Visions and Revelations in the
Development of the Spiritual Life
A brief survey of the evolution of the highest spiritual life in the light of Teresian teaching has brought out how absolutely erroneous it is to characterize the mystical life as a life full of visions and revelations. For St. John of the Cross, there is no doubt that even the loftiest states of the contemplative life may be verified without the soul’s being endowed with such favors, while, on the contrary, infused contemplation and mystical union constitute the whole substance of the highest form of spiritual life.
It is true that there are mystics who, over and beyond this contemplation, have been favored with special heavenly communications, and among these must be counted St. Teresa of Jesus, the great Mistress of the contemplative life. It may even be said that some over-hasty and superficial reader of her works may think that she makes the higher stages of the mystical life consist in a profusion of such extraordinary graces. Bearing in mind her particular method, and accurately examining the actual phraseology of her writings, not only does she not contradict the position of St. John of the Cross, but she also recognizes the accidental character of the phenomena. The Teresian school is unanimous in teaching that these favors are graces of a secondary order, not required for spiritual progress.
Hence, the question arises as to what attitude we should take up toward such graces. Are they to be desired, or are they, perchance, to be despised? Are they useful, or are they, rather, obstacles to the spiritual life? To say that they are accidental is not, indeed, the same thing as to say that they are absurdities. Those who have in mind the ineptitudes in which some devotee relates her meetings with the Child Jesus will rightly shrug their shoulders. But, on the other hand, certain heavenly manifestations met with in the lives of some canonized saints are found to be very interesting. Think, for example, of St. Margaret Mary’s relations with the Sacred Heart! Consequently, a more precise knowledge of these phenomena, and their various species and forms, is requisite for one who would answer adequately the question: How ought we to behave in regard to visions and revelations?
For this reason, we shall try to form a clear and distinct concept of all these extraordinary phenomena, and to give to them a logical classification that will enable us to gain a more concrete idea of the problem that they raise; to distinguish their different aspects, and to treat more definitely of the attitude to be adopted in regard to them.
The rich experience of St. Teresa, which we shall set forth in its concrete form, will supply us with a body of very varying material that will be distinctly coordinated in the light of the principles of St. John of the Cross. The theological analyses of these phenomena will bring out more clearly how many and various are the illusions to which visions are exposed and how delicate and difficult to solve are the questions respecting their authenticity. Under this aspect also, visions are to be distinguished from mystical contemplation!
There is no need to confuse the “mystic” with the “visionary”—certainly not with the false visionary, deluded by his imagination and obstinate in his own opinion! It is a fact that, often, deluded souls do not allow themselves to be moved in the least by those who are trying to lead them back to sound reason. Fully convinced of their relations with God, they can no longer obey even the ecclesiastical authority. Just think! The idea of contradicting communications that have been heard from the lips of God Himself! How rash! The fact is that their follies often throw discredit not only upon revelations, but upon the mystical life itself.
But the latter must never be confused even with true visions. These phenomena are altogether extraordinary in the spiritual life; they do not belong to its normal or usual evolution; they are not even integral elements of the highest states of contemplation and mystical union.
Mystical contemplation, on the contrary, is a mark of a singular fullness of spiritual life, usually granted to the soul that, living a life distinguished by humility and deeply rooted virtue, reaches that perfection of the love of charity that is shown in the complete conformity of the human will with the will of God. Here, and nowhere else, is the center of the spiritual life. Such is the high ideal that the Christian soul may cherish here on Earth: to give itself wholly to God for love and to receive the fullness of His gifts. That is infinitely more precious than the most attractive visions and revelations.
It is the merit of St. John of the Cross that he has expounded in the clearest possible light how visions must not be confused with true mystical life. He puts the latter before us, in all its purity, with all its attractions, accurately distinguished from all subsidiary phenomena; but reaching unto the most intimate union of the Spiritual Marriage, John is the great teacher, revealing to us, in all its completeness, the beauty of the Christian ideal of union with God, even in this world. Grateful for light so great, let us learn to be docile and to obey when he bids us to be prudent with respect to visions and revelations. His care for us is born of his zeal for our welfare. He would not have our spiritual ascent retarded by an unreasonable attachment to secondary graces. He is exacting, but he repays us with security, and he raises the fairest hopes. He opens to us, without obstacles, the road that leads to the loftiest heights; to all-embracing perfection, to the closest union possible between the soul and God.
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.