Distinguishing between True and False apparitions

Distinguishing between True and False apparitions

Genuine apparitions rare

As Mgr Farges says in his celebrated study, Mystical Phenomena, “True Visions are rare, but visionaries are legion …” (p. 323). This could be said to be the guiding principle for this section of the website, that is that the great majority of reported visions are almost certainly false, and are due to human delusion, or illness, or malice, or, in the worst cases, to diabolical deception.

As St. Paul pointed out, the devil is capable of disguising himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14).On occasion God does grant “visions” to those who could be regarded as “sinners,” as is clear from the Old Testament accounts of Balaam (Num 22-13) and Belshazzar (Dan 5:5), and even in the case of Paul, before his conversion as detailed in the New Testament.

In Church history too there are occasional accounts of such events, for example the apparition of Mary seen by Alphonse Ratisbonne in Rome in 1842. But these are exceptional, and the great majority of such visions or apparitions have been the privilege of either young children or holy men and women.

There is no “track record” of Mary, or Jesus, or the saints, appearing to adult individuals of a mediocre, or worse, spiritual level. As Mgr Farges puts it: “Amongst sinners … visions are always very rare, and therefore must always seem suspect and attributable to illusion or the devil, unless there is a proof to the contrary ”

The category of “sinner” is, unfortunately, that which applies to most of us, and thus we must conclude that genuine apparitions or visions are extremely rare.

Definition of visions and apparitions

It’s useful to define what is meant by visions or apparitions so as to have a better understanding of what they involve. For the purposes of this website the basic difference between a “vision” and an “apparition,” in Catholic terms, can be understood as follows: in a vision God produces a concept or image without there necessarily being anything external to the viewer, whereas in an apparition God apparently causes something external to the viewer to be perceived through the senses, which act normally even if the “seer” is in an ecstatic state.

Broadly speaking it is probably accurate to say that in the history of the Church, visions have been granted to saints and other holy people who have advanced some way in spiritual terms. This is because they have reached the stage where God can act more directly on the soul, and so produce visions and ecstasies of a more interior nature.

The approved Marian apparitions on the other hand seem to be of a more “exterior” kind, and have been experienced by those who can be regarded as spiritual “novices.” This distinction between “visions” and “apparitions” has been followed here, although some writers see apparitions as special cases of visions.

The term “visionary,” at least in English, seems to have acquired a negative sense, that is a description of a false “seer,” and so has not been used here in discussing the approved Marian apparitions.

Possible problems with apparitions – hallucinations

With the more “exterior” Marian apparitions it seems that the main dangers are illusion and hallucination. It would be a case of illusion if the visionary thought that a physical object was acting in an apparition-like manner, as in the case of those who think they have seen statues of Mary moving. Some of the people of Knock in 1879 initially thought that the apparition of Mary they could see by the church was a collection of new statues ordered by the parish priest and left outside.

This was the natural initial conclusion to come to but it was incorrect because one of those present tried to kiss one of the “statues” and found nothing there. Hallucinations on the other hand are usually due to some disorder of the brain, either organic or drug induced, which leads to the production of images that can be regarded as having different levels of “reality” for the individual. “Hallucinations” may also possibly have a diabolic origin.

Hallucinations can thus be reckoned as pathological occurrences in which an inward image is falsely projected by the mind but regarded as real. Normally the senses receive outward stimulations and pass these to the brain where they are processed. But in certain abnormal and morbid states this process is reversed and images arising in the brain, for whatever reason, are projected outwardly and perceived by the individual as real objects.

Thus people suffering from hallucinations can believe they are seeing things which are not real, or hearing imaginary voices, and so on. It is something like the difference between a camera and a slide projector. The camera captures an image on the film, through its lens, of an external object, whereas the slide projector outwardly projects an image from the photographic slide onto a screen.

Thus hallucinations and normal vision are complete opposites.This explains how hypnotists are able to deceive their subjects into believing that they are really seeing imaginary objects. They are able to influence the imagination such that it produces images, sounds, smells, etc., which are felt to be real by the subject. This also indicates that hallucinations can be governed by the will, either that of the individual, or someone else, such as a hypnotist.

And if the wills of individuals can be influenced by other people to produce hallucinatory states then that principle also extends to the devil. However, it always needs to be borne in mind that hallucinations can also be produced artificially by drugs or by excessive emotional excitement, and that perhaps these are more likely causes than direct diabolical influence.

Distinguishing between hallucinations and genuine apparitions

Mgr Farges points to an important way of distinguishing between hallucinations and genuine apparitions. In the case of an hallucination, in general it only gradually becomes visible with increasing clearness, appearing firstly only as “a vague light, then a hazy white spot, and it is in this mist that little by little the contours of the picture are traced, with its details and colours, which before becoming fixed, pass through different phases and transformations.”

For a genuine apparition though the object appears and disappears in a more fully formed manner. It may gradually fade away, but it retains it distinctive characteristics. In other words there is an indistinct, hazy, quality to hallucinations, although this does not mean that they can be confused with dreams. Dreams are conjured up by the imagination when the exterior senses have been dulled by sleep, (cf. Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 34:1-8).

But dreams do show clearly the way that the mind can produce very vivid imagery, and so the step from this sort of internal production of images, to the external production of hallucinations is a logical one.It is also possible that hallucinations may be induced by autosuggestion, as Mgr Farges points out: “Under the influence of violent emotion, of a desire or a fear which maddens, it is possible to see or hear what is hoped for or feared, and by repetition of the crises, facility to reproduce the vision at will may be acquired …”

In other words a person may develop the ability to produce hallucinations, at will as it were. But in all this they cannot go beyond the contents of their own imagination, and thus hallucinations are often repetitive.Collective hallucinations differ from genuine collective apparitions in that they normally result from an extremely heightened emotional state, shared by a group of people who often are subject to “waves” of emotion which lead to imitation. Thus, in the past, there have been reports of exhausted shipwreck survivors sharing “visions” of other boats, or dry land, and so on.

However, while sharing similar fantasies, these unfortunate people have still experienced different hallucinations, unlike the seers of genuine apparitions, who have, almost invariably, seen the same details, usually with very minor variations. Similarly genuine seers are normally in a calm and unexcited state, although they may be in some form of ecstasy, and the question of hallucinations brought about by emotional extremes does not arise.

Conclusion: genuine apparitions from God

Thus a true vision or apparition comes from God, but a hallucination comes from the individual’s own imagination or is caused by some bodily or mental disorder, or, more seriously, by the devil. So while a highly suggestible and unbalanced individual might be subject to some sort of hallucination, usually there are be clear signs to indicate this, that is moral defects are present.

The seers of the approved Marian apparitions have generally been regarded as very level headed and unexcitable, and thus unlikely to be subject to hallucinations. Similarly, there are good textual accounts of these apparitions indicating that they do not contradict Church teaching or dogma, another positive point regarding their authenticity, although the Church itself has not rushed into proclaiming their truthfulness, taking time to evaluate all the evidence.

In most of the Marian apparitions we are dealing with simple people or children, who although not advanced “spiritually,” were usually uncorrupted by the world, and so able to see things hidden from other people. This was the case with Pontmain in 1871 where the apparition of Mary in the sky was only seen by young children, who were not in ecstasy, while the adults present saw nothing.

Knock is the exception to this in that most of those who went to the church on 21 August 1879, and saw the apparition, were adults, albeit undoubtedly simple and unsophisticated country people with a childlike faith. Although Juan Diego, the seer of Guadalupe, was an adult, he had only been baptised a few years previously and so was, in spiritual terms, a child.

Verifying true apparitions: prophecy and miracles

The question arises as to how certain we can be that an apparition really comes from God. In the Old Testament period, Prophets such as Elijah appeared and claimed to speak in the name of God, apparently proving this by miraculous signs accepted by the people. These signs were necessary because of the presence of false prophets, and so a process of discernment was needed. Likewise, Christ proved the divine nature of his person and mission by performing miracles.

This is the view of the French spiritual writer, Poulain, on how much credibility we should give to revelations and visions generally, and, by extension, this also applies to Marian apparitions: “When a miracle is performed, and it is stated that it is worked with this intention, [as a sign] or when circumstances show this to be the case, it is an undeniable proof of the divine nature of the revelation. A prophecy fulfilled, will be the equivalent of a miracle if it was couched in definite language and could not have been the result of chance or a conjecture of the Devil.”

The miraculous healings at Lourdes seem to fulfil this criteria, while at Fatima, there was both a fulfilled prophecy and miraculous sign in the foretelling and actuality of the “miracle of the sun.” This indicates that these Marian apparitions really did come from God and so we can be morally certain they are worthy of belief.Characteristics of genuine apparitions

Regarding the approved Marian apparitions dealt with on this website, from the time of Guadalupe onwards, they have been chosen on the basis that they involve Mary visually appearing and giving a definite message, either spoken or in some symbolic form, to a seer or seers. In addition elements such as Episcopal approval and the development of a relatively extensive cult, as well as wider ecclesiastical and Papal approval, have all been taken as indicating the genuineness of particular apparitions.

In practice this comes down to, amongst a few others, the nine major approved apparitions of the modern era, between Guadalupe and Beauraing and Banneux in the 1930s. The others are Rue du Bac in 1830; La Salette in 1846; Lourdes in 1858; Pontmain in 1871; Knock in 1879; and Fatima in 1917. This means that not every possibly authentic Marian “event” is included here, because in some cases the people involved did not see Mary in the way that seers involved in the major recognised apparitions saw her, or such apparitions simply have not made a big enough impact on the Church.

Sources: Mgr. Albert Farges, Mystical Phenomena,(Burns, Oates & Washbourne, London, 1926); Rev. Michael Walsh, The Apparition at Knock, (St Jarlath’s College, Tuam, 1959); R. Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol. 2,(B. Herder Book Co., St Louis, 1948); A. Tanquery, The Spiritual Life, A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology, (Desclée, Belgium, 1950); A. Poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer,(Kegan Paul, London, 1912).