The following story happened some years ago when I worked as an administrative assistant for a ministry set up to help people leave religious cults.  The woman at the center of the story was not one of our clients, but her experience illustrates a key point I gleaned in the ministry about the danger over time of being even just one degree off of truth. It was also a key point in my own progress coming out of a religious system that includes many extra-biblical practices.
In 1980, I was still attending the Roman Catholic Mass from time to time although I had become a Christian in 1973. Certain teachings from Catholicism still had a pull on me mentally, spiritually, and, I am sure, psychologically. My upbringing, ensconced in Catholic dogma, impacted me not just at church and at home but at school as well, throughout my K-12 education. My parents directed my siblings and me according to their good intentions as I am sure the nuns and priests at school and church did, for which I am grateful. But good intentions aside, there are many doctrines, traditions, and teachings in the Roman Catholic religion that are not of the core tenets of Christianity, seated in Scripture, to which I now solely subscribe. “Saying the Rosary,” just one of the many extra-biblical practices I had learned as a Catholic, was allowed as an acceptable form of prayer and spiritual betterment. This story has to do in part with that practice.
THE “BEAUTIFUL LADY”
I noticed, for the third Sunday in a row, the tiny, elderly woman sitting in the last pew of the church. She seemed in a world of her own. Her eyes shone as she gazed up at something not visible to the rest of us while her fingers continuously worked an over-sized set of shiny Rosary beads. After one service, I approached someone who had smiled and nodded at “Mrs. P.” as she passed her on the way out of church. I pulled the woman aside.
“What’s going on with that lady?” I asked.
“Oh,” she replied. “Haven’t you heard? Mrs. P. had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary a few months ago when her husband was dying!”
No, I hadn’t heard. Wow. Were visions still happening these days?
I grew up on vision stories. The three children of Fatima, Bernadette of Lourdes, St. Teresa of Avila, and lots of Roman Catholic saints from antiquity who not only “saw the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and various other personages and entities, as they reported, but who also had a variety of manifestations, visual and physical, that were eventually deemed “authentic” by the popes and many of those people were later “sainted.” I decided to ask Mrs. P. about her experience.
I hated to invade her reverie, but when I sat down next to her she turned and nodded, still fingering the beads. “I am sorry to interrupt you, Mrs. P.,” I began, “but somebody told me you saw the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
“Oh, yes!” she exclaimed. “Can I tell you?”
THE GOLD ROSARY BEADS
“It was when my husband was dying in the hospital,” she began, a trace of an accent from the old country still discernable. “We were married forty-nine years, so long, so long.” Her eyes misted. “He was not conscious anymore, and I knew he would soon be with the Holy Mother Mary and Jesus. I prayed, oh I prayed and prayed the Rosary and I just cried and cried. I loved him so much! I was so sad!”
One day, she said, as she was praying and crying, a “beautiful lady” suddenly appeared over her husband’s hospital bed.
“She was so beautiful,” Mrs. P. continued, “just like the pictures in the prayer books. And her face was so loving and kind. She looked right at me! And there was a bright cloud around her. I could hardly believe it! I thought I would faint, but her beautiful smile made me keep looking at her. And then for the first time in a long time I felt so peaceful!”
I asked if Mrs. P. was still seeing the beautiful lady.
“Oh, no,” she continued, “but I can still imagine her all the time, and it gives me such a warm glow in my heart. I KNOW that was the Blessed Virgin Mary! And do you know what she did?” Here, Mrs. P. began to cry openly.
“What?” I put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her.
“She wanted to give me her gold Rosary beads!” Mrs. P.’s eyes got wide. “Gold Rosary beads! But I didn’t take them! And every day I ask myself, ‘Why didn’t you take them? Oh, why didn’t you take them?’ I should have taken them!”
In a kind of sudden shock over this surprising announcement, I jerked my hand back.
“Gold… Rosary… beads?” I asked, my eyes wide, too.
“The Blessed Virgin wanted me to have the gold Rosary beads,” she continued, “and I didn’t take them!”
She bowed her head, dropped her hands and her Rosary in her lap. She was very distressed. I didn’t know what to say. I made myself pat her on the back a few times as it seemed the right thing to do. But she soon seemed back in her own world again. I quietly left her side.
WHAT’S A GIRL TO DO?
My thoughts trailed back to my Catholic girlhood and my own odd religious experiences, although they were of my own making. Whereas most little Catholic kids I knew weren’t too concerned about all the church rules and regs, keeping my mortal sins to a minimum so I could avoid hell’s fires and trying to find ways to earn grace so that I could avoid the fires of purgatory, too, occupied some of my time.
Around the fourth grade we were introduced to the Fatima story (about the three peasant
children from Portugal who saw “Mary” visions in 1917). There was a Hollywood version of the story, too. Apparently at some point in the story the Fatima children were threatened with being boiled in oil if they were lying about the “beautiful lady” they saw (or maybe that was just the Hollywood version). The nun asked us as a class if we were willing to be “boiled in oil for our faith.” A few hands went up. Most of us just sat there, mouths agape, minds locked on an image of a kid-sized vat bubbling with hot oil…
We were introduced to another story, too, about another Catholic child who’d also seen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858: St. Bernadette of Lourdes. This was a young French girl who, after eating some mud in a field, which is what the “Lady” had told her to do, threw it up and water started gushing out of the mud hole. This is now a place where many pilgrims come hoping for healings by dipping into the pool that remains there. Some claim miracles and there are many accounts of various other phenomena that take place. 
YET ANOTHER WAY
So about that time, I figured a pretty good way to erase some of the purgatory time I might ultimately have to put in (and it was impossible to ever know how much) would be to have a vision, myself, although I realized it might involve some risk. Plus it would also make me famous in the fourth grade, I was sure.
I found a little classmate who was game to try, too, as I was a little scared to go it alone, spiritual benefits notwithstanding. We decided that an important part of each story was how poor the children were, so we looked around for a dismal place to have our vision, at least what seemed dismal for two little kids in Upper Michigan. We finally found the perfect thing: an abandoned garage with only a dirt floor. Looked good. We located an old, broken crate to kneel on, and set the day and time: Saturday, noon. We each arrived on time, positioned the crate so we would face the one, broken window and knelt down.
We waited. Five, six minutes passed. Dust motes clouded the sun filtering through broken slats on the garage door. A damp, noxious odor intensified. A puff of wind riffled a cobweb covering the window and something made a scratching sound in the corner. About that time, in unison, my friend and I stood up and ran for the door. There would have to be some other way to stay out of purgatory!
I thought of another time a few years later when I decided to “seek God” in a different way. This time, what I wanted was to know was if God really existed. I laid down on my bed and closed my eyes. I imagined away the ceiling, then the roof, then the clouds, then the sky, then the universe and for one nano-second it was me and God. Fortunately, it didn’t last any longer because an electric fear shot through me. I remember that nano-second still. Whoa. That was the end of that, too. I guessed I’d just take my chances…
ON THIS END OF THINGS
From the vantage point of having been a Christian, now, for nearly 40 years, I of course have a completely different understanding of the nature of my own experiences and of Mrs. P’s “visitation” none of which have anything to do with the focus of any manifestation that is truly of God, i.e., to glorify Jesus (John 16: 13-14).
But the religious system from which both of us came was filled with all manner of extra-biblical experiments and experiences and without the standard of God’s word as final arbiter of “manifestations,” what could we know? We were both babes without a guide in a mystical wood, which is why I am so concerned now about non-Catholics joining Catholics in a new era of new/old mystical phenomena.  Do they really understand the history and reality of mysticism?
But back to the story. My little childhood forays into religious adventures produced fear and certainly did not glorify Jesus in my life, and Mrs. P. certainly did not seem any closer to knowledge of the Gospel plan of salvation despite how beautiful the lady in her vision was. But at the time, I still pondered her story.
SO, WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL?
Mrs. P.’s, experience stayed on my mind for days. Obviously, she was a woman in the throes of the fresh grief of losing her husband of so many years, but she was also in a kind of grief over refusing to take the gold beads from the “lady” of the vision.
Although I was beginning to learn and grow in basic truths of the faith, one of which was that Satan could appear as an angel of light, or any other attractive entity, another of which was that all manner of spirits are abroad in the world to deceive us (see references, below), I still had a question about Mrs. P. I decided I’d quiz my boss Vince when he got back from a cult case.
I formulated my query: “What can it hurt if some lonely, grief-stricken old lady gets a little comfort in what she thinks is the Blessed Virgin Mary who has come to help her feel better?” I would explain about the gold Rosary beads, too, of course, but keep my focus on my concern: the comfort Mrs. P. said she experienced because of the “visitation.” His reply stays with me and overshadows any benefit there might be if one uses so-called “mysticism” or other non-biblical spiritual phenomena to feel better or to feel good.
THE DANGER OF ONE DEGREE OFF
“The trouble with anything that is not biblical, however small it might be, even just one degree off of truth,” Vince replied, “is that over time, if not corrected, it will influence a person further and further away from orthodoxy until one day the distance might be too far to come back.”
I got the picture. Two lines, or ideas, start out looking parallel but only one is truth. Over time the lie veers off on its own trajectory, pulling the believer with it, and if not corrected, the separation between truth and error eventually becomes too great…
And I came to a clearer understanding of the truth:
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world./Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:/ And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof you have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world”(1John 4: 1-3, KJV).
“For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ./And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light./Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the minister of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works” (2 Corinthians 11: 13-15).
THE ENDS OF THE LINES
I don’t know what happened to Mrs. P. I hope she got some counseling. My heart broke a little for her, so lost in her sad reverie, so lost without her husband even there in the middle of a place where she should have found the balm of Gilead but instead found a handful of beads. I hope that in the middle of all of the trinkets and idols and pomp and circumstance of Roman Catholicism she found Jesus.
As for the little kid I was, I soon overcame my quest for spiritual adventure and, until I heard the Gospel and received the reality of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior at age 23, I retreated into my own kind of spiritual reverie consisting of one part Roman Catholicism, one part secular philosophy, and one part quiet despair.
But Mrs. P. and I didn’t do as badly as millions of others. Consider the end of the line for cult leader Jim Jones’ followers, for followers of the false prophet David Koresh, for followers of countless false teachers and prophets before and after them. Those tragedies, traced to their origins, started just a degree of thought or belief off, too, sometimes intentionally but sometimes simply out of a lack of discernment or a lack of truth.
And think of the story of the first ever departure from the straight and narrow: a simple suggestion that went unexamined and set the stage for the greatest of all tragedies, one that plays still.
Beloved, test all the pretty spirits, the ideas that tickle the ear, the magical mystical tours, and the beautiful visions offering golden beads.
They may not be what you imagine them to be.
Stay in the Word.
 Christian Orientation Research and Evangelism.
Lighthouse Trails Research has a topical index of many articles related to the new mysticism in the church. Some key words are Contemplative Prayer, Contemplative Spirituality, New Spirituality, Breath Prayers, Christian Mystics of the Past, The Cloud of Unknowing, Soaking Prayer, The Silence, Spiritual Formation, Teresa of Avila.
Another related practice is Sozo, a brand of “healing of memories” developed and taught at Bethel Church in Redding, CA. It is relatively new on the “market,” but here are some sites that can help you get more information:
Rosary image from public domain: http://www.google.com/images?rlz=1T4TSHB_enUS229US229&q=public+domain+picture+of+a+rosary&gs_upl=0l0l0l3581lllllllllll0&hl=en&sa=X&oi=image_result_group
Children of Fatima photo from public domain.