Tag Archives: mystical visions

Creating space for the spiritual

My grandparents came from Poland, and my parents spoke Polish as their first language. They learned English in school but spoke Polish at home. Their religious training—what my grandparents handed on to them about the beliefs, customs and the rituals of their faith—was also in Polish.

Like many people who learn English as their second language, my parents spoke with an accent, and they were self-conscious about it. I don’t know what kind of ridicule they endured, but it was enough that they did not want their children to be treated as they had been, so they decided not to teach us Polish. They wanted their children to fit in and be like other Americans.

But because my parents’ faith was expressed in Polish, my religious instruction was limited to what I learned at weekly catechism classes.

I was not aware of the impact of this until I became an adult and began to see how little I knew about my faith. “I missed that lesson,” was my common response when other Catholics spoke about matters of faith. There was so much I did not know.

I did not even know how to pray the rosary!

At some point in my young adult life, though, I realized that my ignorance of Church teachings had not gotten in the way of my developing a relationship with God.

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From the time I was eight years old, I knew God had called me in some special way. I seemed to see things from a slightly different angle than others, and I drew conclusions that left adults baffled. My father used to say, “You didn’t learn that in this house,” when I would offer an opinion that was shaped by my relationship with God.

Through the Sunday readings, I had gotten to know Jesus’ story well enough to feel close to him. He became a brother to me.

I loved the Palm Sunday reading of the Passion. Jesus’ anguish in the garden of Gethsemane was my anguish. His cry to God—why have you abandoned me?—was also my cry.

Jesus, like me, was an innocent victim.

Jesus got me in a way no one else in my life did, and I was so grateful for this connection. I felt like Jesus saw me and understood what I was going through, and I leaned into that relationship.

I could talk to Jesus about what was happening in my life, and I shared my fears and anxieties with him, knowing he was not going to tell anyone. I trusted him completely.

My spiritual life grew out mystery and grace, and my lived experience of Jesus drew me closer to God.

I began to go deep within myself to that space at my core where God dwelt, where God’s spirit lived as a small flame. By the time I was a teen, I could sit in silent meditation for long periods of time, happily connecting with Jesus and the Spirit of God within me.

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What is unique to you?

I have started thinking about retirement, and I know myself well enough to know that even though I will stop going to an office every day, I will need to do something, because I am not good at being idle.

I have been asking in prayer what God wants me to do in the next chapter of my life and have made lists of possible ways to fill my retirement—from dog walker to non-profit consultant.

Some days, I long to do something that requires very little thought or preparation, and other days, I feel a responsibility to pay forward what I have learned from my work.

“What is uniquely yours?” my spiritual director asked when I raised the subject of my next chapter. She believes I have a responsibility to pass on what God has given me, a message I have heard from her before and others throughout my life.

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I have had so many “unique” experiences—from living in l’Arche and serving as a Mennonite volunteer to leading a lay mission program that took me to different parts of the world. I have been blessed!

Since that conversation with my spiritual director, I have tried to be more attentive to what might be uniquely mine and how God may be inviting me to share what I have been given.

Each fall, I co-facilitate a day of reflection for our local Jesuit Volunteers, a group of post-college young adults who are dedicating a year to service in Detroit. My talk is on the spirituality of community, and I base most of my talk on my experiences in l’Arche.

I talk about my failures in community living and how my unrealistic expectations got in the way of being a good community member.

Lots of people fail at living in Christian community, so that is not unique to me, but being willing and able to talk publicly about my failure might put me in a more rarified group.

Prayer is another part of that talk, and I share some practical tips about theological reflection and Lectio Divina—also not uniquely mine, but perhaps my take on prayer is unique to me.

Then, two weeks ago at my book group, the topic of spirits came up. We were discussing The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, the story of an African American family living in Detroit. One of the sons in the story encounters a haint, a spirit that is part of some Southern traditions, which led to the discussion of spirits and our experiences of the supernatural.

I shared one of my mystical experiences, something I rarely do, because I have spent my life trying to seem normal, typical, ordinary—and having mystical experiences is anything but normal, typical or ordinary.

It was an aha moment—my mystical visions are unique to me. Throughout my life, God has given me intense prayer experiences and visions that have helped me, but which I have rarely shared with others. Is that my next chapter?

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Staying focused

The temperature was hovering around freezing, and a mix of rain and snow was falling from the sky. “Keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road,” the radio weather person advised.

Curious advice, I thought. No matter what is falling from the sky, shouldn’t one always keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road when driving?

It is easy to get distracted when driving, just as it is easy to get distracted from what is truly important in life, what will keep me headed in the right direction.

The letter to the Hebrews advises us to keep our “eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

Staying focused on Jesus can be a challenge because of the level of honesty is requires in dealing with ourselves and others.

Evelyn Underhill prayed,

“O Lord, penetrate those murky corners where we hide memories and tendencies on which we do not care to look….The persistent buried grudge; the bitterness of that loss we have not turned into sacrifice; the private comfort we cling to; the secret fear of failure which saps our initiative and is really inverted pride…”

How honest, how brutally honest.

After my conversion when I was twenty-one, it was relatively easy to stay focused on Jesus. I read my Bible every day, seeking Jesus’ advice and guidance. He became my constant companion, and I turned to him daily for direction and forgiveness.

Just because I was walking with Jesus did not mean I had stopped sinning—rather, it meant I was more convicted of my sins, more sorrowful for my wrongdoings and more desirous of changing my ways.

In my mid-thirties, I had what I came to call my “garden year,” a time of intense prayer and mystical visions. I could not not pray. At all hours of the day and night, I would experience this deep desire to pray. The nuns at my parish gave me free access to their chapel so that I could have a private prayer place whenever I needed it, and I often left work during the middle of the day to go pray.

What was God doing with me? I wondered. It was odd, and, frankly, somewhat annoying. It was not something I could talk about at work or really with most anyone except my spiritual director and my housemate.

My spiritual director thought it wonderful how God was filling me with grace and blessings. She thought visions were pure gift and encouraged me to be open and to record them in my journal.

My housemate, like me, thought it all a bit peculiar. I was just an ordinary person having this extraordinary experience. And for what reason? To what end?

Over time, I have become more comfortable with the way Jesus has shaped my life.

Keeping my eyes on Jesus means a continual invitation to forgiveness and compassion. It means having a heightened awareness of people who are marginalized and vulnerable—and how their vulnerability intersects with mine.

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Reshaped by God

Now there was a man full of leprosy….and the leprosy left him immediately. (Luke 5:12-13)

The words full of leprosy caught my attention as I read this Scripture passage. I think of leprosy as being an external condition affecting the skin, but the words full of made me think of something deeper, some kind of cavity or open space which had been filled.

As I pondered this man’s healing, I wondered if leprosy had become a part of his identity and self-understanding. Had he become accustomed to being shunned? Did he find solace in his solitude? I wondered what filled the open space where the leprosy had been.

This man, full of leprosy, reminds me of when I was younger and full of shame. I thought of myself that way—full of shame. I blamed myself for the bad things that had happened to me and internalized them into a message that I was bad. Bad things happen to bad people, I told myself.

But, I hoped for something different; I hoped that I could be healed. Just as the leprosy left the man immediately, I hoped my shame would be removed in an instant.

My pastor encouraged me to pray for healing. I started attending daily Mass and praying fervently. Months passed with no apparent change. Then one day, at the end of Mass, the priest said, “Go now, cleansed in mind and body, to love and serve the Lord.”

“Cleansed?” Not me. I was dirty, broken, disgusting—in mind and body. Tears started pouring from my eyes and I crumpled to the kneeler, burying my face in my hands.

I wanted to be cleansed. “Please God,” I pleaded through sobs, “cleanse me.”

As I knelt in that pew, sobbing, I had a vision. I saw myself cleaved in two and all that was ugly and broken and shameful poured out of me. It was a veritable river of disgust spewing out. I watched until there was nothing left, until I was empty.

Was this what it meant to be healed? Had Jesus removed my shame the same way he had removed leprosy? I accepted this vision as a healing and floated out of the church on a spiritual high. God had heard my prayers and cleansed me.

Being healed presented a dilemma, though. The only me I had known was the shameful me. Without my shame, who was I?

St. Paul’s letters became my guide. The man who had persecuted the church became its biggest promoter. I wanted to be able to walk away from my past as St. Paul had, to be so strengthened by the Spirit that I could become a new person in Christ and never look back.

Forty-three years have passed since that day in church and I can look back and see how God has continued to heal me and reshape me. I am grateful.

Spread the Word

“And Jesus sternly warned them: ‘See that no one knows about this!’ But they went out and spread the word of him throughout the land.” (Matthew 9:30-31)

Jesus had just restored the sight of two blind men, healed them, and then tells them not to tell anyone. The blind men, in their joy, ignored his instructions to remain silent.

I have been healed so many times, of so many things, and blessed in innumerable ways. And although Jesus never told me not to tell, I have basically kept most of those things to myself.

When people have asked me to share something about my spiritual experiences, my attitude has usually been, “this is my experience; get your own.” I feared sharing my story, feared judgment and skepticism. “Who does she think she is to be so blessed? Isn’t she the Madeline who grew up on the east side of Detroit? What makes her think she is so special that God would bless her so abundantly?”

Years ago, on the first night of a graduate school class on the Mystics, the professor divided us into small groups and told us to share our mystical experiences. The room was completely silent for a few minutes, and I finally broke the silence in my small group. “Ok, I’ll start,” I offered. I then shared a mystical vision I had had a few years earlier. Midway through sharing my mystical vision, I could see eyes widening. I trudged on to finish the vision and then said, “None of you has had that kind of mystical experience, right?” None had, and I felt my oddness. Who has mystical visions?

A few years later, I met a missionary priest who had lived in Central America and witnessed horrible atrocities. Upon returning to the States, he spoke openly about what he had seen. When I heard his story, I asked him how he got the courage to speak out. “God gave me these experiences so that I could tell others what is happening. It is my responsibility to share what I have seen,” he told me. “I don’t feel that responsibility,” I replied. “One day you will,” he predicted.

He was like the blind men in Matthew’s gospel, given new sight and spreading the word. I have been like the third servant in another story in Matthew’s gospel about hidden talents (25:14-30); out of fear, I have buried what God has given me.

During this Advent season, as I prepare to receive the new life promised at Christmas, I pray for the courage to be like the healed blind men and the missionary priest, to spread the word about the abundance of goodness in our world and the many ways God has blessed me.