Today, we continue looking at the phenomenon of private revelation, discussed in this excerpt from my book, MARY, MOTHER OF THE SON.
Two Examples of Private Revelation
Let me give two illustrations of what I mean, one obscure and one famous (and neither having anything to do with Mary). The first concerns a woman I worked with back in the late 1980s. “Betty” was a lapsed Catholic who was diagnosed with diabetes and had to be hospitalized in Seattle. They got her blood sugar under control and kept her in for a day or so to make sure all was well. She was at that stage of recovery where she was well enough to be bored, but not quite well enough to be released. As she was laying around in her hospital bed one Sunday morning, she heard what she took to be a radio in the next room. She focused on the sound and realized she was hearing a Mass. She hadn’t been to Mass in years but, having nothing else to do, she listened. She heard the readings, the homily, the prayers of the people—(including a prayer for the repose of Fr. So and So’s soul, and, finally, a prayer for her own recovery.)
Betty’s mother was associated with St. Martin’s College, a Benedictine school about fifty miles south of Seattle, so Betty figured the Mass was being broadcast from there. The next day, Betty’s mom visited, and Betty thanked her, saying she’d heard the Mass and appreciated the prayers. Betty’s mom was confused. “What do you mean you heard the Mass?” she asked. Betty answered, “I heard it on the radio yesterday.” Her mother replied, “We don’t broadcast our Mass.” They checked with the priest who celebrated it. There had been no broadcast. Yet Betty was able to describe the homily, the prayers, and all the details of the Mass at St. Martin’s. The priest told her, “It would appear you were given a rather extraordinary gift!”
The second illustration involves one of the greatest saints in the history of Christianity, Augustine. Feeling great anguish over his lifelong struggle with his half-heartedness toward God, he cried out to God from the depths of his weakness and frustration at his own sinfulness—and God answered:
I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl—I know not which—coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. For I had heard how Anthony, accidentally coming into church while the gospel was being read, received the admonition as if what was read had been addressed to him: “Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.
So I quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for there I had put down the apostle’s book when I had left there. I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.
Some Things to Notice about Private Revelation
A couple of things are worth noting here. The first is the curious smallness of these epiphanies. No parted seas. No big explosions. They’re both intensely personal experiences. Not for nothing does Scripture refer to revelation as a “still small voice” (1 Kgs. 19:12). The recipient of the private revelation will often be the only person aware of what has happened. But for that person the whole cosmos has changed. Vistas have suddenly opened before him and he has the chance to follow God into a new world transformed by the living presence.
Or not. For, of course, our free will isn’t taken away by a private revelation. Augustine responded with all his heart to the mysterious invitation extended him. As a result, God led Augustine to change the entire course of history in what is arguably (after St. Paul’s) the second most important conversion in the annals of western civilization. But my friend Betty walked away from her private revelation. Though she was very concerned that I believe her story and not think her crazy (and I do believe her), she nonetheless remained an ex-Catholic even after this with the silly excuse, “If God really loved me, why do I have diabetes?” When she said this, I thought, “Sheesh, lady! What do you want? An engraved invitation? We are, after all, talking about a Church founded on a man who was crucified.” But despite what I thought, she exercised her free will to ignore the astonishing gift she’d been given.
Another point to note is that real private revelation always points back to public revelation, just as public revelation illumines and completes private revelation. For that reason, private revelation never takes precedence over public revelation—ever. Augustine’s private revelation took him straight to Sacred Scripture and the public revelation of the Church. Betty’s, likewise, as impressive an invitation from God as you could ask for, was an invitation not to some new revelation, but to come back to Mass. Through the history of the Church, all authentic private revelation, however weird (and some stories are doozies), has always had essentially the same message: Repent of your sins, believe the teaching of the Church, say your prayers, be good, love God and your neighbor, receive the sacraments—in a word, believe and live the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s because there’s no new light to give. There’s just the good old healthy daylight of Jesus, but it’s often falling on eyes that need their scales removed. The apostles handed the light who is Jesus on to the Church two thousand years ago and the Church has been handing that light down ever since by the power of the Holy Spirit. Private revelation sheds no extra light. It just peels scales off of our eyes so that we can see the only light there has ever been: Jesus Christ.
Various Problems Arising from Fake and False Private Revelation
Numerous questions and problems arise from the fact of private revelation. The first and most obvious one is that a great many alleged private revelations are fake or false. Note the distinction between “fake” and “false.” A fake private revelation is a deliberate deception. An average Evangelical (and, for that matter, an average Catholic) is typically ready to assume that a claimed private revelation is fake, and there is good reason for that. The world abounds with charlatans claiming miraculous powers and looking for fame, money, sex, or power. They are found in all religious traditions. The rule of thumb regarding fake revelation is: There’s a sucker born every minute. Don’t be one of them. Trust God and keep an eye on your wallet.
But keep an even closer eye on the teaching of the Church. Not all fake private revelation is after your wallet. Sometimes it’s after your soul. The devil does indeed come to us as an angel of light. And he always seeks to turn us away from the teaching of Holy Church toward the worship of some creature (it matters little which creature). Therefore, a private revelation that sets itself up against the public revelation of the Church or the authority of her pastors is, by definition, not to be accepted, because God cannot contradict himself.
But not all false private revelation is fake. A “revelation” can be false although the person experiencing it may seriously believe it’s legitimate. In such a case, the person claiming the revelation isn’t a crook or a liar, he’s just mistaken. But sincerity doesn’t guarantee immunity from the harm a false revelation may cause. People who mistake the exit ramp for the on ramp of the freeway also believe they’re going the right way. That doesn’t mean they don’t experience painful and even fatal consequences as a result of their error. People can be sincerely wrong.
For instance, somebody may take seriously a false revelation claiming that blood transfusions are sinful. As long as you and your loved ones are in good health, such a blunder is only a quirky notion. But if you (or worse still, someone in your care, like a child) are involved in a car accident, your commitment to a false revelation could spell the difference between life and death.
There’s a Weirdness in God’s Mercy
Complicating things further is the fact that sometimes the recipient of false private revelation—in the strange providence of the God who writes straight with crooked lines—receives real grace. An example of this can be seen in the story of a Baptist woman named Diana Duyser who believed (I am not making this up) that a grilled cheese sandwich she bit into in 1994 was a sign from God, because she saw the face of the Blessed Virgin in it:
The strange story began some 10 years ago, when Duyser prepared the sandwich for breakfast. She placed a slice of Land O’ Lakes yellow American cheese between two slices of Publix white bread and cooked it on a non-stick pan. She then took a bite from the corner and saw what she describes as the face of Mary staring back from the bread. She spit out the bite and screamed for her husband.
“It scared me half to death,” said Duyser, a housewife and amateur doll maker.
Duyser told friends and neighbors, and the story spread throughout metro Miami. She kept the sandwich in a small plastic container and padded it with cotton.
“All those years, whenever I’d get real down, I’d go in and say things to her and make sure she was still there,” Duyser said. “Sometimes my husband would come in and say, ‘What is this lady trying to say to us, this Virgin Mary?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know, honey, unless she wants us to put her out there and show the whole world.’”
Duyser said the past decade has been blessed because of the sandwich. She won $70,000 at a Florida Indian casino and attributes it to the sandwich.
As you might expect, the reaction from most people (including Catholics) was justifiably skeptical:
“This is just so dubious that I would say the chance it’s any kind of legitimate miracle is almost zero,” said Father Ernan McMullin, a well-known author and professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University.
Many casual onlookers needed no further evidence of fakery after reading that Duyser auctioned the sandwich off “for $28,000 on eBay. The buyer, Golden Palace online casino of Las Vegas, plans to tour the sandwich worldwide to generate publicity for its company and raise money for charities.”
But a closer look suggests Duyser, however mistaken she may be about the supernatural origin of the sandwich, acted in good faith. In addition to holding on to the sandwich for ten years, she parted with it only out of desperation:
“She is unbelievably sincere, which is about 100% of the appeal of the sandwich,” [Golden Palace spokesman Monty] Kerr told the Register.
“She talks to the sandwich like it’s a person. She definitely believes in God and believes this is something important. She wept when she had to give the sandwich up.”
Recently, however, the Duysers fell on hard times. Her 52-yearold husband, Greg—a former air conditioning technician—was diagnosed with terminal emphysema, and the couple has no health insurance. They live on a $1,153 monthly disability check.
“We had always intended on selling her at some point,” Diana Duyser said. “We wanted her to go to Ripley’s Believe It or Not, or a museum, and I thought we’d get a couple hundred bucks. We decided to try eBay, and I think she was watching over us. Now people everywhere will see her, and that was my goal.”
This month, the Duysers are traveling the United States in a luxury RV the casino bought, displaying the sandwich everywhere. Kerr said the casino has heard a few complaints from faithful who believe the promotion is sacrilege, but not many. He said most Christian faithful appear deeply moved by the sandwich.
A Miami Herald reporter drove the sandwich to Las Vegas, after the casino bought it, and showed it to a variety of people along the way. Some were amused; others fell to their knees and cried.
Weird? You bet. A genuine private revelation? That’s not so easy to determine. On the one hand, if you grill enough cheese sandwiches and you can get burn patterns resembling anything from a woman’s face to a picture of the Space Needle.
But does that make Duyser a liar? There’s no evidence of that. She obviously believes. Indeed, she believes so sincerely she is, as of this writing, contemplating joining the Catholic Church—because of the sandwich:
“I’ll be going to a Catholic church, to visit, and I’ll see how it goes,” says Diana Duyser, 52. “Mary came to me, and she touched me, and there isn’t much that’s ever said about Mary in the Baptist church.”
Duyser said she knows little about Catholicism, but she understands that Catholics know Mary as the sinless mother of God.
Duyser’s story highlights exactly the sort of conversion that makes Catholics cringe and critics of the Catholic faith whoop with glee. But I simply note that Christian history—Protestant as well as Catholic—is full of people who have found the motivation to follow Jesus in very strange and very commonplace things. That’s why it’s not so easy to simply dismiss this story as obviously not authentic private revelation—because in the end the sandwich appears to have done what private revelation is supposed to do: point Ms. Duyzer to the public revelation. And, indeed, a modern skeptic might see in Augustine’s “pick it up, read it” voice a very simple “natural explanation” (“It was just a kid playing a game next door!”) that overlooks the fact that for Augustine the incident was a divine invitation, even if it did have a completely “natural explanation.” That’s because Augustine, while a supernaturalist, did not separate nature and supernature into separate, watertight compartments. He took it for granted that things with natural explanations could still be signs from the God who is in control of nature. In other words, he believed in providence.
Similarly, car accidents, like burn patterns on a grilled cheese sandwich, are everyday phenomena, yet when a young Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope St. John Paul II, was hit by a car and survived:
He spent the next two weeks in the hospital, recuperating and pondering the peculiar ways of Providence. That he had survived this incident seemed a confirmation of his priestly vocation.
God is not proud. He’s willing to meet people at their growing edge, and it’s difficult for us mortals to make hard and fast judgments about what natural or supernatural means he might employ to do so. Anything from a miracle of hearing in a Seattle hospital to a child’s voice to a car accident to a grilled cheese sandwich may be used by him to get through to us.
Revelation Is Not Dependent on Our Intellectual or Moral Perfection
To make matters still more complex, recipients of real divine assistance can even be lacking in brains, emotional stability, or morals and still, by divine providence, land on their feet. As St. Paul notes:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor. 1:27–29).
And so, however sensible it is to note that a claimed revelation is being reported by a scoundrel, a fool, a basket case, or an ignoramus, it’s not automatic disproof of God’s involvement. If all the other evidence points to the truth of the thing, simply dismissing it ad hominem is a poor way to proceed. Indeed, it’s often to blind oneself to a crucial fact in favor of the sign. So, for instance, the risen Christ is reported to have been seen first by a woman from whom seven demons had once been driven out (Mark 16:9). On its own, this would not appear to be a promising psychological profile for a witness. But the interesting thing is that the Church preserved this bit of testimony despite the fact that a woman and a former victim of demonic possession is exactly the witness you would never invent if you were trying to make a case to a first-century Mediterranean patriarchal culture. In short, the Church acts as though it’s preserving a historical memory, not inventing a story.
Another demonstration of how God’s grace isn’t dependent on how smart or saintly we are is found in Genesis, when God condescended to help Jacob even though Jacob’s Bronze Age ignorance of genetics had filled his mind with all sorts of bogus notions about animal breeding and his questionable ethics had not exactly put God in his debt.
The story goes like this: After ripping off his brother Esau’s inheritance, Jacob had himself been ripped off by his uncle Laban. Jacob wanted nothing more than to get away from Laban, but Laban held most of the family assets. So Jacob cut a deal with Laban and promised to take only the speckled and spotted sheep, every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats as his wages. Laban agreed. So Jacob, operating under the solidly wrong Bronze Age assumption that an animal’s coloring depends on what its mother sees as it’s conceived, pulled the following “trick” on Laban:
Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the rods. He set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the runnels, that is, the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, the flocks bred in front of the rods and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. And Jacob separated the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban; and he put his own droves apart, and did not put them with Laban’s flock. Whenever the stronger of the flock were breeding Jacob laid the rods in the runnels before the eyes of the flock, that they might breed among the rods, but for the feebler of the flock he did not lay them there; so the feebler were Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s. Thus the man grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, maidservants and menservants, and camels and asses (Gen. 30:37–43).
The point of this story isn’t that Bronze Age ideas about animal breeding are revealed by God to be good science. The point is that God condescended to help Jacob despite the man’s ignorance of genetics, because he had plans for Jacob (and because Laban had been unjust to Jacob, who deserved his wages). God didn’t grant Jacob’s desire for restitution because striped and speckled sticks make goats bear striped and speckled kids, but because God’s mastery of the universe is so subtle that he can work within real genetic laws and the ignorant notions of Bronze Age men. Similarly, God can and does grant private revelations to people who may be as deeply ignorant or wrong about all sorts of things in their lives as Jacob was about genetics.
Walking the Tightrope
I mention all the above because it’s easy for us to assume that all claims of private revelation are not merely false but fake, or to assume that because somebody has some facts wrong or is a morally dubious character (like Jacob), God can’t possibly be involved with them. Our default setting for claims of private revelation isn’t “evaluate” but “reject.” But the reality is that some claims are true, and therefore, while it’s necessary to be cautious when faced with claims of private revelation, it’s also possible to be too cautious. If we aren’t cautious enough we can find ourselves relieved of our cash, or crushed with heartache. But if we unthinkingly reject all claims of private revelation, we might find ourselves mocking St. Bernadette Soubirous, persecuting the children at Fatima, or taking part in the judicial murder of St. Joan of Arc.
To the recipient of authentic private revelation, such a phenomenon inevitably feels rare, so rare that people who experience it seldom discuss it with others for fear of looking like fools or nuts. But even a quick informal survey of the people around you will show that experiences that bear all the earmarks of private revelation are, in fact, amazingly common. That’s why huge numbers of people will, if they feel safe enough to discuss it, testify to it in stories that often begin along the lines of, “You know, I had something weird happen to me once, too. If you promise you won’t laugh at me, I’ll tell you about it. . . .”
This is only to be expected, since private revelation is, by its nature, addressed to each particular human person in a way designed to get his or her attention. Indeed, it can well be argued that any person who has had a moment in his or her life when God revealed himself as a living reality has experienced private revelation in the sense the Church means it. This need not entail apparitions, miracles, or dancing suns. It need only entail an encounter with the living God. One need not even be a believer for it to happen—as the experiences of Carrel and Zola both attest.
Because authentic private revelation is always an encounter with the living God, it can be an overwhelmingly powerful experience and can often constitute the central spiritual event of a person’s life. For many, it’s a kind of “soul anchor” to which a person clings in moments of confusion and doubt, saying, “I don’t know much, but I do know God showed himself to me that day.” For the faithful recipient of authentic private revelation, the thought of ignoring or disobeying the revelation is akin to blaspheming the Holy Spirit, a fundamental violation of conscience so profound as to be a form of spiritual suicide.
But therein lies the difficulty: For when the most sacred experience of a person’s life is roughly manhandled by people who assume it to be the product of delusion, hunger for Mammon, or demonic deception, the results can be explosive and painful. The Church must therefore strike a balance between respectful treatment of real private revelation and clear rejection of false revelation.
 Wayne Laugesen, “Our Lady of Lunch? Alleged Culinary Apparition Stirs Emotions,” National Catholic Register, January 16–22, 2005.
 George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), 71.