When faced with Teresa Higginson for the first time, or for that matter any mysticism or private revelation that claims to expound devotions or messages from God, the crucial question presents itself: was she genuine, or was she a diabolical or natural fraud? What test is there whose validity cannot be fudged either by the devil or an impostor, and will almost certainly find them out?
St Faustina Kowalska
To answer this question we can turn to another mystic similar to Teresa, whose sanctity and the devotion she advanced have now been fully recognised by the church, and who has been raised to full sainthood. This is St. Faustina Kowalska of the Divine Mercy. She wrote in her diary concerning spiritual direction by confessors: "Satan can take on the cloak of humility, but he cannot take on the cloak of obedience." In other words, the test of private revelation and mysticism is total and complete submission to ecclesiastical authority and judgement, particularly when they are wrong, mistaken or unjust. A false apparition or an imposter will always be motivated by pride and vainglory, and will never submit to such a test.
The Divine Mercy devotion itself was to be most rigorously tested by the church and this was foreseen by St. Faustina herself. In 1959 the Holy Office, working from a poor French translation of her diary which made it seem heretical, declared the devotion forbidden and ordered all pictures of it to be removed from churches. This was complied with, and St. Faustina's director Canon Michael Sopocko was to suffer very greatly from this and came under censure.
So how did Teresa conduct herself under the test of obedience under ecclesiastical authority, and to what extent was she tested? The period after she left her convent school in Nottingham and she began her teaching career was the one in which her mystical experiences began in earnest. This was a time when she was based at the school of St. Mary's in Wigan, and was experiencing the prayer of union and ecstasy frequently, she had come to live on nothing but the Blessed Sacrament, was displaying the stigmata, and experiencing the passion. She was to come under the direction for a while of the rector Fr. Thomas Wells, who was a holy but not a very learned priest.
Confronted with all these experiences and not knowing at all what to do with her sought the advice by correspondence of Dr. Lennon, professor of moral theology at St. Cuthbert's seminary, Ushaw. On Dr. Lennon's advice he was to impose many a terrible penance on her. He ordered her not to wear any scapulars or crosses, which she promptly complied. When she was ill he tried her by denying her communion, which was all that she lived on for her food, causing her great agony. As Lady Cecil Kerr was to write of the account of Teresa's friend Susan Ryland:
Teresa’s longing for holy Communion when she could not get out was intense. “The sufferings she went through on that account I could only liken to a person dying of hunger with food before them which she could not touch. When I came from holy Communion you would think she would devour me and to listen to her craving was most painful. I went to Father Wells about it and all he said was: ‘She has no business to go on that way. Tell her from me she is not to do it.’ I had to tell her, of course, and after that she became perfectly silent.”
Sometimes Miss Ryland would beg of Father Wells to bring her Communion, but he would not always do so — no doubt to try her. On Holy Thursday, 1875, she waited all day long. She was in bed and whenever Miss Ryland asked her to take anything she would only reply: “He will come.” At last, at nine o’clock at night, the curate who had been all day in Liverpool brought her the Blessed Sacrament.
Fr. Edward Powell was to be equally severe with her as a director. He ordered her to eat when he saw her complete abstinence from food, which she did and was promptly sick. When she organised a collection round St. Alexander's parish without his knowledge, he ordered her to stop and return the money to everyone she got it from, much to her embarrassment. And most important of all, both he and Canon Alfred Snow ordered her to bare the secrets of her soul to them in her letters, which was to cause her very great pain, yet by this we know so much about her and the Sacred Head devotion. But the most crucial tests of obedience came when she was in a state of ecstasy, when she was undergoing the prayer of union, and no action no matter how violent by those around her could rouse her. However a simple command from a priest for her to come to would never fail to end such a state, and bring her back to normal. If she had failed to do this, it would be clear proof that her mysticism was not from God.
Fr. Bertrand Wilberforce was to comment in his Memorandum on her:
“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.
It was widely asserted by Canon Snow that this childish act of disobedience to her mother was the only sin that she ever committed that was a matter for the confessional, and such was the horror that she had of it she never displayed the slightest act of disobedience again.
For us who wish to spread devotion to the Sacred Head, we would be wise to bear in mind the prompt obedience of Teresa Higginson to the authority of the church, for Our Lord has stated of it, "He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me." (Luke 10:16). If we are to succeed, it is imperative that we submit to the judgement of the church, even if it may seem completed misguided. For 20 years the Divine Mercy devotion was condemned by the Holy See, yet those who spread the devotion submitted completely to that judgement, until in 1978 it was lifted by the intervention of Archbishop Karol Wojtiya, who soon after became Pope John Paul II.