I had just completed the oral defense of my admission-to-PhD-candidacy exams, which emphasized the writings of medieval visionaries and mystics. My advisor extended his hand, and with his typical wry smile, said: “Congratulations. You passed. Now, go home and have a vision!” We all had a good laugh, but for different reasons. They all laughed because they don’t believe visions are possible. I laughed because I knew how much it would unsettle them to know that I do.
Perhaps one of the reasons that medieval visionary literature has resonated with me so powerfully is because I grew up in a church that not only taught about a falling away and a loss of authority, but also exuberantly and confidently about a great and ongoing restoration of gifts of the spirit. I grew up in this church that taught that the heavens, if they were closed, are now generously and continuously open, and that God speaks to us in a variety of ways, both as a church and individually, and that we should actively seek God’s presence, grace and spirit in many ways. The medieval texts I read describe prayers, prophecies, visions, hearing of voices, dreams, revelations, impressions, burning bosoms. These fascinate me in part because of the frequency of these terms in LDS theology.
Medieval visionary texts and the “spiritual experiences” (to use a Mormon term) of the women and men who wrote them also intrigue me because point to a certain continuity and convey a spiritual richness and vitality markedly different from the one we are often taught to believe existed in the so-called Dark Ages. The texts I study attest that the desire to know God is timeless and did not cease even when leadership failed or Priesthood authority was gone. Rather, it took on new, often creative and daring forms. Women seem to have been the major conveyors of affective spirituality in the Middle Ages, and it is their voices that remain of greatest interest to me.
Some aspects of their lives and writings would seem unfamiliar and odd to an LDS reader, such as those that focus on imitating the suffering of Christ, often in a graphic and gruesome manner (think of stigmata, for example, or extended fasting, self-flagellation or other mortifications of the flesh), or those that portray the union of the human soul with God as the erotically charged union of two lovers (the bride and bridegroom a la the Song of Songs). Other aspects of these medieval texts, however, feel timeless and strangely familiar to an LDS reader (a revelation that follows intense prayer or study, for example). At the least, our belief that God works in us individually should allow us, in approaching medieval religious texts, to acknowledge the presence of God, if not in all its power and fullness, at least as a source for good in the lives of those prior to the Restoration who sought Him as we do.
I have been particularly interested in the detail with which medieval women visionaries often describe their encounters with God, and in the influence their visions often had within and beyond their convent walls. Hildegard of Bingen (12th-c), for example, records visions that unfolded before her that were nearly cinematic in their detail and breathtaking in their theological specificity and complexity. She received these visions, she tells us, “[not]…in a dream, nor…in a state of mental confusion. Rather…while fully awake, with a clear mind, through the eyes and ears of the inner person.” She communicated frequently with important church leaders, some of whom even asked that she pray and receive revelations for them.
Later visionary women record visions that were more personal, we might say: visions of and conversations with the Lord as a baby, youth, or as the crucified or exalted Lamb of God. I could offer many examples. Such visions often occurred during worship, devotion or contemplation (e.g. as a nun contemplates a crucifix, the figure of Christ comes to life and embraces her), other times as the women went about the more mundane duties of their convent life (e.g. the boy Jesus appears to and plays catch with a young nun as she prepares balls of herbs for dinner.) Visions were, it seems, a vital part of the spiritual life of many medieval religious women.
My readings of medieval women’s visionary texts have caused me to wonder how our church might someday be enriched if its leadership included visionary women. That’s probably best left for another discussion. More generally, my continued engagement with medieval visionary literature has led me to consider what seems to me to be the changing role of visions in the restored church.
Joseph Smith’s vision of the Father and the Son set the restoration of all things in motion, and it was followed by numerous other visions, many of which we are blessed to have recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants. Since Joseph Smith, the number of _recorded_ visions of our prophets has dropped significantly. Does this mean that there have been fewer visions since Joseph? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Joseph’s enormous task of restoring and organizing the church clearly required a nearly constant flow of information and inspiration from heaven to earth. The work of the prophets who have followed him has obviously been built on the foundation established by his visions, so a reduced number of visions would be understandable.
What I understand less readily is why visions or other spiritual experiences of our latter-day prophets, however frequent or infrequent they may be, are so seldom described to us. I have heard apostles say, for example, that they have gained a witness of Christ’s divinity through experiences too sacred to share. I have felt the Spirit when they speak even as I have wondered why they cannot share their experiences. Are their experiences any more sacred than the first vision or Joseph Smith’s other visions? Or are there other reasons? Is the membership of the church perhaps now too large and diverse to make the sharing of visions appropriate? Is there now a greater emphasis on visions or other revelations for our families and ourselves than there was in the early days of the church, and thus less need for us to hear our leaders’ visions? Or are we at a stage in the church’s history when our knowledge of details of our leaders’ visions and revelations is less important than our faith that they receive divine guidance?
These are some of the ways my work helps me engage with my faith. I look forward to others’ questions and insights.