Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Reflections On Visions and Revelations

            While reading the four assigned texts for Monday’s class, I was drawn more towards Elizabeth of Schönau‘s Visions and the Revelations of Saint Birgitta than Mechthild’s Flowing Light of the Godhead or Saint Gertrude’s Life and Revelations. While both texts were interesting (albeit, if I may say so, a tad long winded), my interests in religion have always leaned towards the physical and experiential; theological exposition only makes its way in as a supplement to human experience. It’s the humanness of religion that gets to me, specifically the countless ways through which an individual will manifest and express his/her relationship with the divine. Throw in my interest (… obsession) in ecstatic practices of self-mortification in Catholic religiosity, and Elizabeth’s Visions and Birgitta’s Revelations held much sway over me. Unfortunately I read them first, so while reading the other two texts, I had to resist the overwhelming urge to drop them and just go back to E & B.

            Consequently, due to my academic interests, while reading Elizabeth I was focused on the how and when of the visions more than the content. I was not surprised to hear during lecture that she suffered from bouts of depression, anxiety, illness, and self-punishment via extreme asceticism (so much that Hildegard had to tell her to slow her roll). Although I wish we had a clearer picture of which illnesses she suffered from (the only thing I remember from lecture is the statement that her illnesses extended from her asceticism), her psychological and physical profiles nevertheless create a context for us to understand her need to create moments of ‘visionary’ experience. Although a touch presumptuous of me to do so (I don’t have any sort of medical degree), the textual descriptions of the moments in which her ecstatic visions would overwhelm her sound very much like epilepsy, which has a long history of association with the divine.

            We noted during the lecture that the vast majority of her visions were triggered by the liturgy; epileptic fits are often ushered in by a trigger, caused either by an action on the part of the individual, or as a response to environmental conditions. Whether it was the act of reading, recitation, or another factor, the majority of Elizabeth's visions follow a distinct and discernable pattern. A number of clues pop up among the lengthy descriptions of her visionary experiences. She would often grow weak (59), her strength sapped from her body (65). Her visions always involved overwhelming bright light (common in epilepsy, and also in the onset of migraines which can involve light sensitivity and temporary blinding in one eye). In one instance, she describes one of the visionary experiences as a moment in which a, ‘powerful and bitter suffering rushed over her (me), and I was fatigued by it beyond belief,” (79); her weakness and sapping of strength implies a loss of bodily control. In addition, during that particular vision she states that her fellow sisters were soon praying over her, which zeroes us in to the fact that during her fits she would fall to the ground. In regards to the visions themselves, it is probable that they occurred during the aftermath of her epileptic seizures, when she laid in a quiet repose. One clue lies in the description of when the ecstasy would take over: on page 80, Elizabeth describes ecstasy as the moment in which her flesh would become quiet, implying that her visions occurred during the aftermath of physical distress. Depending on where in the brain the seizure is occurring, hallucinations are commonplace. It is not hard to assume then that her hallucinations took on the form of her dominating spirituality (so dominant that it bordered on neurotic obsession and was the probable root of her depression and anxiety).

            I would be remiss if I did not address the potential fact that such epileptic attacks, and her illnesses, could have been psychosomatically induced. On page 102 Elizabeth describes one of her prolonged infirmities; this particular one was so bad that her fellow sisters “expected nothing other than her (my) impending death,” (102). Her symptoms of physical distress were only allayed after the lord abbot came to visit and said a prayer to the Lord over her. She immediately slipped into an ecstatic experience in which she talked to the apostles Peter and Paul. Afterwards all of her maladies had been cured, and she “rose from her (my) bed and went out, healthy, with all her (my) strength restored,” (103). This particular event reminded me of St. Teresa of Ávila (not sure why she has been on my mind lately, as I also brought her up in my last blog post) who, if I am recalling correctly, once grew so envious of a fellow sister who suffered from a lethal physical infirmity, that she soon thereafter was overcome by an illness which kept her bed ridden for the majority of the next two or three years (to note: if truly incapacitated her muscles would have atrophied; however, when her suffering was suddenly lifted, she was able to walk around and be active as if her illness had never happened). Teresa viewed suffering as an act of devotion to, and blessing from, God; the more the suffering, the better. She so envied her fellow sister (who died), that she induced a state of prolonged illness, and it was over the course of her suffering that she would have ecstatic experiences. Elizabeth, I am certain, was of like mind.

            To briefly address Saint Birgitta, I am of the belief that we have to take into account her personal history when reading her Revelations. It is not a coincidence that, as a mother eight times over, her major work was preoccupied with the mother-child dynamic. To approach her religiosity through the relationship of which she could most relate and empathize with is, simply, expected. To the point made in class that we should refrain from identifying her role as a mother as the dominant influence on her spirituality (which is a completely valid point), spirituality can only best be expressed through the prism of one’s personal roles and experiences. It’s akin to the question in the writing of fiction: how much personal stuff goes in as opposed to fictional approximation. Both work, but those that are informed by personal experience often have a ring of authenticity that catapults them into another realm of quality (which is why the Revelations of St. Birgitta has stood the test of time, and why it’s a bit more difficult to recall a quality text written by a non-mother/male from the perspective of the mother-child relationship).

            All of this is to say that it is of utmost importance when reading personal texts such as these that we take into account the author’s biographical story. Elizabeth suffered from epilepsy or another disease that expressed itself through seizures (for the sake of my post I am taking this as fact); she then chose to incorporate her debilitating physical malady into her religious and spiritual life. It was her decision to reframe her illness not as an abnormality, but as the vessel through which her ‘real spirituality’ could be expressed. Similarly, St. Birgitta’s text, although lacking in description as to how these revelations came to her, is dominated by the author’s emotional experiences as a parent. Her motherhood was the vessel through which she was most able to express her spirituality.



  1. Perhaps. I fudged on the description of Elisabeth's physical condition because we simply cannot know, except that she says she was often sick. But even epilepsy does not explain to me why she so regularly associated her visions not just with the liturgy, but with very specific texts in the liturgy. I don't know whether epileptic fits can be triggered by words as opposed to bright lights or loud sounds, but neither would have been present in the context of the nuns' liturgy, just candles and slow chanting. I like very much how you nuance your suggestion that we read Elisabeth's visionary experience through her (possible) physical state, and you are absolutely right that we need to take her biography into account in making sense of her visions, but surely if she were simply epileptic, her visions would have been experienced somewhat more randomly, not cued to specific texts! The more usual explanation, at least in contemporary scholarship, is to point to the ways in which medieval monks and nuns trained themselves to create images in their imaginations based on the contents of their memories. Perhaps this practice makes such visions seem too deliberately "invented" but it does leave open the possibility that they were something other than simply interpretations of otherwise pathological physical states. As a thought.


  2. I was very interested in your post and how you chose to explain the motivation behind Elizabeth’s visions. I agree with your conclusion that it is important to examine the lives of these authors in order to gain a deeper understanding into their writings. However, I think that their personal trials and tribulations are just one piece in the puzzle of influences that helped to shape these works into their current state. You chose to focus on a physical explanation for Elizabeth’s visions hypothesizing that she suffered from a condition such as epilepsy that caused her to think she was having religious visions. I would argue that you just as easily could have gone in a different direction citing a psychological or social reason behind her ecstatic states. As stated, she suffered from bouts of depression that easily could have been symptoms of a greater problem that led her to hallucinate. Another option, that seems the most probable to me, focuses on the social aspects of Elizabeth’s life. The repression inherent in ascetic devotion most assuredly had some effect upon her mental and physical state. Also, as a part of the severely structured cloister her visions gave her a way to differentiate herself and gain some power of her own. These are only a few possible explanations for her visions from the myriad of influences that existed both inside and outside her cloister. My point is that there are countless personal and societal pressures that swayed the writing of these works and should be considered to better understand the nuances of the texts but also not overshadow the text itself.


  3. As we talked about a lot in class on Wednesday, being able to relate to a speaker is definitely important, but I would take issue with your assertion that it adds a flavor of authenticity to the text. Many of the readings we have seen in this class have developed out of particular traditions of thought and interest, which have nothing to do with the writer’s biological background (except perhaps what he was exposed to in his course of study). But in the end, being able to relate to the speaker’s biographical context is not as important or integral to the work as you claim—empathizing with the experiences of another writer may help the reader understand his or her viewpoint more fully, but it is certainly possible to try to abstract oneself from the particular circumstances and read these works for their own inherent value. Of course, greater detail can help us understand some things more clearly, but understanding everything from the get-go defeats the purpose of the thought process that the work is trying to inspire. Instead of worshipping God through our probing of troubling texts (which are supposed to push us at least to the point of acknowledging that we have no way to fully understand Him), we can chalk up confusing passages to mental distress, exhaustion, or presupposed ignorance. Thus while a particular author’s work may have been created under certain influences, I’m not sure that I would go so far as to say that their experience is an essential medium for the expression of their spirituality—that would imply that God is fully understandable in the human experience. As we’ve seen in class, this is simply not true.


  4. ATS: Interesting post. In your conclusion you show that you are well aware of the points that I raise here, and have a framework to unite your “diagnosis” with cultural, historical, religious, factors, and even individual agency. Therefore, please take my discussion directed more generally.

    You are correct in pointing out the “long history [and cross-cultural, I could add] of association between epilepsy and the divine” (though perhaps a better ending to the sentence would be something like “communication with divinity or the divine.”). But, as is the case with the study of religious conversion, it is hard not to think in “chicken and egg” terms when explanations such as this one are offered. That is, assuming that Elisabeth suffered from epilepsy (or the man from the gospels who hung around sepulchers cutting himself as having MPD, or . . . ), why did her illness result in THESE religious forms and, are they thus not revelations? In other words, how much more do we really understand about Elisabeth, Mary, etc., for making such a diagnosis?

    Your discussion of the possibility that this was psychosomatic underscores these questions (in fact, it may require them a fortiori). What cultural contexts and personal experiences would prompt a person to induce such states? And why were Elisabeth’s particular visions the result?

    By combining Elisabeth with your thoughts on Bridget, you address the nature of revelation that I discuss in the first post on the writings of these four women. As I commented to that post, I agree that these are complex processes, and it seems only sensible to expect a lot of the individual to “make it into” the revelations.