Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

APPARITION.

It is not at all uncommon for a person under strong emotion to see that which is not. In 1726 a woman in London, accused of being an accomplice in her husband’s murder, denied the fact; the dead man’s coat was held up and shaken before her, her terrified imagination presented the husband himself to her view; she fell at his feet and would have embraced him. She told the jury that she had seen her husband. It is not wonderful that Theodoric saw in the head of a fish, which was served up to him, that of Symmachus, whom he had assassinated — or unjustly executed; for it is precisely the same thing.

Charles IX., after the massacre of St. Bartholomew, saw dead bodies and blood; not in his dreams, but in the convulsions of a troubled mind seeking for sleep in vain. His physician and his nurse bore witness to it. Fantastic visions are very frequent in hot fevers. This is not seeing in imagination; it is seeing in reality. The phantom exists to him who has the perception of it. If the gift of reason vouchsafed to the human machine were not at hand to correct these illusions, all heated imaginations would be in an almost continual transport, and it would be impossible to cure them.

It is especially in that middle state between sleeping and waking that an inflamed brain sees imaginary objects and hears sounds which nobody utters. Fear, love, grief, remorse are the painters who trace the pictures before unsettled imaginations. The eye which sees sparks in the night, when accidentally pressed in a certain direction, is but a faint image of the disorders of the brain.

No theologian doubts that with these natural causes the Master of nature has sometimes united His divine influence. To this the Old and the New Testament bear ample testimony. Providence has deigned to employ these apparitions — these visions — in favor of the Jews, who were then its cherished people.

It may be that, in the course of time, some really pious souls, deceived by their enthusiasm, have believed that they had received from an intimate communication with God that which they owed only to their inflamed imaginations. In such cases there is need of the advice of an honest man, and especially of a good physician.

The stories of apparitions are innumerable. It is said to have been in consequence of an apparition that St. Theodore, in the beginning of the fourth century, went and set fire to the temple of Amasia and reduced it to ashes. It is very likely that God did not command this action, in itself so criminal, by which several citizens perished, and which exposed all the Christians to a just revenge.

God might permit St. Potamienne to appear to St. Basilides; for there resulted no disturbance to the state. We will not deny that Jesus Christ might appear to St. Victor. But that St. Benedict saw the soul of St. Germanus of Capua carried up to heaven by angels; and that two monks afterwards saw the soul of St. Benedict walking on a carpet extended from heaven to Mount Cassino — this is not quite so easy to believe.

It may likewise, without any offence to our august religion, be doubted whether St. Eucherius was conducted by an angel into hell, where he saw Charles Martel’s soul; and whether a holy hermit of Italy saw the soul of Dagobert chained in a boat by devils, who were flogging it without mercy; for, after all, it is rather difficult to explain satisfactorily how a soul can walk upon a carpet, how it can be chained in a boat, or how it can be flogged.

But, it may very well be that heated brains have had such visions; from age to age we have a thousand instances of them. One must be very enlightened to distinguish, in this prodigious number of visions, those which came from God Himself from those which were purely the offspring of imagination.

The illustrious Bossuet relates, in his funeral oration over the Princess Palatine, two visions which acted powerfully on that princess, and determined the whole conduct of her latter years. These heavenly visions must be believed since they are regarded as such by the discreet and learned bishop of Meaux, who penetrated into all the depths of theology and even undertook to lift the veil which covers the Apocalypse.

He says, then, that the Princess Palatine, having lent a hundred thousand francs to her sister, the queen of Poland, sold the duchy of Rételois for a million, and married her daughters advantageously. Happy according to the world, but unfortunately doubting the truths of the Christian religion, she was brought back to her conviction, and to the love of these ineffable truths by two visions. The first was a dream in which a man born blind told her that he had no idea of light, and that we must believe the word of others in things of which we cannot ourselves conceive. The second arose from a violent shock of the membranes and fibres of the brain in an attack of fever. She saw a hen running after one of her chickens, which a dog held in his mouth. The Princess Palatine snatched the chick from the dog, on which a voice cried out: “Give him back his chicken; if you deprive him of his food he will not watch as he ought.” But the princess exclaimed, “No, I will never give it back.”

The chicken was the soul of Anne of Gonzaga, Princess Palatine; the hen was the Church, and the dog was the devil. Anne of Gonzaga, who was never to give back the chicken to the dog, was efficacious grace.

Bossuet preached this funeral oration to the Carmelite nuns of the Faubourg St. Jacques, at Paris, before the whole house of Condé; he used these remarkable words: “Hearken, and be especially careful not to hear with contempt the order of the Divine warnings, and the conduct of Divine grace.”

The reader, then, must peruse this story with the same reverence with which its hearers listened to it. These extraordinary workings of Providence are like the miracles of canonized saints, which must be attested by irreproachable witnesses. And what more lawful deponent can we have to the apparitions and visions of the Princess Palatine than the man who employed his life in distinguishing truth from appearance? who combated vigorously against the nuns of Port Royal on the formulary; against Paul Ferri on the catechism; against the minister Claude on the variations of the Church; against Doctor Dupin on China; against Father Simon on the understanding of the sacred text; against Cardinal Sfondrati on predestination; against the pope on the rights of the Gallican Church; against the archbishop of Cambray on pure and disinterested love. He was not to be seduced by the names, nor the titles, nor the reputation, nor the dialectics of his adversaries. He related this fact; therefore he believed it. Let us join him in his belief, in spite of the raillery which it has occasioned. Let us adore the secrets of Providence, but let us distrust the wanderings of the imagination, which Malebranche called la folle du logis. For these two visions accorded to the Princess Palatine are not vouchsafed to every one.

Jesus Christ appeared to St. Catharine of Sienna; he espoused her and gave her a ring. This mystical apparition is to be venerated, for it is attested by Raymond of Capua, general of the Dominicans, who confessed her, as also by Pope Urban VI. But it is rejected by the learned Fleury, author of the “Ecclesiastical History.” And a young woman who should now boast of having contracted such a marriage might receive as a nuptial present a place in a lunatic asylum.

The appearance of Mother Angelica, abbess of Port Royal, to Sister Dorothy is related by a man of very great weight among the Jansenists, the Sieur Dufossé, author of the “Memoirs de Pontis.” Mother Angelica, long after her death, came and seated herself in the church of Port Royal, in her old place, with her crosier in her hand. She commanded that Sister Dorothy should be sent for and to her she told terrible secrets. But the testimony of this Dufossé is of less weight than that of Raymond of Capua, and Pope Urban VI., which, however, have not been formally received.

The writer of the above paragraphs has since read the Abbé Langlet’s four volumes on “Apparitions,” and thinks he ought not to take anything from them. He is convinced of all the apparitions verified by the Church, but he has some doubts about the others, until they are authentically recognized. The Cordeliers and the Jacobins, the Jansenists and the Molinists have all had their apparitions and their miracles. “Iliacos inter muros peccatur et extra.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25