

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    1. “Anyone who doesn’t think the 20th century wasn’t apocalyptic just wasn’t paying attention. Anyone who thinks the 21st will be significantly better is on thin ice.”

      Thank you for giving me an opportunity to wax lyrical on a point I forgot to include in the article:

      How do we know that the apocalyptic 20th century wasn’t actually the best case scenario? How do we know that God had far worse things lined up that were going to come into play, but faithful prayer and recitation of the Rosary turned aside His wrath so that we only had to endure two world wars (instead of sixteen) and the Cold War (ending in the collapse of communism, rather than its complete global triumph)?

      In the same way, how do we know that the 21st century isn’t going to be the best case scenario, no matter how awful it looks to us when it happens?

      To my mind, God always, always, always takes us individually and collectively down the most merciful and easiest and kindest paths that will lead us to Him. We screw it up all the time with our bad choices. But even with those bad choices, God always takes us along the easiest way to Heaven. Not the hardest. The EASIEST.

      It always looks bloody hard to us from where we are standing, but that’s because we assume that what we’re living through is the worst case scenario.

      But what if it isn’t? What if it’s the best case scenario?

      This seems to be more consistent with the way in which God describes Himself to us throughout Scripture, and the way He gives us Himself in the Church. He’s merciful; He longs to be merciful; He aches for us, and tries to make things as easy as He can for us.

      It would be nice if we started taking Him at His word a bit more. Or at least stopped seeing Him as the Ultimate Wet Blanket Who is just waiting to catch us out and punish us because He has nothing better to do.

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      1. Sorry that my first reply became an independent post below.

        “To my mind, God always, always, always takes us individually and collectively down the most merciful and easiest and kindest paths that will lead us to Him. We screw it up all the time with our bad choices. But even with those bad choices, God always takes us along the easiest way to Heaven. Not the hardest. The EASIEST.”

        I don’t know how we ever know this. I have a friend who is a rape-incest survivor. She has the most intense faith in God of anyone I know. It is not a psychological compensation or crutch, not an opiate. She was adopted into that dysfunctional family, and for years asked God “Why?” She finally tracked down her families of origin, and decided they were worse, that she would be dead had she not been adopted out. Can this be true? I think some things are unknowable, and evil is too deep a mystery to grasp.

        “So much wrong fills the world we today inhabit, so great is the mass of injustice and brutality, that for the survival of our sanity, we must corrode, at least in part, our capacity for empathy. For if we were to truly mourn for every death, for every massacre, from Iraq to Nicaragua, and from Papua New Guinea to Nigeria, we would grow mad with grief. And yet I cannot but feel there is a madness in not grieving.” – Bishop Saad Sirop Hanna, Abducted in Iraq: A Priest in Baghdad

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  5. “How do we know that the apocalyptic 20th century wasn’t actually the best case scenario?”

    Good question. I can’t answer that, and given how far people are from God it seems very hard to think that it was the best possible. OTOH there are private revelations that state it could have been worse, and evil was turned aside by prayer. I don’t doubt it…BTW, there was a bit of a scandal 10 years ago when the American IRS was declining the tax exempt status for religious organizations, they asked one applicant “How often do you pray?” My honest answer: “Not enough.”

    “In the same way, how do we know that the 21st century isn’t going to be the best case scenario, no matter how awful it looks to us when it happens?”

    Another good one. Considering that the 21st century has seen the greatest reduction of poverty in history, I really do hope for this. OTOH (there is always TOH) the current idea that all credit is due to us gives me the willies, it seems like the arrogance of the 19th all over again.

    “Or at least stopped seeing Him as the Ultimate Wet Blanket Who is just waiting to catch us out and punish us…”

    Agreed, that has to stop. As it happens we are our own wet blankets, I firmly believe.

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  6. Great piece, breath of fresh air. Ah yes, it was the specificity of that BEESWAX candle that finished me with apocalypticism! Im with you and your sister re prepping – trenchant as ever 😁

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