Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Memorandum of Father Bertrand Wilberforce

Fr. Bertrand Wilberforce, a Thomist spiritual writer gave this testimony to Fr. Edward Powell about Teresa Higginson, her mysticism and the proposed devotion to the Sacred Head in this letter.

“NOV. 9 1882
“Opinion on the devotion to the Sacred Head of Jesus Christ.

“You ask me to express to you in writing my opinion regarding a volume of letters written by Miss T. H. containing among other matters an account of certain revelations which she considers to have been made to her by our Blessed Lord Himself, concerning devotion to the Sacred Head of Jesus as the Shrine of the Divine Wisdom. This would also include some opinion as to the spirit of the writer of these letters.

“I must first express the diffidence with which I give any opinion about matters so exalted in their nature and so widely removed from the beaten track of the spiritual life, especially as I have not any knowledge of the soul in question.

I. – As to the Devotion itself.

“The object of this, which in a certain sense may be called a new devotion, is the Sacred Head of the Divine Word Incarnate; but not simply that Sacred Head itself considered as the chief organic part of the material Body of Jesus Christ, but that Sacred Head considered as the Shrine or Tabernacle of the created Soul of the God Man, united as that soul is, in one Person, with the uncreated and eternal Wisdom of God the Son. Thus the Devotion bears a striking analogy to the devotion in honour of the Sacred Heart which beat in the breast of our incarnate God, yet not simply as a material object of worship but as the Shrine and symbol of the Love of Jesus Christ, love residing in the Soul which was united in one Person with the Son of God.

“There would appear to be no theological objection to a devotion in honour of the Sacred Head as the Shrine of the intellectual faculties and powers of the Soul of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the soul is the Form of the whole body, and therefore of the head, the principal organ of the body; and as the Soul of our Blessed Lord is united in one Person with the Godhead, His Sacred Head is manifestly divine and worthy of the highest adoration or the worship of Latria.

“St. Thomas (Summa. Pt. 3. Qu. 6 Art. 4) teaches that the Son of God assumed a created Soul and a created Intellect, and the holy Doctor quotes the words of St. Augustine who proves this truth from the teaching of Our Lord Himself. ‘Animam quoque’, dicit S. Augustinus, ‘se habere ostendit dicens Joan.’ X 18. ‘Ego pono Animam meam et iterum sumo eam.’ Intellectum quoque animae ostendit se habere, dicens Matt. xi 29: ‘Discite a Me, quia mitis sum and humilis cordis.’ Et de ipso per prophetam Deus dicit, Isa. lii. 13: ‘Ecce intelliget Puer Meus.’ St. Thomas then proceeds to prove this Catholic doctrine by three reasons against the Apolinarians and Arians.

“The same holy doctor (Sum. Pt. 3 Qu. 25. Art. 1) teaches that the Divinity of Christ and His Humanity are to be adored with one and the same worship. He quotes Canon 9 of the Council of Constantinople which defines the doctrine in these words: ‘Si quis in duabus naturis adorari dicit Christum, ex quo duae adorationes introducuntur, sed non una adoratione Deum Verbum incarnatum cum propria ipsius carne adorat, sicut ab initio Dei ecclesiae traditum est, talis anathema sit.’ Then the Angelic Doctor proceeds to show that, ‘ex parte Ejus qui adoratur’, there is only one and the same adoration of the two natures, because the Person is One; but on the other hand, ‘ex parte causae qua honoratur, we can admit that there is more than one adoration; for Christ is honoured by one adoration on account of His uncreated Wisdom, but by another on account of His created Wisdom.

“In the Devotion now being considered, when the Sacred Head is honoured, the Person is honoured, and as the Person is divine, the honour due to the Sacred Head is divine (vid. St. Thom. Sum. Pt. 3. Qu. 25. Art. 2). This being as above stated, in strict analogy to the worship of the Sacred Heart, needs no further proof to show its perfect harmony with the Catholic Faith.

“We may therefore conclude that the devotion to the Sacred Head, as the Shrine of the divine Wisdom, can be defended theologically and is in harmony with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

II. – On the fitness of the Devotion.

“Having thus shown that the devotion to the Sacred Head is not opposed to the teaching of Catholic Faith, the next question that arises may thus be put: ‘Is the Devotion a congruous one? Is there any special fitness in it? 1. In itself. 2. At this particular time?’

“1. – If we consider the Devotion in itself, it will be acknowledged that there is a certain special fitness in it as a Devotion to the Eternal Wisdom. In support of this view the teaching of St. Thomas can again be adduced. The holy Doctor (Sum. Pt. 3. Qu. 3. Art. 8) maintains that it was more fitting that the person of the Son of God should assume our nature than that either of the other Persons of the adorable Trinity should become Incarnate. One reason advanced by St. Thomas to prove this will throw considerable light on this devotion. 

Alio modo habet convenientiam specialiter cum humana natura ex eo, quod Verbum est conceptus Aeternae Sapientiae, a qua omnis sapientia hominum derivatur; et ideo per hoc homo in sapientia perficitur: quae est propria ejus perfectio prout est rationalis, quod participat Verbum Dei: sicut discipulus instruitur per hoc, quod recipit verbum magistri; unde Eccli. 1. dicitur: “Fons sapientiae verbum Dei in excelsis.” Et ideo ad consummatam hominis perfectionem conveniens fuit, ut ipsum Verbum Dei humanae naturae personaliter uniretur.’ 

St. Thomas therefore considers that it was more fitting that the Son of God should become incarnate rather than the Father or the Holy Spirit because to the Eternal Son is attributed Wisdom (1 Cor. i. 24), Christ the Wisdom of God. For as man sinned and perished by an inordinate desire of wisdom and knowledge, so it is especially fitting that he should be restored by Him to whom Wisdom is especially attributed. From this we may rightly proceed to conclude that a most fitting object of special devotion for man after being redeemed is that very Wisdom by Whom the redemption has been accomplished. Now the Shrine of that Wisdom, its earthly tabernacle, is the Sacred Head of our Lord Jesus Christ. The devotion therefore in itself is most congruous and fitting.

“2. – It will not be difficult in the second place to show that there is a peculiar fitness in this devotion to the age in which we live. In order to suit a particular time, a devotion ought to meet the special dangers of the day, supplying an antidote to prevalent spiritual diseases. Now the spirit of this age is evidently one of spiritual rebellion. The human mind, intoxicated by modern scientific discoveries, is inclined to cast off all restraint and to refuse any longer to remain subject to the sweet yoke of Faith. Rationalism, pure and simple, is the prevailing spirit of the day. This spirit is at once most injurious to God and especially to the Wisdom of God on high, the Fountain of Wisdom, because it causes man to love and value the foolishness of human wisdom, despising what they consider to be the folly, but which truly is the eternal Wisdom of God. Moreover this spirit is most destructive to souls who are induced by it to love the darkness rather than the light.

“Against this pernicious spirit of evil and its consequences the devotion to the Sacred Head is especially directed. For as it consists in the adoration and praise of the Sacred Head as the Shrine of Divine Wisdom, it is particularly adapted to be used in reparation for all the insults offered to that Divine Wisdom by the sins of infidelity and intellectual pride. Just as the devotion to the Sacred Heart met the error of Jansenism so destructive of the spirit of Love, so the devotion to the Sacred Head will oppose the blighting errors of rationalism and infidelity, so insulting to the infinite Wisdom of God incarnate.

“Moreover a fervent devotion to the Divine Wisdom and its earthly shrine will bring down on the Faithful, we most confidently hope, a special grace to preserve their faith intact and to spread that ‘precious gift’ among many still out of the fold.
“We may then conclude that this devotion is thoroughly theological, in strict harmony with the devotion, already so solemnly and frequently approved, of the Sacred Heart, most congruous in itself, and lastly peculiarly suited to the special needs of the age in which we live.

III. – What ought to be thought of the writer of these letters,
her spirit and the truth of her visions?

“I feel that in attempting to answer this question I am treading on delicate grounds, and it would be presumptuous to assume too much certainty in a matter of such gravity, without personal knowledge of the writer.

“Still, however, this much I can assert with confidence, that everything that has come to my knowledge, through her letters and accounts given me by her confessor of her acts and dispositions, all lead me to conclude, not only that she is in a high degree of holiness, but also that her mind is wonderfully illuminated by the Light of God.

“I will give shortly the reasons that lead me to form this judgment, speaking first of her holiness, then of the reasons that appear to indicate that her visions are the work of the Holy Spirit.

“In order to judge of the holiness of a soul, in other words of the degree of divine Charity with which that soul is endowed, we should examine the four test virtues of humility, patience, obedience and mortification.

“A soul pretending to very exalted gifts of contemplation and yet failing to practise these virtues in corresponding perfection, would almost certainly be in a state of delusion.

“Of her Humility. To judge from her writings, taking for granted that they reflect the true dispositions of her soul, the person in question would appear to possess this fundamental virtue in high perfection. It would seem that she thoroughly despises herself, is truly anxious to be despised by others, is free from that self-will which would make her desirous to guide herself instead of submitting to others, has a fear of delusion, yet with confidence in God: is anxious that divine favours should remain hidden, yet mentions them with simplicity under obedience. Of course the grand point is to prove that these written sentiments are genuine by the test of practical trial. This, I am told, has already been done, and that her calmness under sudden and violent reproof and even abuse remain unruffled. Her confessor has been unable to detect any difficulty in bearing these things which to a soul gifted with extraordinary contemplation ought to occasion lively joy and satisfaction. Her conduct under the trial of desolation of spirit also proves her humility.

“Her patience under the pressure of extreme mental and bodily suffering, to judge from her writings corroborated by particulars I have heard, is shown to be heroic, because, not only does she endure these things without repining, but she displays an ardent thirst for more numerous and more painful afflictions, in order to unite her soul to Christ crucified.

Obedience is proved by the promptitude and simplicity with which she lays bare her secret soul under authority in spite of all repugnance, and gives up at once any penance or exercise without agitation of mind when commanded. Moreover, her confessor after many trials is unable to detect any failing of obedience. The humble way in which she accuses herself of a very slight act of childish disobedience shows the light of the Holy Spirit and reminds us of St. Philip Neri.

“As to her spirit of mortification and penance, it would appear to be universal in extent and extraordinary in degree. Her penances from childhood have been extreme, and though undertaken without the sanction of obedience through simplicity of soul, she has never shown any disposition to persevere in them against the advice of her confessor, and since she understood that they ought not to be adopted without permission she never seems to have practised any exterior penance without leave. Her abstinence and fasting and the generosity with which she has mortified her sense of taste is, to judge from her letters, heroic, and by the testimony of her confessor, miraculous, but this she has ever striven to conceal.

The Visions about the devotion to the Sacred Head.

“Is there solid reason to place confidence in those visions as described in the letters under consideration?

“Before applying the ordinary tests prescribed by spiritual writers, I will make three preliminary remarks, suggested by the case.

“1. – The person has read no books of mystical theology, even the ordinary spiritual books common among the faithful, yet she describes most accurately and in most striking terms how a vision which is neither imaginary nor even intellectual is infused by the action of the Holy Spirit in the centre of the soul itself (vid. letter 34).1 It is impossible to avoid the impression that she is speaking from personal experience. ‘Our Lord’, she writes, ‘when He wills to infuse the knowledge of anything into the soul, places it in the very centre of the soul without any words or any image being formed.’ This description is decidedly in favour of the belief that the vision was from the Holy Spirit, whereas if she had described a vision seen by the bodily eyes or by mental images, the case would be more doubtful and she might mistake her own imagination for the working of God’s grace.

“2. – The theological way in which this simple and unlearned person explains the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation and speaks of the devotion to the Sacred Head is a decided indication of superior illumination.

“3. – The fact that this person is unlearned, has read no books, and has ever lived secluded, makes it unlikely that she should have invented herself a devotion so admirably suited to the times in which we live.

“Lastly, to apply the rules laid down by theology for distinguishing between true and false visions.

“I. – As to the vision itself (the ones instructing her as to the Devotion):
1. – As above proved, the vision contains nothing contrary to faith, but is entirely conformable to the traditions of the Church.
2. – Nothing unbecoming, trivial or irreverent can be detected in it. We may therefore conclude that that there is nothing in the vision itself to prove that it could not be from God, but all the circumstances are such as are found in approved visions.

“II. – As to the person to whom the vision is made.
1. – She is an orthodox thoroughly obedient Catholic.
2. – She is fervent and holy in life.
3. – Her humility, obedience, patience and mortification are heroic.
4. – Does she desire visions and favours? ‘Tale desiderium’, says St. Vincent Ferrar, ‘non potest reperiri absque radice et fundamento superbiae et presumptionis.’ I have seen no indication of this desire. On the contrary, she often humbly and lovingly expostulates with our Lord, reminding Him that by favouring so great a sinner in so extraordinary a way He may cause His gifts to be despised.
5. – She is no novice in spiritual life for she began very early to serve God and has persevered with the utmost fidelity in spite of all difficulties, desolation, etc. Moreover, a favourable sign is that in early life she was led to the solid virtues of penance, humility, obedience and hatred of sin and had no extraordinary favour till after these had become habitual m a high degree.
6. – Visions are certainly to be more cautiously received in the case of a woman, but manifestly, when other signs are satisfactory, the fact they have been vouchsafed to a woman is no sign of delusion. This soul has had diabolical visions and has detected them.

“III. – The effect of the vision.
1. – The visions seem to render the soul more humble by revealing to her the abyss of her own nothingness etc.
2. – She has always been directed by the vision to reveal all to her spiritual guide and to follow exactly what obedience prescribes, even when contrary to the vision itself.
3. – In this message to the confessor, if terms too flattering to himself personally had been employed there might be grounds for suspicion, but in this case all that is said is simply ‘tell my servant’. Now, as all priests are God’s servants, there is here nothing excessive coming from the human spirit of a devout woman. Some soul is spoken of who is to help the devotion and in this case terms of the highest praise are employed, but the name is not given. We may think it most probable that the soul is T.H. herself though she does not seem to suspect it.
4. – Another favourable sign is that these visions seem to excite a genuine and fervent desire to suffer for and with Christ and thus nourish the spirit of mortification.
5. – As to whether they promote the peace of the soul at least substantially, I do not know, but if divine, this ought to be their effect.
Lastly I might mention that I was deeply impressed by the application of the texts of the Apocalypse to the devotion (vide letter 48). It struck me as extraordinary as coming from the mind of so simple a person.

“Two points in conclusion I would suggest.
1. – That the confessor would do well to try this soul by the test of mental obedience while she is in an ecstatic state.
2. – That the matter of the Communions received by her from our Lord Himself should be carefully examined. Were these sacramental or only spiritual? Once or often in the day?

“I humbly submit this opinion to the judgment of the wise and learned and to the authority of superiors.
“Holy Cross Priory, Leicester.
“Nov. 9 1882.”

Holy Cross Priory church, Leicester

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