Sunday 23 February 2020

After Jesus had been raised from the dead and his embargo of the Transfiguration had been lifted, I wonder what the health care professionals of the time would have made of the account on the high mountain given by Peter, James and John. I imagine if they saw someone from that field today, they would probably be told that they were delusional. Things like the Transfiguration don’t happen. It’s all in the mind. And yet throughout history, people report extraordinary events and visions that have dramatically changed the course of their lives. Maybe there is more to it than the sceptics think.

Our Enlightenment minds will not countenance things that are not scientifically possible apparently. We do not allow that individuals can see anything but what is right in front of them. Having said that, we have the uncomfortable evidence that eyewitnesses to events frequently report incidents they have seen in completely different ways. There are various levels of interpretation at play at all stages from the occurrence of the event until its final reporting. Why even in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles we can have people for whom they are life changing events, while others see no great significance in them, or else think they are being conned in some way by some sort of sorcery.

I have an open mind to the question of religious experiences by way of visions. I can say I have had what for me were deeply religious experiences, but I have never experienced a vision.

However, I have known two people who have described religious visions that they have experienced and I have no trouble in believing them because of the fruit of those experiences which was evident in their lives.

In one case, a woman described taking part in a regular prayer group when she describes an experience like bright golden lights cascading over the group accompanied by a deep sense of peace and oneness. When the experience ended, she said to her the others in the group, presuming that they had witnessed what she had: “Wasn’t that marvellous?” To which all of her companions replied: “What are you talking about?”

There were several things that lead me to believe this woman’s experience of her vision was genuine: 1) the difficulty she had in describing what she had experienced; 2) the fact that she did not go on about it all of the time – only referring to it three times in the five years that I knew her and she never tried to describe it again after the first time, just made a couple of passing references; 3) her profound love of and trust in God in all matters; 4)her commitment to prayer and Bible reading; and 5) her courage and faithfulness in caring for her adult daughter who was seriously schizophrenic as a result of drug abuse during her young adult life and who was given to phases of cruel verbal abuse of her mother.

The other woman who shared details of a vision with me was someone who lived the last twenty plus years of her life as an invalid subject to the most excruciating pain and suffering. At her death, she had more than twenty cracked vertebrae in her back as a result of years of bone degeneration. She could crack a vertebra just by moving the wrong way in her chair or bed.

She described a night when she was alone in a private room at the Greenslopes Hospital when she became aware of a bright light in the room to her left and slightly behind her. She could not turn to look directly in that direction. She had the overpowering sense that it was Jesus who was present with her and she experienced for a period of time an absence of pain in her body and an enormous peace in her whole being.

Once again, she rarely mentioned this event again. However, she was the saintliest person I have ever met with a profound love of God and a powerful effect on the people who came into the orbit of her world, shrunken though it was by illness and pain. Her most frequent saying was: “I shouldn’t complain. I’m sure there are people worse off than me” I really doubted that!

So, if it is true that by their fruits you will know them, I am happy to accept that these two exemplary Christians were blessed by God with extraordinary religious experiences that amounted to visions.

Likewise, I have no difficulty accepting that Peter, James and John experienced some sort of visionary religious experience of Jesus, prior to his death and resurrection.

So what does that mean for us?

Well I think it at least means that peak religious experiences, even to the extent of visions, do occur for faithful people. While I suspect the visionary level may occur reasonably rarely, I think it is possible for each and everyone of us to enjoy peak experiences of the presence of God in our lives – experiences that encourage us to recommit ourselves for the journey.

They are not something we can artificially bring about. They are graced moments. However, the more diligent we are about prayer and time spent in silence with God, the more likely such experiences will occur. On our part, it is about being open to God; giving time to God; turning our devices off and sitting in quietness; enjoying the beauty of the created order around us.

The prophet Joel encourages us:

Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
(Joel 2.28)

Archdeacon Allan Paulsen
Parish Priest

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