Near the end of the 14th century, a young woman of thirty experienced a near-fatal illness – one she had prayed for over some time in order that she might know the suffering of Christ. In fact, she had wished for death so that she could truly understand all the agony and suffering that Christ had experienced in order to take in all the love of the world – but as it was, a near-fatal illness would do (it turned out). That illness, before it broke, became a revelatory vision to Julian of Norwich (as she would later be known) in which she witnessed the bleeding of the crucifix and received direct communion with Jesus and with God (the Revelations of Divine Love which she called them later). In this way she knew the suffering of Christ, and also became aware of God’s desire for people – and that their sin was a necessary step to choosing contrition and thus coming back to God in the course of their struggles.
The Revelations of Divine Love raises many questions – particularly to the modern (skeptical reader) who might be inclined to argue against revelatory experience – dismissing it instead as the effects of brain chemistry imbalance or some type of hallucenogenic effect brought on by poisoning. Which is certainly one way to read it – ergot poisoning being a favourite “cause” of the Salem Witch Trials as proposed by 1970s historian Linnda Caporael (a theory which has since been debunked). But we can also choose to simply read Julian’s vision as a true, revelatory experience, even if we aren’t sure what or who the “revealer” is.
In response to a discussion on that topic in last night’s class – one of my classmates posted the following Sam Harris video on the lunacy of miracles (like crosses that bleed and people raised from the dead):
And I can’t say I disagree that organizing one’s life around some things that people might or might not have seen two thousand years ago seems a bit strange to me. But then again, I think that Sam Harris entirely misses the point (as do all the smug atheists) of religion, which is less about whether Christ rose from the cross or God parted the Red Sea, and more about agreeing to a collective moral compass. From the perspective of human rights and the year 2011, I might disagree with some parts of that morality, but it doesn’t change the fact that religion exists with us to serve an essential purpose.
In any event, the point I wanted to get to with all this is that whether or not we believe in a divine being – revelatory experiences happen to all sorts of people from all faith and cultural backgrounds, and which might also be experienced by atheists who allow for that possibility. I say “allow for that possibility” because I believe that, like Julian of Norwich, one must be open to the experience for it to happen at all. A mind inflexible on the subject is unlikely to bend in such a way as to refute what it knows to be true.
I find it also curious that not only must a “visionary” be primed or opened, but that revelatory experience also comes from the visionary’s own cultural/religious/atheistic background. Thus, a Christian sees Christ bleed on the cross, a Hindu sees a deeper vision of Krishna, an atheist experiences the sense of “channeling the world’s suffering” – all in the name of something greater than the individual, all with the sense that some other aspect of the world (whatever it is behind the curtain) is being revealed. In the case of Julian it was a message of profound love, forgiveness, and a feminizing of the church.
To which the skeptics would argue that this in itself is proof that revelatory experience is nothing other than invention – for why would the Christian not come out of a trance with a greater knowledge of Krishna – if each of these experiences is a true one? And why does suffering take the form most politically palatable to each of the visionaries?
All this says to me is that the person having the experience is as much of a participant in the shaping of it (from their own background and history) as whatever external force/energy/intelligence has come to bear on them. If there is an external force. For perhaps revelation is actually an entirely internal process – does it cease to matter then? We can simply chalk it up as “crazy” and move on, right?
I don’t think it’s so easy to move in that direction either, because then I wonder what knowledge the deep psyche is offering up and what many springs which feed it have offered. By that I mean the collective around us – the crying, laughing, yelling humanity which infuses every part of us, which our brains are continually working to sort out – reading, attempting to understand the other. If this deep, internal well is the source of our visions, are the revealings about our world any less divine? If we channel suffering from all that has been poured into us and find a deeper compassion as a result of that moment of psychic “crisis” (as Julian did with her message of a loving God), is it any less important?
I am refusing to commit here, walking around the issue – because it doesn’t matter very much to me where revelatory experience comes from. The fact is that it does arrive in many people’s lives quite unexpectedly, and while some people choose to talk about it and proselytize based on it, the majority of people who have mystic experiences do not for fear of being considered crazy, or because they believe the message they received was only meant for them. What I definitely think is true is that the experience itself can only ever be truly understood by the person who has the experience. Writing about it, talking about it – these can never transmit the moment of suffering/fear/comfort/love/anger that a person might feel – for it is truly something ouside of ordinary experience.
The thing I’m most wary of in a discussion of works like this is the pitfall of cynical atheism (a la Christopher Hitchens) which sneers at spiritual needs and felt experiences of people rather than just accepting them on some level as part of the human diaspora. This does not mean that I agree with sitting back and allowing someone’s revelatory experience on evolution or abortion dictate public policy, but I do want to live in a world where each person is allowed the dignity of their believe and practice no matter what it is (and as long as it doesn’t interfere with the same in others). I also want to live in a world with wonder, and the potential for deeper insight that is not dismissed as “merely” anything.
Julian is interesting because she defies many of the cynical explanations one might attibute to a modern-day aspirant. She was not a fame-seeker, she was not a member of the church, she was not going to make money off her revelations, and her mystical experience could have put her in grave danger of being an accused heretic – and yet she spoke out anyway, holding that conviction for the rest of her days (as they are known) and writing about it as long as twenty years after the fact. It is undisputable that she experienced some major psychic event in her thirtieth year that revealed to her a different understanding of sin, compassion, and love than had been preached to her all through her life – but the mystery will always remain, where exactly that message was awakened from.