Psychotic religion

As a result of my recent posting on Palmar de Troya, I received an interesting e-mail from a former SSPX seminarian who remembers the events in 1975 at Ecône. Namely, a Canon Maurice Revaz (professor at Ecône) went to find a Vietnamese archbishop in exile by the name of Pierre Martin Ngô-dinh-Thuc and persuaded him to go to Spain and ordain and consecrate as bishops a small group of seemingly pious laymen.

I was given this extract of a text:

“In his autobiographical notes, written in 1976, Thuc claims that Maurice Revaz suddenly appeared at his home, saying: ‘Excellency, the Holy Virgin sends me in order for me to send you to central Spain immediately to render her a service. My car is ready for you at the presbytery’s door and we will depart immediately in order to be there for Christmas.’ According to his own testimony, Thuc then answered, ‘If it is a service that the Holy Virgin required, I am ready to follow you to the end of the world, but I must inform the priest because of the Christmas Mass and must pack my bag.’ On the journey, Revaz and Thuc were accompanied by the McElligotts, a married Irish couple who lived in Switzerland.

It was not the first time Thuc and Revaz met; they had talked during the archbishop’s visit to Ecône about a year earlier. In the meantime, Revaz’s interest in El Palmar de Troya was wakened by the McElligotts, who, apart from their Swiss home, owned a property on the Andalusian coast, close to the apparition site. A more concrete reason for Revaz’s interest in El Palmar and his active role in assisting them was related by Thomas W. Case in a series of articles published in Fidelity journal. The author wanted to prove connection between SSPX and groups that he regarded as clearly heretical, such as the Palmarians. In the article, Case wrote about a ‘dwarf … who claimed she heard “voices” and the Blessed Virgin telling her that Thuc should begin a line of bishops through the seer Clemente.’ This woman was the McElligotts’ daughter. According to Case, Revaz believed in her messages and used them to convince Thuc.”

I have only ever met people involved with the Palmar church fleetingly around 1981 and the following year when I attended Mass at the SSPX church in Holloway (north London). There were indeed some very strange characters who talked about their experiences and seemed very distant in terms of ordinary communication. My correspondent mentioned the son of the author Hugh Ross Williamson, and he emerged from the archives of my memory as an odd soul with a “cow pat” wig and odd manners about him. There were some others who claimed to have seen something or heard voices. Palmar de Troya seemed to be a haven for those considered too “far out” for the Society of St Pius X. My correspondent ended his e-mail with this poignant reflection:

There’s a certain fascination in the exotic and sordid Palmar phenomenon but also a baroque horror about it all.

In other contexts, I have read things about various mental disorders related to experiences like sights and sounds not experienced by other persons in the same place. It is risky to explain religious and spiritual phenomena by psychiatric science. Atheists do it all the time to give a simplistic explanation for anything outside materialism. St Joan or Arc would seem to have been a perfect candidate for a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The Freudian school of psychiatry would dismiss all religious belief as delusional, but progress has been made in vital distinctions between faith and pathology. When is something pathological? I don’t think anyone knows. Is it the notion of something being shared by several persons? For example, an event happened at Fatima in Portugal in 1917, when thousands of people saw what looked like the sun spinning and moving around the sky.

My own tendency would be to doubt the conventional distinction between reality and delusion, because of the possibility of parallel universes and that some persons experience more than one at the same time. This would give some explanation to UFO’s and communication with the dead for example. Quantum theory gives ideas about things that cannot be explained by traditional Newtonian physics. I do think that someone can experience something that would not be recognised by other people to be real. Miracles and visions have happened, recognised as such by Churches, and experienced by generally rational people.

It is dangerous for those of us outside the medical profession to venture into psychiatric diagnosis beyond the observation of some typical characteristics, which may indicate one pathology or another, or a co-morbidity of several conditions. I do think that “cow pat wig” was someone whose religion made him unhappy, and who might have benefited from medical care in some way.

Oscar Wilde’s great Epistola in Carcere et Vinculis (complete text) relates the notion of imitation in religion:

And so he who would lead a Christ-like life is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself. He may be a great poet, or a great man of science ; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor ; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his nets into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realises the perfection of the soul that is within him. All imitation in morals and in life is wrong. Through the streets of Jerusalem at the present day crawls one who is mad and carries a wooden cross on his shoulders. He is a symbol of the lives that are marred by imitation.

That image of the madman in Jerusalem or the traditionalist cranks in Victoria Street outside Westminster Cathedral has impressed me strongly. Perhaps true madness comes from denying one’s own personality rather than mystical experience. Reading through Wilde’s text once again, I find the name of Emerson, of whom I knew nothing before Walt Whitman lead me to an acquaintance with Transcendentalism. Wilde seemed to have absorbed English Romanticism and the American movement of the era of his childhood, and then added something of his own. We have to be ourselves as Christ was perfectly himself, imitating or conforming to nobody.

I don’t know whether there is a relationship between the suppression of personality and madness. Different specialists in the field will come up with various more or less credible theories, perhaps in some cases with ideological prejudice at the root. I come across characters like “cow pat wig” on the internet, but their personalities are hidden by the lack of anything other than written communication. The phenomenon of the troll is revealing, especially as I experienced the exchanges and discussions concerning the TAC and the Ordinariates, still discernible in the blog St Mary’s Hollywood: The Cold Case File and the turn it has taken fairly recently. Most of the other creeps who caused me to close down a former blog I was running have all crawled back into their holes. Was it something to do with the abdication of the Pope?

How do we keep ourselves in good mental health? Perhaps I cannot speak for all, but I heed the idea of self-reliance being a strong basis rather than conformity to something which is OK for another person but not me. We have a lot to learn from philosophers like Umberto Eco, a healthy scepticism and being difficult to convince. As I have discussed about cults, the essential is our freedom and that of others. The Enlightenment has been frustrating for churches, but was a good thing and gave us the distance we needed to be healthy believers. I do believe that mental health is largely determined by philosophy of life and a balanced attitude in everything. We are not made to be drugged up to the eyeballs just to give the appearance of “normality”.

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11 Responses to Psychotic religion

  1. J.D. says:

    That Oscar Wilde quote seems intuitively true to me. We all have to become integrated and whole in order to find ourselves mentally stable. We must become who we are meant to be, even if it might cost us a lot of headaches and heartaches. Balance is the key,as you mention.

    I’d never heard of the Palmarian Church before I read this but it sounds almost stranger than fiction.

  2. Why was abp. Thuc doing all this?
    Palmarian and various sede groups are his legacy. How can a man with more than half a century of pastoral praxis and experience behind himself be in such a lack of foresight? Or maybe he had some sort of messianic complex and deemed that it was up to him to “save” the Church?

    • Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo – The Autobiography of Mgr. Pierre Martin Ngô-dinh-Thuc, Archbishop of Hué

      This might shed light on a lot of questions. His brother and family had been killed in Vietnam by the Communists and the Archbishop got little sympathy from Rome. I suggest it was partly bitterness and partly loneliness, the usual mechanism of cults and Stockholm Syndrome when the sedevacantists got their claws into him. It’s not a good idea to read too many bad intentions into all that. “Episcopivagantism” seems to be less in fashion these days as people care less and less. The American sedevacantists (French and Mexican too) seem to be doing well, have stable parishes, and are more lukewarm and established than at the time of their origins. The truth is invariably what is most predictable and boring – Occam’s Razor…

      • Stephen K says:

        Occam’s Razor indeed, Father! How true. One of the reasons why I eschew dogmatism – as opposed to principles – in the religious sphere is because it has been my experience that at different times in my life I have believed, and been inspired by, different things. When I look at Palmarian videos, I recognise the kind of environment – intense, rigorous, colourful, supposedly “traditional” (therefore ‘grounded’) – that once attracted me. You and many others, insofar as you and they are drawn to antiquity, idealism, romantic (aka historicist) liturgical and religious sensuality, will be able to understand this. That you would keep your distance from the Palmarian species because it seems insane or baroque is not to say that your own traditionalism, or what was once my own religious inclinations, is not so different except in local flavour and degree. The truth is, I remember being very intense, and all those things, in my own way.

        I hesitate to say yet once again what I have said before, but I think it’s pertinent to say we all believe what we get our religious or spiritual jollies from. At any given time we will be ensconsed firmly in our soteriological or religious mind-frame. When we perchance move on, out, or get wrenched away, we merely enter a new one. Now, when I see anything like a traditional liturgy, or a traditional church structure, loaded with its theological and political implications, I understand fully the reason for the fascination or attachment, not just abstractly but viscerally, but at the same time I want to vomit, so repelled am I by the empire of the Church in which I see nothing of Christ.

        Of course in feeling that way I also condemn myself, because I don’t think anyone ever quite escapes one’s own self or nature. I’m a socialist politically, and with heroes like Bede Griffiths, Merton and Pannikar, a syncretist, I suppose, religiously. But whatever I was then I am still, and I venture to suppose that so is the same for all of us.

        I do believe or have hope in theosis whereby I think the Godness-in-me or the becoming-god-ness comes from a process of seeking and deep contemplation and relational awareness with my fellow man. This may be a point of intersection between you and me, insofar as something in the Benedictine way holds some ideal appeal. Either that or Buddhism.

        So, I look back on phenomena like Palmar da Troya, and, though I think it must have been more than unusually loaded with fraud and unhealthy extremism, feel loath to pour scorn because at some point religious institutions and pyramidal clerical edifices seem to indulge and profit by the same kind of oppression and campery.

        I realise that this is a personal reflection and we all have our own religious and spiritual memoir guiding us, wherever we find ourselves. We are, then, truly, one in our human-ness and incompleteness.

      • Thanks for your reflections. Perhaps it is a question of degree. Are materialists any better off in terms of being intellectually and spiritually satisfied?

        I was also taken aback by the comments of our friend with the Eastern European (Czech?) name. I was being “caught out” for expressing scepticism in regard to revealed truth! I too was quite “baroque” when I was with the Institute of Christ the King. I suppose we all have our favourite cultural expressions from riddle posts to 1970’s brutalism in grey concrete. Or we have rejected everything human to embrace nature. There is a subjective aspect, of preference, and then there is the aspect of respect of freedom. I think we Anglicans are usually better at that than some of our “cow pat wig” friends in the nether regions, waiting to pounce.

        Perhaps you should have an experience of some fundamentalist Calvinist community or the Quakers, or following the ways of the world. Why not? Or even the local mosque or Buddhist place of worship. You can always go to the local bar and socialise with the guys there. You can play sports or go to a nightclub. People often have to sow their wild oats to find out what is truest for them.

        There is socialism and socialism, but I won’t go into politics here. I agree with you that we need to know more about other world religions. I admire Bede Griffiths myself and often think I would love to spend time in India. The most important thing is to discover ourselves and be true to ourselves. I have been writing quite a lot about that recently.

        I don’t pour scorn on Palmar de Troya, but I think they should be investigated by the Spanish police, tax authorities and the departments that are concerned about sectarian drifts and harm done to innocent people. The limit of religious freedom is public order and the rights of persons to life and freedom.

        Should we all give up religion and be model materials because of cults and sects? Then we have Islam and Big Brother… I think the world can be more subtle than that. Perhaps you could write more about your personal choices and the good they have brought you. I for one am open-minded.

      • @Fr.
        I guess one could look at him with a bit of pity. Also, his impact wasn’t that big so…
        And what do you mean by your last sentence about truth? Of which truth are you talking?

        @Stephen K.
        “Now, when I see anything like a traditional liturgy, or a traditional church structure, loaded with its theological and political implications, I understand fully the reason for the fascination or attachment, not just abstractly but viscerally, but at the same time I want to vomit, so repelled am I by the empire of the Church in which I see nothing of Christ.”

        Being a “senseless antiquarianist” (as ven. pope Pius XII. would say), i share the sentiment.

      • And what do you mean by your last sentence about truth? Of which truth are you talking?

        In this context I mean historical fact, not philosophical or theological truth.

      • Oh, so you mean the historical truth about abp. Thuc.

      • Yes, as opposed to some conspiracy theory or something of that sort.

    • Oh no, father, that didn’t even pass my mind. I was just musing about his personality, thoughts and actions. He might’ve been bitter (as you say) because all he has gone through, and also, he might have thought of himself as one who has been betrayed. From my own experience, people who feel betrayed (but are noble, or at least try to be) make “vengance” by taking matters in their hands and doing what they think is best. They finally take the courage to do whatever they’ve ever dreamed of because, now being betrayed and abandoned by everyone, they answer to no one.

      Still, even taking those (putative) matters in account, i think he should’ve acted a bit smarter.

      • I agree with you. Retired bishops usually find a ministry as a convent chaplain or that sort of thing. At the end of his life, he found a religious community in America to give him housing and look after him in his old age. He deeply regretted doing the Palmar and miscellaneous sedevacantist consecrations. Bishop Williamson has without doubt learned many lessons and is prudent in his choice of candidates for the episcopate. Anything is possible in retrospect. We can’t put ourselves in the poor fellow’s place more than 30 years later.

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