Visions & Voices

Father Jim Martin's recent blog on the Wisconsin apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary rekindled thoughts about and an assessment of what these visions really mean. Over a hundred years ago, William James, considered by many to be the Father of American Psychology, wondered similar thoughts and undertook an intellectual journey similar to Father Martin's, immersing himself in accounts of persons who reported having some kind of direct contact with God, and this included notable saints as well as persons whose experiences William James culled from 19th Century press stories.

Several years ago I was privileged to work on an extensive review of William James for The American Mental Health Foundation; my work there has been summarized as A Summer With William James. James was exceedingly concerned with differentiating between the Religion of Healthy Mindedness and the Sick Soul and devoted much of his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience to this issue. At the same time he did not feel compelled to come to a definite conclusion about whether the voices or visions of a person came via supernatural channels or were manifestations of the natural mind at work. How does one tell the difference between a healthy and good religious experience and a destructive one?

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During James's time and our own, many see religion either as a manifestation of neurotic behavior or as merely a symptom of a more basic biological process and James offers vivid examples:

Fanny's extraordinary conscientiousness is merely a matter of over-instigated nerves. William's melancholy about the universe is due to bad digestion: probably his liver is torpid....For the hysterical nun, starving for natural life, Christ is but an imaginary substitute for a more earthly object of attention. Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis as an hereditary degenerate.

Rather than becoming entangled in the materialism/immaterialism debate, James offers a creative approach that validates all religious experience, despite its origin. He offers three criteria to judge authentic religious experience: "immediate luminousness, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness." This is what Our Lord is talking about when he says, "by their fruits you shall know them," methinks. (Or as we heard in Sunday's Gospel when JBap wondered about the Christ, the message he received was "the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear.")

Here is a quote from one of James' patients:

I always knew God loved me, and I was always grateful to him for the world he placed me in. I always liked to tell him so, and was always glad to receive his suggestions to me....I can remember perfectly that when I was coming to manhood, the half-philosophical novels of the time had a great deal to say about the young men and maidens who were facing "the problem of life." I had no ideas whatever the problem of life was. To live with all my might seemed to me easy; to learn where there was so much to learn seemed pleasant and almost of course; to lend a hand, if one had a chance, natural; and if one did this, why, he enjoyed life because he could not help it.

And here is James himself:

There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. In this state of mind, what we dreaded most has become the habitation of our safety, and the hour of our moral death has turned into our spiritual birthday. The time for tension in the soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about, has arrived. Fear is not held in abeyance as it is by mere morality, it is positively expunged and washed away.

Visions and voices? If these lead to immediate luminousness, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness, William James says they are the work of the Spirit. And by the way, auditory and visual hallucinations are part of the continuum of normal human experience; many who are grieving have heard the voice of the lost loved one--instances like these do not mean a person has slipped into psychotic depression or schizophrenia. William James offers psychologists and everyone a good lesson: try to understand your neighbor's religious experiences.

William Van Ornum

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we vnornm
6 years 12 months ago
Dear Daivd.

Agreed.

Merry Christmas, bill
we vnornm
6 years 12 months ago
Susan,

I re-read what I wrote in #10. It stands.

It does matter what we think to ourselves, Truth is important, as you point out, but it isn't necessary to give someone a lecture, hit them on the head with Maxwell's silver hammer, or bring them to intellectual judgment while we seek to listen to them and understand what their experience means to them. 

Yes, James can lead to philosophical relativism, and this took what many (mostly non-psychologists) took to be a dangerous turn with Carl Rogers and "unconditional positive regard".

Theologically relativism is a problem today. But we have to be careful about going to the other extreme in judging others. "Judge not, lest you be judged" is an emphatic and categorical command. It supercedes many other things when we stand one to one listening to another. And not only does it sound nice, it's True.

bill



 
Marie Rehbein
6 years 12 months ago
Bill,

(Susan, correct me if I am wrong) When I read Susan's remarks about needing to believe in the reality of the experience, I had the impression that she meant that Catholicism, more than anything else, affirms the reality of such experiences.  I think she meant that James's approach of only accepting it based on what it means to the individual experiencing it is likely to lead to an insincere interaction with that person, and that Catholics, especially, have every reason to be sincere in their acceptance of another person's having such an experience.

I think very few of us who are not psychologists are comfortable giving someone the space to say things about themselves that we think are nonsense.  Most of us feel that we have some obligation to give our alternate understanding out of respect for our equal standing with them.  To do otherwise would seem patronizing.
we vnornm
6 years 12 months ago
time to shift to (metaphorical) visions of sugarplum fairies dancing...

merry christmas to all. bill
we vnornm
6 years 12 months ago
Hi Jim,

I recognize that uncritical thinking has, does, and will lead us down many bad roads.

Perhaps I didn't explain myself well, but I was trying to suggest that we try to undertsand another person's religious experience-whether it is a fellow Catholic who is deeply devoted to a Marian apparition, a neighbor who is a Mormon or Christian Scientist, or a sister or brother from the East who follows the Koran.

In each of these instances, there will be questions we might ask. But what I hope we can do is suspend this (unasked for) "critical" judgment and try to understand what the experience means to that person, and why it is important to him or her. This brings us into the realm of empathy and understanidng.

best, bill
we vnornm
6 years 12 months ago
Crystal,

Yes indeed William James was a psychological nutcase earlier on in hism life and if I may use a similar term the whole family system he grew up in was pretty nutso. Incredible talent compressed into a small space. Have you read Henry James?

You are right. James didn't mean these experiences were real in the sense of being messages from the Divine but that the effects were good. I think that's the essence of his Pragmatic philosophy.

merry christmas, bill
we vnornm
6 years 12 months ago
Dear Bill:

Did you know that the eight points of the Maltese Cross symbolize the eight beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount?

merry christmas, bill
we vnornm
6 years 12 months ago
Dear Janice:

Your becoming aware of becoming  more aware and "more in awe of the grand mysteries of
God's Majesty and Providence" reminds me of the thoughts of Thomas Keating suggested by Beth in #1.

merry christmas, bill
Crystal Watson
6 years 12 months ago
Thanks for all these posts which make us think.  Merry Christmas, Bill  :)
6 years 12 months ago
I'd like to second Crystal's comment......thanks Bill for your many excellent  posts!  You are a very welcome addition to "America Online".

Merry Christmas, Bill.
Janice
Susan Murray
6 years 12 months ago
Bill
Interesting article.  You know I'm not a mental health professional, and I'm not familiar with the work of William James, so my knowledge is limited to the material provided at the links to which you've pointed us.   With those warnings and qualifications I offer a couple of thoughts, for what they're worth:

1) If the information at Wikipedia link you point us to is accurate, James was responding to assertions that science is ''superior to religion because of religion's seemingly vain, unfounded, or perhaps insane origin''.  James' rebuttal, per Wikipedia, was that such claims ''play no role in the separate question of religion's value''.
- The primary focus and value of both science and religion are the discovery of truth; truth about our physical world and our relationship  to it, truth about our nature, our relationship with God and each other.  Neither of them has a monopoly on truth - they each have pieces of a bigger puzzle.  To separate claims of the superiority of science with the ''question of religion's -  His criteria to judge ''authentic religious experience'' purports to answer the question on different grounds, but really just sets up a new standard of ''truth'' or ''goodness'', according to his personal judgment.  It may remind you of ''by their fruits, you will know them'', but when James offers ''immediate luminousness, philosophical reasonableness, and moral helpfulness'' as criteria, what exactly does this mean?  ''Moral helpfulness''?  By what moral standard? ''Philosophical reasonableness''? What might that be? The words roll off one's tongue quite easily, they look nice on the page, but we're not provided any foundation for interpreting, them.  This seems to put us in a murky subjective territory - perhaps on its way to relativism. 

2) I am reminded that the Church separates public and private revelation (CCC 66, 67).  As Catholics we believe public Revelation, embodied in The Word, is complete.  We are not looking to private revelations to confirm that truth.  (The tail is not wagging the dog.)  Private revelations do not belong to the deposit of faith, nor are they automatically seen as the product of mental infirmity or over-active imagination.  Their authenticity (which, in this case, I understand refers to their being real, not merely producing a good result, unlike the interpretation of James' view expressed above by you and others) is judged/discerned through the lens of what we've already received as public Revelation.  While ''by your fruits you will know them'' is as poetic as (no - more poetic than) James' criteria, when placed in the context of the entirety of public Revelation, the phrase has a concrete, practical meaning that James' formula seems to lack.

3) I would suggest that it does actually matter whether we think another's experience is real/truthful or not:
- It makes a great deal of difference in our response to that individual.  If when we say ''it doesn't matter...'' it is really just another way of saying ''this person is deluded, but it's a benign form of delusion so we'll leave them alone'', then perhaps we are not seeking to treat the individual, but nor are we taking them seriously as human beings.  We are humoring them.  Human beings know when they're being humored; most of us don't like it.
- If we believe it to be real and not a product of their imagination or mental infirmity, their experience may have something to say to us as individuals.
- To say, as Catholics, that it doesn't matter whether another's religious experience is real or not, has that not shrunk our understanding of grace?  When we read lives of the saints, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Padre Pio etc, we see not only a picture of their exterior life, but also their interior life.  The one is a response to the grace received in the other ; the one would not be possible without the other.  If there were no such connection - if the grace were not real - why read them at all?

Susan M.
we vnornm
6 years 12 months ago
Crystal and Janice,

You are very welcome.

Bill 
we vnornm
6 years 12 months ago
Hi Marie,

Glad you brought this up.

You seem to be implying that when we are talking with about someone about what their religion means to them, that we give our own understanding out of respect for them. So if someone tells us the Virgin Mary spoke to them in Peoria on the bus, we look askance and express our doubt?

Does this mean that we inform a Mormon what we think of Joseph Smith's vision when that person is simply explaining their belief to us? Do we "correct" an Orthodox Jewish person who believes in the reality of many Old Testament events that the Church teaches us can be viewed as allegories? And there are religions in the East who believe in the reality of things we don't believe in...but let's not go there.

Of course there is a difference between psychosis and sincere religion and there is a middle ground where it's hard to tell the diference.

I think I am also commenting on what seems to be a double standard. I really don't think most of us are going to directly contradict and preach to sincere believers in the three examples in paragraph 2, yet it seems to be okay to pronounce judgments on the experiences of certain sisters and brothers in our own faith. But maybe that's part of dialog?

Again, we will use our intelligence and faith when we react internally to others, but I think there is a great need for us to just listen to others in many situations where we may want to or start to correct them or preach to them.

Merry Christmas! bill
we vnornm
6 years 12 months ago
Note to all:

I'm simply suggesting we try to understand what an experience means to someone else.

This doesn't exclude our own critical thoughts, objective evaluation, analysis of how this fits in with the Catholic faith, or ourn own public stance of faith or recitation of the Apostle's Creed.

Sorry if this is not coming across. Perhaps this topic deserves more pixels in the future? It does seem important to understand this distinction in dialog within the Church, with believers of other faiths, and with non-beievers of many persuasions.

bill

Marie Rehbein
6 years 12 months ago
Bill,

If someone tells us the Virgin Mary spoke to her in Peoria on the bus and we cannot believe it, we can say that we find that hard to believe. No?  I have heard voices and seen visions at opportune times in my life, and I think others experience this also, but we tend to be cautious about sharing these with others when they happen.  Speaking openly about these experiences does seem to indicate an interest in acheiving fame and fortune, which I think is the basis for people's judgmental remarks. 

I think it is prudent to approach such accounts with an abudance of doubt given that it is easy to make such claims, impossible to disprove them, and they often prove to be a way to easy money.  Nevertheless, I think they are real more often than science and prudence would allow. 
 
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years ago
I tend to think that each of us, all of us, are having authentic religious experiences every day, but most often we are not aware of them. 

Thomas Keating says that for most people ordinary life is characterized by the sense that God is absent, and our life's journey is a process of dismantling this monumental illusion. 

If we pay attention, occasionally there are breakthroughs.  These breakthroughs may not come as "Visions or Voices"; most often, I think, they come as insights and certainties about who we are and why we are here, an awareness of the God-infused nature of our lives.

I don't discount or disbelieve the more dramatic religious experiences that are recounted - but I'm not sure it's a good idea to give them undue spiritual weight. 

I can remember as a child, having heard of the story of Bernadette I watched in the tree in my backyard for some weeks, waiting to see if Mary would appear to me.  She didn't, and I'm not at all sure about the spiritual health of my waiting for her to appear to me.  I'm really of mixed feelings about it all.  My father loved the apparition stories and made pilgrimages to the shrines that were built at the sites.  My mother used to complain that holiness did not lie therein.  Interestingly, my mother was the conservative of the family!
Marie Rehbein
7 years ago
"You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"
- A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870)

Even earlier than James, apparently, people were routinely dismissing voices and visions.  Product of the Enlightenment?
we vnornm
7 years ago
Thanks, Beth.

I like Kearing's views, and your Mother's!

Your sad story of waiting for Mary reminds me of Waiting for Godot, whom, if I recall, never showed up.

best, bill 
we vnornm
7 years ago
Thanks, Marie!

Great quote from Dickens, and as you point out, he was putting into words the feelings of many, then and now.

Hope you are having a Merry Christmas season. bill 
Jim McCrea
7 years ago
"Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."
John F. Kennedy
Crystal Watson
6 years 12 months ago
I read The Varieties of Religious Experience in college and really liked it.  I always remembered what he'd written about Paul's vision and  about George Fox and others.  I guess he himself was  kind of a psuchological basketcase in his youth.

Maybe I'm mistakesn, but I'd thought he said that the way to evaluate religioys experience was by the effects it produced, but that he didn't seem to say (I think?) that good effects meant that the experience was "real", but just that it  could be considered positive?



Bill Mazzella
6 years 12 months ago
One of the great comments about Mary is that she is hardly heard of in the Bible but has become quite talkative throughout the ages. Certainly the little lady dressed in blue is a terrible way to describe such a gifted woman. Mary was a gifted jewish peasant who lived an exemplary life through many challenges. Her life was not easy. But to watch the hagiographers tell it, she just royally sauntered through life. 

The shrines have always been money makers ad have pilgrimages. Tell me one travel agent who does not love either. A perfect example is the present rave, Medjorjore, where the Vatican and the Franciscans are battling as to who can enjoy the financial fruits of this modern "revelation." Medjojorie like most appearance have become well orchestrated theater which tailoring becomes better and more impressive as the crowds come soaring in.

Only in modern times where a Catholic is not afraid to think do we seriously question these phenomena. Yet all these years we have the outstanding Sermon on the Mount which too many religious leaders state is elective rather than mandatory.

I do believe that people continually have religious experiences. But they are through faith rather than theater. A miracle would be Christians practicing the beatitudes. That is a shrine everyone should visit. 
6 years 12 months ago
While reading the blog and article for the American Mental Health Foundation I kept thinking about Blessed Mother Teresa.  Her trip on the train, the taking of the extra vow and her long long dark night of the soul.   She exemplifies Wm James criteria for authentic supernatural experience of God.  "By her fruits" she is known by millions. Yet for years, as she wrote in letters, she suffered feelings of being separated from God. This is another phenomenon of the mystical life that is mysterious to many of us.

In fact, as I grow older I seem to be in more awe of the grand mysteries of God's creation and God's Providence than I ever was before.  I seem to be enthralled with the idea of "The God of Surprises"......I keep finding examples of extraordinary happenings and meetings of people that I can only explain as the loving intervention of God.  For example a precious friendship that was totally unexpected  and greatly needed by both individuals.  I see God lurking  and working......

So, maybe for those like me who have not had visions , we are experiencing God in another way.''


Then, too, we are taught to see Christ in the poor and vulnerable and there is great opportunity in our world to do so!

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