How can we know if the experience of a vision is genuine . . . or the product of an unbalanced mind? Though “tests” may not categorically prove anything to a particular individual, it may be helpful to consider the various aspects of extraordinary experience frequently used to establish the authenticity of a vision or locution. First, the authentic vision arrives suddenly and unbidden, without human effort or contrivance. It is immediately experienced as proceeding from a superior source. It carries the weight of divine authority. Sometimes by means of sight and/or sound the mystic is given a directive for action, a precise warning, an instantaneous clarity about a decision to be made, or is shown a prophetic vision of an event that is bound to occur in the future. Often the visionary is graced by an infusion of wisdom and spiritual insight that he or she could not have attained by ordinary methods of study or human effort.
At other times, the visionary may be absorbed in a trance in which he or she becomes privy to things not able to be described in human language, as was St. Paul, who “was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2–4). The sublime experience may be seen either through a lifelike apparition exterior to the visionary, or as a compelling interior picture occurring in the recipient’s imagination, or as a purely intellectual understanding that arises all-at-once, without recourse to specific images or words. In whatever form the visionary receives the divinely inspired revelations, they have a veracity about them that is incontestable. For the recipient to deny that such an event ever took place would be akin to denying the truth of his or her own existence.
Likewise, the voice and words of locutions [audible revelations] may be heard as coming from the outside, or as emanating from within, or as purely intellectual inspiration received from the divine source. In any case, it is generally agreed that all visionary and verbal transmissions, if they are genuine, must be distinctly formed, whether by a convincing physical, imaginative, or intellectual illumination, or by means of understandable words. The authentic vision is not confusing, distracting, or obfuscating in its effect on the recipient’s mind. It is reassuring, affirming, sometimes cautionary, even demanding, but always precise. The truth-filled words are clearly spoken in the visionary’s language, and their effect is profoundly empowering, much more so than if the same words had been spoken under normal circumstances. Both image and words are thereafter indelibly imprinted in the person’s memory and can be recalled at will. . . Yet even though the original experience cannot be forgotten, there may be a significant delay in the mystic’s full understanding of the meaning of the revelation.
Another and most important indication of authenticity is that the visions and locutions of Christian mystics conform to holy scripture and to the most sacred teachings of the church. They do not contradict revealed truth. They also produce a lasting change in the recipient’s state of mind, enabling the will to act on the directives given, thus dramatically altering the visionary’s course of life greatly to the good. And while the revelations may seem at the time full of mystery to be contemplated for years to come, both visions and words continue to produce a sense of ineffable joy and profound peace. The visionary is forever transformed by the vision and the listener by the words.
Julian of Norwich's visions and locutions meet all the above qualifications. Her vision of Christ on the cross appeared suddenly as she lay dying, shortly after all her pain had inexplicably ceased. She specifically records that she saw Christ on the cross, “without any meane,” that is, not mediated through the intervention of an angel or saint, and appearing completely lifelike. She was absolutely convinced that he who revealed himself to her was truly Jesus Christ, the Son of God, bearing all the weight of divine authority. He answered questions that had tortured her soul for many years and deepened her understanding of the nature of the Trinity, the incarnation, the passion, and the resurrection, as well as the divine attitude toward sin, judgment, and personal suffering. In her sixteen Revelations, Julian was given extraordinary wisdom and divine teachings she never could have figured out on her own, but for the grace of the shewings. . . Throughout, Julian’s visions were distinctly formed, either when manifesting in a “bodily sight in the face of the crucifix,” or when being conceived in “ghostly sight” in her imagination, or when arising “more ghostly” and all-at-once “in a point” of profound understanding while she was poised in contemplation.
Likewise, Julian understood the words spoken in her own Middle English language, with no sense of obfuscation. Whether heard as words formed in her soul, “without voice and opening of lips,” or “as if” Christ were speaking directly to her mind in “words formed in my understanding,” these locutions were incontrovertible in their truthfulness and power. They brought clarity and peace to Julian’s troubled mind. Most certainly, the visions and locutions that unfolded during the course of the Revelations were indelible. Julian never lost sight of what the suffering or the glorious Christ looked like, nor did she forget the words he spoke to her. She was compelled to write about them all her life. These divine illuminations expanded Julian’s spirit, opening up a level of faith, hope, and love in her heart previously unimaginable. They re-interpreted familiar and firmly held doctrines of the church and pushed the boundaries of what could be thought or written about the mercy and love of God.
Please Note: Excerpts above and my translations from the Middle English are from my book: Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich (Orbis Books), copyright © by Veronica Mary Rolf.