One historical example of demons creating a counterfeit mystic illustrates the danger of naively accepting claims of visions and miracles. It also illustrates why the Church, with hard-won wisdom, is slow to declare these phenomena divine or to declare a person a saint based on them.
A False Mystic: Sr. Magdalena of the Cross
Sr. Magdalena of the Cross was born in Spain in 1487 and became a Franciscan nun who was renowned across Spain and most of Europe. She was famous for the miracles that she apparently performed and for her extreme penances. She was called a living saint, and, like many genuine saints, she started having visions early in life — around five years old. She was praying in church, and a luminous young man appeared to her.
When she described what she had seen, many thought it was Jesus who had appeared to her, and her fame started to spread. Later this same figure appeared to her and told her to lessen her penances in order to protect her health. After that, she helped a lame man up the stairs of the church, and he seemed to be spontaneously healed. Shortly thereafter, a mute person recovered his voice, apparently due to her power.
At the age of ten, there were indications that something was amiss. Magdalena tried to crucify herself to the wall of her bedroom as a penance for being a beautiful child. The wounds became infected, and then she claimed that Jesus had healed her. She then apparently fasted for three months leading up to her first Holy Communion, but when she approached to receive the Eucharist, she threw herself on the floor and later claimed that Jesus had given her the Eucharist Himself; thus she avoided actually receiving Him.
In spite of this, at the age of seventeen she became a Franciscan nun — but her behavior soon started to cause concern in the convent. She did extreme penances, sometimes carrying a heavy cross around, and seemed to stop eating completely. These types of displays — note that these were public penances, as opposed to the private penances of genuine saints — are generally not allowed in religious orders since they tend to distract the person and others from their proper responsibilities. Nonetheless, she was allowed to continue, and her reputation for saintliness grew.
Her Fame Grows
When she made her perpetual vows in the Franciscan Order, many from far and wide were in attendance. A dove flew down from the ceiling of the cathedral and landed on her shoulder, then flew up and sat watching the ceremony. When the ceremony ended, it flew outside and straight up into the sky. This story spread far and wide, and again her fame increased. Due to Sr. Magdalena’s reputation, many patrons donated a lot of money to the monastery.
As her life in the convent continued, she started to exhibit knowledge of things she could not have known: events in the city, in another Franciscan convent, and in the noble families. She started predicting the future, such as the deaths of political figures and the appointment of a cardinal. Then, on the feast of the Annunciation in 1518, she told her abbess that by the Holy Spirit she had conceived Jesus within herself the previous night. The abbess kept this a secret in order to wait and see what would happen, and Magdalena’s belly soon started to show what seemed to be a pregnancy. The nuns were then told of their sister’s claim, and controversy ensued; despite an order not to speak of the situation, word leaked to the outside world. Meanwhile, Magdalena increased her gruesome penances, including walking on broken glass and lashing herself.
When the archbishop heard of the sister’s story, he sent three midwives to examine her. They determined both that she was indeed pregnant, and that her virginity was intact. She claimed that she would give birth on Christmas Eve 1518, and that she must do so alone. The nuns set up a little house for her, and she retreated there in solitude. When she emerged, she did not have a child, and told an outlandish story about the child’s disappearing. But her sisters and devotees believed her, and again her fame only increased. More extraordinary events happened, and she was tested to ensure that her spiritual ecstasies were real and that she really was living without eating. The ecstasies were tested by seeing if she would respond to pain when in an ecstasy, which she did not. Observation to confirm she was not eating in her cell was done — but not well enough.
The money kept flowing in, and the monastery became the richest in Spain. The nuns helped to fund a new cathedral, which ingratiated the monastery to the archdiocese, and so Sr. Magdalena’s influence increased further. In 1533, she was elected abbess and immediately became tyrannical, forcing the nuns to endure greater penances than they could bear and accusing them of greater sins than they confessed. This sent some of the nuns into hysterical fits that looked like temporary states of demonic possession. Then the abbess claimed that St. Francis had appeared to her and told her that they no longer needed to go to confession. Rather, she had her nuns confess nightly to her in her cell.
An Exorcist is Called
In spite of all this, her fame continued to spread in the outside world. Within the monastery, however, she was losing support due to her increasingly abusive behavior, and she was removed as abbess. Shortly thereafter, she became seriously ill and a priest came to hear her general confession in preparation for death. When he put the purple stole on her, she went into a suspicious “ecstasy.” The priest suspected that this was a demonic response to the holy object, and he tested her with holy water, which caused her to lash out further. Then she started voicing blasphemies and floating in the air over her bed and violently dropping back down. The priest summoned an exorcist.
During the rite, it became clear that Magdalena had been possessed by two demons, one of whom reveled in the problems he had caused through her. In the end, though, the exorcism was successful. Later, an inquisitor came to investigate the case and to record the details. Sr. Magdalena was now near death, and she admitted that the young man who came to her when she was a girl was the devil and that he promised her fame and respect if she would obey him. She further admitted the demons encouraged and made possible all of her supposed revelations, fasting regimens, and ecstasies.
But the ordeal was not yet over. She again began vulgarly insulting the inquisitor, and further exorcisms expelled the second demon. Finally, she was completely freed from the possession that had enslaved her for forty years. She repented for the decades during which she had willfully cooperated with the demons. She lived out the rest of her days in penance and prayer, never exhibiting the disordered ideas or manifestations again.
What We Can Still Learn from Sr. Magdalena
The story of Sr. Magdalena shows how the devil can manifest extraordinary signs and experiences that, even to those who should know better, look like the holy works of God. But, on inspection, these are always distortions of true sanctity — precisely the kind of distortions that can pull people in and cause enormous damage. The demons who possessed Sr. Magdalena wanted to destroy all the goodness they could by drawing well-meaning people to her: her fellow nuns, powerful people, and the everyday faithful. And for a very long time, they succeeded. Besides the people whom Sr. Magdalena hurt personally, untold numbers more had their faith shaken by the revelation of her deception.
This is an example of why the Church regards all claims of supernatural experiences with careful scrutiny. Sr. Magdalena’s story is extraordinary — thank God such events have not happened more often in the history of the Church — but it is a reminder to us, and to all spiritual authorities, to be vigilant.
How Can We Begin to Discern Between True & False Miracles?
We can discern between real miracles and demonic counterfeits in a few ways:
- Does the event draw us closer to God, or closer to some created spirit or ourselves? Miracles always draw us toward a deeper relationship with God. Miracles confirm the reality of God, and God’s love for us. Counterfeits draw us away from God into a focus on created spirits or our own self-importance and power.
- Does the event cause clarity and peace, or confusion and distress? Miracles bring comfort, peace, and clarity. Demonic counterfeits may bring temporary satisfaction, but it is short lived. Soon anxiety and inner distress occur. The other hallmark of counterfeits is that they bring confusion as opposed to clarity.
- Did the event happen through or around people who direct others to God, or people who direct others to themselves? Counterfeits occur around the latter because God would not manifest a sign to draw people away from Him. Demonic counterfeits often happen around a person in private, but sometimes they happen publicly in order to draw others into deception. Many people abuse the idea of miracles and simply con people into thinking they have powers. Sometimes fallen angels create their effects in support of these people, often making a more potent lure and trap by combining their spiritual tricks with human deception.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Mr. Blai’s latest book, The Catholic Guide to Miracles: Separating the Authentic from the Counterfeit. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.
We also recommend the following articles from Mr. Blai, which illustrate some fascinating miracles that the Church has long accepted:
- “The Miracle of Incorruptibility Points to Eternity”
- “The Saints Who Levitated: Extraordinary and Concrete Miracles”
image: Illuminated manuscript depicting one of the legends of the Virgin Mary in which a nun confesses her sins before the pope and is transformed into the figure of the Virgin, confounding the devil, who is her accuser. Illustrating a miracle in opposition to Sr. Magdalena’s false visions. Image adapted from BL Royal 2 B VII, f. 218 in the British Library Royal Collection / Europeana (Public Domain)