Today is the feast day of Juan Diego: the visionary of Mexico who received the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in1531.
In Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, Evelyn Underhill has a chapter called “Voices and Visions.” Julian of Norwich was a visionary. So was Birgitta of Sweden, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, and Francis of Assisi. Receiving visions seems to be very much part of the stock in trade of the mystical life.
The prophet Joel, whom Peter quoted in his Pentecost sermon, said “It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” Dreams and visions: are they merely the neon lights of the inner life? A yawning trap into which the gullible and naive and over-imaginative will inevitably fall? Or is there some real and important connection between being conscious of Divine presence and Union with God, and a heightened or altered experience of vision? While plenty of the “A list” mystics like those I mentioned above were truly supernatural visionaries, does this mean that all of us are called to receive such visions? Or can one be a true mystic in a much more humble and down to earth way?
I’m pretty much an agnostic about all this. I rather agree with John of the Cross, who in the Ascent of Mount Carmel suggests that supernatural “apprehensions” or knowledge, while potentially a genuine blessing, is also fraught with both psychological and spiritual dangers, chief among them being the capacity for self-delusion, ego-inflation, and pride: the idea that “God has chosen me so therefore I must be really special.” John sensibly counsels his readers that “all heavenly visions, revelations, and feelings — or whatever else one may desire to think on — are not worth as much as the least act of humility… Consequently souls should not look for their happiness in these supernatual apprehensions, but should strive to forget them for the sake of being free.” Ah, yes. Do old men dream dreams and do young men (and women) have visions? You bet. But these things are less important than humility, charity, and true freedom in the Spirit.
I’ve always loved the idea that the Holy Spirit can break through our psychic defenses and bring to us knowledge or insight that can have a truly transformational impact on who we are and how we function in the world. And I believe such “interruptions” are possible, even in our hyper-cynical age. But I also believe that such things should be neither defended against, nor actively sought. After all, there are no guarantees: a true vision might be far more terrifying than comforting. In the meantime, so much wisdom and insight is available to us all, through the riches of Sacred Scripture and the writings of the saints and mystics, and through the ordinary work of trying to grow in humility, charity, and the virtues. We don’t need the “neon lights” of supernatural visions, most of us. And to me, this is cause for great thanksgiving.
Now, I titled this post “Vision” rather than “Visions.” And that is because, while I think for most aspiring contemplatives the question of supernatural visions is more of a potential distraction than anything else, there is still a pretty important relationship between mysticism and vision — as in “learning to see more clearly.” Perhaps what the contemplative life calls most of us to is not the dramatic experiences of a Hildegard or a Julian, but rather to a more gentle path of learning to see all things with the eyes of love. The more we learn to use our eyes (and our mind’s eye) to see with love and humility and compassion, the more we will grow in true mystical vision — even if what we “see” never has any whiff of the extraordinary or supernatural about it at all. For the contemplative life — what Richard Rohr calls in his newest book, “learning to see as the mystics see” — is both entirely down to earth and utterly transformational. It will help us to have a new vision: the vision of the mystics, which is nothing more nor less than learning to see ordinary things the way God sees them.
And that kind of seeing would be the most amazing vision of all. May God grant it to us all. Amen.