The Mystic Way 9: Voices and Visions

Last time we looked at the illumination of the world on the mystic path. Here we continue the extracts from Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism and explore the third type of illumination, which is often misunderstood – even by mystics themselves – but especially by others:

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

Here she explains the difficulty of understanding these experiences and the many misrepresentations given to them by so-called “rationalists” and materialists, before going on:

“[The] great mystics themselves … 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.

“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.

“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, 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; many – perhaps most – visions are the picturings of dreams and desires. 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.

“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. These, in the apt phrase of Godfernaux, are but “images floating on the moving deeps of feeling,” 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 nth 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; 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; 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.

“Because we allow this, however, it does not follow that all the visionary experience of such a subject is morbid. … 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.

“… The transcendental powers take for this purpose such material as they can find amongst the hoarded beliefs and memories of the self. 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.

“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

  • of thought,
  • of intuition,
  • of direct perception.

“All would be ready to acknowledge how conventional and imperfect of necessity are those transcripts of perceived Goodness, Truth, and Beauty which we owe to artistic genius, how unequal is their relation to reality. But this is not to say that they are valueless or absurd. So too with the mystic, whose proceedings in this respect are closer to those of the artist than is generally acknowledged. In both types there is a constant and involuntary work of translation going on, by which Reality is interpreted in the terms of appearance. In both, a peculiar mental make-up conduces to this result.

“In artistic subjects, the state of reverie tends easily to a visionary character: thought becomes pictorial, auditory or rhythmic as the case may be. Concrete images, balanced harmonies, elusive yet recognizable, surge up mysteriously without the intervention of the will, and place themselves before the mind. Thus the painter really sees his impainted picture, the novelist hears the conversation of his characters, the poet receives his cadences ready-made, the musician listens to a veritable music which “pipes to the spirit ditties of no tone.”

“In the mystic, the same type of activity constantly appears. Profound meditation takes a pictorial or dramatic form. Apt symbols which suggest themselves to his imagination become objectivized. The message that he longs for is heard within his mind. Hence, those “interior voices” and “imaginary visions” which are sometimes, as in Suso, indistinguishable from the ordinary accompaniments of intense artistic activity.

Where, however, artistic “automatisms” spend themselves upon the artist’s work, mystical “automatisms” in their highest forms have to do with that transformation of personality which is the essence of the mystic life. They are media by which the self receives spiritual stimulus; is reproved, consoled, encouraged and guided on its upward way. Moreover, they are frequently coordinated. The voice and the vision go together: corroborate one another, and “work out right” in relation to the life of the self.

“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.”

“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.”


Underhill then goes into great detail about the three main types of this experience: voices, visions, and automatic script, and it’s worth studying closely – especially if you’ve experienced these things yourself. You can read the full chapter here.

Next we enter the fourth phase of the Mystic Way: the Dark Night of the Soul

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