"As the flesh is nourished by food, so is man supported by prayers"

St Augustine

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"God looks neither at long nor beautiful prayers, but at those that come from the heart."

The Cure D'Ars

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"O Lord, my God, who will seek you with simple and pure love, and not find that you are all one can desire, for you show yourself first and go out to meet those who seek you? "

St John of the Cross, OCD - Doctor of the Church

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PART 5 - The Unitive Way of the Perfect

Ch 57: Differences Between Extraordinary Divine Facts and Morbid Phenomena

The extraordinary facts discussed in the preceding chapter, particularly stigmatization, levitation, and so on, which occasionally accompany ecstasy are so well proved that positivists cannot deny their existence. They try, however, to liken them to certain morbid phenomena proceeding from psychoneuroses, especially hysteria.

The saints are, as a matter of fact, subject, like other men, to illness; but we are concerned with discovering whether, in spite of their maladies, they are mentally sane and well balanced.(1)

We shall point out here, as many psychologists and theologians have already done, the differences: (I) on the part of the subject; (2) on the part of the phenomena; (3) on the part of the effects. After these general remarks, we shall indicate by some examples how to proceed to the examination of certain particular facts.


Patients afflicted with psychoneuroses are unbalanced from a mental point of view, whereas true mystics and ecstatics manifest perfect moral equilibrium.

Dr. E. Regis thus characterizes the mentality of hysterical subjects:

Many hysterical subjects have a distinctive mental state, easily recognizable. From early youth, future hysterical subjects - for we are speaking here especially of hysterical members of the feminine sex - stand out by reason of particular characteristics. In the majority of cases, they are girls of intellectual brilliancy, precocious in the extreme, impressionable, coquettes, seeking to draw attention to themselves, clever in feigning and lying, subject, moreover, to nocturnal terrors, dreams, and nightmares. Hysteria once established, the mental and moral state of its tributaries is characterized principally, where the intellect is concerned, by an excessive mobility, which makes the patients incapable of perseverance and of any stable idea; . . . they are absolutely incapable of succeeding in any serious endeavor. In addition, they have a very manifest tendency to contradiction, controversy, paradoxical ideas. . . likewise to imitation, suggestion, and autosuggestion. Morally the state is the same: a bizarre, capricious, fantastic, immoderately mobile character; . . . duplicity, untruthfulness, cleverness in simulating, deceiving, inventing; brusque and untimely propensity to the most perverse acts, as well as to most meritorious actions of bravery and display; continual need to make a spectacle of themselves, and so on.(2) Then come subconscious fixed ideas, hallucinations even outside of any delirium properly so called, attacks with delirium, finally mental deterioration and madness.

It is evident that mental disturbance is increasingly accentuated, the intellect directs the patient's conduct less and less, the memory splits, sometimes to the extent that the patient believes that he has two personalities; soon there is nothing left in the mind except a small number of fixed ideas; whence arises a certain mono-ideism bordering on madness. With the diminution of the intellect, goes the weakening of the will; the emotions get the upper hand, gradually the personality disappears, and caprice dominates.(3)

In true mystics and ecstatics, on the contrary, it has been established that their intellect grows through their knowledge of God, the divine perfections, the dogmas of faith, and also through their profound knowledge of themselves. They declare that in a few moments of contemplation they learn more than by reading all books on the interior life. In these moments they receive a higher light which makes them glimpse, as it were, a superior synthesis of all they already knew, a living, luminous synthesis which, arousing the impulse of the will, makes them undertake and carry out great things with admirable, persevering courage in spite of almost unbelievable difficulties. The lives of St. Catherine of Siena and of St. Teresa illustrate this fact.

In addition, true mystics are humble, charitable, submissive to the divine will amid even the greatest trials. In them is patent the connection and the harmony of the most dissimilar virtues, and, dominating all, a love of God and of neighbor and a wisdom that give them peace and wonderful serenity. Properly speaking, they represent the inverse of the passionate agitation and inconstancy of hysterical subjects. This fact is evident in their labors for the successful prosecution of a difficult undertaking; likewise their perseverance in good, their constant love of the truth, united to reserve and humility, give proof of it.


No less difference exists. between true ecstasy and what has been called hysterical ecstasy. It suffices to have assisted once or twice at this latter manifestation in hospitals to see that there is no resemblance whatever between the two.

In attacks of hysteria, as Dr. E. Regis says,(4) there is a delirium of illusion, clearly hallucinatory in character or marked by memories or lengthy monologues. Fundamentally it is one and the same delirium, but corresponding to different degrees of depth of the illusion. The first phase of the crisis resembles a light attack of epilepsy, but is distinguished from it by the sensation of a ball that rises in the throat; the person experiences a feeling of suffocation, which comes from the swelling of the throat. The second phase consists in inordinate gestures, contortions of the whole body, especially in arched circles. The third is that of passional attitudes of fright, jealousy, lubricity in relation to the obsessing image. The crisis ends by attacks of tears or of laughter, which relax the patient. On coming out of these crises, the subjects are exhausted. In short, there are different phases, epileptoid, clownish, plastic, and passional (called hysterical ecstasy), the crisis terminating in exhaustion of the body, dulling of the mind, collapse of the whole being.

In true ecstasy, on the contrary, there are no convulsions, violent agitation, passional attitudes of fright, jealousy, and so on; there is calm, the rapture of a soul profoundly united to God by one of those passive recollections which God alone can give and which considerably surpass the recollection that proceeds from our personal effort of concentration. There is absolutely no relation between so-called hysterical ecstasy and the ecstasy, for example, of Bernadette during the apparitions of Lourdes. In a real ecstasy there is no morbid excitation, no strange agitation, no entirely physical delectation, followed by depression. Ecstasy is the movement of the whole being, both body and soul, toward the divine object present in the imagination or intellect. Ecstasy ends in the calm return to the natural state, with simple regret over the disappearance of the celestial vision and the wholly spiritual joy that it gave. St. Teresa even points out in her Life (5) that this state, which should weaken the body, on the contrary, gives it new strength.


These differences are more and more marked. In hysterical subjects when the crises increase, the unbalanced mental condition grows and with it dissimulation, lying, brutalization, lascivity, and finally capricious sensuality completely dominates the intellect and will. If mono-ideism is present, it springs from the disorganization and disintegration of the personality, and from mental confusion which leads to madness.

In true mystics and ecstatics, on the other hand, there is a growing development of the understanding of divine things, of those of the interior life, of the life of the Church, of all that touches on the salvation or the loss of souls. There is likewise a steady increase in the love of God and in devotion to their neighbor, as shown by the works they undertake and often bring to success, to such a degree that their foundations last for centuries.

St. Francis of Assisi, the stigmatic of Alvernia, founded in the thirteenth century a religious order that is still one of the most numerous in the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas, during his ecstasies, dictated whole chapters on the mystery of the Blessed Trinity and saw from a superior point of view the entire synthesis of theological science.

St. Catherine of Siena, who died at the age of thirty-two and who for a long time could neither read nor write, played a role of primary importance in the affairs of her day, particularly in the return of the popes to Rome.

In spite of opposition on the part of many, St. Teresa founded before her death sixteen convents for women and fourteen for men.

If in hysterical subjects there is mono-ideism (for lack of other ideas), for example, the fixed idea of suicide, in true mystics there is one great idea which subordinates all others to itself in perfect harmony; in other words, the thought of God, of His immense goodness toward us and the profound and radiating conviction that we must correspond to His love. It is not the disintegration of the elements of a man's personality; rather it is their perfect subordination according to the very order of charity: God loved above all else, then souls to be saved. This is why, even from the human point of view, as a number of unbelieving psychologists have recognized, the saints are great organizers. Although an unbeliever, De Montmorand writes on this subject: "True mystics are people of experience and action, not of reasoning and theory. They have the sense of organization, the gift of commanding, and reveal themselves well endowed for business. The works that they found are capable of surviving and enduring; in the conception and direction of their enterprises, they give proof of prudence, of daring, and of that just appreciation of possibilities which characterizes good sense. And, as a matter of fact, good sense seems to be their fundamental quality; good sense untroubled by an unhealthy exaltation and a disordered imagination, and coupled with the most unusual power of penetration." (6) This we see exemplified in St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, St. Teresa, and so many others.(7)


Occasionally in the lives of mystics and ecstatics we find evidence of a given fact that might suggest the hypothesis of hysteria. We shall give an example of blindness which we have studied particularly. It is known that functional blindness and even temporary paralysis are occasionally found in hysteria and may last even beyond the crisis and for a long time.

In Father Estrate's life of the Arabian Carmelite, Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified,(8) we read that in her youth in the Orient the servant of God was stricken with blindness which lasted forty days, that she recovered her sight instantaneously after a prayer to the Blessed Virgin, and that at the moment of her cure she felt something fall from her eyes. In another life of the same Carmelite,(9) the fact is reported in an identical manner. Is this blindness for forty days a sign of hysteria in this Carmelite who had frequent ecstasies accompanied by levitation?

To answer this question and every other one of the same kind, the moral and physical qualities of the subject should first be examined. In the case under discussion, the constitution of the servant of God was healthy and even strong; her corpulence and the incessant work she performed do not permit us to classify her among neuropaths or among psychopaths. No functional malady was observed in her. Moreover, she never had the signs of typical hysteria, or the precursory symptoms, or the crises with epileptoid, clownish, plastic, passional phases, or delirium followed by physical exhaustion. Instead of discovering inconstancy or untruthfulness in her, one sees perseverance in good, love of the truth, purity, reserve, and humility. Should the fact of this forty-day blindness, nevertheless, be attributed to hysteria? Is it a symptom of this malady?

On this subject we shall make a few observations which are applicable to several similar facts:

I. The nature of hysteria is not yet well known; some see a neurosis in it, others a psychosis, others the two at once, to such a degree that Professor Lassegue, of the Paris Academy of Medicine, said, as reported in L'Ami du clerge: "The definition of hysteria has never been given, and it is possible that it never will be. . . . It is a basket into which people throw the papers that they do not know how to classify." (10) Since this malady has not yet been sufficiently defined, it has not as yet, properly speaking, differential symptoms, such, for example, as Koch's bacillus for tuberculosis. What seems to be fixed is the form of the hysterical crisis, with its precursory symptoms and the different phases of the crisis. Blindness is occasionally, but not always, found in it; therefore, among the signs of this malady that are customarily cited, it is not a cardinal symptom.

2. Moreover, blindness occurred only once in the life of the servant of God of whom we are speaking.

3. She has not one of the peculiar symptoms of hysteria, not any of the precursory symptoms, not any of the phases of the crisis. In the syndrome of these symptoms, blindness would have contributed to proving something; without them, it proves nothing.

4. On the other hand, the particular cadre of Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified harmonizes sufficiently with that of mystical ecstasy described by St. Teresa.

5. Persons least favorably inclined to the servant of God never said that she was hysterical. A doctor at Pau who had suspected this malady and sought to make sure of it, one day witnessed her extraordinary state and admitted that it was ecstasy.

All these observations show that the temporary blindness of which we are speaking did not originate in hysteria.

6. There is a confirmation of our opinion in the reasons which lead to the conclusion that it was an organic malady. It occurred, in fact, in the Orient where blind persons are notably more numerous than elsewhere because of the brilliant glare of the sun, the whiteness of the earth, the calcareous dust carried by the wind, the coolness of the nights and the fact that people sleep on the flat roofs, and finally because of the lack of hygiene, because of flies and other insects.(11)

7. There is a final reason, and one not to be disregarded, related by the two above-mentioned biographers of the servant of God, namely, that at the moment when her blindness was cured "she felt that something fell from her eyes." This same remark is made by those who are cured of organic blindness caused by leucoma (albugo), well known in pathology, that is, the yellowish spot which forms between the layers of the cornea in several inflammations of the eyeball or of one of its parts.

These different reasons lead us to think that blindness in this case is organic and not functional, and consequently not hysterical.

Particular facts, more or less similar to this case, may be examined in the same way by considering, first of all, the qualities of the subject and the particular details of the fact itself, to see whether or not it is related to one or another symptom of hysteria or of some other psychoneurosis.(12)

The director will be able and sometimes will be obliged to consult a competent physician. An attentive examination, well conducted from both the medical and the spiritual point of view, will often give moral certitude, especially if it is accompanied by prayer, great disinterestedness, and perfect purity of intention in the search for truth.


In the "Congress on Religious Psychology" of Avon-Fontainebleau (September 21-22, 1938), the reports of which are assembled in the Etudes carmelitaines (October, 1938), the following question was raised: "In what measure are sanctity and lofty mystical life compatible with pathological disturbances?" Father Bruno, who organized the Congress, believed that the entire result could be summed up in the following proposition: "Theologians and doctors who were consulted believe possible the concomitance of normal mystical life and of certain psychopathological states not to be identified with insanity. However, it appears that definitive and incrustating anomalies are not compatible with regular mystical elevation." In accord with Father de Guibert and Father de Tonquedec, we admit this proposition with some reservations. During the same Congress, Doctor A. Delmas, who also admits the possibility of a lofty interior life in lucid moments for a cyclothymic like Father Surin, declared that nevertheless true hysteria does not seem to him compatible with an eminent moral life; such a state would constitute a veritable enigma. (13)

The articles of Dr. Biot on these questions may be read with
profit. (14)





1. On this subject, see the studies of Dr. Pierre Janet, L'Automatisme psychologique (10th ed., 1930), Part II, chaps. 3 f.; De l'angoisse a l'extase, 1926; La Medecine psychologique, 1928. Cf. also Dr. E. Regis, Precis de psychiatrie, (6th ed., 1926), in particular on hysteria, pp. 954-66. Robert de Sinety, S.J., Psychopathologie et direction, 1934. A. Poulain, S.J., Des Graces d'oraison (10th ed., 1922), Part III, chap. 18; Part IV, chap. 21. Msgr. A. Saudreau, L'Etat mystique, sa nature et ses phases (2nd ed., 192 I), chap. 17. G. Rabeau, "Theologie mystique et psychiatrie," La Vie spirituelle (suppl.), June 1935; and in the same issue an article by Dr. H. Ey, "La notion de psychopathologie dans ses rapports avec les problemes mystiques." J. de Tonquedec, S.J., "Anormaux" (sanctification des), Dict. de spiritualite, I, col. 678-89. Dr. Biot, "Les maladies nerveuses et mentales," Ami du clerge (1939), no. I, pp. 17-27.

2. Op. cit., p. 955.

3. Cf. P. Janet, L'Automatisme psychologique, Part II, chaps. 3 f.

4. Op. cit., p. 960.

5. Chaps. 18, 20.

6. Psycbologie des mystiques (1910), pp. 20f.

7. Cf. H. Bergson, Les Deux sources de la morale et de la religion (1932), pp. 228, 235, 256.

8. Estrate, Vie de Soeur Marie de ]esus-Crucifie, carmelite arabe (2nd ed., 1816), p. 18.

9. Buzy, Vie de Soeur Marie de ]esus-Crucifie, carmelite arabe (1927, pp. 29 ff.

10. L'Ami du clerge (1914), p. 82.

11. Cf. "Aveugles," Dict. de la Bible, col. 1289.

12. It should also be pointed out, as Dr. Regis observes (op. cit., pp. 697-99: "Psychopathic states resulting from hyperfunction of the thyroid"), that diseases like Basedow's have symptoms which recall those of hysteria; but "when psychic disturbances arise through crises corresponding to Basedowian pressures, the diagnosis cannot be doubtful" (ibid.).

In the same work (pp. 700 ff.) cf. the article on endocrinian autointoxications.

13. Cf. Etudes carmelitaines (October, 1938), pp. 188 if., 235-39.

14. "Quelques notions elementaires sur les maladies nerveuses et mentales," L'Ami du clerge (1939), pp. 17-27. After having distinguished the organic maladies of the nervous system from nervous diseases, he divides the latter into neuroses, psychoneuroses, and psychoses.

Neuroses which attack the nervous system from the functional point of view are epilepsy, Basedow's disease, and the diseases of the endocrine glands, neurasthenia, one of the symptoms of which is asthenia, a notable loss of strength.

Psychoneuroses include hyperemotivity, with its manifestations: anxiety; psychasthenia, which is manifested by obsession, scruples; the mythomania of false ecstatics, false visionaries, false stigmatics.

Psychoses, which peculiarly affect mental activity, have diverse forms: melancholia, mania, cyclothymia (manias or melancholy returning in cycles), hallucinations, delirium, which show the disintegration of the personality, whereas unity through the subordination and coordination of ideas, feelings, and voluntary acts, is the sign of mental health.