Chapter 12

W e 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 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.

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, 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 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, 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]

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 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.”

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

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. 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.

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
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 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 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 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.”

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

The first thing we notice when we come to this inquiry is that the mystics
are all but unanimous in their refusal to attribute 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 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 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]

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
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 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 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.

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.” “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 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 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 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]

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 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 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 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 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 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

[558] “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.”

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

[560] See St. Angèle de Foligno, op. cit ., p. 130 (English translation, p.

[561] 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).

[562] 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.

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

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

[565] 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).

[566] “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.)

[567] 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.

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

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

[570] “Revelations of Divine Love,” cap. lxvi.

[571] Vida, cap. xxxi. §§ 5 and 10.

[572] 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.)

[573] 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.

[574] Testament, cap. iii.

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

[576] Delacroix, “Études sur le Mysticisme,” p. 114.

[577] Missale Romanum. Praeparatio ad Missam; Die Dominica.

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

[579] “El Castillo Interior.” Moradas Sextas, cap. iii.

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

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

[582] 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

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

[584] Suso, “Buchlein von der ewigen Weisheit,” Prologue.

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

[586] Leben, cap. vi.

[587] Compare p. 80.

[588] “Les Fondements de la Connaissance Mystique.” p. 149.

[589] 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.

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

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

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

[593] El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sextas, cap. iii.

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

[595] “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).

[596] Op. cit., loc. cit.

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

[598] Leben, cap. liv.

[599] St. Teresa, Vida, cap. xxvii. §§ 2-5.

[600] “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.”

[601] Leben, cap. vii.

[602] Suso, Leben, cap. vi.

[603] 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

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

[605] Pratt, “The Religious Consciousness,” p. 404.

[606] 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.

[607] Vida, cap. xxviii. § 11.

[608] ”El Castillo Interior,” Moradas Sextas, cap. ix.

[609] “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).

[610] Delacroix. “Études sur le Mysticisme.” p. 116.

[611] Vida, cap. xxviii. § 2.

[612] 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).

[613] Leben, cap. xxi.

[614] 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.).

[615] Vide “Legenda Aurea,” Nov. xxv.

[616] Vida, cap. xxix. §§ 16, 17.

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

[618] P. 66.

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

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

[621] Supra , p. 185.

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

[623] Berger, “William Blake,” p. 54.

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

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

[626] Vie, pt. ii. cap. ii.

[627] 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.”

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

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