Catholic Mystics

Mary Ann Collins
(A Former Catholic Nun)

October 2002

I believe that the Catholic mystics were sincere men and women who loved the Lord. However, I also believe that they were deceived. It can be seen in the connection which they made between suffering and intimacy with God. They give a distorted picture of the nature and character of God.

Catherine of Sienna said that Jesus Christ was her novice master. But, supposedly under the direction of Jesus, she regularly whipped herself until the blood ran down her back.

Teresa of Avila recounted an incident when she was sick and suffering and feeling miserable, and Jesus told her that is how he treats His friends. Teresa replied that it was no wonder that Jesus had so few friends.

John of the Cross said that the "dark night of the soul" (intense spiritual and emotional suffering) is necessary for intimacy with God.

Francis of Assisi said that it was "perfect joy" to be cold and hungry and rejected and verbally abused. He glorified pain and suffering and poverty. At the end of his life, Francis had the stigmata. These are visible, bleeding, painful wounds which occur in the same locations as the wounds which Jesus Christ suffered on the cross. They are wounds in the hands and feet and side. They can also include wounds in the back (from whipping) and head (from the crown of thorns). Francis' disciples considered the stigmata to be a sign of God's great love for Francis.

Other people have also had the stigmata. One modern example is Padre Pio, who regularly whipped himself.

2 Thessalonians 2:9 says that the devil is able to work signs and lying wonders. He would be capable of causing the stigmata, especially if people want it because they think that it is a sign of God's favor. The stigmata are supernatural and they imitate the wounds of the crucifixion. However, that does not mean that they come from God. They could come from the devil.

Compare the experiences of Catherine, Teresa, John and Francis with the experiences of men in the Bible who had extraordinary intimacy with God, and an extraordinary level of communication with Him. Compare this with Moses, and Joshua, and the prophets, and John the Baptist, and the Apostles. Did any of them whip himself? Did they do penances to mortify their flesh? Did any of them have the stigmata?

These men did suffer, but Jesus said that everybody who truly follows Him will be hated by the world. ("...because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you." John 15:19) He said that His followers would suffer persecution. ("If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you" John 15:20. Also see Matthew 5:11-12; Matthew 5:44-45; and Matthew 10:22-23) Jesus said, "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) This is suffering, but it is not sought after, and it is not self-inflicted. It is the natural result of the world's rejection of Jesus and His followers. Jesus described it when He said, "...light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." (John 3:19)

The Bible tells us to rejoice always (Philippians 4:4) and to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). This is because of our confidence in God, who promised to make everything work out for good for people who love Him (Romans 8:28). It has nothing to do with glorifying suffering.

The Bible tells us to rejoice when we endure hardship and suffering, because it will bear good spiritual fruit in our lives. (See James 1:2-4 and 1 Peter 1:7.) This is not a glorification of suffering. Rather, it is following in the footsteps of Jesus, who was willing to endure the cross because of the good that would result from it.

When Jesus was on earth, He went around healing people. He taught His disciples to heal people. He said that His followers would heal people.

"And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues: They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." (Mark 16:17-18)

How could Jesus spend his ministry on earth healing people, and teaching His disciples to heal people, and then tell Catherine to repeatedly whip her back until the blood ran down it?

The Gospels say that Jesus was "moved with compassion". (Matthew 9:36; Matthew 14:14; Mark 1:41; Mark 6:34) Compassionate people do not deliberately cause suffering for their friends. The experiences of Catherine of Sienna and Teresa of Avila are not consistent with the compassion of Jesus.

At the beginning of His ministry, Jesus described His mission. He quoted from Isaiah 61:1. He said,

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised." (Luke 4:18)

Does this sound like someone who wants people to whip themselves until the blood runs down their back? Does this sound like someone who would make people endure the torment of the stigmata?

It is good to want to be whole-hearted and fervent in serving God. But we can get our examples and inspiration from people in the Bible.

Read some of Paul's prayers. Look at the way that Paul would be writing about a subject, and mention God, and just have to write about the goodness and glory of God. Logically, it interrupts his discussion of the issue. Emotionally, it shows that Paul was so passionate about God that sometimes he just couldn't help himself -- he just had to stop what he was doing (even in the middle of a thought) and speak about the glory of God, and His incredible love for us. Now that is a passionate man. That is a man who loves God with everything in him.

Read the Psalms. Look at David's passion for God. We can share in David's rejoicing and his whole-hearted worship and praise.



The Apostle Paul had extraordinary visions and revelations, including being caught up into Paradise and hearing things which he was not allowed to reveal to anyone. God gave Paul a "thorn in the flesh" in order to prevent him from becoming proud because of these amazing revelations. Scripture does not tell us what the "thorn" was or whether it involved physical pain. Paul begged God to remove it, but instead of getting rid of it, God said, "My grace is sufficient for thee". (See 2 Corinthians 12:1-10)

When Paul realized that this was part of God's plan for his life, then he not only accepted it, he followed the admonition of the Apostle James, who said "count it all joy". (James 1:2) Paul demonstrated that he truly had learned to be content no matter what his circumstances were. (Philippians 4:11) He showed that he had learned to rejoice in the Lord always and to give thanks in all circumstances. (Philippians 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

God will allow pain if it is necessary for a person's spiritual health. But only God is qualified to judge whether such a thing is necessary, and, if so, what form it should take. This is not even remotely related to self-inflicted pain, penances, and "mortifications" of the flesh. There is a world of difference between rejoicing in spite of pain, and seeking pain.

Paul was a very disciplined man. He had to be in order to fulfill God's call on his life. Paul says,

"But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." (1 Corinthians 9:27)

The New International Version says, "I beat my body daily". According to "Strong's Concordance," the word for "keep under" can mean beat or buffet (either one blow, or many blows). It also has a metaphorical sense of subduing, or annoying something into compliance. This is reflected in the words "keep under" of the King James Version.

Would Paul have to subdue his body and force it to comply? Let's see what shape his body was in.

"Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness." (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)

I once asked a chiropractor what Paul's back would have been like after having been whipped with 195 lashes, beaten with rods on three occasions, and having so many stones thrown at him that the crowd left him for dead. The chiropractor couldn't speak. His face showed horror and pain, and he shuddered visibly. He is acutely aware of the pain that can be caused by even one slipped or ruptured disc.

Have you ever had back pain and you had to do something? You have to force your body to obey in spite of the pain. Paul probably had to do that many times every day. He must have often had to fight the desire to quit ministering so that he could minimize the pain, instead of making constant demands on his body.

Paul said, "in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often". He spoke of often being tired, and in pain, and sleepless. (According to "Strong's Concordance," "watchings" means "sleeplessness".) Some of his sleeplessness may have been because he was praying, or working at his trade of tent making. But pain also keeps people awake. And Paul speaks of being sleepless immediately after saying that he was often in pain.

So Paul's statement about keeping his body under has nothing to do with whipping himself or beating himself as a penance or mortification. Paul did not glorify being whipped. When he was able to avoid it, he did. When the Romans were about to flog him, Paul said, "Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman, and uncondemned?" (Acts 22:25; see verses 24-29) And immediately the Romans backed off and did not harm him.



Catholics are not the only mystics. There are also Hindu mystics, Buddhist mystics, and Muslim mystics. [Note 1] Therefore, mystical experiences do not necessarily indicate that a person has encountered the God of the Bible. They do not even indicate that a person is a Christian.

Thomas Merton was an influential monk. He taught that every form of mystical experience is valid, no matter what its source. He praised Hinduism and Buddhism. Merton wanted to see the religions of the world become united. [Note 2 includes a link to an Internet article.]

Some Catholic priests and nuns teach prayer techniques which are not prayer in the Christian sense at all. Rather, they result in altered states of consciousness, and susceptibility to demonic influence. Catholics are taught that their "spirituality" will be improved by practices from Eastern religions. [Note 3]

Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello gives workshops introducing Catholics to Eastern prayer and meditation techniques, including visualization and Transcendental Meditation. He wrote a book entitled, "Sadhana: A Way to God". The cover shows Jesus on the cross, and a person seated in the lotus position, meditating at the foot of the cross. [Note 4]

For more information, see my paper "New Age Catholicism".



I thought you might like to meet some Catholic mystics. The following information all comes from Internet articles which you can read for yourself. Information about them is given in the Notes.


St. Bernard of Clairvaux was a Cistercian monk and an abbot. He was devoted to the Virgin Mary and he was influential in spreading devotion to her. Bernard is a "doctor of the Church" which means that the Catholic Church highly values his teachings. In the Middle Ages he was known as the "cithara of Mary," an instrument which sang her praises. (A cithara is a stringed instrument like a lyre.) He wrote about Mary's supposed role as our mediator. [Note 5]

Bernard promoted veneration of Mary as the Queen of Heaven. [Note 6] Because of his writings, Bernard's devotion to Mary had a profound influence on Catholic spirituality. [Note 7] There is a painting which shows Bernard kneeling in front of Mary, as Queen of Heaven, crowned with stars, floating in Heaven, and accompanied by angels. [Note 8]

Bernard said that whenever people are in danger, or going through trials, they should call upon Mary. He said that we should walk in Mary's footsteps, and she should be our guide. He claimed that Mary will protect us from deception, and protect us from falling. [Note 9]

There is a "mystical legend" that St. Bernard was praying in front of a statue of Mary. The statue showed Mary nursing the infant Jesus. Bernard prayed, "Show yourself a mother." Then the statue came to life. The Virgin Mary pressed her breast and squirted milk into Bernard's mouth. There are 27 works of art commemorating this, including a painting by Murillo. [Note 10]

CATHERINE OF SIENA (1347-1380) [Note 11]

St. Catherine of Siena chose to live in a small, dimly-lit room, a cell nine feet by three feet. She whipped herself three times a day with an iron chain, and she slept on a board. At first she wore a hair shirt, but then she replaced it with an iron-spiked girdle. She fasted, often living on little food except what she received when she went to communion during Mass. She meditated. She lived in isolation, only leaving her cell to go to church. Sometimes she was tormented by visions which she knew to be demonic. For three years she had "celestial visitations" and conversations with Jesus Christ.

In 1366, Catherine had a mystical experience involving the Virgin Mary and Jesus. They appeared to her. Mary took Catherine's hand. Mary held Catherine's hand up to Jesus. Then Jesus placed a ring upon Catherine's hand and "espoused her to himself". (This is called "spiritual espousals".) Catherine could always see the ring, but it was invisible to other people.

Following a series of mystical experiences, including a "mystical death," Catherine entered public life, sending letters to princes and Vatican officials. During the Black Plague, she helped take care of plague victims.

In 1375, Catherine received the stigmata. However, although she felt the pain, other people were not able to see them. This is unusual because the stigmata are usually visible, gory, and can be verified by doctors. Catherine said that she asked God to prevent them from being outwardly visible, and He granted her prayer.

St. Catherine of Siena is a "doctor of the Church" which means that the Catholic Church highly values her teachings and revelations. She is a saint, which means that the Catholic Church encourages Roman Catholics to emulate her, to study her life and follow her example.

JULIAN OF NORWICH (1342-c.1416)

Julian (or Juliana) or Norwich was a contemporary of Catherine of Siena. She wanted to have an intense understanding of what Christ suffered during His crucifixion. She also wanted to receive the "last rites" (the sacrament given to people who are in danger of dying). She believed that the sacrament would enable her soul to be fully cleansed by God, so that she could be more fully consecrated to Him. In order to achieve this, she asked God to give her an illness which would bring her to the point of death, without having her actually die. In 1373, Julian became seriously ill, and she received the "last rites". Suddenly, her pain went away, and she had a series of 16 visions, which she wrote down. [Note 12]


St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) were Carmelites. This religious order is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. She is considered to be the patron of their order. [Note 13]

According to tradition, in 1251 the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock, holding a Brown Scapular (two pieces of brown cloth attached by strings). She promised him that any person who dies wearing the scapular will not go to hell. This promise is for people who belong to the religious order of the Carmelites, or who are associated with them. [Note 14]

Teresa and John were born more than two centuries after the Brown Scapular was given to Simon Stock. Devotion to Mary, and belief in the effectiveness of the Brown Scapular, were a foundational part of their training as Carmelites. Therefore, it influenced their writings and their understanding of their mystical experiences. Teresa said all of her nuns "belong" to the Virgin Mary. Teresa's love for Mary is scattered throughout her writings. [Note 15] John of the Cross was also known for his devotion to the Virgin Mary. [Note 16]

Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross are studied by a Buddhist/Christian cult which considers them to be a prophet and prophetess. The cult also studies the Kabbala (Cabala). [Note 17] (The Cabala is important to occultists.) So evidently pagans can identify with the mystical experiences and writings of Teresa and John.


Madame Guyon advocated "quietism," which involves becoming so passive that you become indifferent to everything, including eternal salvation. The will becomes completely annihilated. The person is supposed to be so totally absorbed in the divine love of God that he or she has no more desire for anything. This passive state of the soul is supposed to enable God to act within it. [Note 18]

Madame Guyon said that she had reached the point where she was no longer capable of sinning. She said that sin involves self, and she had become free of self. Therefore, she could no longer sin. [Note 19] However, the Bible says,

"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1 John 1:9-10)



I encourage you to link to this article. You have permission to quote from this article, as long as you do it fairly and accurately. You have permission to make copies of this article for friends and for use in classes.



1. You can easily find information about other kinds of mysticism on the Internet. Search for “mysticism” plus whatever you are interested in. For example, Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, Muslim, Moslem, Islami, Indian, Jewish, or Wiccan.

2. Randy England, "The Unicorn in the Sanctuary: The Impact of the New Age on the Catholic Church" (Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books and Publishers, 1990), pages 75-77. The author is Catholic.

An article about Thomas Merton's appreciation for Eastern mysticism

3. "Unicorn in the Sanctuary," pages 6-9 and 135-146.

4. "Unicorn in the Sanctuary," pages 100-114.

5. Abbot M. Basil Pennington, "Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090-1153".

6. "St. Bernard of Clairvaux" in "The Catholic Encyclopedia," Vol. II, 1907, online edition 2002.

7. "Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint" in the online edition of the "Columbia Encyclopedia"

8. There is a picture of Bernard of Clairvaux kneeling before Mary as Queen of Heaven. It was online but unfortunately the link to that picture no longer works. However, I was able to find another picture of Bernard kneeling before Mary. In this picture, she is in Heaven, surrounded by cherubs, but she is not wearing a crown.

9. There is a quotation under the heading "Readings" which is attributed to St. Bernard.

10. "A Mystical Legend on Canvas" (from a Franciscan website)

11. "Saint Catherine of Siena Virgin"

"St. Catherine of Siena," in "The Catholic Encyclopedia," Vol. III, 1908, online edition 2002.

12. Julian of Norwich

13. "Mary and the Holy Spirit in the Writings of John of the Cross"

14. “Scapular,” in “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” Volume XIII, 1912.

15. “Saint Teresa of Jesus and the Virgin Mary”

16. "Mary and the Holy Spirit in the Writings of John of the Cross"

17. Order of Nazorean Essenes

18. “Quietism” in the “Catholic Encyclopedia,” Vol. XII, 1911, online edition 2002.

19. "Quietism" in the online edition of the "Columbia Encyclopedia," sixth edition, 2001.