Thinking about religious experience part 2

Religious experience in Islam
The whole basis of Islam depends on revelations given to Muhammad. The Qur’an, the holy book of Islam was revealed to the Prophet in a series of visions. It is also true to say that Muhammad struggled at first with the very idea that he was receiving revelations. It was only through the counsel of his wife Khadijah and his cousin Waraqah that he came to believe that his experiences were of a similar nature to Old Testament prophets and messengers of God.

Religious experience in Christianity
You need to be familiar with two or three personalities and to be aware of distinctive ideas that they held. In an A level essay you are not going to have time to say very much about individuals, but key ideas and phrases associated with each person are important.
I have selected 3 (4 if you include St Paul on the road to Damascus… it is a poor essay that fails to include him as an example…see my earlier note on religious experience in the Bible). The three I have selected here have clear distinguishing features and can easily be researched if you have a wish to know more about them.

Julian of Norwich (Mother Julian) 1342 -1416 julian
Mother Julian was a recluse from Carrow Abbey in Norwich. At the beginning of 1373 she became gravely ill. A week later a priest was called to administer the last rights. He placed a crucifix in front of her bed where she could meditate upon it.
As she looked at the crucifix she received 16 showings (Mother Julian’s term for a revelation.) The first 15 happened within five hours and the 16th took place the following night.


  • “All the blessed teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ was shown to me in three parts, that is to say by bodily sight and in word formed in my understanding and by ghostly sight.


  • She attempted to describe the nature of the relationship between God and humans.

Main theme – God is love

  • Julian saw the whole creation sustained by God’s love. God continues to be involved in the process of creation. “closer is he than breathing.”
  • God is seen as master and creation is his servant.
  • God as Mother – Julian also talked about God as Mother.

St John of the Cross 1542 – 1591St_-John-of-the-Cross
He was a Carmelite monk and a reformer of his order. He believed that monastic discipline had been relaxed among Carmelite monks of his own day. He initiated a series of reforms which proved unpopular. As a result of this he was imprisoned for 9 months and his ideas led to a split in the religious community.
He wrote extensively about Christian mystical experiences and is known for his writing about the progress of the soul through meditation.

He spoke about

  • The night of the senses The soul is purified by the experience of this. The soul maintains itself through pure faith, having departed from the senses.
  • The night of the spirit. This follows the night of the senses. Here the soul is purified by Divine Action. This experience is often accompanied by great suffering.

St John saw all of this as a purifying process during which the soul is prepared for union with God.

St Teresa of Avila 1515 – 1582
She was a Carmelite nun and is one of the best known Christian mystics. She received a series of visions which she claimed provided her with insights into the nature of God.
She was a reformer of the Carmelite Order for women. Her insistence on absolute poverty in the house which she founded was not acceptable to many churchmen. Nevertheless her reforms prevailed despite serious opposition. Her pattern was followed eventually by a number of male Carmelite religious houses.

Teresa’s mysticism was catalogued by her in four stages

  1. The first is “mental prayer”. This marks a withdrawal from the world and contemplation of the Passion of Christ.
  2. The second she refers to as “prayer of quiet” in which the human will is lost in that of God. This completes the move away from the distractions of the world.
  3. Next comes the “devotion of union” This is an ecstatic state, but one which is described as a blissful peace. It is moving towards a union with God.
  4. Lastly Teresa speaks of “devotion of ecstasy or rapture”. This is a passive state in which awareness of being in the body disappears. Some of the language used in this section seems imbued with almost erotic symbolism. For many in the church this was too much.

In 1572 she claimed to have experienced a “spiritual marriage with Jesus.”

Despite all of this she drew up a scheme for examining claims about religious experiences.

  1. Experiences should be within the traditions of the church.
  2. The would be visionary must discuss claims with a spiritual advisor.
  3. They should bring about some sort of change in the life of the person.

A really good image to be aware of in connection with St Teresa is Bernini’s statue of the Ecstasy of St Teresa, which is in the Basilica of Santa Maria Della Vittoria in Rome. There is a very balanced interpretation of Bernini’s masterpiece at click for link.

Further reading
St Julian of Norwich
Revelations of Divine Love – Penguin Classics A C Spearing and Elizabeth Spearing,

St John of the Cross
The Impact of God Soundings from St John of the Cross by Jean Vanier and Iain Matthew. Contains a good introduction from Jean Vanier

St Teresa of Avila
St. Teresa of Avila: A Woman for Her Times, Her Culture, Her Church and of the Living Spirit [Paperback] by Sonya Quitslund PhD; Susan Muto PhD  You can usually find fairly cheap second hand copies of this book.

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