Fr. Poulain’s five causes of false revelations

Under the heading of “Five causes of absolutely false revelations,” Augustin Poulain, SJ, outlines the following points: persons acting untruthfully; those with over lively minds or imaginations; those subject to false or illusory memories; the activity of the devil; and finally the activities of falsifiers.

First cause: persons acting untruthfully

Regarding the first cause, persons acting untruthfully, he describes the well known case of Magdalen of the Cross, a Spanish Franciscan nun who lived at the beginning of the sixteenth century, while also alluding to more than twenty cases of such simulation which were condemned by the Holy Office in the mid-seventeenth century. This indicates that the activities of those falsely claiming “revelations” are not something new. (The following extracts are taken from Fr. Poulain’s book, Revelations and Visions: Discerning the True and Certain from the False or the Doubtful.)”

She was born in 1487, entered the Convent at the age of seventeen, in 1504, and was three times Abbess of her Monastery. From the age of five the Devil appeared to her under the form of different saints, and inspired her with a strong desire to pass as a saint herself. She was thirteen when he considered that her soul was sufficiently possessed by the spirits of vanity, pride, and sensuality; he plainly declared his identity to her, and promised that if she would enter into an agreement with him, he would spread abroad her reputation for sanctity and would procure her, for thirty years at the least, all the pleasures that she desired. She agreed, and Satan became her counsellor, although there were days when she would gladly have driven him away, so terrified was she at the fearful shapes that he took.”

Thanks to his aid, she realised all the outward appearance of divine marvels: ecstasies, levitation, predictions that were often fulfilled. She made herself the stigmatic wounds, and for eleven years persuaded others that she lived without taking any food; while procuring it for herself secretly. For thirty-eight years, up to 1543, she succeeded in deliberately deceiving the greatest theologians in Spain, the Bishops, Cardinals, Inquisitors, and great nobles about the Court. People came from all sides to consult her, and alms were showered upon her. Having been at death’s door, she confessed everything publicly, and then regretted her avowals. Exorcism had to be resorted to before the Devil lost his hold over her will. Finally, she was condemned to be confined in another Convent of her Order.

Second cause: over-lively mind or imagination

Coming to the second cause of falseness, Fr Poulain is thinking in terms of someone who is assumed to be acting in good faith, but who has an “over lively” imagination or mind, which may deceive them.

He describes how our faculties may “sometimes mingle their own action with the divine revelation. But, when the temperament is badly balanced or overexcited, they may do still more: they construct an altogether false revelation. Thanks to their feverish imaginations, such persons, during the most ordinary prayer, can pronounce interior words with such distinctness that they seem to be said by someone else.”

He then goes on to give more details:

“Or, again, on particular days they have an extraordinary power of visual representation. A picture offers itself to their interior eyes with very vivid colors, almost equal to those shown by real objects. If a scene of Our Lord’s life is in question, or some future event in which they are interested, they willingly believe that the picture is supernatural. …”

The same must be said with regard to intellectual locutions. This is how St. John of the Cross speaks of them (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, ch. xxix, p. 192): ‘There are some men whose intellect is so quick and penetrating that their conceptions, when they are self-recollected, naturally proceed with great facility, and form themselves into these locutions and reasonings so clearly [it is a question of intellectual locutions, as was stated in a preceding chapter, the twenty-third] as to make them think that God is speaking. But it is not so. All this is the work of the intellect, somewhat disengaged from the operations of sense, for it may do this and even more without any supernatural help whatever, by its own natural light. This is a state of things of frequent occurrence, and many delude themselves into the belief that… God converses with them: they write down, or cause others to write for them, what they have experienced. And, after all, it is nothing.'”

St. Teresa, it is true, says that when a person has had true visions or true locutions they can no longer be confused with the feeble imitations of the imagination. But for those who have never had experience of these divine favors the difficulty continues undiminished.”

Third cause: illusory memories

Fr Poulain then goes on to look at the third cause of falseness, which he describes as “an illusion or special disease of the memory, which consists in thinking that certain facts are remembered, although they never existed.”

This illusion would seem impossible, and yet it is seen even outside mystic things: certain minds invent stories and sincerely persuade themselves that the incidents occurred. These are inventors in good faith. This case must not be confused with the preceding, where the imagination conjures up a picture, nor with another, much more common, that of romancers who relate imaginary anecdotes, as a joke, and finish by being half persuaded of their historic origin. Those that I am now speaking of are earnest persons who invent right and left, but who believe what they say, and this from the first moment of saying it.

“Some will relate their journeys in distant countries where their friends know quite well that they have never been. They describe the least details, which are always picturesque. Others believe that they have visited Kings, Bishops or other prominent personages, who have confided to them secrets or important opinions, or who have encouraged them warmly. Finally, others describe the fearful dangers that they have escaped, or the unworthy persecutions of which they have been the object. We are disposed to believe them, for their tone is one of such conviction; and then they enter into details with regard to time and locality and the conversations that took place, until we say to ourselves: It is impossible that the foundation of all this should not be true. And yet all is invented.

“These people are not mad; in all other things they are reasonable and intelligent, although usually in a state of agitation and excitement. How are we to explain their aberration? We do not know. But there is a strange confusion between the imagination, which constructs a scene, and the memory, which affirms that it took place. The reason no longer distinguishes between these two very different operations. They probably begin by thinking of the anecdote as possible in itself, then as possible for themselves, then as likely, then as probable, then as certain. It is after this unconscious elaboration, and when the illusion has come to its full maturity, that they relate the history to us.”

Let us not endeavor to explain this illusion, which is fairly common. Let us simply apply it to our subject. Let us imagine, for example, certain persons who, leading a very retired life, have the unfortunate turn of mind which I have just described. They will not be inclined to lay claim to long voyages, or dinners with political or literary celebrities. This would be too much; they have still enough good sense to understand that people would laugh in their faces. They will rather invent facts that cannot be disproved. An exalted piety will sometimes incline them to the side of revelations. They relate that they were visited by the Court of Heaven, and that Our Lady herself gave them her salutary counsels. If they have the ”passion for persecutions,” they may invent or exaggerate those which they suffer from men or devils.”

The [spiritual] director will always find that his advice has little effect; which will be a first means of unmasking the illusion. There is yet another: that of informing himself as to these persons’ lives as a whole. If they have the defect of always exaggerating, they will show it in many other circumstances. It will occasionally take some time to arrive at a clear view of the situation. But where is the need of hurry?”

Fourth cause: diabolical interference

According to Fr Poulain the fourth cause of falseness is due to the possibility that the Devil may give false revelations or visions: “His action may sometimes be recognised by the circumstances of the vision … He can also produce alienation of the sensible faculties, trying to counterfeit the divine ecstasy. This case must be extremely rare, for hardly any undoubted examples are quoted. I have cited that of Magdalen of the Cross; but here it was a purely exterior imitation, and made in complicity with the person involved.”

In the seventeenth century there was an example of the Devil’s action upon a young woman, Nicole of Reims, who seems to have been in good faith. Andre du Val gives her story at great length in Mme. Acarie’s Life (Book I, ch. vi). Nicole appeared to possess the most extraordinary graces; she was approved and consulted by a number of pious persons; she even seemed to labor for the conversion of souls; she organized public prayers and processions. Mime. Acarie was alone in affirming that it was all due to the Devil. At last one day the young woman reverted to her natural state so completely ‘that she no longer had this sublime turn of mind, these beautiful discourses.., nor the appearance of these great virtues. She was very coarse, rough, and imperfect…. She married, and was on the point of becoming a Huguenot [Protestant].’ “

Fifth cause: deliberate inventions of falsifiers

Finally Fr Poulain describes the fifth cause of falseness, that is the deliberate inventions of falsifiers. “Political prophecies have often been their handiwork. They were inspired by motives of political or pecuniary interest, or by the desire to mystify the public.”

We find an instance of the first motive at the time of the taking of Constantinople by the Turks (1453). The future schismatic Patriarch, Georges Scholarios, who was secretly on their side, through hatred of the Latins, wished to dishearten the defenders of the city. With this object, and he afterwards admitted this himself, he composed false prophecies, upon which the people fed eagerly. One of these predictions announced that the assailants would begin by entering the city, but would suddenly be miraculously routed.”

At other times the authors simply wished to amuse themselves at the expense of credulous persons. A prophecy made by Cazotte, on the subject of the French Revolution, has often been reprinted. But now it is thought to have been composed after the event by La Harpe. It may have had a historical foundation, but a less marvellous one than it was made out to be. Suppose that the death of Louis XVI and the French Revolution were really foretold.

These events were decided beforehand by secret societies; Cazotte, who was a high dignitary among the German illuminati, knew these projects and could easily foretell their fulfillment. …”The different causes of falseness just enumerated have often been combined with the object of giving publicity to false prophecies of a political nature. These abound particularly at times of great political or religious upheaval, the popular imagination being then overexcited.

In the thirteenth century St. Bonaventure complained of hearing “to satiety” prophecies dealing with the Church’s troubles and the end of the world (De profectu religiosorum, Book III, ch. lxxvi).

“At the end of the fourteenth century, during the great Western Schism, ‘seers arose on all sides, and their visions gained such an influence and a circulation as had been unknown before…. In some of the gravest sermons reliance was put upon these baseless predictions’ (Salambier, The Great Schism of the West, ch. vi, 4). Gerson, who took part in the Council of Constance, at which the Great Schism and the struggle between the rival Popes was put an end to, says that there were then an incredible number of holy and mortified men who had false revelations at this period, and that he has this information from credible witnesses. He adds: ‘Many believed that they had learned by revelation and with certainty that they would themselves be the future Pope’ (De distinctione verarum visionem).”

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Italy experienced a regular epidemic of politico-religious prophecies. This effervescence began with those made by Savonarola in Florence. Religious and hermits swarmed over the country, and while commenting upon the Book of Revelation, they announced from the pulpit or in public places revolutions in the temporal and spiritual governments, to be followed by the end of the world. Peasants and young girls alike fell to prophesying. In the fifth Lateran Council, in 1516, Leo X was obliged to publish a Bull by which public prophecies by preachers were prohibited (Pastor, History of the Popes, edited by Fr. Antrobus, Vol. V, end of Introduction; also Mansi, Collection of Councils).

Let us now come to the eighteenth century.

“There were ‘prophecies springing up constantly during the French Revolution, prophecies that were clear and full of detail with regard to past events, vaguer as to future occurrences and often refuted by facts when they thought fit to be definite; promising a deliverer who did not appear, and soon substituting another prediction, which was put forward in the character of an infallible utterance’ (Abbé Sicard, L ‘ancien Clergé de France, Vol. III, Book III, ch. vi, p. 153).”

More recent examples of false prophecies

“In the nineteenth century we have also epidemics of prophesyings: they announced the Comte de Chambord’s reign, or that of the Naundorff. They took their inspiration from doubtful prophecies regarding “the great Pope and the great King,” which the Ven. Holzhauser had inserted in his Commentary on the Apocalypse in the seventeenth century. It is to be regretted that religious journals should so often have collected and spread abroad these absurdities which bring religion into discredit.”

Mgr. Dupanloup [nineteenth century French Bishop] laments the great number of prophecies ‘that are hawked about on all sides by the enterprise of booksellers.’ ‘I have now,’ he says, ‘more than twenty volumes before me, from Belgium and France in particular’ (p. 1108). He recalls the words of Pius IX in his allocution of April 9, 1872: ‘I do not give much credit to prophecies, because those especially that have recently appeared do not merit the honor of being read’; and this other, of July 5, 1872: ‘A large number of prophecies are in circulation; but I think that they are the fruit of the imagination.'”

The twentieth century is in no wise behind its predecessors. When, in 1901, the French Chambers were discussing at great length the laws that were destined to destroy the Religious Orders, prophetic imaginations came into play. Certain visionaries felt themselves impelled to go to the Holy Father to confide to him their predictions and secrets. One of their directors told me that on arriving in Rome his penitent was much surprised to find ten other persons who had come with the same intention.”

A cardinal listened to them very patiently, but audience with the Holy Father was refused to them. I have it from a reliable source that one of the present claimants to the French throne [written in the early part of the twentieth century] constantly receives letters from prophets and prophetesses who foretell his destinies and give him advice, professedly in God’s name. He is weary of them.”Nothing is easier than to invent political prophecies in this way. It is only necessary to announce the advent of great misfortunes to be followed by extraordinary deliverances. These statements can be put about without fear, for no one can prove the contrary.”

A suspicious character in modern political prophecies is the fact that they never lead us to withstand wicked men, and never suggest any serious manner of resisting them. Some even predict that the world is to change suddenly, by a miracle. “A new era” is on the point of appearing; everyone will become holy in an instant. The conclusion drawn from such predictions is that we should fold our arms and wait. Since God is to do everything, and makes a point of proclaiming it in advance, it would be an indiscretion and foolishness on our part to wish to help Him and to anticipate His appointed hour. Let us, then, go on doing nothing! This is a convenient doctrine.”

I was objecting to one of these false prophetesses, one day, that the world seems, on the contrary, to become more and more wicked, and that we were proceeding in the opposite direction to the great renovation that she was announcing. She replied: ‘It is a good sign. God will not intervene until the evil is at its height.’ This answer teaches us nothing. When can anyone say that the evil is at its height? And, further, you declare that this maximum will be reached soon, and not in two thousand years. How do you know this?”

Source: Augustin Poulain, SJ, Revelations and Visions: Discerning the True and Certain from the False or the Doubtful, trans. L. Yorke Smith, (Alba House, New York, 1998), pp. 51-60.