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.

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  • Molly Roach

    Just in a matter of data: Dec. 12 is the feast of OL of Guadalupe. Regarding the question of visions, I agree with you and John of the C—to easy to get lost in. As a catechist, I tell my young students that visions come from within, so the call is to pay attention to what is there and ask God’s help with it. Kindness is everything.

  • Carl McColman

    Oops, that’s what I get for gathering my liturgical information from Wikipedia! I’ve corrected the blog entry to reflect today as the feast of Juan Diego, the visionary to whom Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared.

  • Gary Snead

    I see, so at least I know my visual processing centers work, truly we can’t assume much more. John of the C gives cautions that bring to mind Paul’s admonitions about a different sensory experience -verbal/auditory – in regard to speaking in tongues. The end, the purpose, of sensory connections with God is glorification of God. Processing, experiencing those sensory events with the core context of love I think would guarantee that result. we just aren’t very good about staying centered there and that’s where others’ vision, tongue, stigmata, inspiration can edify us about how, when, where, why, through whom God can sensationally, sensorially reach us. That’s what I see, hear, feel in today’s page.

  • Jeff

    My next door neighbor, an elderly Jewish woman, grand daughter of an Orthodox rabbi became a Christian after a vision of Jesus, I can also recount other genuine visions among friends and relatives, even myself. None of them were sought or cultivated – out of the blue so to speak, but only once or twice, the most I’m aware was three times among the people I know -my son with three visions of christ as a young child. It’s more common that people realize among the most ordinary people who are not Julian of Norwich types.

  • Jeff

    Dreams and visions have been documented as a reason for a good number of muslim conversions to Christianity in recent decades. Frequently it is a vision or dream of Jesus filled with light. This contradicts the doctrine that there is a generic underlying spiritual experience among all faiths that is expressed in the imagery of one’s culture and religion when encountered. Many of these converts face serious persecution in their native cultures or here in the west from their families. Saint Paul’s Damascus road conversion experience of the risen Christ continues. Note these links –