Contemplative Questions

Question: "While it is true that the grace of infused contemplation itself brings with it a deep certainty, is it also true that that certainty tends to attach itself to some degree to the experiences that the infused contemplation itself induces? Therefore we have examples of very holy people who we may believe received deep graces, but had various visions and revelations attached to them which they believed to be true, and yet we may doubt came directly from God."

The answer to this question is complex:

If an individual receives infused contemplation and also receives extraordinary graces, such as locutions, visions, and prophecies, the source of the experiences may vary for each event. In other words, the same individual may have some experiences that come directly from God and other experiences that originate in the psyche. A person who receives infused contemplation may also have demonic experiences. These originate either from within the psyche or from an outside source.

For the sake of simplicity, I will primarily discuss locutions, since they are the easiest to explain.

1. Locutions that come directly from God:

When God speaks directly to an individual, the person hears exactly what God wants him or her to hear. In this type of locution, the memory, imagination, and will are bound, so they are incapable of distorting the message. (Although the will is bound during the experience, there is a general willingness that precedes the experience. The person is not forced or coerced by the will of God.)

The words of the locution have a reality in themselves, and this reality, with its resulting certainty, is communicated to the person with the message. In other words, the person KNOWS that the locution comes from God, because the locution IS God. The person experiences the specific words as being impressed or imprinted upon the entire being -- mind, heart, and even the body, all at once. However, the person is not thinking of mind, heart, and body when this occurs, because the attention is completely absorbed in the experience.

These direct locutions can also be discerned by their subsequent effects in the inner and outer life of the individual. To state it simply, a locution of this type will have a radical impact that is expansive, healing, and life- giving. This is because the person has actually been touched by God, and this "touch" reorients the direction of the individual in some way.

Regarding the content of the message, it is very brief, and only one idea is presented at a time. This can come in the form of a promise, a teaching, an admonition, a command, or a prophecy. (These are my experiences, but there may be others that I don't know about.)

Later, when relating the experience, the person may embellish the core locution with commentary or associations that arise out of a life of deep reflection on Scripture and other sacred truths. If the person is deeply united with God, he or she can almost speak for God, and the commentary or embellishment will "ring true." However, the words of the core locution and the commentary of the individual are not identical in nature.

If the person has not sufficiently developed a strong mental discipline, other types of distortions arising out of the memory, imagination, and/or will can occur after the locution has passed, where the individual may embellish the experience according to his or her own wishes, prejudices, expectations, or other limitations. A scrupulous vigilance over inner processes and honest self-examination can largely prevent this from occurring.

2. Locutions and other experiences that do not come directly from God, but are an indirect effect of infused contemplation:

The grace of infused contemplation seems to stimulate the entire personality, so that "everything hidden will be revealed." The purpose of this is to heal and redeem the entire person. Having been touched by God, the internal processes of the psyche are accelerated or intensified, and any hidden desires and problems will come to the surface. Also, the imagination itself may simply be stimulated by the divine touch. As a result, it can temporarily take on a life of its own and produce visions, locutions, and prophecies. (The latter will not come true, except by coincidence or natural telepathy, and this lack of dependability can help the individual eventually face the fact that the experiences are self-induced.)

These locutions and other experiences may be very lovely, and if the person is well-educated, they may even be theologically sound. However, they are not experienced with the same sense of certainty and absolute knowing as the locutions that come directly from God. Also, they are generally not life-changing. Rather, they reaffirm what the person already knows or believes.

If a person is repressed, fragmented, or has a history of childhood abuse or other trauma, the unresolved psychic forces in the personality can actually manifest as demonic attacks, under the stimulation of infused contemplation. These attacks are experienced as if they come from an outside source. Although these experiences can be deeply upsetting, they do no real damage to the individual who is under the influence of infused contemplation, because God oversees the process. These experiences help a person get in touch with issues that need to be addressed, so that greater freedom may eventually be achieved.

On the other hand, I want to stress that a person may also experience demonic attacks that genuinely originate from an outside source. These are dangerous.

It is almost impossible for the individual to discern the source of demonic experiences, when they occur, for two reasons: (1) whether they come from within the personality or from an outside source, they are experienced as if they come from an outside source, and (2) the experiences are so disturbing that the person is unable to think clearly.

Dangerous experiences are the ones that mimic the graces that come from God, except that there is something slightly off about them. If they are accepted as genuine, they can lead a person away from God. An example would be a locution or vision that induces subtle pride, illicit desire, self-loathing, or one of the other serious temptations.

The difficulty with these experiences is that the message imparted has a grain of truth that is mixed with a subtle deception. These experiences leave a person feeling confused and uneasy, and if there is a great desire for spiritual experiences, or if the experience caters to some other imperfection in the personality, the individual can be deceived and will be spiritually diminished by doing so.

Anyone who experiences these things should have recourse to prayer. If there is any doubt about an extraordinary experience, it is good to solicit a second opinion from someone who is well-versed in theology and has no personal stake in the matter. I do not believe a demonic experience in the psyche can do any real harm, unless a person accepts the dark message that comes with it. A Contemplative

"...If God is beyond all concepts and words,
how can any words or concepts be identified with Him?" The Editor

A Contemplative responds

The answer is simple, but difficult to explain. When God truly speaks to an
individual in a locution, the words themselves do not impart an all-encompassing understanding of the nature of God. God is not limited or defined by the words of the locution. However, in a mysterious way, God is actually present in the words he is speaking. Perhaps it would help if you thought of the locution in the sense of an incarnation. I use a small "i" rather than a capital "I," because I do not mean to place this experience on a par with the Incarnation of Christ. Nevertheless, the analogy is a good one.

The words of the locution would have no power of their own if God were not
present within them. But, because God is present, the power and grandeur of God are experienced in the locution by the person receiving it. Something of the nature of God, beyond the meaning of the words themselves, is communicated in the experience. And since God is present, the person is immediately changed by the experience, because the will of God and his power are contained within the words. Two good examples of this type of locution and their dramatic results can be seen in the conversion experiences of St. Paul and St. Francis of Assisi.

There is a much larger issue behind your question that I would also like to address. God is infinite, yes, but Scripture clearly indicates that he has always had the ability to manifest himself in finite ways. This belief is a cornerstone of Christianity. Without it, we would not believe in the Incarnation -- that God became flesh, as a single human being who was both fully divine and fully human.

Almost without realizing it, many people believe in God transcendent without
believing in God immanent. When you think about it, this is very close to
atheism, because a God who cannot touch our lives in a very personal way is
hardly God at all.

While we do not have the ability to perceive God on our own, we should never
place any limits on God's ability to communicate himself to us, because he is
certainly capable of doing so. A simple way to summarize all this is to say
that God, although infinite, is not limited to his infinity! A Contemplative

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments:

A Response

Although I'm not a Catholic (I'm a Methodist), I''ve become increasingly drawn to contemplation. Sometimes I think we Protestants have neglected real experiences of God for show and glitter, so I've been practicing Lectio. And now I find myself not being able to do without it. I want to know about "locutions." I've never heard the word used in a religious context until I read this article...but I think it's what I've been experiencing. And experiencing it all the time! As I'm driving to work, or working, or cooking, or just walking quietly along. Words just start coming into my
mind...there's nothing special I'm doing, and I don't even ask for them. But it's like God is suddenly speaking to me, and teaching me about the truth of him. Sometimes with metaphors. Sometimes with parables. Sometimes with logic. Sometimes in abstractions. I walk around all day long with these internal monologues going on. And sometimes it's quite lovely. And they always relate to some essential church doctrine, they always come from doctrine and return to it. When the monologue is over, I have a sense that I know...not through me but through him. I guess my question is this: how do I know it comes from God? Things can be interpreted in so many ways, and how do I know that this isn't just me imposing my word upon him? I want to serve and love God...but impressions can be wrong. Especially when it comes to how we communicate them to others. I'm very involved in the church, and I'm a lay speaker. I don't know if I should teach those things that I hear. Especially when they're outside the realm of popular opinion. Sorry for the ramblings, and I thank you for your web page. Peace and blessings.

The Editor responds

The whole idea of locutions doesn't get talked about anywhere, as far as we know. What you are describing from your own experience sounds like something that happened to a friend of ours who ended up with a whole collection of various kinds of short sayings that came to him spontaneously. In his case I think they were a kind of natural by-product of a deepening spiritual life. There is much more to our psyches than just our ego consciousness, and out of the depths of those other parts of us can spring some beautiful creations. There are almost like natural, spontaneous meditations which we have not intentionally willed, but are the result of the direction towards God that we are trying to give to our lives, and even God's inspiration.

Naturally, the real issue is the connection between those sayings and God. We think it is a good rule of thumb not to take these things as a direct instance of God speaking to us, but rather as inspirational gifts that still need to be looked at consciously to see whether they agree with the teaching of the Church and with our own common sense. Once we have submitted them to this kind of reflection, then we don't see why you can't use them in a teaching situation, but presented not as special revelations, but as fruits of your meditation.


Mysticism, True or False?

In the early 70’s I experimented with LSD and mescaline and with drug induced mysticism. These mystical experiences in many ways fit the Buddhist description in that I experienced myself and the universe to be one, there was the self-validating "Aha, now I've experienced enlightenment" reaction within me, and my experiences clearly reflected that of pantheistic mysticism. For example, when a friend asked me during one of these mystical experiences, "Who are you, Bob? " I answered, "I'm that book over there on that bookshelf'. He asked me again and I answered, "I'm that ash falling from your cigarette", and that was my experience at that time!

Something else was my experience at the time also. These experiences seemed so real that I gave up my belief in a personal God and became totally lost. Later, when I was confronted with someone who deeply believed in God I looked at her and said, "God is purely symbolic, isn't He."

Several years ago I read a book by Tal Brooke titled Lord of the Air in which Tal went to India to seek enlightenment and studied under Sai Baba, who claimed to be an avatar. Tal reported having numerous spiritual experiences, and reported on Sai Baba's spiritual powers, but later learned that Sai was sexually abusing his male disciples. Clearly something was wrong here. He also described the empty look in the eyes of many who were sincerely seeking enlightenment, but who failed to find the love of God in the process. I experienced that same spiritual emptiness and loneliness once when I was visiting a Zen monastery in California, trying to find enlightenment, but in my pride thought I could attain truth without openness to God.

From my experiences and reading I conclude that it is possible to have false mystical "enlightenments" which seem real, but can inflate our pride to make us think that we can attain Truth apart from God. These experiences can leave us more desolate and separated and lost from God, than before we began.

In interreligious dialog it is clear from a Vatican II statement on non-Christian religions that we are to respect and reverence whatever is good in other faiths and their spiritual wisdom. It is also true that God is sovereign and can infuse deep experiences of Himself even into folks whose doctrines and faith we may sincerely disagree with. Still, as Christians, I believe that in our efforts to be charitable in East-West dialog, we have failed to consider the possibility that a false and deluded "mysticism" may exist and can lead people astray as it did in my case.

The Catholic Church, of which I am a part, seriously studies reports of apparitions, visions and locutions to see if they be "Worthy of Belief" and to prevent false teachings from infecting the church. These kinds of phenomena are easier to examine than wordless mysticism in that there are messages reportedly given, and visions seen, the reports of which can be scrutinized for their content. Still, the results of mystical experiences can be evaluated, as: Does the person's practice seem to be leading them to greater humility, love for others and openness to God, or are they becoming more prideful, isolated from God and others, etc? Clearly, in view of many "new age" teachings being presented in our cultures today the need for more careful discernment of spiritual experiences should be evident.

The conclusion to my story: After returning to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Catholic Charismatic renewal, and several years of rediscovery and deepening of my Christian life, I was introduced to Christian Centering Prayer and have maintained contact with the Contemplative Outreach when time permits.

Robert Gravlin, 537 Rancho Lane, Florissant, MO 63031, e-mail:

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments:


Another Response

The gift of infused contemplation means a "knowing" of the Trinity as direct experience, imparted through the medium of union with the humanity of Christ. If the knowledge is of the interior relations of the persons of the Trinity, it is ineffable. This is not to say that it is unclear or indistinct; but rather deals with realities, however good or beautiful, which have no part of human experience and therefore no human language exists to convey it. If the knowledge God shares of Himself with an individual concerns the action of the Trinity extrinsic to God's interior life, then direct knowledge is mediated through the Incarnation, (genuine visions & locutions) and indirect knowledge (genuine inspiration and insight, also the charisms) through the Holy Spirit. Yet all are the action of the undivided Trinity; it has been said that a good way to think of this is that the Son and the Holy Spirit are the "right and the left hands" of the Father.

Genuine locutions, unmistakably the word of God interiorly though perceptibly heard, accomplish what they suggest or command, though the accomplishment is in the milieu of the individual's mind and heart, in the context of historical and cultural time and place. The same is true of "visions" whether intellectual or imaginative. Since God is eternal, the knowledge He shares with a soul may be "present" "past" or "future" --this last is one species of the charism of prophecy: "seeing" of future events. A more common aspect of prophecy is the word of warning, consolation or encouragement to God's people. The prophet may be unaware that he is uttering prophecy--even if the recipients are. The prophet is essentially a messenger, who may or may not know the meaning of the message he conveys. "A prophet's lot is not a happy one," to paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan. Recipients of unpleasant messages frequently want "to shoot the messenger", figuratively and sometimes literally. (Jonah knew the score: when he, upon being appointed prophet to Ninevah, muttered "No way!" and booked an ocean cruise in the opposite direction.)

Persons having the (conscious) gift of prophecy can avoid misinterpreting their (sometimes conditional) messages by being submissive to the advice of a holy and learned spiritual director. If the gift is genuine, somehow the "right" spiritual director will appear when needed for this discernment. God can deliver his messages either directly (through unmistakable communications in locutions and visions) or indirectly (sudden inner "knowing"; or in symbolic dreams.) The gift of prophecy is only credible if the individual having it is mature, moral, prudent and obedient. Those whom I have observed having it are completely orthodox Catholics, of varying theological sophistication, but always people whose primary activity/priority (whether lay or religious) is prayer. Although God can "audibly speak" to anyone, he prefers to whisper, not shout; and persons who make themselves interiorly solitary and silent are those who most easily hear Him.

Effects of contemplation on the body: sometimes, in ecstasy, the soul is totally immersed in God, and cannot think if itself and is not even aware of the body, even though the body as well as the soul is helpless with delight under the Divine caress. After a while, the soul becomes stronger as it becomes accustomed to the immediacy of the Divine presence, and the body does not visibly show evidence that the soul is lost in God; this sort of thing becomes rare, although the person increasingly perceives the interior reality of the mutual abiding of the soul in God, and God in the soul. It is indeed a tender mutual spousal embrace in the warm darkness of faith which does not need (however it longs!) to see the face of the beloved; and as the initial "honeymoon" period gives way to "everyday life together" love of neighbor becomes increasingly easy, despite sometimes great difficulties. It may then happen that the person is called or ordered to some unusual ministry, which they themselves would never have chosen; but God works within them despite lack of natural gifts, to do this ministry capably.

The body seems to have to pay a price in bearing the bright burden of divine love--sometimes there is physical and/or even mental pain (usually grief at sin, and sorrow for those trapped in it; especially scandal which wounds the Church, Christ's very body and bride). However there is a deep inner peace which makes one quite sincerely cheerful, especially as in faith we all know the story "has a happy ending."

Interestingly, my path many years ago crossed that of a retired Hollywood "clairvoyant," when I was 30 and she was 75. --I lived with and took care of her while she was incapacitated after an unsuccessful hip replacement operation. She was intelligent and well-educated, naturally kind and decent. She was not a Christian; she had studied Jungian psychology and Yoga for many years and was quite knowledgeable of many forms of Eastern religions and meditative disciplines. I was (still am) a traditional (though not reactionary) Catholic well-versed in my faith. We had many interesting and tolerant discussions of what we each believed. She believed in reincarnation, and humbly prayed to "a higher power" "the Life Force" which she sometimes reluctantly called "the God consciousness."

At first I didn't think she was a true psychic, however in the course of the months I took care of her, I had many proofs that indeed she was. (One time she had a telepathic dream of a crime being committed which was so powerful that it "slopped over" from her sleep into mine (I lived in a guest-room across the hall from her) so that I "saw it" too--this was really ghastly, and I well believed that her "gift" of knowing when some people would die was, as she said, a terrible burden to her. However, with all her preternatural psychic ability, she was not a prophet--the knowledge she had seemed to have a curiously "dead" quality to it, generating in her hearers and herself not hope or consolation, but sadness and sometimes despair; and she herself did not enjoy a true interior peace, but only stoic resignation to life and its vagaries.

A slight acquaintance of hers, a sweet, lonely widow in her 70's was taken up with new age practices and meditations, including TM. I met her twice, for about half an hour's chat each time she visited. She asked me about my Catholicism; I told her, and also that as she came near to die, she would regret it if she didn't realize that Christ was the only true salvation. Like her friend, she believed in vegetarianism, yoga, TM, ecological awareness, crystal power, reincarnation, fairies, angels (but not the God whose servants they are!)

One day as I was vacuuming my friend's carpet, I was suddenly and for three hours plunged into a simultaneous reality wherein I was being sucked down into a filthy gray whirlpool of darkness, and anguished, confused despair. It was the mouth of a pit of absolute deadness, and I was being clawed at by a frightened but invisible personality who was going down into it, and trying to save itself by attaching itself to me, like a leech. It is one of the most evil, terrifying, experiences of my life--I couldn't pray, except to gasp, over and over, "O God--O God--O God--help--help--" At the end of that three hours, suddenly it was over, the room was normal, I was ok, and I finished vacuuming wondering if I was losing my mind.

A few weeks later I learned that that lady had died that day, after a three-hour coma in the local hospital. I know now that dying, she reached out-- through my inept prayer--to God; and hope that somehow she was saved from that filthy pit. Years later when I began to say the Divine Office, I recognized "the pit" in the psalms as the mouth of Hell; and the psalmist, long before I thought of it, had prayed to be delivered from "going down into the pit". Message? Hell is real, and even "sweet, sincere" people can be in great danger of going there if they perceive the truth but do not act on it.

Though I am no spiritual director or theologian, my blood runs cold when I note many Catholics who dabble in "Catholic forms" of Eastern meditations and practices, and am reminded of St. Paul's warning about those with "itching ears seeking novel teachings" . These things might be harmless, but I would never take chances with my eternal salvation; the Church has a rich heritage of mystical theology and teaching such that I know there is no need to go to Non-Christian sources for "technique." The insights of Jung can be valuable to understand the interface of the mind with the spirit, but strictly speaking they are not necessary if one is striving to avoid sin, cultivate virtue, and please God in everything for love of Him. He Himself will lead those who long for him; and if one prays ardently and perseveringly for the right spiritual director, He will either answer that prayer directly, or undertake the job Himself.

I was unable (however gently and diplomatically) to convince my elderly Hollywood psychic friend that belief in re-incarnation was illusion, and that salvation was not in nirvana, only through Christ in His Church. I felt sorry for her and prayed for her. After she recovered, I moved on; but we kept in occasional touch (birthday and Christmas cards, chiefly) for 20 more years until she died 2 years ago in her late 90's. The night she died she appeared to me as I slept, looking terribly distraught--she cried my name twice, in great distress, before I leapt awake and told my husband that I knew she was dead. We later ascertained it occurred at that time, several hundred miles away. I still pray for her poor soul and hope she is at rest.

A few years later, I had a nerve-wracking night when I was all but thrown from my bed, interiorly told to dress and go to a nearby chapel. Once there, I could see nothing, but could hear a sobbing person pacing slowly and painfully all around the aisles, and the sound of a discipline (whip) falling heavily on bare flesh. I ran to get someone else to hear this, and at 2 am knocked on the nearby convent door to ask for a nun who knew me. I babbled what I had heard, and without telling me I was crazy, she went with me to the chapel--but there was only silence. I felt a fool, but was upset and bewildered by what I had heard.

The nun told me later that an elderly nun of her order had that day died; and that two other nuns, at the same time I was hearing the broken-hearted sobbing in the chapel, were hearing screams of anguish outside their own doors. Apparently the community had delayed saying the Office of the Dead immediately, --flu was rampant in the convent; many were sick-- and the soul of their sister was letting them know that she was suffering until they discharged their duty, flu or no flu. Message? Purgatory is REAL, whether you think so or not, and whether it is fashionable to mention it or not. The duty to pray is real too; and if we are obliged by vow to pray for the welfare of others, dereliction of that duty has terrible consequences. This does not only mean religious--everyone who is a god-parent, however casually one agreed to be one, --has a life-long duty to pray for one's god-children, especially the ones who live far distant;-- for their ongoing conversion, deliverance from temptation, for their response to grace, and for their eternal salvation.

The Editor

I read your remarks about contemplation and its side-effects with interest, and I agree with your statement about how genuine communications from God can take place "in the milieu of the individual’s mind and heart, in the context of historical time and place." This is an important principle.

But can’t we apply this principle to the vision you had of hell and the other extraordinary experiences that you report? It is not that I am denying that you experienced these things as you report them. But isn’t it possible that they contain elements, drawn from your own psyche and personal experience, and that these elements have rather inextricably wrapped themselves around the spiritual message? For example, if God intends you to pray in a special way for someone, his purpose is accomplished if you do this, even if the way you receive that inspiration is clothed with images about the nature of hell or purgatory which are accidental both to how these states actually exist and what God’s message is. So, for example, the whip falling heavily on bare flesh may be a good symbol of the pain of purgatory, which is a feeling of being separated from God, but does not need to be taken literally, especially since a person in purgatory would not have bare flesh as we have in this life, and therefore would not be susceptible to that kind of punishment. There is a tendency to absolutize all the parts of these kinds of experiences because they are perceived as containing genuine communication from God, but according to the principle you have so well set forth, even genuine spiritual communications need to be subjected to a process of psychological and theological evaluation.

A Response to the Editor

My response to your response:

I quite agree. We can "get" the messages in the manner most conducive to apprehending the truth with the given character, temperament, and culture we have. That said, these things need not be "either or" alternatives-- We can "get" them other ways, in others' metaphors.

"Sub species aeternam," the opposite of a truth is not a falsehood, but another, different, truth. Hold that thought; I can't explain it, but I can give an example: In the incident alluded to earlier, I heard certain things leading me to a certain conclusion--pray for a suffering soul undergoing purification. Let me now tell you an entirely different incident, leading me to the same conclusion.

When I was in my 30's, I worked in the rural tropics of a foreign country for about a decade. There, I was befriended by an extended family--several middle-aged to elderly brothers, all planters, all non-practicing British Anglicans, who had farms close to each other and each had their own families and grandchildren. All had been raised in the plantation home belonging to the second-eldest brother, "Y". The tall, thin, gracious youngest brother, "X" (living about three miles away from "Y") died peacefully after a sad life, and a lengthy illness at the age of about 56.

A couple months after "X's" death, I was a house guest for a weekend at the home of "Y" and his family. The first night, I was awakened by a man of about 30, who amiably sat down on the left side of my bed--I felt the mattress yield--and at the same time with his right hand pulled me, by my right hand, smoothly up into a sitting position. I was immediately awake, and assumed it was "Y", although "Y" was of a short, chunky, build and about 58. I was not afraid, but very annoyed at the impropriety of a man in my bedroom at 3am. Something else felt slightly odd, but I couldn't figure out at the time what it was. "Come walk with me," the visitor said, his light, cool hand still holding mine.

I always sleep with a rosary under my pillow, and I found my left hand clutched it loosely to my chest. Very courteously, the gentleman said plaintively, "Walk with me." I wanted to say, ' "Y", I'm not comfortable with you here--we can talk in the morning," but what came out of my mouth was, "Go back where you came from." He said the same thing, again, and I answered the same, three times. After that, he rose, (I felt the mattress shift as he did so) still holding my hand, and said forlornly, "There's not much time," I noticed that he was tall and thin. He let go my hand, and then disappeared before my eyes.

I then suddenly realized that it was "X", but looking a much younger man than I had ever known him. I looked at my watch, (on the hand still holding the rosary) and realized that if I went back to sleep I might think I had dreamed this. My right hand still "felt the impress" of "X's" light, cool, grip. So I stayed awake until breakfast, when I told the family what happened. "Oh yes," said "Y". "He's been coming here every since he died; we've all seen him. The first night he came I was working late in my study, and he sat down in a chair next my desk and said quite conversationally, "How strange it is to come here without a body!" --Apparently he was haunting "Y’s" house rather than his own, and his widow, three miles away, because "Y’s" house was his childhood home of happy memory. "Y’s" grown children also said each had seen and spoken with "X". [We speculated on what might have happened had I accepted his invitation, "Walk with me". . . ! ]

My response was to have a Mass said for the repose of his soul. I did not stay at "Y’s" house again for a long while; but a few months afterward, (whilst briefly in the USA) I had a vivid dream of "x" striding away from me, down a long dark blind corridor, at the end of which he opened a door in the right wall. I could not see into the doorway, (as the door opened towards me and blocked the view) but for a moment sunlight, birdsong and the flower-scent of springtime poured out to illuminate his young and happy face and he entered, closing the door behind him. By this I understood that he had left purgatory, and entered the beatific vision.

Now--compare this incident with the first one: Purgatory for a nun involved weeping and self-flagellation. Purgatory for a British lapsed Anglican involved haunting his brother's country house as an amiable, melancholy ghost. If I am projecting my own cultural understanding of purgatory, wouldn't one think I would have "perceived" an identical version of Purgatory in both cases? Instead, the period of a soul's purgation seems to be couched in terms of that person's metaphor and cultural expectations, not mine. My own theory (and I have no idea if it is right, merely that it is the only one which makes sense to me) is that even as our Lord said, "My Father's House has many mansions," ---meaning that every person's "Heaven" will be most suited to that person's individual version of perfect happiness, ---that each soul's "purgatory" --purification-- is likewise, even in metaphor, individualized. Yes, we know that "Heaven" is the beatific vision, the perfect possession of God; but although we cannot in this life imagine it, in the next we know it is as individually as each person is unique.

One more item. About 20 years ago at a time when my employment required long solitudes doing research in wilderness areas (which I greatly enjoyed), I was allowed to "experience" my own purgatory, for five solid days. It was "neither of the above:" there was no image, no physical pain, but an unbelievable interior "abomination of desolation." I had no memory of what specifically I had done to deserve this, -a total lack of the sense of God--as if he had abandoned the universe, and forgotten me on an empty planet--but I knew it to be just; and as such, part of God's good pleasure. I had a deep peaceful acceptance of this seemingly endless agony of nothingness, but no comfort from it. I was tempted to wonder when I emerged from this experience, (totally without bad after-effects; only a profound and sober amazement) if this was the product of mental, physical, or emotional illness; I consulted a medic and a psychiatrist, who both said that I was quite healthy mentally and physically. It is the worst sorrow I have experienced in a varied and often painful life, and there is no human language to describe a piercing, aching, entire, seemingly endless anguish which was neither physical, emotional, nor mental. This is not any experience which I had been culturally conditioned to expect. There was no image at all to make metaphor of--it was pain in the abstract, made personally concrete.

If it is true that in God, the opposite of one truth is not a falsehood--but instead, another, delightfully unexpected truth--then our poor language about, and perception of, spiritual reality are analogous to the blind men touching the elephant: --the one who had the tail said, "the elephant is like a rope" the one who felt the leg said, "the elephant is like a tree-trunk," the one who felt the ear said, "the elephant is like a fan;"--even so, I suspect that despite variances in culturally conditioned modes of perception and expression of spiritual realities, they are realities as well as metaphor--. More than one mode of perception and expression does not preclude the validity of others. (--"There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dealt with in your philosophy. . .") It will be fun to revisit this discussion, to use St. Thomas More's expression, "when we all meet merrily in Heaven."

The Editor Responds

The stories are interesting, but the real challenge is to try to fathom what demands they make on us. Just because the two stories of purgatory are so different does not, in itself, exempt them from the general principle that whatever is happening objectively is being clothed with the symbols of the psyche subjectively. The whole experience of the man coming and sitting on the left side of your bed has a dreamlike feel to it, and would be susceptible to being analyzed like a dream. I am not saying that it necessarily has to be nothing but a dream, but rather, all these kinds of experiences contain psychological elements even though they are trying to convey spiritual truths.

The central problem in all this is that such experiences make a real impact on us, and if they contain some core communication from God, the impact is even deeper. But we have an almost incurable tendency to value an experience by the impact it has on our senses and our imagination, and in cases like this we really have no adequate way to distinguish between the spiritual inspiration we may be receiving and how it clothes itself in the psyche. The thing we don’t want to do is get caught up in these experiences in such a way that they distract us from the way of faith. It is possible to get tangled up in these kinds of experiences to such a degree - I am not claiming that you have - that the spiritual life becomes a kind of search to decipher the signs and portents, visions and revelations, that God is giving. This makes the life of prayer much too complicated, and in the more extreme cases one can lose peace of mind, and even lose sight of the essential Christian journey which is one of faith and love.

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