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Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, [1911], at

V. Voices and Visions

We now come to that eternal battle-ground, the detailed discussion of those abnormal psychic phenomena which appear so persistently in the history of the mystics. That is to say, visions, auditions, automatic script, and those dramatic dialogues between the Self and some other factor—the Soul, Love, Reason, of the Voice of God—which seem sometimes to arise from an exalted and uncontrolled imaginative power, sometimes to attain the proportions of auditory hallucination.

Here, moderate persons are like to be hewn in pieces between the two “great powers” who have long disputed this territory. On the one hand we have the strangely named rationalists, who feel that they have settled the matter once for all by calling attention to the obvious parallels which exist between the bodily symptoms of acute spiritual stress and the bodily symptoms of certain forms of disease. These considerations, reinforced by those comfortable words “auto-suggestion” “psychosensorial hallucination” and “association neurosis”—which do but reintroduce mystery in another and less attractive form—enable them to pity rather than blame the peculiarities of the great contemplatives. French psychology, in particular, revels in this sort of thing: and p. 267 would, if it had its way, fill the wards of the Salpêtriére with patients from the Roman Calendar. The modern interpreter, says Rufus Jones, finds in the stigmata of St. Francis of Assisi a point of weakness rather than a point of strength: not “the marks of a saint,” but “the marks of emotional and physical abnormality.”  558 This is a very moderate statement of the “rational” position, by a writer who is in actual sympathy with certain aspects of mysticism. Yet it may well be doubted whether that flame of living love which could, for one dazzling instant, weld body and soul in one, was really a point of weakness in a saint: whether Blake was quite as mad as some of his interpreters, or the powers of St. Paul and St. Teresa are fully explained on a basis of epilepsy or hysteria: whether, finally, it is as scientific as it looks, to lump together all visions and voices—from Wandering Willy to the Apocalypse of St. John—as examples of unhealthy cerebral activity.

As against all this, the intransigeant votaries of the supernatural seem determined to play into the hands of their foes. They pin themselves, for no apparent reason, to the objective reality and absolute value of visions, voices, and other experiences which would be classed, in any other department of life, as the harmless results of a vivid imagination: and claim as examples of miraculous interference with “natural law” psychic phenomena which may well be the normal if rare methods by which a certain type of intuitive genius actualizes its perceptions of the spiritual world.  559

Materialistic piety of this kind, which would have us believe that St. Anthony of Padua really held the Infant Christ in his arms, and that the Holy Ghost truly told the Blessed Angela of Foligno that He loved her better than any other woman in the Vale of Spoleto, and she knew Him more intimately than the Apostles themselves,  560 is the best friend the “rationalists” possess. It turns dreams into miracles and drags down the symbolic visions of genius to the level of pious hallucination. Even the profound and beautiful significance of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s vision of the Sacred Heart—a pictured expression of one of the deepest intuitions of the human soul, caught up to the contemplation of God’s love—has been impaired by the grossly material interpretation which it has been forced to bear. So, too, the beautiful reveries of Suso, the divine visitations experienced by Francis, Catherine, p. 268 Teresa and countless other saints, have been degraded in the course of their supposed elevation to the sphere called “supernatural”—a process as fatal to their truth and beauty as the stuffing of birds.  561

All this, too, is done in defiance of the great mystics themselves, who are unanimous in warning their disciples against the danger of attributing too much importance to “visions” and “voices,” or accepting them at their face value as messages from God. Nevertheless, these visions and voices are such frequent accompaniments of the mystic life, that they cannot be ignored. The messengers of the invisible world knock persistently at the doors of the senses: and not only at those which we refer to hearing and to sight. In other words, supersensual intuitions—the contact between man’s finite being and the Infinite Being in which it is immersed—can express themselves by means of almost any kind of sensory automatism. Strange sweet perfumes and tastes, physical sensations of touch, inward fires, are reported over and over again in connection with such spiritual adventures.  562 Those symbols under which the mystic tends to approach the Absolute easily become objectivized, and present themselves to the consciousness as parts of experience, rather than as modes of interpretation. The knowledge which is obtained in such an approach is wholly transcendental. It consists in an undifferentiated act of the whole consciousness, in which under the spur of love life draws near to Life. Thought, feeling, vision, touch—all are hopelessly inadequate to it: yet all, perhaps, may hint at that intense perception of which they are the scattered parts. “And we shall endlessly be all had in God,” says Julian of this supreme experience, “Him verily seeing and fully feeling, Him spiritually hearing and Him delectably smelling and sweetly swallowing.”  563

All those so-called “hallucinations of the senses” which appear in the history of mysticism must, then, be considered soberly, frankly, and without prejudice in the course of our inquiry into the psychology of man’s quest of the Real. The question for their critics must really be this: do these automatisms, which appear so persistently as a part of the contemplative life, represent merely p. 269 the dreams and fancies, the old digested percepts of the visionary, objectivized and presented to his surface-mind in a concrete form; or, are they ever representations—symbolic, if you like—of some fact, force, or personality, some “triumphing spiritual power,” external to himself? Is the vision only a pictured thought, an activity of the dream imagination: or, is it the violent effort of the self to translate something impressed upon its deeper being, some message received from without,  564 which projects this sharp image and places it before the consciousness?

The answer seems to be that the voice or vision may be either of these two things: and that pathology and religion have both been over-hasty in their eagerness to snatch at these phenomena for their own purposes. Many—perhaps most—voices do but give the answer which the subject has already suggested to itself;  565 many—perhaps most—visions are the picturings of dreams and desires.  566 Some are morbid hallucinations: some even symptoms of insanity. All probably borrow their shape, as apart from their content, from suggestions already present in the mind of the seer.  567

But there are some, experienced by minds of great power and richness, which are crucial for those who have them. These bring wisdom to the simple and ignorant, sudden calm to those who were tormented by doubts. They flood the personality with new light: accompany conversion, or the passage from one spiritual state to another: arrive at moments of indecision, bringing with them authoritative commands or counsels, opposed to the inclination of the self: confer a convinced knowledge of some department of the spiritual life before unknown. Such visions, it is clear, belong to another and higher plane of experience from the radiant appearances of our Lady, the piteous exhibitions of the sufferings of Christ, which swarm in the lives of the saints, and contain no feature which is not traceable to the subject’s religious enthusiasms or previous knowledge.  568 These, in the apt phrase of Godfernaux, p. 270 are but “images floating on the moving deeps of feeling,”  569 not symbolic messages from another plane of consciousness. Some test, then, must be applied, some basis of classification discovered, if we are to distinguish the visions and voices which seem to be symptoms of real transcendental activity from those which are only due to imagination raised to the n th power, to intense reverie, or to psychic illness. That test, I think, must be the same as that which we shall find useful for ecstatic states; namely, their life-enhancing quality.

Those visions and voices which are the media by which the “seeing self” truly approaches the Absolute; which are the formula under which ontological perceptions are expressed; are found by that self to be sources of helpful energy, charity, and, courage. They infuse something new in the way of strength, knowledge, direction; and leave it—physically, mentally, or spiritually—better than they found it. Those which do not owe their inception to the contact of the soul with external reality—in theological language, do not “come from God”—do not have this effect. At best, they are but the results of the self’s turning over of her treasures: at worst, they are the dreams—sometimes the diseased dreams—of an active, rich, but imperfectly controlled subliminal consciousness.

Since it is implicit in the make-up of the mystical temperament, that the subliminal consciousness should be active and rich—and since the unstable nervous organization which goes with it renders it liable to illness and exhaustion—it is not surprising to find that the visionary experience even of the greatest mystics is mixed in type. Once automatism has established itself in a person, it may as easily become the expression of folly as of wisdom. In the moments when inspiration has ebbed, old forgotten superstitions may take its place. When Julian of Norwich in her illness saw the “horrible showing” of the Fiend, red with black freckles, which clutched at her throat with its paws:  570 when St. Teresa was visited by Satan, who left a smell of brimstone behind, or when she saw him sitting on the top of her breviary and dislodged him by the use of holy water:  571 it is surely reasonable to allow that we are in the presence of visions which tend towards the psychopathic type, and which are expressive of little else but an exhaustion and temporary loss of balance on the subject’s part, which allowed her intense consciousness of the reality of evil to assume a concrete form.  572 p. 271

Because we allow this, however, it does not follow that all the visionary experience of such a subject is morbid: any more than “Oedipus Tyrannus” invalidates “Prometheus Unbound,” or occasional attacks of dyspepsia invalidate the whole process of nutrition. The perceptive power and creative genius of mystics, as of other great artists, sometimes goes astray. That visions or voices should sometimes be the means by which the soul consciously assimilates the nourishment it needs, is conceivable: it is surely also conceivable that by the same means it may present to the surface-intelligence things which are productive of unhealthy rather than of healthy reactions.

If we would cease, once for all, to regard visions and voices as objective, and be content to see in them forms of symbolic expression, ways in which the subconscious activity of the spiritual self reaches the surface-mind, many of the disharmonies noticeable in visionary experience, which have teased the devout, and delighted the agnostic, would fade away. Visionary experience is—or at least may be—the outward sign of a real experience. It is a picture which the mind constructs, it is true, from raw materials already at its disposal: as the artist constructs his picture with canvas and paint. But, as the artist’s paint and canvas picture is the fruit, not merely of contact between brush and canvas, but also of a more vital contact between his creative genius and visible beauty or truth; so too we may see in vision, where the subject is a mystic, the fruit of a more mysterious contact between the visionary and a transcendental beauty or truth. Such a vision, that is to say, is the “accident” which represents and enshrines a “substance” unseen: the paint and canvas picture which tries to show the surface consciousness that ineffable sight, that ecstatic perception of good or evil—for neither extreme has the monopoly—to which the deeper, more real soul has attained. The transcendental powers take for this purpose such material as they can find amongst the hoarded beliefs and memories of the self.  573 Hence Plotinus sees the Celestial Venus, Suso the Eternal Wisdom, St. Teresa the p. 272 Humanity of Christ, Blake the strange personages of his prophetic books: others more obviously symbolic objects. St. Ignatius Loyola, for instance, in a moment of lucidity, “saw the most Holy Trinity as it were under the likeness of a triple plectrum or of three spinet keys” and on another occasion “the Blessed Virgin without distinction of members.”  574

Visions and voices, then, may stand in the same relation to the mystic as pictures, poems, and musical compositions stand to the great painter, poet, musician. They are the artistic expressions and creative results ( a ) of thought, ( b ) of intuition, ( c ) of direct perception. All would be ready to acknowledge how conventional and imperfect of necessity are those transcripts of perceived Goodness, Truth, and Beauty which we owe to artistic genius: how unequal is their relation to reality. But this is not to say that they are valueless or absurd. So too with the mystic, whose proceedings in this respect are closer to those of the artist than is generally acknowledged. In both types there is a constant and involuntary work of translation going on, by which Reality is interpreted in the terms of appearance. In both, a peculiar mental make-up conduces to this result.

In artistic subjects, the state of reverie tends easily to a visionary character: thought becomes pictorial, auditory or rhythmic as the case may be. Concrete images, balanced harmonies, elusive yet recognizable, surge up mysteriously without the intervention of the will, and place themselves before the mind. Thus the painter really sees his impainted picture, the novelist hears the conversation of his characters, the poet receives his cadences ready-made, the musician listens to a veritable music which “pipes to the spirit ditties of no tone.” In the mystic, the same type of activity constantly appears. Profound meditation takes a pictorial or dramatic form. Apt symbols which suggest themselves to his imagination become objectivized. The message that he longs for is heard within his mind. Hence, those “interior voices” and “imaginary visions” which are sometimes—as in Suso—indistinguishable from the ordinary accompaniments of intense artistic activity.

Where, however, artistic “automatisms” spend themselves upon the artist’s work, mystical “automatisms” in their highest forms have to do with that transformation of personality which is the essence of the mystic life. They are media by which the self receives spiritual stimulus; is reproved, consoled, encouraged and guided on its upward way. Moreover, they are frequently coordinated. The voice and the vision go together: corroborate one another, and “work out right” in relation to the life of the self. p. 273 Thus St. Catherine of Siena’s “mystic marriage” was preceded by a voice, which ever said in answer to her prayers, “I will espouse thee to Myself in faith”; and the vision in which that union was consummated was again initiated by a voice saying, “I will this day celebrate solemnly with thee the feast of the betrothal of thy soul, and even as I promised I will espouse thee to Myself in faith.”  575 “Such automatisms as these,” says Delacroix, “are by no means scattered and incoherent. They are systematic and progressive: they are governed by an interior aim; they have, above all, a teleological character. They indicate the continuous intervention of a being at once wiser and more powerful than the ordinary character and reason; they are the realization, in visual and auditory images, of a secret and permanent personality of a superior type to the conscious personality. They are its voice, the exterior projection of its life. They translate to the conscious personality the suggestions of the subconscious: and they permit the continuous penetration of the conscious personality by these deeper activities. They establish a communication between these two planes of existence, and, by their imperative nature, they tend to make the inferior subordinate to the superior.”  576


The simplest and as a rule the first way in which automatism shows itself, is in “voices” or auditions. The mystic becomes aware of Something which speaks to him either clearly or implicitly; giving him abrupt and unexpected orders and encouragements. The reality of his contact with the Divine Life is thus brought home to him by a device with which the accidents of human intercourse have made him familiar. His subliminal mind, open as it now is to transcendental impressions, “at one with the Absolute,” irradiated by the Uncreated Light, but still dissociated from the surface intelligence which it is slowly educating, seems to that surface self like another being. Hence its messages are often heard, literally, as Voices: either (1) the “immediate” or inarticulate voice, which the auditive mystic knows so well, but finds it so difficult to define; (2) the distinct interior voice, perfectly articulate, but recognized as speaking only within the mind; (3) by a hallucination which we have all experienced in dream or reverie, the exterior voice, which appears to be speaking externally to the subject and to be heard by the outward ear. This, the traditional classification of auditions, also answers exactly to she three main types of vision—(1) intellectual, (2) imaginary, (3) corporeal. p. 274

Of these three kinds of voices the mystics are unanimous in their opinion that the first and least “marvellous” is by far the best: belonging indeed to an entirely different plane of consciousness from the uttered interior or exterior “word,” which few of the great contemplatives are willing to accept without scrutiny as a “message from God.” The articulate word is inevitably subject to some degree of illusion, even at the best; since so far as it possesses transcendental content it represents the translation of the simultaneous into successive speech.

“Let Thy good Spirit enter my heart and there be heard without utterance, and without the sound of words speak all truth,” says a prayer attributed to St. Ambrose,  577 exactly describing the function of these unmediated or “intellectual words.” Dynamic messages of this kind, imperative intuitions which elude the containing formula of speech, are invariably attributed by the self to the direct action of the Divine. They are indeed their own guarantee, bringing with them an infusion of new knowledge or new life. Their character is less that of messages than of actual “invasions” from beyond the threshold; transcending succession and conveying “all at once” fresh truth or certitude. “Intellectual words,” in fact, are a form of inspiration. Eternal truth bursts in upon the temporally-conditioned human mind. Thus St. Hildegarde tells us that each of her great revelations was received “in an instant” and St. Bridget of Sweden that the whole substance of her 5th Book was given “in a flash.”  578

“Distinct interior words,” on the other hand, lack this character of simultaneity. Nor are they invariably authoritative for those who hear them. St. Teresa, whose brilliant self-criticisms are our best source of information on mystical auditions, considers that, though they often “come from God,” they are not due to direct contact with the Divine; and agrees with all the great mystics on the need of subjecting them to criticism. She hesitated long before obeying the Voice which told her to leave the Convent of the Incarnation and make the first foundation of her Reform. Genuine locutions may however be distinguished from those “words” which result merely from voluntary activity of the imagination, as much by the sense of certitude, peace and interior joy which they produce, as by the fact that they force themselves upon the attention in spite of its resistance, and bring with them knowledge which was not previously within the field of consciousness. That is to say, they are really automatic presentations of the result of mystic intuition, not mere rearrangements of the constituents p. 275 of thought.  579 Hence they bring to the surface-self new conviction or material: have a positive value for life.

Those purely self-created locutions, or rearrangements of thought “which the mind self-recollected forms and fashions within itself”—often difficult to distinguish from true automatic audition—are called by Philip of the trinity, St. John of the Cross and other mystical theologians “successive words.” They feel it to be of the highest importance that the contemplative should learn to distinguish such hallucinations from real transcendental perceptions presented in auditive form.

“I am really terrified,” says St. John of the Cross, with his customary blunt common sense, “by what passes among us in these days. Anyone who has barely begun to meditate, if he becomes conscious of words of this kind during his self-recollection, pronounces them forthwith to be the work of God;  580 and, convinced that they are so, goes about proclaiming ‘God has told me this,’ or ‘I have had that answer from God.’ But all is illusion and fancy; such an one has only been speaking to himself. Besides, the desire for these words, and the attention they give to them, end by persuading men that all the observations which they address to themselves are the responses of God.”  581 These are the words of one who was at once the sanest of saints and the most penetrating of psychologists: words which our modern unruly amateurs of the “subconscious” might well take to heart.

True auditions are usually heard when the mind is in a state of deep absorption without conscious thought: that is to say, at the most favourable of all moments for contact with the transcendental world. They translate into articulate language some aspect of that ineffable apprehension of Reality which the contemplative enjoys: crystallize those clairvoyant intuitions, those prophetic hints which surge in on him so soon as he lays himself open to the influence of the supra-sensible. Sometimes, however, mystical intuition takes the form of a sudden and ungovernable uprush of knowledge from the deeps of personality. Then, auditions may break in upon the normal activities of the self with startling abruptness. It is in such cases that their objective and uncontrollable character is most sharply felt. However they may appear, they are, says St. Teresa, “very distinctly formed; but by the bodily ear they are not heard. They are, however, much more clearly understood than if they were heard by the ear. It is impossible not to understand them, whatever resistance we may offer. . . . The words formed by the understanding effect nothing, but when our Lord speaks, it is at once word p. 276 and work. . . . The human locution [ i.e. , the work of imagination] is as something we cannot well make out, as if we were half asleep: but the divine locution is a voice so clear, that not a syllable of its utterance is lost. It may occur, too, when the understanding and the soul are so troubled and distracted that they cannot form one sentence correctly: and yet grand sentences, perfectly arranged such as the soul in its most recollected state never could have formed, are uttered: and at the first word, as I have said, change it utterly.”  582

St. Teresa’s mystic life was governed by voices: her active career as a foundress was much guided by them. They advised her in small things as in great. Often they interfered with her plans, ran counter to her personal judgment, forbade a foundation on which she was set, or commanded one which appeared imprudent or impossible. They concerned themselves with journeys, with the purchase of houses; they warned her of coming events.  583 As her mystical life matured, Teresa seems to have learned to discriminate those locutions on which action should properly be based. She seldom resisted them, though it constantly happened that the action on which they insisted seemed the height of folly: and though they frequently involved her in hardships and difficulties, she never had cause to regret this reliance upon decrees which she regarded as coming direct from God, and which certainly did emanate from a life greater than her own. So too St. Hildegarde, when she prefaced her prophecies and denunciations by “Thus saith the Living Light” was not making use of a poetic metaphor. She lived under the direction of a Power which was precise and articulate in its communications, and at her peril disobeyed its commands.

So far from mere vague intuitions are the “distinct interior words” which the mystic hears within his mind, that Suso is able to state that the hundred meditations on the Passion thus revealed to him were spoken in German and not in Latin.  584 St. Teresa’s own auditions were all of this interior kind—some “distinct” and some “substantial” or inarticulate—as her corresponding visions were nearly all of the “intellectual” or “imaginary” sort: that is to say, she was not subject to sensible hallucination. Often, however, the boundary is overpassed, and the locution seems to be heard by the mystic’s outward ear; as in the case of those voices which guided the destinies of St. Joan of Arc, or the Figure upon the Cross which spoke to St. Francis of Assisi. We then have the p. 277 third form—“exterior words”—which the mystics for the most part regard with suspicion and dislike.

Sometimes audition assumes a musical rather than a verbal character: a form of perception which probably corresponds to the temperamental bias of the self, the ordered sweetness of Divine Harmony striking responsive chords in the music-loving soul. The lives of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, and Richard Rolle provide obvious instances of this:  585 but Suso, in whom automatism assumed its richest and most varied forms, has also given in his autobiography some characteristic examples.

“One day . . . whilst the Servitor was still at rest, he heard within himself a gracious melody by which his heart was greatly moved. And at the moment of the rising of the morning star, a deep sweet voice sang within him these words, Stella Maria maris, hodie processit ad ortum . That is to say, Mary Star of the Sea is risen today. And this song which he heard was so spiritual and so sweet, that his soul was transported by it and he too began to sing joyously. . . . And one day—it was in carnival time—the Servitor had continued his prayers until the moment when the bugle of the watch announced the dawn. Therefore he said to himself, Rest for an instant, before you salute the shining Morning Star. And, whilst that his senses were at rest, behold! angelic spirits began to sing the fair Respond: ‘Illuminare, illuminare, Jerusalem !’And this song was echoed with a marvellous sweetness in the deeps of his soul. And when the angels had sung for some time his soul overflowed with joy: and his feeble body being unable to support such happiness, burning tears escaped from his eyes.”  586

Closely connected on the one hand with the phenomena of automatic words, on the other with those of prophecy and inspiration, is the prevalence in mystical literature of revelations which take the form of dialogue: intimate colloquies between Divine Reality and the Soul. The Revelations of Julian of Norwich and St. Catherine of Siena, and many of those of the Blessed Angela of Foligno and of the modern mystic Lucie-Christine appear to have been received by them in this way. We seem as we read them to be present at veritable outpourings of the Divine Mind, crystallized into verbal form on their way through the human consciousness. We feel on the one hand a “one-ness with the Absolute” on the part of the mystic which has made her really, for the time being, the “voice of God”: whilst on the other we recognize in her the persistence of the individual—exalted, but not yet wholly absorbed p. 278 in the Divine—whose questions, here and there, break in upon the revelation which is mediated by the deeper mind.

Duologues of this sort are reported with every appearance of realism and good faith by Suso, Tauler, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Angela of Foligno, St. Teresa, and countless other mystics. The third book of the “Imitation of Christ” contains some conspicuously beautiful examples, which may or may not be due to literary artifice. The self, wholly absorbed by the intimate sense of divine companionship, receives its messages in the form of “distinct interior words”; as of an alien voice, speaking within the mind with such an accent of validity and spontaneity as to leave no room for doubt as to its character. Often, as in Julian’s Revelations, the discourses of the “Divine Voice,” its replies to the eager questions of the self, are illustrated by imaginary visions. Since these dialogues are, on the whole, more commonly experienced in the illuminative than the unitive way, that self—retaining a clear consciousness of its own separateness, and recognizing the Voice as personal and distinct from its own soul—naturally enters into a communion which has an almost conversational character, replies to questions or asks others in its turn: and in this dramatic style the content of its intuitions is gradually expressed. We have then an extreme form of that dissociation which we all experience in a slight degree when we “argue with ourselves.” But in this case one of the speakers is become the instrument of a power other than itself, and communicates to the mind new wisdom and new life.

The peculiar rhythmical language of genuine mystic dialogue of this kind—for often enough, as in Suso’s “Book of the Eternal Wisdom,” it is deliberately adopted as a literary device—is an indication of its automatic character.  587 Expression, once it is divorced from the critical action of the surface intelligence, always tends to assume a dithyrambic form. Measure and colour, exaltation of language, here take a more important place than the analytic intellect will generally permit. This feature is easily observable in prophecy, and in automatic writing. It forms an interesting link with poetry; which—in so far as it is genuine and spontaneous—is largely the result of subliminal activity. Life, which eludes language, can yet—we know not why—be communicated by rhythm: and the mystic fact is above all else the communication of a greater Life. Hence we must not take it amiss if the voice of the Absolute, as translated to us by those mystics who are alone capable of hearing it, often seems to adopt the “grand manner.” p. 279

We pass from the effort of man’s deeper mind to speak truth to his surface-intelligence, to the effort of the same mysterious power to show truth: in psychological language, from auditory to visual automatism. “Vision,” that vaguest of words, has been used by the friends and enemies of the mystics to describe or obscure a wide range of experience: from formless intuition, through crude optical hallucination, to the voluntary visualizations common to the artistic mind. In it we must include that personal and secret vision which is the lover’s glimpse of Perfect Love, and the great pictures seen by clairvoyant prophets acting in their capacity as eyes of the race. Of these, the two main classes of vision, says Denis the Carthusian, the first kind are to be concealed, the second declared. The first are more truly mystic, the second prophetic: but excluding prophetic vision from our inquiry, a sufficient variety of experience remains in the purely mystical class. St. Teresa’s fluid and formless apprehension of the Trinity, her concrete visions of Christ, Mechthild of Madeburg’s poetic dreams, Suso’s sharply pictured allegories, even Blake’s soul of a flea, all come under this head.

Since no one can know what it is really like to have a vision but the visionaries themselves, it will be interesting to see what they have to say on this subject: and notice the respects in which these self-criticisms agree with the conclusions of psychology. We forget, whilst arguing on these matters, that it is as impossible for those who have never heard a voice or seen a vision to discuss these experiences with intelligence, as it is for stay-at-homes to discuss the passions of the battle-field on the material supplied by war correspondents. No second-hand account can truly report the experience of the person whose perceptions or illusions present themselves in this form. “We cannot,” says Récéjac, “remind ourselves too often that the mystic act consists in relations between the Absolute and Freedom which are incommunicable. We shall never know, for instance, what was the state of consciousness of some citizen of the antique world when he gave himself without reserve to the inspiring suggestions of the Sacred Fire, or some other image which evoked the infinite.”  588 Neither shall we ever know, unless it be our good fortune to attain to it, the secret of that consciousness which is able to apprehend the Transcendent in visionary terms.

The first thing we notice when we come to this inquiry is that the mystics are all but unanimous in their refusal to attribute p. 280 importance to any kind of visionary experience.  589 The natural timidity and stern self-criticism with which they approach auditions is here greatly increased: and this, if taken to heart, might well give pause to their more extreme enemies and defenders. “If it be so,” says Hilton of automatisms in general, “that thou see any manner of light or brightness with thy bodily eye or in imagining, other than every man may see; or if thou hear any merry sounding with thy ear, or in thy mouth any sweet sudden savour, other than of kind [nature], or any heat in thy breast as it were fire, or any manner delight in any part of thy body, or if a spirit bodily appeareth to thee as it were an angel, for to comfort thee and kiss thee, or any such feeling, which thou wost well that it cometh not of thyself, nor of no bodily creature, be then wary in that time or soon after, and wisely behold the stirrings of thy heart. If thou be stirred because of that liking that thou feelest for to draw out thine heart . . . from the inward desire of virtues and of ghostly knowing and feeling of God, for to set the sight of thy heart and thine affection, thy delight and thy rest, principally therein, weening that bodily feeling should be a part of heavenly joy and of angels’ bliss . . . this feeling is suspect and of the enemy. And therefore, though it be never so liking and wonderful, refuse it, and assent not thereto.”  590 Nearly every master of the contemplative life has spoken to the same effect: none, perhaps, more strongly than that stern and virile lover of the invisible, St. John of the Cross, who was relentless in hunting down even the most “spiritual” illusions, eager to purge mind as well as morals of all taint of the unreal.

“It often happens,” he says “that spiritual men are affected supernaturally by sensible representations and objects. They sometimes see the forms and figures of those of another life, saints or angels, good and evil, or certain extraordinary lights and brightness. They hear strange words, sometimes seeing those who utter them and sometimes not. They have a sensible perception at times of most sweet odours, without knowing whence they proceed. . . . Still, though all these experiences may happen to the bodily senses in the way of God, we must never delight in them nor encourage them; yea, rather we must fly from them, without seeking to know whether their origin be good or evil. For, inasmuch as they are exterior and physical, the less is the likelihood of their being from God. That which properly and generally comes p. 281 from God is a purely spiritual communication; wherein there is greater security and profit for the soul than through the senses, wherein there is usually much danger and delusion, because the bodily sense decides upon, and judges, spiritual things, thinking them to be what itself feels them to be, when in reality they are as different as body and soul, sensuality and reason.”  591

Again, “in the high state of the union of love, God does not communicate Himself to the soul under the disguise of imaginary visions, similitudes or figures, neither is there place for such, but mouth to mouth. . . . The soul, therefore, that will ascend to this perfect union with God, must be careful not to lean upon imaginary visions, forms, figures, and particular intelligible objects, for these things can never serve as proportionate or proximate means towards so great an end; yea, rather they are an obstacle in the way, and therefore to be guarded against and rejected.”  592

So, too, St. Teresa. “In such matters as these there is always cause to fear illusion; until we are assured that they truly proceed from the Spirit of God. Therefore at the beginning it is always best to resist them. If it is indeed God who is acting, the soul will but progress still more quickly, for the trial will favour her advancement.”  593

Vision, then, is recognized by the true contemplative as at best an imperfect, oblique, and untrustworthy method of apprehension: it is ungovernable, capricious, liable to deception, and the greater its accompanying hallucination the more suspicious it becomes. All, however, distinguish different classes of visionary experience; and differentiate sharply between the value of the vision which is “felt” rather than seen, and the true optical hallucination which is perceived, exterior to the subject, by the physical sight.

We may trace in visions, as in voices—for these, from the psychologist’s point of view, are strictly parallel phenomena—a progressive externalization on the self’s part of those concepts or intuitions which form the bases of all automatic states. Three main groups have been distinguished by the mystics, and illustrated again and again from their experiences. These are (1) Intellectual (2) Imaginary, and (3) Corporeal vision: answering to (1) Substantial or inarticulate, (2) Interior and distinct, (3) Exterior words. With the first two we must now concern ourselves. As to corporeal vision, it has few peculiarities of interest to the student of pure mysticism. Like the “exterior word” it is little else than a more or less uncontrolled externalization of inward memories, thoughts, or p. 282 intuitions—even of some pious picture which has become imprinted on the mind—which may, in some subjects, attain the dimensions of true sensorial hallucination.

(1) Intellectual Vision.— The “intellectual vision,” like the “substantial word” as described to us by the mystics, is of so elusive, spiritual, and formless a kind that it is hard to distinguish it from that act of pure contemplation in which it often takes its rise. These moods and apprehensions of the soul are so closely linked together—the names applied to them are so often little more than the struggles of different individuals to describe by analogy an experience which is one— that we risk a loss of accuracy the moment that classification begins. The intellectual vision, so far as we can understand it, seems to be a something not sought but put before the mind, and seen or perceived by the whole self by means of a sense which is neither sight nor feeling, but partakes of the character of both. It is intimate but indescribable: definite, yet impossible to define. There is a passage in the Revelations of Angela of Foligno which vividly describes the sequence of illuminated states leading up to and including the intuitions which constitute the substance of this “formless vision” and its complement the “formless word”: and this does far more towards making us realize its nature than the most painstaking psychological analysis could ever do. “At times God comes into the soul without being called; and He instills into her fire, love, and sometimes sweetness; and the soul believes this comes from God, and delights therein. But she does not yet know, or see, that He dwells in her; she perceives His grace, in which she delights. And again God comes to the soul, and speaks to her words full of sweetness, in which she has much joy, and she feels Him. This feeling of God gives her the greatest delight; but even here a certain doubt remains; for the soul has not the certitude that God is in her. . . . And beyond this the soul receives the gift of seeing God. God says to her, ‘Behold Me!’ and the soul sees Him dwelling within her. She sees Him more clearly than one man sees another. For the eyes of the soul behold a plenitude of which I cannot speak: a plenitude which is not bodily but spiritual, of which I can say nothing. And the soul rejoices in that sight with an ineffable joy; and this is the manifest and certain sign that God indeed dwells in her. And the soul can behold nothing else, because this fulfils her in an unspeakable manner. This beholding, whereby the soul can behold no other thing, is so profound that it grieves me that I can say nothing of it. It is not a thing which can be touched or imagined, for it is ineffable.”  594 p. 283

Intellectual vision, then, seems to be closely connected with that “consciousness of the Presence of God” which we discussed in the last chapter: though the contemplatives themselves declare that it differs from it.  595 It is distinguished apparently from that more or less diffused consciousness of Divine Immanence by the fact that although unseen of the eyes, it can be exactly located in space. The mystic’s general awareness of the divine is here focussed upon one point—a point to which some theological or symbolic character is at once attached. The result is a sense of presence so concrete defined, and sharply personal that, as St. Teresa says, it carries more conviction than bodily sight. This invisible presence is generally identified by Christian mystics rather with the Humanity of Christ than with the unconditioned Absolute. “In the prayer of union and of quiet,” says St. Teresa, “certain inflowings of the Godhead are present; but in the vision, the Sacred Humanity also, together with them, is pleased to be our companion and to do us good.”  596 “A person who is in no way expecting such a favour,” she says again, “nor has ever imagined herself worthy of receiving it, is conscious that Jesus Christ stands by her side; although she sees Him neither with the eyes of the body nor of the soul. This is called an intellectual vision; I cannot tell why. This vision, unlike an imaginary one, does not pass away quickly but lasts for several days and even sometimes for more than a year. . . . Although I believe some of the former favours are more sublime, yet this brings with it a special knowledge of God; a most tender love for Him results from being constantly in His company while the desire of devoting one’s whole being to His service is more fervent than any hitherto described. The conscience is greatly purified by the knowledge of His perpetual and near presence, for although we know that God sees all we do, yet nature inclines us to grow careless and forgetful of it. This is impossible here, since our Lord makes the soul conscious that He is close at hand.”  597

In such a state—to which the term “vision” is barely applicable—it will be observed that consciousness is at its highest, and hallucination at its lowest point. Nothing is seen, even with the eyes of the mind: as, in the parallel case of the “substantial word,” nothing is said. It is pure apprehension: in the one case of Personality, in the other of knowledge. “The immediate vision of the naked Godhead,” says Suso of this, “is without doubt the pure truth: a vision is to be esteemed the more noble the more p. 284 intellectual it is, the more it is stripped of all image and approaches the state of pure contemplation.”  598

We owe to St. Teresa our finest first-hand account of this strange condition of “awareness.” It came upon her abruptly, after a period of psychic distress, and seemed to her to be an answer to her unwilling prayers that she might be “led” by some other way than that of “interior words”; which were, in the opinion of her director, “so suspicious.” “I could not force myself,” she says, “to desire the change, nor believe that I was under the influence of Satan. Though I was doing all I could to believe the one and to desire the other, it was not in my power to do so.” She resolved this divided state by making an act of total surrender to the will of God: and it seems to have been as the result of this release of stress, this willing receptivity, that the new form of automatism suddenly developed itself, reinforcing and justifying her auditions and bringing peace and assurance to the distracted surface-self.

“At the end of two years spent in prayer by myself and others for this end, namely, that our Lord would either lead me by another way, or show the truth of this—for now the locutions of our Lord were extremely frequent—this happened to me. I was in prayer one day—it was the feast of the glorious St. Peter—when I saw Christ close by me, or, to speak more correctly, felt Him; for I saw nothing with the eyes of the body, nothing with the eyes of the soul. He seemed to me to be close beside me; and I saw, too, as I believe, that it was He who was speaking to me. As I was utterly ignorant that such a vision was possible, I was extremely afraid at first, and did nothing but weep; however, when He spoke to me but one word to reassure me, I recovered myself, and was, as usual, calm and comforted, without any fear whatever. Jesus Christ seemed to be by my side continually. As the vision was not imaginary, I saw no form, but I had a most distinct feeling that He was always on my right hand, a witness of all I did; and never at any time, if I was but slightly recollected, or not too much distracted, could I be ignorant of His near presence. I went at once to my confessor in great distress, to tell him of it. He asked in what form I saw our Lord. I told him I saw no form. He then said: ‘How did you know that it was Christ?’ I replied that I did not know how I knew it; but I could not help knowing that He was close beside me . . . there are no words whereby to explain—at least, none for us women, who know so little; learned men can explain it better.

“For if I say that I see Him neither with the eyes of the body nor those of the soul—because it was not an imaginary vision—how is it that I can understand and maintain that He stand p. 285 beside me, and be more certain of it than if I saw Him ? If it be supposed that it is as if a person were blind, or in the dark, and therefore unable to see another who is close to him, the comparison is not exact. There is a certain likelihood about it, however, but not much, because the other senses tell him who is blind of that presence: he hears the other speak or move, or he touches him; but in these visions there is nothing like this. The darkness is not felt; only He renders Himself present to the soul by a certain knowledge of Himself which is more clear than the sun. I do not mean that we now see either a sun or any other brightness, only that there is a light not seen, which illumines the understanding, so that the soul may have the fruition of so great a good. This vision brings with it great blessings.”  599

(2) In Imaginary Vision, as in “interior words,” there is again no sensorial hallucination. The self sees sharply and clearly, it is true: but is perfectly aware that it does so in virtue of its most precious organ—“that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude.”  600 Imaginary Vision is the spontaneous and automatic activity of a power which all artists, all imaginative people, possess. So far as the machinery employed in it is concerned, there is little real difference except in degree between Wordsworth’s imaginary vision of the “dancing daffodils” and Suso’s of the dancing angels, who “though they leapt very high in the dance, did so without any lack of gracefulness.”  601 Both are admirable examples of “passive imaginary vision”: though in the first the visionary is aware that the picture seen is supplied by memory, whilst in the second it arises spontaneously like a dream from the subliminal region, and contains elements which may be attributed to love, belief, and direct intuition of truth.

Such passive imaginary vision—by which I mean spontaneous mental pictures at which the self looks, but in the action of which it does not participate—takes in the mystics two main forms: (a) symbolic, (b) personal.

(a) In the symbolic form there is no mental deception: the self is aware that it is being shown truth “under an image.” Many of the visions of the great prophetic mystics—e.g., St. Hildegarde—have so elaborate a symbolic character, that much intellectual activity is involved in their interpretation. This interpretation is p. 286 sometimes “given” with the vision. Rulman Merswin’s “Vision of Nine Rocks” is thus described to us as being seen by him in a sharp picture, the allegorical meaning of which was simultaneously presented to his mind. In Suso’s life these symbolic visions abound: he seems to have lived always on the verge of such a world of imagination, and to have imbibed truth most easily in this form. Thus: “It happened one morning that the Servitor saw in a vision that he was surrounded by a troop of heavenly spirits. He therefore asked one of the most radiant amongst these Princes of the Sky to show him how God dwelt in his soul. The angel said to him, ‘Do but fix your eyes joyously upon yourself, and watch how God plays the game of love within your loving soul.’ And he looked quickly, and saw that his body in the region of his heart was pure and transparent like crystal: and he saw the Divine Wisdom peacefully enthroned in the midst of his heart, and she was fair to look upon. And by her side was the soul of the Servitor, full of heavenly desires; resting lovingly upon the bosom of God, Who had embraced it, and pressed it to His Heart. And it remained altogether absorbed and inebriated with love in the arms of God its well-beloved.”  602

In such a vision as this, we see the mystic’s passion for the Absolute, his intuition of Its presence in his soul, combining with material supplied by a poetic imagination, and expressing itself in an allegorical form. It is really a visualized poem, inspired by a direct contact with truth. Of the same kind are many of those reconstructions of Eternity in which mystics and seers of the transcendent and outgoing type actualized their profound apprehensions of reality. In such experiences, as Beatrice told Dante when he saw the great vision of the River of Light, the thing seen is the shadowy presentation of a transcendent Reality which the self is not yet strong enough to see.

“E vidi lume in forma di rivera
fulvido di fulgore, intra due rive
dipinte di mirabil primavera.
Di tal fiumana uscian faville vive,
e d’ ogni parte si mettean nei fiori,
quasi rubin che oro circonscrive.
Poi, come inebriate dagli odori,
riprofondavan sè nel miro gurge,
e, s’una entrava, un’ altra n’ uscia fuori.”
. . . .
“il sol degli occhi miei
anco soggiunse: Il fiume, e li topazii
ch’ entrano ed escono, e il rider dell’ erbe
son di lor vero ombriferi prefazii. p. 287
Non che da sè sien queste cose acerbe:
ma è difetto dalla parte tua,
che non hai viste ancor tanto superbe.” 603

In the last two lines of this wonderful passage, the whole philosophy of vision is expressed. It is an accommodation of the supra-sensible to our human disabilities, a symbolic reconstruction of reality on levels accessible to sense. This symbolic reconstruction is seen as a profoundly significant, vivid, and dramatic dream: and since this dream conveys transcendental truth, and initiates the visionary into the atmosphere of the Eternal, it may well claim precedence over that prosaic and perpetual vision which we call the “real world.” In it—as in the less significant dreams of our common experience—vision and audition are often combined. Many of the visions of St. Mechthild of Hackborn are of this complex type. Thus—“She saw in the Heart of God, as it were a virgin exceeding fair, holding a ring in her hand on which was a diamond: with which, incessantly, she touched the Heart of God. Moreover, the soul asked why that virgin thus touched the Heart of God. And the virgin answered, ‘I am Divine Love, and this stone signifieth the sin of Adam. . . . As soon as Adam sinned, I introduced myself and intercepted the whole of his sin, and by thus ceaselessly touching the Heart of God and moving Him to pity, I suffered Him not to rest until the moment when I took the Son of God from His Father’s Heart and laid him in the Virgin Mother’s womb.’ . . . Another time, she saw how Love, under the likeness of a fair Virgin, went round about the consistory singing Alone I have made the circuit of heaven, and I have walked on the waves of the sea. In these words she understood how Love had subjected to herself the Omnipotent Majesty of God, had inebriated His Unsearchable Wisdom, had drawn forth all His most sweet goodness; and, by wholly conquering His divine justice and changing it into gentleness and mercy, had moved the Lord of all Majesty.”  604

Imaginary vision of this kind is probably far more common than is generally supposed: and can exist without any disturbance of that balance of faculties which is usually recognized as “sane.” p. 288 “If,” says Pratt, “there be any truth in Freud’s insistence upon the symbolic nature of normal dreams, it is the less surprising that the dream imagination of the Christian mystic should work up visions of a symbolic sort. . . . Our modern tendency to consider visions quite extraordinary and pathological is probably mistaken.  605 It is certain that the meditations of those persons who are “good visualizers” often take a pictorial form; and indeed St. Ignatius Loyola, the great teacher of meditation, advised a deliberate effort so to visualize the subject dwelt upon. The picture may appear involuntarily, at the summit of a train of thought, which it sometimes illustrates and sometimes contradicts. It may show itself faintly against a background of mist; or start into existence sharply focussed, well-lighted, and alive. It always brings with it a greater impression of reality than can be obtained by the operations of the discursive mind.

( b ) The symbolic and artistic character of the visions we have been discussing is obvious. There is, however, another form of imaginary vision which must be touched on with a gentler hand. In this, the imagery seized upon by the subliminal powers, or placed before the mind by that Somewhat Other of which the mystic is always conscious over against himself, is at once so vivid, so closely related to the concrete beliefs and spiritual passions of the self, and so perfectly expresses its apprehensions of God, that it is not always recognized as symbolic in kind. A simple example of this is the vision of Christ at the moment of consecration at Mass, experienced by so many Catholic ecstatics.  606 Another is St. Margaret Mary Alacoque’s vision of the Sacred Heart. St. Teresa is one of the few mystics who have detected the true character of automatisms of this sort: which bring with them—like their purer forms, the intellectual visions of God—a vivid apprehension of Personality, the conviction of a living presence, rather than the knowledge of new facts. “Now and then,” she says of her own imaginary visions of Christ, “it seemed to me that what I saw was an image: but most frequently it was not so. I thought it was Christ Himself, judging by the brightness in which He was pleased to show Himself. Sometimes the vision was so indistinct, that I p. 289 thought it was an image: but still, not like a picture, however well painted, and I have seen a good many pictures. It would be absurd to suppose that the one bears any resemblance whatever to the other, for they differ as a living person differs from his portrait, which, however well drawn, cannot be lifelike, for it is plain that it is a dead thing.”  607

“The vision,” she says in another place, “passes as quickly as a flash of lightning, yet this most glorious picture makes an impression on the imagination that I believe can never be effaced until the soul at last sees Christ to enjoy Him for ever. Although I call it a ‘picture,’ you must not imagine that it looks like a painting; Christ appears as a living Person, Who sometimes speaks and reveals deep mysteries.”  608

It seems, then, that this swift and dazzling vision of Divine Personality may represent a true contact of the soul with the Absolute Life—a contact immediately referred to the image under which the self is accustomed to think of its God. Obviously in the case of Christian contemplatives this image will most usually be the historical Person of Christ, as He is represented in sacred literature and art.  609 The life-enhancing quality of such an abrupt apprehension, however, the profound sense of reality which it brings, permit of its being classed not amongst vivid dreams, but amongst those genuine mystic states in which “the immanent God, formless, but capable of assuming all forms, expresses Himself in vision as He had expressed Himself in words.”  610 Certainty and joy are the feeling-states accompanying this experience; which is as it were a love-letter received by the ardent soul, bringing with it the very fragrance of personality, along with the sign-manual of the beloved.

This concrete vision of Christ has the true mystic quality of ineffability, appearing to the self under a form of inexpressible beauty, illuminated with that unearthly light which is so persistently reported as a feature of transcendent experience. The artist’s exalted consciousness of Beauty as a form of Truth is here seen operating on the transcendental plane. Thus when St. Teresa saw only the Hands of God, she was thrown into an p. 290 ecstasy of adoration by their shining loveliness.  611 “If I were to spend many years in devising how to picture to myself anything so beautiful,” she says of the imaginary vision of Christ, “I should never be able, nor even know how, to do it; for it is beyond the scope of any possible imagination here below: the whiteness and brilliancy alone are inconceivable. It is not a brightness which dazzles, but a delicate whiteness, an infused brightness, giving excessive delight to the eyes, which are never wearied thereby nor by the visible brightness which enables us to see a beauty so divine. It is a light so different from any light here below, that the very brightness of the sun we see, in comparison with the brightness and light before our eyes, seems to be something so obscure that no one would ever wish to open his eyes again. . . . In short, it is such that no man, however gifted he may be, can ever in the whole course of his life arrive at any imagination of what it is. God puts it before us so instantaneously, that we could not open our eyes in time to see it, if it were necessary for us to open them at all. But whether our eyes be open or shut, it makes no difference whatever: for when our Lord wills, we must see it, whether we will or not.”  612

There is another and highly important class of visual automatisms: those which I have chosen to call Active Imaginary Visions. Whereas vision of the passive kind is the expression of thought, perception, or desire on the part of the deeper self: active vision is the expression of a change in that self, and generally accompanies some psychological crisis. In this vision, which always has a dramatic character, the self seems to itself to act, not merely to look on. Such visions may possess many of the characters of dreams; they may be purely symbolic; they may be theologically “realistic.” They may entail a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, an excursion into fairyland, a wrestling with the Angel in the Way. Whatever their outward form, they are always connected with inward results. They are the automatic expressions of intense subliminal activity: not merely the media by which the self’s awareness of the Absolute is strengthened and enriched, but the outward and visible signs of its movement towards new levels of consciousness. Hence we are not surprised to find that a dynamic vision of this sort often initiates the Unitive Life. Such are the imaginary visions reported by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Catherine of Siena at the moment of their stigmatization: the p. 291 transverberation of St. Teresa; the heavenly visitor who announced to Suso his passage from the “lower school” to the “upper school” of the Holy Spirit.  613 But perhaps the most picturesque and convincing example of all such dramas of the soul, is that which is known in art as the “Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena.”

We have seen that Catherine, who was subject from childhood to imaginary visions and interior words, had long been conscious of a voice reiterating the promise of this sacred bretrothal; and that on the last day of the Carnival, A.D. 1366, it said to her, “I will this day celebrate solemnly with thee the feast of the betrothal of thy soul, and even as I promised I will espouse thee to Myself in faith.” “Then,” says her legend, “whilst the Lord was yet speaking, there appeared the most glorious Virgin His Mother, the most blessed John, Evangelist, the glorious Apostle Paul, and the most holy Dominic, father of her order; and with these the prophet David, who had the psaltery set to music in his hands; and while he played with most sweet melody the Virgin Mother of God took the right hand of Catherine with her most sacred hand, and, holding out her fingers towards the Son, besought Him to deign to espouse her to Himself in faith. To which graciously consenting the Only Begotten of God drew out a ring of gold, which had in its circle four pearls enclosing a most beauteous diamond; and placing this ring upon the ring finger of Catherine’s right hand He said, ‘Lo, I espouse thee to Myself, thy Creator and Saviour in the faith, which until thou dost celebrate thy eternal nuptials with Me in Heaven thou wilt preserve ever without stain. Henceforth, my daughter, do manfully and without hesitation those things which by the ordering of My providence will be put into thy hands; for being now armed with the fortitude of the faith, thou wilt happily overcome all thy adversaries.’ Then the vision disappeared, but that ring ever remained on her finger, not indeed to the sight of others, but only to the sight of the virgin herself; for she often, albeit with bashfulness, confessed to me that she always saw that ring on her finger, nor was there any time when she did not see it.”’  614 p. 292

It is not difficult to discern the materials from which this vision has been composed. As far as its outward circumstances go, it is borrowed intact from the legendary history of St. Catherine of Alexandria, with which her namesake must have been familiar from babyhood.  615 Caterina Benincasa showed a characteristic artistic suggestibility and quickness in transforming the stuff of this old story into the medium of a profound personal experience: as her contemporaries amongst the Sienese painters took subject, method, and composition from the traditional Byzantine source, yet forced them to become expressions of their overpowering individuality. The important matter for us, however, is not the way in which the second Catherine adapted a traditional story to herself, actualized it in her experience: but the fact that it was for her the sacramental form under which she became acutely and permanently conscious of union with God. Long prepared by that growing disposition of her deeper self which caused her to hear the reiterated promise of her Beloved, the vision when it came was significant, not for its outward circumstances, but for its permanent effect upon her life. In it she passed to a fresh level of consciousness; entering upon that state of spiritual wedlock, of close and loving identification with the interests of Christ, which Richard of St. Victor calls the “Third Stage of Ardent Love.”

Of the same active sort is St. Teresa’s great and celebrated vision, or rather experience, of the Transverberation; in which imagery and feeling go side by side in their effort towards expressing the anguish of insatiable love. “I saw,” she says, “an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful—his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim. . . . I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes p. 293 place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.”  616

Finally it should be added that dynamic vision may assume a purely intellectual form; as in the case of the Blessed Angela of Foligno. “During last Lent I found myself,” she says, “altogether in God, without knowing how, and in a way more exalted than was customary for me. I seemed to be in the midst of the Trinity in a more exalted way than I had ever been before for greater than usual were the blessings I received, and I enjoyed these blessings without interruption. And thus to be absorbed in God filled me with joy and with delight. And feeling myself to be in this beatitude and this great and unspeakable delight, which were above all I had experienced before, such ineffable divine operations took place in my soul, as neither saint nor angel could describe or explain. And I see and understand that these divine operations, that unfathomable abyss, no angel or other creature howsoever great or wise, could comprehend; and all I say now of it seemeth to me so ill said that it is blasphemy.”  617

Automatic Script

The rarest of the automatic activities reported to us in connection with mysticism is that of “automatic writing.” This form of subliminal action has already been spoken of in an earlier chapter;  618 where two of the most marked examples—Blake and Madame Guyon—are discussed. As with voice and vision, so this power of automatic composition may and does exist in various degrees of intensity: ranging from that “inspiration,” that irresistible impulse to write, of which all artists are aware, to the extreme form in which the hand of the conscious self seems to have become the agent of another personality. We are not here in the presence of phenomena which require a “supernatural” explanation. From the point of view of the psychologist, the inspirational writing of the mystics differs in degree rather than in kind from such poetic creation as that described by de Russet: “it is not work, it is listening; it is as if some unknown person were speaking in your ear.”  619 Such subliminal activity is probably present to some extent in all the literary work of the great mystics, whose creative power, like that of most poets, is largely dissociated from the control of the will and the surface intelligence.

St. Catherine of Siena, we are told, dictated her great Dialogue to her secretaries whilst in the state of ecstasy: which may mean p. 294 no more than the absorbed state of recollection in which the creative faculty works most freely, or may have been a condition of consciousness resembling the “trance” of mediums, in which the deeper mind governs the tongue. Had she been more accustomed to the use of the pen—she did not learn writing until after the beginning of her apostolic life—that deeper mind would almost certainly have expressed itself by means of automatic script. As it is, in the rhythm and exaltation of its periods, the Dialogue bears upon it all the marks of true automatic composition of the highest type. The very discursiveness of its style, its loose employment of metaphor, the strangely mingled intimacy and remoteness of its tone, link it with prophetic literature; and are entirely characteristic of subliminal energy of a rich type, dissociated from the criticism and control of the normal consciousness.  620

So too the writings of Rulman Merswin, if we accept the ingenious and interesting theory of his psychic state elaborated by M. Jundt,  621 were almost wholly of this kind. So Blake insisted that he was “under the direction of Messengers from Heaven, Daily and Nightly,”  622 and stated on his deathbed that the credit for all his works belonged not to himself, but to his “celestial friends,”  623 i.e. , to the inspiration of a personality which had access to levels of truth and beauty unknown to his surface mind.

St. Teresa was of much the same opinion in respect of her great mystical works: which were, she said, like the speech of a parrot repeating, though he cannot understand, the things which his master has taught him. There is little doubt that her powers of composition—as we might expect in one so apt at voice and vision—were largely of the uncontrolled, inspired, or “automatic” kind. She wrote most usually after the reception of Holy Communion—that is to say, when her mystic consciousness was in its most active state—and always swiftly, without hesitations or amendments. Ideas and images welled up from her rich and active subliminal region too quickly, indeed, for her eager, hurrying pen: so that she sometimes exclaimed, “Oh, that I could write with many hands, so that none were forgotten!”  624 In Teresa’s unitive state, a slight suggestion was enough to change the condition of her consciousness, place her under the complete domination of her deeper mind. Often, she said, when composing the “Interior Castle,” her work reacted upon herself. She would suddenly be caught up into the very degree of contemplation p. 295 which she was trying to describe, and continued to write in this absorbed or entranced condition, clearly perceiving that her pen was guided by a power not her own, and expressed ideas unknown to her surface mind, which filled her with astonishment.

In the evidence given during the process for St. Teresa’s beatification, Maria de San Francisco of Medina, one of her early nuns, stated that on entering the saint’s cell whilst she was writing this same “Interior Castle” she found her so absorbed in contemplation as to be unaware of the external world. “If we made a noise close to her,” said another, Maria del Nacimiento, “she neither ceased to write nor complained of being disturbed.” Both these nuns, and also Ana de la Encarnacion, prioress of Granada, affirmed that she wrote with immense speed, never stopping to erase or to correct: being anxious, as she said, to “write what the Lord had given her, before she forgot it.” They and many others declared that when she was thus writing she seemed like another being: and that her face, excessively beautiful in expression, shone with an unearthly splendour which afterwards faded away.  625

As for Madame Guyon, whose temperament had in it almost as much of the medium as of the mystic, and whose passion for quietism and mental passivity left her almost wholly at the mercy of subconscious impulses, she exhibits by turns the phenomena of clairvoyance, prophecy, telephathy, and automatic writing, in bewildering profusion.

“I was myself surprised,” she says, “at the letters which Thou didst cause me to write, and in which I had no part save the actual movement of my hand: and it was at this time that I received that gift of writing according to the interior mind, and not according to my own mind, which I had never known before. Also my manner of writing was altogether changed, and every one was astonished because I wrote with such great facility.”  626

Again, “. . . Thou didst make me write with so great a detachment that I was obliged to leave off and begin again as Thou didst choose. Thou didst try me in every way: suddenly Thou wouldst cause me to write, then at once to cease, and then to begin again. When I wrote during the day, I would be suddenly interrupted, and often left words half written, and afterwards Thou wouldst give me whatever was pleasing to Thee. Nothing of that which I wrote was in my mind: my mind, in fact, was so wholly at liberty that it seemed a blank, I was so detached from that which I wrote that it seemed foreign to me. . . . All the faults in my writings come from this: that being unaccustomed to the operations of God, I was p. 296 often unfaithful to them, thinking that I did well to continue writing when I had time, without being moved thereto, because I had been told to finish the work. So that it is easy to distinguish the parts which are fine and sustained, and those which have neither savour nor grace. I have left them as they are; so that the difference between the Spirit of God and the human or natural spirit may be seen. . . . I continued always to write, and with an inconceivable swiftness, for the hand could hardly keep up with the dictating spirit: and during this long work, I never changed my method, nor did I make use of any book. The scribe could not, however great his diligence, copy in five days that which I wrote in a single night. . . . I will add to all that I have been saying on my writings, that a considerable part of the book on ‘Judges’ was lost. Being asked to complete it, I rewrote the lost portions. Long afterwards, when I was moving house, these were found in a place where no one could have imagined that they would be; and the old and new versions were exactly alike—a circumstance which greatly astonished those persons of learning and merit who undertook its verification.”  627

A far greater and stronger mystic than Madame Guyon, Jacob Boehme, was also in his literary composition the more or less helpless tool of some power other than his normal surface-mind. It is clear from his own words that his first book, the “Aurora,” produced after the great illumination which he received in the year 1610, was no deliberate composition, but an example of inspired or automatic script. This strange work, full of sayings of a deep yet dazzling darkness, was condemned by the local tribunal; and Boehme was forbidden to write more. For seven years he obeyed. Then “a new motion from on high” seized him, and under the pressure of this subliminal impulse—which, characteristically, he feels as coming from without not from within—he began to write again.

This second outburst of composition, too, was almost purely automatic in type. The transcendental consciousness was in command, and Boehme’s surface-intellect could exert but little control. “Art,” he says of it himself, “has not wrote here, neither was there any time to consider how to set it punctually down, according to the Understanding of the Letters, but all was ordered according to the Direction of the Spirit, which often went in haste, so that in many words Letters may be wanting, and in some Places a Capital Letter for a Word; so that the Penman’s Hand, by reason he was not accustomed to it, did often shake. And though I could have p. 297 wrote in a more accurate, fair and plain Manner, yet the Reason was this, that the burning Fire often forced forward with Speed and the Hand and Pen must hasten directly after it, for it comes and goes as a sudden shower.”  628

No description could give more vividly than this the spontaneous and uncontrollable character of these automatic states; the welling-up of new knowledge, the rapid formation of sentences: so quick, that the hand of the subject can hardly keep pace with that “burning Fire,” the travail of his inner mind. As in vision, so here, the contents of that inner mind, its hoarded memories will influence the form of the message. Hence, in Boehme’s works, the prevalence of that obscure Kabalistic and Alchemical imagery which baffles even his most eager readers, and which is the result of an earlier acquaintance with the works of Paracelsus, Weigel, and Sebastian Franck.  629 Such language, however, no more discredits the “power behind the pen,” than the form under which St. Catherine of Siena apprehended the mystic marriage discredits her attainment of the unitive life. In the fruit of such automatic travail, such a “wrestling with the Angel in the way,” the mystic offers to our common humanity the chalice of the Spirit of Life. We may recognize the origins of the ornament upon the chalice: but we cannot justly charge him with counterfeiting the Wine.

We have been dealing throughout this section with means rather than with ends: means snatched at by the struggling self which has not yet wholly shaken itself free from “image,” in its efforts to seize somehow—actualize, enjoy, and adore—that Absolute which is the sum of its desires. No one will ever approach an understanding of this phase of the mystical consciousness, who brings to it either a contempt for the minds which could thus simply and sometimes childishly objectivize the Divine, or a superstitious reverence for the image, apart from the formless Reality at which it hints. Between these two extremes lies our hope of grasping the true place of automatisms on the Mystic Way: of seeing in them instances of the adaptation of those means by which we obtain consciousness of the phenomenal world, to an apprehension of that other world whose attainment is humanity’s sublimest end.

p. 298



“Studies in Mystical Religion,” p. 165. Those who wish to study the “rationalist” argument in an extreme form are directed to Prof. Janet, “L’Automatisme psychologique” and “L’État mentale des hysteriques,” and Prof. Leuba, “Introduction to the Psychology of Religious Mysticism.”


On the difference in this respect between the “normal” and the “average,” see Granger, “The Soul of a Christian,” p. 12.


See St. Angèle de Foligno, op. cit ., p. 130 (English translation, p. 245).


Poulain, “Les Graces d’Oraison,” cap. xx. Farges, “Mystical Phenomena,” and Ribet’s elaborate work, “La Mystique Divine,” well represent the “supernaturalist” position. As against the “rationalistic” theory of stigmatization already described, one feels that this last-named writer hardly advances his own cause when he insists on attributing equal validity ( a ) to the Stigmata as marks of the Divine, ( b ) to the imprint of a toad, bat, spider “ou de tout autre objet exprimant l’abjection” on the bodies of those who have had commerce with the devil (tome iii. p. 482).


Vide infra, quotations from Hilton and St. John of the Cross. Also Rolle “The Fire of Love,” Prologue. E. Gardner, “St. Catherine of Siena,” p. 15. Von Hügel, “The Mystical Element of Religion,” vol. i. pp. 178-181.


“Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. xliii. I have restored the bold language of the original, which is somewhat toned down in modern versions.


Here as elsewhere the reader will kindly recollect that all spatial language is merely symbolic when used in connection with spiritual states.


For instance when Margaret Ebner, the celebrated “Friend of God,” heard a voice telling her that Tauler, who was the object of great veneration in the circle to which she belonged, was the man whom God loved best and that He dwelt in him like melodious music (see Rufus Jones, op. cit ., p. 257).


“There are persons to be met with,” says St. Teresa, “and I have known them myself, who have so feeble a brain and imagination that they think they see whatever they are thinking about, and this is a very dangerous condition.” (“El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Cuartas, cap. iii.)


The dream-theory of vision is well and moderately stated by Pratt: “The Religious Consciousness,” cap. xviii, pp. 402 seq. But his statement (loc. cit.) that “the visions of the mystics are determined in content by their belief, and are due to the dream imagination working upon the mass of theological material which fills the mind” is far too absolute.


The book of Angela of Foligno, already cited, contains a rich series of examples.


“Sur la psychologie du Mysticisme” ( Revue Philosophique, February, 1902 ).


“Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. lxvi.


Vida, cap. xxxi. §§ 5 and 10.


Thus too in the case of St. Catherine of Siena, the intense spiritual strain of that three years’ retreat which I have already described (supra, Pt. II, Cap 1.) showed itself towards the end of the period by a change in the character of her visions. These, which had previously been wholly concerned with intuitions of the good and beautiful, now took on an evil aspect and greatly distressed her (Vita (Acta SS.), i. xi. 1; see E. Gardner, “St. Catherine of Siena,” p. 20). We are obliged to agree with Pratt that such visions as these are “pathological phenomena quite on a level with other hallucinations.”(“The Religious Consciousness,” p 405.)


An excellent example of such appropriation of material is related without comment by Huysmans (“Sainte Lyndwine de Schiedam,” p. 258): “Lydwine found again in heaven those forms of adoration, those ceremonial practices of the divine office, which she had known here below during her years of health. The Church Militant had been, in fact, initiated by the inspiration of its apostles, its popes, and its saints into the liturgic joys of Paradise.” In this same vision, which occurred on Christmas Eve, when the hour of the Nativity was rung from the belfries of heaven, the Divine Child appeared on His Mother’s knee: just as the crèche is exhibited in Catholic churches the moment that Christmas has dawned.


Testament, cap. iii.


E. Gardner “St. Catherine of Siena,” p. 25.


Delacroix, “Études sur le Mysticisme,” p. 114.


Missale Romanum. Praeparatio ad Missam; Die Dominica.


Given in Poulain: “Les Grâces d’Oraison,” p. 318.


“El Castillo Interior.” Moradas Sextas, cap. iii.


“Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. ii. cap. xxvii.


“Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. ii. cap. xxvii.


Vida. cap. xxv. §§ 2, 5, 6. See also for a detailed discussion of all forms of auditions St. John of the Cross, op. cit ., I. ii. caps. xxviii. to xxxi.


“El Libro de las Fundaciones” is full of instances.


Suso, “Buchlein von der ewigen Weisheit,” Prologue.


“Fioretti,” “Delle Istimate,” 2.; E. Gardner, “St. Catherine of Siena.” p. 15; Rolle, “The Fire of Love,” bk. i. cap. xvi., and other places.


Leben, cap. vi.


Compare p. 80.


“Les Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique.” p. 149.


Here the exception which proves the rule is Blake. But Blake’s visions differed in some important respects from those of his fellow-mystics. They seem to have been “corporeal,” not “imaginary” in type, and were regarded by him as actual perceptions of that “real and eternal world” in which he held that it was man’s privilege to dwell.


“The Scale of Perfection,” bk. i. cap. xi.


“Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. ii. cap. xi. The whole chapter should be read in this connection.


“Subida del Monte Carmelo,” I. ii. cap. xvi.


El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sextas, cap. iii.


St. Angels de Foligno, “Livre de l’Expérience des Vrais Fidèles,” pp. 170 seq. (English translation, p. 24).


“It is not like that presence of God which is frequently felt . . . this is a great grace . . . but it is not vision” (St. Teresa, Vida, cap, xxvii. § 6).


Op. cit., loc. cit.


St. Teresa, “El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sextas, cap. viii.


Leben, cap. liv.


St. Teresa, Vida, cap. xxvii. §§ 2-5.


“For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude:
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils.”

Wordsworth , “The Daffodils.”


Leben, cap. vii.


Suso, Leben, cap. vi.


Par. xxx. 61-81: “And I saw light in the form of a river blazing with radiance, streaming between banks painted with a marvellous spring. Out of that river issued living sparks and settled on the flowers on every side, like rubies set in gold. Then, as it were inebriated by the perfume, they plunged again into the wondrous flood, and as one entered another issued forth. . . . Then added the Sun of my eyes: The river, the topazes that enter and come forth, the smiling flowers are shadowy foretastes of their reality. Not that these things are themselves imperfect; but on thy side is the defect, in that thy vision cannot rise so high.” This passage probably owes something to Mechthild of Magdeburg’s concept of Deity as a Flowing Light.


Mechthild of Hackborn, “Liber Specialis Gratiae,” I. ii. caps. xvii. and xxxv.


Pratt, “The Religious Consciousness,” p. 404.


For instance, the Blessed Angela of Foligno, who gives in her “Revelations” a complete series of such experiences, ranging from an apprehension of Divine Beauty “shining from within and surpassing the splendour of the sun” (op. cit., p. 64, English translation, p. 222)to a concrete vision of two eyes shining in the Host (loc. cit., English translation, p. 230).“I saw Him most plainly with the eyes of the mind,” she says, “first living, suffering, bleeding, crucified, and then dead upon the Cross” (p. 326, English translation p. 223).“Another time I beheld the Child Christ in the consecrated Host. He Appeared beautiful and full of majesty, He seemed as a child of twelve years of age (p. 67. English translation, p. 229).


Vida, cap. xxviii. § 11.


”El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sextas, cap. ix.


“On one of the feasts of St. Paul, while I was at Mass, there stood before me the most sacred Humanity as painters represent Him after the resurrection” (St. Teresa, Vida, cap. xxviii § 4). So too the form assumed by many of the visions of Angela of Foligno is obviously due to her familiarity with the frescoed churches of Assisi and the Vale of Spoleto. “When I bent my knees upon entering in at the door of the church,” she says, “I immediately beheld a picture of St. Francis lying in Christ’s bosom. Then said Christ unto me, ‘Thus closely will I hold thee and so much closer, that bodily eyes can neither perceive nor comprehend it’.” (op. cit., p. 53. English translation, p. 165).


Delacroix. “Études sur le Mysticisme.” p. 116.


Vida, cap. xxviii. § 2.


St. Teresa, op. cit ., cap. xxviii. §§ 7, 8. Angela of Foligno says of a similar vision of Christ, “His beauty and adornment were so great . . . and so great was my joy at the sight, that I think I shall never lose it. And so great was my certitude that I cannot doubt it in any point” (St. Angèle de Foligno, op. cit ., p. 66. English translation, p. 229).


Leben, cap. xxi.


E. Gardner, “St. Catherine of Siena,” p. 25. Vita, i. xii. 1, 2 (Acta S.S., loc. cit .). In the ring which she always saw upon her finger. we seem to have an instance of true corporeal vision; which finds a curiously exact parallel in the life of St. Teresa. “On one occasion when I was holding in my hand the cross of my rosary, He took it from me into His own hand. He returned it, but it was then four large stones incomparably more precious than diamonds. He said to me that for the future that cross would so appear to me always: and so it did. I never saw the wood of which it was made, but only the precious stones. They were seen, however, by no one else” (Vida, cap. xxix. § 8). This class of experience, says Augustine Baker, particularly gifts of roses, rings, and jewels, is “much to be suspected,” except in “souls of a long-continued sanctity” (“Holy Wisdom.” Treatise iii. § iv. cap. iii.).


Vide “Legenda Aurea,” Nov. xxv.


Vida, cap. xxix. §§ 16, 17.


St. Angèle de Foligno op. cit ., p. 232 (English translation, p. 186).


P. 66.


Quoted by Prescott, “The Poetic Mind,” p. 102.


On this point I must respectfully differ from Mr. E. Gardner. See his “St. Catherine of Siena,” p. 354.


Supra , p. 185.


Quoted by M. Wilson, “Life of William Blake,” p. 135.


Berger, “William Blake,” p. 54.


G. Cunninghame Graham. “Santa Teresa.” vol. i, pp. 202.


G. Cunninghame Graham. “Santa Teresa.” vol. i, pp. 203-4.


Vie, pt. ii. cap. ii.


Vie, pt. ii. cap. xxi. Those who wish to compare this vivid subjective account of automatic writing with modern attested instances may consult Myers, “Human Personality,” and Oliver Lodge, “The Survival of Man.”


Works of Jacob Boehme (English translation, vol. i. p. xiv.).


See E. Boutroux, “Le Philosophe Allemand, Jacob Boehme.”

Next: VI. Introversion. Part I: Recollection and Qui