Visions and experience of God through images
I now turn to the experience of God through visions and hearing God’s voice since Catherine is known for her visions. Hagiographies and legends as well as contemporary studies of Catherine’s life have highlighted the visions that guided her life. As a child she saw a vision of Christ that made God real and attractive; the legends suggest this vision led to her lifelong quest to give her life to God. All accounts of her life highlight foundational visions of a “marriage” to Christ and a few years later a vision of an exchange of hearts with Jesus; as well there are accounts of several other visions. I propose that many of Catherine’s visions fall into the ordinary category as described below, though she also had visions that were out of the ordinary, as we shall see.
Visions can be an ordinary way for persons to communicate with God, to have a felt experience of God. In the sense of images that form in the mind’s eye (as opposed to seeing an apparition such as Mary appearing to Bernadette at Lourdes), visions are a form of connection to God that is not uncommon.
When I direct weeklong retreats, I repeatedly hear from my retreatants’ experiences of God “speaking” to them through images that form in their mind’s eye, a form of intuitive “seeing.” Someone looks at a picture of Jesus and feels as though they see themselves with Jesus and hear him speaking to them. Or someone contemplates a statue of Mary with the infant Jesus, then feels her love for her and “sees” in her mind’s eye Mary reaching out to hold and comfort her. Or someone watches a sunrise, a sunset, a view of the ocean or a bird in a tree and they have an inner sense, an intuitive knowing that God is speaking to them through nature about a topic related to their ongoing prayer. Or someone intentionally uses their imagination to picture themselves in a Gospel story, and then experiences Jesus communicating a personal message to them through this imagery.
Visions, then, that are not literal apparitions, are not uncommon when persons are in silence, seeking God, and trying to connect with God’s love, wisdom and guidance. I suggest that many of Catherine’s visions fall into this category. (See also “Caution about visions”)
Exceptional visions involve an extraordinary experience of consolation and mediate out of the ordinary gifts of wisdom. Saints, including Catherine, have described experiences of being so absorbed in the presence of God—an extraordinary experience of consolation—such that they suddenly see truth and connected truths about God and about human reality from the perspective of God. They report acquiring new understanding that is beyond words and beyond usual human comprehension. For instance, Thomas Aquinas towards the end of his life described seeing truth in a way that far surpassed all his former learning. Ignatius of Loyola described a vision towards the beginning of his spiritual journey where he was illuminated about God and reality in a manner beyond words; this knowledge guided the rest of his life. Catherine described such experiences as well. (For instance, see excerpt Letter 272a)
Examples of Catherine’s visions
Catherine describes in her letters many experiences that I would classify as ordinary visions and some that were out of the ordinary; in either case, the manner in which she received and acted upon her visions and communications from God was exceptional. For Catherine lived as though on a permanent retreat and was so close to God, that she experienced communications from God on a frequent if not daily basis. She was also exceptional in the fidelity and steadfastness with which she applied to her life and taught others with authority and power the wisdom she received through her visions and other experiences of God’s communication. These experiences were transformative for her and resulted in her work towards the transformation of others and the good of the church. I highlight that for a Christian, the significance of any experience of God is its transformative power.
Let me offer instances of some of Catherine’s “ordinary” visions. In a Letter to Raymond (Letter 226)—at the time in another city—she describes desiring to receive absolution from him. Filled with that desire, Catherine experienced an inner sense, a vision in her mind’s eye, that Christ himself gave her absolution. (Letter 226) In the same letter Catherine describes an image that formed in her mind’s eye of walking along the road talking to Jesus, having a sense of God’s indescribable goodness and love, while she imagined God telling her: “my daughter, I am not one who does not value holy, true desires; on the contrary, I know how to fulfill these. Be comforted and be a courageous voice for the truth, I will always be with you.” (Letter 226)
While in these examples Catherine describes experiences of God’s love—consolation—and asserts they are hard to describe in words, I suggest these fall into the ordinary vision category. In my experience as spiritual director, when persons have a deeply felt sense of God’s love, it is always difficult to fully describe; it is in some ultimate way an experience that cannot be fully captured into words. Precisely because many people have experiences of God’s love and cannot find the right words to describe that love, difficulty in describing the experience of God’s love is not an indication of an extraordinary experience.
Similarly, when Catherine describes being absolved of her sins by Christ and of walking along the road with him, the context of the account does not suggest an experience of ecstasy or of receiving knowledge and wisdom of an extraordinary nature as will be described below. Rather it is an image in her mind’s eye that mediates a communication from Christ. To my practiced ears as spiritual director for over two decades, this intuitive knowing and these images seem comparable to those described by ordinary persons in moments of closeness to God. These types of experiences are not out of the ordinary in a retreat context or in the prayer lives of persons who have committed, regular times of silence and solitude.
Catherine also had visions that were much less ordinary. These were accompanied by exceptional experiences of consolation –times of being so absorbed in spiritual reality that she lost touch with material reality (ecstasy). For instance, in a letter to Raymond and some of her followers (Letter 219), she describes being in prayer one evening when she was suffused with such joy and fullness of peace that she felt she was no longer present to her physical surroundings. In this state of consolation, she had a number of powerful insights and a vision. She had the insight that the struggles of the church served to purify the institution; she heard in her mind’s eye Jesus’ words from the Gospels when he chased out the money lenders, chastising those misusing God’s house; she sensed these words applied to some of the events going on in the church at that time. Absorbing this wisdom from Scripture, she felt an increased urge to greater love for God. While this urge grasped her consciousness, a vision came to her mind’s eye. She imaged the wound on the side of Christ, through which entered both Christians and non-Christians. Catherine saw herself entering this wound together with all these persons as well as St. Dominic and St John; as she entered, Jesus offered her the cross to carry and an olive branch to hold. She felt a sense of invitation to carry both cross [salvation] and olive branch [peace] between Christians and non-Christians. Her consolation increased sensing that the love of God she was experiencing revealed the essence of who God is.
This vision is clearly out of the ordinary in the depth of the experience of consolation and the degree to which Catherine describes having her consciousness absorbed into spiritual reality; as well she describes an out of the ordinary knowing about the essence of God. The consolation experienced drew her into God’s love and totally out of consciousness of ordinary material reality. At the same time, she received propheticrevelations about the church and that which God wanted for the church, including the call to make peace with non-Christians and to offer them salvation. Such concern for non-Christians would have been quite prophetic and out of the ordinary in Catherine’s day.
Further, this vision infused in Catherine an exceptional understanding of Christ’s redemption and how God’s goodness and desire to transform was so much greater than all the offenses against the church. This inner knowing left Catherine feeling an overwhelming sense of hope for the future of the church. (Though hope, a gift of grace, is not an out of the ordinary experience as a result of connection to God).
Prophetic experiences and charism of wisdom
The forgoing vision is also an example of the charism of wisdom, that is, of a gift of knowledge or understanding imparted through the Holy Spirit for communication to others for the good of God’s beloved people. I note that reception of the charism of wisdom does not require such an exceptional mystical experience.
Many of Catherine’s visions reflected this charism and were also prophetic (see note 1). As did the prophets of the Old Testament, Catherine had insights, revelations, intuitions and visions that taught her wisdom meant to challenge and guide God’s people; these became exhortations directed to those in leadership of both church and the state. The vision just described above is an example of the prophetic dimension of her visions, especially in the challenge to bring salvation and peace to all, including the “enemy,” the Turks occupying the Holy Land. Of course, her wisdom certainly also benefitted her followers and her own growth and transformation.
Visions and culture
In understanding and interpreting Catherine’s spirituality, we must put her images into historical and cultural perspective. For what to our contemporary ears might seem an extraordinary image, may have been common in Catherine’s times. The images that come to the mind’s eye in prayer most often come from our cultural context or personal experience. God uses what is familiar to the particular individual in order to communicate. For instance, I mentioned someone on retreat in a beautiful location will experience God speaking through that beauty. Someone on retreat where there is a particularly evocative image of Mary with Jesus as baby will imagine themselves pulled into that image. This is not too different from Jesus’ use of ordinary images of daily life in Palestine to teach through parables.
In terms of Catherine’s experience, her images and the flowery, dramatic language she used to describe them, were part of her cultural context. For instance, in my decades of offering retreats and spiritual accompaniment, I have never had someone relate an experience of being “married” to Jesus. This imagery, however, was common during several centuries particularly among women who chose a celibate lifestyle. Catherine was formed through stories of the lives of saints and holy persons, such that she undoubtedly had heard about this type of experience, one that was congruent with her desire to give herself completely to God.
Because God uses images, realities, memories and other factors from our experience in order to call us, inspire us and heal us, it is important to note that many images are symbolic rather than literal. Images are thus instruments for the experience of God’s communication. Thus, the imagery of espousal with Christ that Catherine experienced, conveyed a call to a life of closeness to God and dedicated service. Today such a call would probably be mediated by a different type of imagery.