06 November 2019

On Prayer: Visions and Locutions?

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I wondered if it is unusual to have visions and locutions during prayer. Do these happen to you or to people you direct? Some people believe these kinds of experiences mean the one experiencing them is a mystic and exceptionally loved by God. Do only contemplatives have these kinds of experiences? I wondered if maybe I might have such experiences and I am not a contemplative.]]

Thanks for your questions. I need to parse the meaning of words like "unusual", vision, and locution to answer you. Visions ordinarily mean that God comes to one in a visual way, within one's own mind and often using the contents of one's own mind to "furnish" the vision. They are not ordinarily external to us as though we are looking at a scene standing entirely outside ourselves; at the same time they transcend us and do not find their source in us but in God. Locutions ordinarily mean that God comes to us in an audible way, though again within our minds. Such locutions tend to be fairly brief, a single sentence, couplet, or a couple/few words only. I have not had nor have I heard from people I know who have experienced long soliloquies or speeches, and personally, I tend to distrust accounts of such long-winded experiences as being truly of God.

Not everyone has such experiences and that makes them relatively unusual. They also tend to be vivid and memorable -- although I tend to write mine down (journal) immediately so I may return to them and pay greater attention to aspects I missed or may forget when recounting them -- say, for my director, for instance. This makes them stand out from the rest of my prayer so in that sense they are also unusual. Finally, they are occasional, not frequent because they are so rich and require time to be processed and appreciated; in this sense too they are unusual. `If, however, you mean do they indicate something unusual (aberrant) in the person's prayer life, that the person's prayer life is extraordinary or exceptional except in the ways I have already indicated, I would say no; they are a significant part of a serious prayer life but one doesn't need to be some sort of spiritual savant to have such occasional or fairly infrequent experiences.

It once was thought that contemplative prayer itself was only open to a privileged few and that experiences like those you ask about were open to only a very few among those. Today we know that anyone with sufficient leisure and commitment can learn to pray and live contemplatively and we encourage folks to learn to do so. Spiritual direction can be helpful here and is a ministry open to anyone desiring to take advantage of it. Similarly, visions and locutions as I have described them can be accessible to anyone who prays regularly, reads Scripture, and takes time to do lectio daily, or at least regularly. (These practices shape our minds and hearts  and prepare us for the kinds of experiences we are talking about. Such experiences, when they are genuine, are manifestations of God but ordinarily the ground needs to be prepared for this. I do not believe God loves those who have such experiences any more than God loves any other person; we are all exceptionally loved by God and thus, we all have the potential for such experiences of God's love.)

As noted regarding my own experiences, yes I have such. They are not necessarily frequent but they do tend to be pivotal and serve as moments of profound healing/reconciliation, sources of understanding and strength, and always they convey a sense of promise regarding my own life with God in Christ and often the life of others and our world more generally. I don't think they are more important than the rest of my prayer (in some ways they are less!) but they tend to function as significant markers along the way of that prayer. And regarding the possibility that you might have such experiences, please know that in prayer we ordinarily don't focus on or look for experiences. I know it is easy to desire such experiences; it can be problematical to expect such experiences and is certainly healthier spiritually if we approach prayer as God's work/active presence within us which we ordinarily do not immediately sense at all. God transcends what we can experience so we need to be cautious in regard to such things. I can only encourage you to pray regularly and give God time and space in your life to do whatever God wills to do. If you can do this and gradually become a contemplative you might well occasionally experience God in these less usual ways. Paradoxically, they may happen (if they happen at all) when you are least concerned with them. I hope this is helpful.