A “Spitting Image” of Obedience

Eamonn Clark

“The next time you see her, spit in her face.”

An extremely instructive story for those who are tempted to trust their own judgment in the spiritual life is related in Gerard de Frachet O.P.’s Lives of the Brethren (available online here). Over a 5 year period (about 1255-1260), De Frachet (d. 1271) collected stories from the earliest life of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), which stories were well-founded on eyewitness testimony, with many of the brothers who are in the stories still being alive at the time of composition. It contains some of the earliest biographical information of St. Dominic, Bl. Jordan of Saxony, and many other stories of miracles, extraordinary piety, and heroic virtue. The episode we are considering goes like this – from page 209 (Imperium Christi Press, trans. Conway), in Chapter 22 of Part V, titled “Impatience and Phantasms”:

“One of the brethren in the convent in Paris gave himself up entirely to prayer to the detriment of his studies and teaching. The devil was also in the habit of coming to him, feigning to be the blessed Virgin, at one time praising his state of soul, and at another revealing future events. The brother happened to mention this fact to Brother Peter of Rheims, who was prior at the time, and was advised to spit in the face of the phantom if it appeared again: ‘For if it be the blessed Virgin,’ said he, ‘she will not be vexed, being always most humble of heart, nay, she will excuse you on account of your obedience; while if it be the father of lies he will make off in confusion.’ The brother simply did what he was told and spat accordingly, upon which the devil roared in anger: ‘Curse upon you, where did you learn such gross manners!’ He went off ashamed of himself, and never ventured to come again.”

Let those taken in by interior assurances of piety and holiness beware… they are blind guides. Even exterior affirmations should be distrusted, and they should be rejected entirely when there is an objective problem (such as neglecting one’s duties, even for an outwardly pious motive). The most famous example of such radical self-distrust is perhaps that of St. Teresa of Avila, who would regularly see Christ in apparitions but would essentially ignore their content without approval from her director – she knew her director would not deceive her, while she was less sure if she was really encountering the Lord in her visions.

And should there ever be an experience – psychological, physical, mystical – which suggests that one go against the lawful and reasonable demands of one’s superiors (natural or ecclesiastical, including one’s spiritual director), let alone that one go against the teaching or demands of the Church, one can be assured that such a thing is not from God. (Cf. Gal. 1:8 – “But even if we or an angel from Heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”) Such illusions should be rejected – they should be spat upon. Let’s have terrible manners with the demons… Maybe that sometimes means spitting on apparitions, but it always means being obedient to God, to His Church, and to all our legitimate superiors who represent them both.

Main image: Paris – the old convent church (Couvent St. Jacques) in which this incident occurred was destroyed in the first half of the 19th century.

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