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?
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