What are visions?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Friday 19, October 2012 | Category:   Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Mary and the Saints,Scripture

It’s always easier to speak from experience, in which case the best reply to this question would come from Doctors of the Church Hildegard of Bingen (recently named) and Catherine of Siena as well as other saints like Francis of Assisi, Bernadette of Lourdes, or any number of folks on the biblical record like Jacob, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Peter, Paul, and John of Patmos, who wrote the Book of Revelation.

Hildegard
ICON of Hildegard of Bingen

From me, you can get a definition. Visions are understood to be the product of God’s self-communication. As Carmelite Father John Welch puts it, all of Christianity depends on divine revelation, so the hop to visions is not all that unusual for people of faith. Nonetheless it is an extraordinary event that can be expressed in words, ideas, or images. It may have a physical dimension but is more often experienced in the imagination or intuitive understanding.

Visions that include a tangible dimension are considered extremely rare. Juan Diego got an image on tilma cloak from Our Lady of Guadalupe. Philip Neri experienced a globe of fire entering his chest that literally broke his ribs and enlarged his heart. Francis of Assisi had his stigmata. Most visions don’t have that kind of corporeal aspect, and mystics themselves often mistrusted them if they did. “Imaginative visions”—Joan of Arc described hers this way—are often attributed to factors like youth, an elementary religious education, or psychological simplicity. Consider how many mystics had their experiences as children, like those of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, Portugal in 1917.

Mystics agree the most reliable visions are intellectual or intuitive; these are less likely to be distorted by unreliable human senses. Mystics are also the first to say that visions are not the goal of the spiritual life. Most mystics had their visions early and moved into a greater interiority of spiritual communion with God after that. In that sense the vision achieved its purpose along the spiritual journey as a boost upward into something richer and more useful—the point being, for the saints and for the rest of us, that we shouldn’t measure ourselves against these experiences or hanker after them. If even visionaries found them dispensable, they are clearly not prerequisites to grace.

Although faith is based on revelation, church teaching leaves the matter of specific visions open to question. Visionaries in modern times are subject to investigation by church authorities and may be deemed credible—but their experiences are not made matters for doctrinal acceptance for believers. Most of us have inexplicable episodes when we perceive things we have no way of knowing and yet do. If we pay attention, we might see more than we think.

Scripture
Genesis 32:23-33; Isaiah 6:1-8; Ezekiel 10; Daniel 7:13-18; Acts of the Apostles 9:1-9; 10:9-16; the Book of Revelation

Online
The Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena, "dictated by her, while in a state of ecstasy, to her secretaries, and completed in the year of our lord 1370"

Books
Our Lady of the Lost and Found: A Novel of Mary, Faith, and Friendship by Diane Schoemperlen (Penguin, 2002)
Mystics and Miracles: True Stories of Lives Touched by God by Bert Ghezzi (Loyola Press, 2002)

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