Mystical Experiences, Visions and Dreams:

Why do they seem so real?

David M. Wulff, Prof. of Psychology at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts is the leading American psychologist most knowledgeable regarding mystical experiences. Having achieved that status, Prof. Wulff was invited by the editors of the American Psychological Association, to contribute a chapter for their centenary acknowledgment (published as Varieties of Anomalous Experience, American Psychological Association, 2000) of the classic text authored by William James entitled, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (Oxford University Press, 1902, 2012). In the chapter Prof. Wulff provided he gives three examples of mystical experience. The first is one experienced by Sophie Burnham who has published a number of books (one of which is Angel Letters) on how to get to know one’s Guardian Angel. Sophie had a mystical experience at an ancient Inca shrine at Machu Picchu in Peru. This is Sophie Burnham’s story:

“I felt a pressure on my neck, as if a dark hand were pressing me down. Terrible and majestic it was… From the midst of black roaring, came a voice: You belong to me or You are mine. Not in words, but rather as a form of knowledge,  resounding in blackness… ‘If you are God, yes,’ I surrendered with my last coherent thoughts. ‘I belong only to God.’ … With that I was immersed in a sweetness words cannot express. I could hear the singing of the planets, and wave after wave of light washed over me. But this is wrong, because I was the light as well, without distinction of self or of being washed. It is hard to speak of what happened at this stage. At one level I ceased to exist, was swallowed into the light. How long that lasted I do not know. At another level, although I no longer existed as a separate ‘I’ and ‘other.’ In that state I knew things that today I haven’t even the wit to ask questions about. Some I do not remember, but I know that I saw into the structure of the universe. I had the impression of knowing beyond knowledge and being given glimpses into ALL… It was knowledge untranslatable, and it filled me with joy.”

Prof. Wulff’s other two examples of mystical experience involve Alister Hardy, a British officer during World War One having a unitive experience with nature and seeing luminous bodies and hearing celestial music; while the third example featured John Addington Symonds, whose account of his mystical experience had also appeared 100 years earlier In James Varieties.

Nearly 20 years ago I interviewed a number of Irish women who had experienced Marian apparitions. They refer to themselves as “visionaries” and although each of their apparitional experiences was uniquely their own, a pattern emerged regarding how they began to experience and react to such apparitions. Some saw only Our Lady, but did not hear her speak, whereas others stated they received specific messages of love, or general spiritual exhortations to pray. Most of the women also had visions of Jesus nearly always in the company of His Mother. Four of the woman reported having apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mother and her Son, Jesus, at various locations, sometimes at a number of grottoes, sometimes elsewhere, such as at their homes.

At other times, some of the visionaries reported having apparitions of various Saints, most often Padre Pio, who reportedly would leave the scent of roses; others included St. Anne, Bernadette of Lourdes, Francesca of Fatima, Ignatius of Loyola John of the Cross Patrick, Theresa of Lisieux, Angels and apostles. One who saw a vision of John of the cross reported: “I saw St. John of the Cross in my house. About six years ago my sister was dying of cancer. I used to go visit her every day in a hospital in Cork city. I was very tired because of all the long hours every day visiting my sister in the hospital. One morning I was very tired when I got up to go to the bathroom before leaving to see her. As I turned around to head toward the basin a man stood in front of me and he was shorter than I, and he was thin, and he had a priest’s habit, and he had a crucifix about nine inches long in his hand, and he had it caught toward his chest. He had soft curly hair cut in a round. He said to me, ‘I’m John of the cross. I’ll help you.’ Then he disappeared. Shortly after that my sister died and when I was at her funeral I was in a trance and could sense that she was with God.’ (David Stang, Emerald Spirit: a Journey into the Irish Heart and Soul, Mercer Press, Cork, 2003, pages 176-184.)

What can be said of these mystical experiences? William James in his chapter on mysticism in his The Varieties of Religious Experience stated that “As a matter of psychological fact, mystical states of a well pronounced and emphatic sort are usually authoritative over those who have them. They have been ‘there’ and know. It is vain for rationalism to grumble about this. If the mystical truth that comes to a man proves to be a force that he can live by, what mandate have we of the majority to order him to live in another way?… In point of logic it absolutely escapes our jurisdiction. Our own more ‘rational’ beliefs are based on evidence exactly similar in nature to that which mystics quote for theirs.”

The Old and New Testament Scriptures contain a plethora of stories about dreams of a spiritual or prophetic nature. The same is true of accounts of saintly men and women in the literature of the World’s Great Religions. My Master’s thesis in Theological Studies was about St. Patrick of Ireland, who had a countless number of prophetic dreams. It is difficult to discern which of his visions came from dreams and which from a semi-trance state during which he was deep in prayer. Some of his visions gave him information about what dangers lay ahead, others contained instructions on what he should do and how to go about doing it, while still others were of a highly transcendental nature suggesting that Saint Patrick was experiencing a unitive state of being.  At times he apparently felt so close to God that he sensed God was literally within him. Here are two examples of such visions reported by St. Patrick and his autobiographical Confession (from The Life and Writings of the Historical St. Patrick, by R.P.C. Hanson, The Seabury Press, New York, 1983, pages 76-125):

“…on another night – I do not know, God knows whether it was in me or beside me – [someone was speaking] in the most elegant language which I listened to but could not understand, except at the end of the speech he spoke these words, ‘He who gave his life for you, he it is that speaks in you,’ at that I woke up full of joy… At another time I saw him praying in me and I was as it were within my body and I heard above me, that is above my inner man, and there he was praying earnestly with groans, and while this was going on I was in amazement and I was wondering and I was considering who it could be who was praying in me but at the end of the prayer he spoke to the effect that it was the Spirit, at that I woke…” When it comes to encountering God you can’t get much closer than St. Patrick did.