Questions and Responses
Doctrinal Commission – International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services
There has often been confusion between mystical experiences and charismatic manifestations. Part of the reason is that for a long period of time in Church history, charisms were neglected. Although they never disappeared from Catholic theology, they were no longer part of the life of most ordinary Catholics. Vatican Council II rectified this neglect, especially with its strong affirmation of charisms in Lumen Gentium 12. Since then charisms have been manifested among the faithful in an abundance not seen since the early Church. These gifts are part of the equipment God gives us for carrying out the mission of the Church, so it is important to understand charisms and how they differ from mystical graces.
The Catechism provides a good definition: “Whether extraordinary or simple and humble, charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world” (799).
What is important to notice in this definition is that the purpose of charisms is to serve others and build up the Church. Charisms are not for the personal benefit of the receiver, but for the sake of ministering to others. They are, by definition, gifts to be given away. This accords with the teaching of St. Paul, who wrote, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). Paul then lists a wide diversity of charisms, and explains that it is through their harmonious interaction, when each member of the Church is using his or her charisms to serve others, that the body is built up in love.
Even extraordinary charisms such as healings, miracles, or the reading of hearts are gifts for the sake of others. When people are healed through a charism of healing, for example, they experience the Lord’s power, love, and compassion. They are confronted with the fact that God is real and that the good news of the kingdom is not just a comforting idea, but is true! This is why the supernatural charisms are so powerfully effective for evangelization.
Mystical experiences, on the other hand, are private gifts given by God for the benefit of the individual. These experiences might include, for example, raptures, visions, locutions, wounds of love, and inner consolations. In general, they are not gifts that can or should be given away.
A very important principle follows from the distinction between the two. Whereas mystical experiences should not be sought or asked for, charisms should be sought and asked for. Spiritual writers such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross warned of the dangers of seeking after mystical experiences. This can lead us focus on experiences of God instead of God himself, and can expose us to the danger of pride, self-absorption, or even deception by the devil. When mystical experiences occur, they should be discerned with a spiritual director and, if authentic, should be accepted gratefully, but not given excessive attention.
On the other hand, Scripture exhorts us to desire and seek after charisms because of their potential to build up the Church. After listing spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul says, “Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts” (1 Cor 12:31). “Strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts, above all that you may prophesy” (1 Cor 14:1).
Although Paul does not make a formal distinction between charisms and mystical experiences, we can glimpse this distinction in his writings. In 2 Corinthians, he obliquely describes a mystical experience he had, but he refrains from sharing the content of this experience: “I know someone in Christ who, fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows), was caught up to the third heaven… and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter” (2 Cor 12:2-4). This experience was a special grace for his own personal strengthening. Similarly, his vision of Jesus one night in Corinth (Acts 18:9) was a personal grace to help him persevere in his mission. On the other hand, he exhorts believers to share charisms such as prophecies for the sake of building others up, encouraging, consoling, or convicting of sin (1 Cor 14:3, 24-25).
From the descriptions above it is evident that there can be some overlap between charisms and mystical experiences; there is not always a sharp distinction between them. A vision, for instance, can be a charism (a form of prophecy) to be shared with others in a prayer meeting, or it can be a private mystical experience. To discern the difference, someone who has a vision in a charismatic setting should prayerfully consider whether it seems to be for himself alone or for the sake of building up others; if for others, then he or she should submit it to the discernment of the leadership.
Since charisms are essential to the life of the Church, leaders should not just wait passively for charisms to appear and then decide how they must be properly pastored. Rather, they should actively cultivate charisms, mentor and encourage those who take steps in practicing them, and help people grow in their use.