Seeing Through a Glass Darkly: Christianity, Visions, and Mysticism

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
4 September 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Sometimes I see visions. I’ve written to you about them before, but I find myself returning to the visionary and mystical aspects of Christianity again and again. Now, I want to be clear, I make no claims to have prophetic visions or to be a prophet. My visions are likely only meant for me. I seriously worry sometimes about whether or not they should be shared. Those visionaries who have come before me were often reluctant to share their experiences. I worry I’m too ready. So, today, I will not be sharing a vision with you, but rather the nature of my visions and about mysticism in general.

A passage I often turn to is 1 Corinthians 13.12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” My visions, when they come, especially of late, have had something of this passage in them. What I mean is this, while I may often dream in technicolor my visions are cast in shadows. I see outlines, recognise shapes, but have not recently been given specifics. In truth, I wonder if this doesn’t come down to my sinfulness, especially when you compare my visions to others.

To give you an example, I want to look at the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. I am taking for granted that this story is relatively true account of the thoughts, actions, and visions of St Perpetua. This is the story of two women, Perpetua and Felicitas (and a few men), who are condemned to death for being Christians circa AD 203. During her time in prison before her execution, Perpetua has several dreams or visions––there is likely a difference between dreams and visions, but my theology of mysticism is not so finely worked out as of yet. I want to share one of those dreams with you:

Then my brother said to me, ‘My dear sister, you are already in a position of great dignity, and are such that you may ask for a vision, and that it may be made known to you whether this is to result in a passion or an escape.’ And I, who knew that I was privileged to converse with the Lord, whose kindnesses I had found to be so great, boldly promised him, and said, ‘Tomorrow I will tell you.’ And I asked, and this was what was shown me. I saw a golden ladder of marvellous height, reaching up even to heaven, and very narrow, so that persons could only ascend it one by one; and on the sides of the ladder was fixed every kind of iron weapon. There were there swords, lances, hooks, daggers; so that if any one went up carelessly, or not looking upwards, he would be torn to pieces and his flesh would cleave to the iron weapons. And under the ladder itself was crouching a dragon of wonderful size, who lay in wait for those who ascended, and frightened them from the ascent. And Saturus went up first, who had subsequently delivered himself up freely on our account, not having been present at the time that we were taken prisoners. And he attained the top of the ladder, and turned towards me, and said to me, ‘Perpetua, I am waiting for you; but be careful that the dragon do not bite you.’ And I said, ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he shall not hurt me.’ And from under the ladder itself, as if in fear of me, he slowly lifted up his head; and as I trod upon the first step, I trod upon his head. And I went up, and I saw an immense extent of garden, and in the midst of the garden a white-haired man sitting in the dress of a shepherd, of a large stature, milking sheep; and standing around were many thousand white-robed ones. And he raised his head, and looked upon me, and said to me, ‘You are welcome, daughter.’ And he called me, and from the cheese as he was milking he gave me as it were a little cake, and I received it with folded hands; and I ate it, and all who stood around said Amen. And at the sound of their voices I was awakened, still tasting a sweetness which I cannot describe. And I immediately related this to my brother, and we understood that it was to be a passion, and we ceased henceforth to have any hope in this world (1.3).

I will not, for now, attempt to provide some possible interpretations and understandings of Perpetua’s vision. One key thing I want to point out is that Perpetua seems to have seen in color, for the ladder was golden (admittedly, it’s not impossible for her to have been able to assess that without the aid of color). More importantly, however, is the vividness. Now it’s true that even those who have visions when they go to record them or report them to others are already involved in the act of interpretation. For instance, have you ever told someone about a dream and filled in gaps or misunderstandings you had whilst dreaming but understand better now awake? Be that as it may, Perpetua’s vision is full of sensory indicators, color, taste, smell, all are there. How unlike my own visions of late. But even her visions are clouded until she understands them, they are clouded in allegory, just as mine are clouded in mist (not that I’m making a direct comparison to myself and this third century martyr of the faith).

I suppose my point, if I have one today, is this: Christianity is a mystical religion. We are the descendants of Joseph, Daniel, Ezekiel, John, and Paul. Dreamers all of them, or visionaries, who saw things beyond the land of shadows in which we live and into heaven. What is more, we are the descendants of Jacob and Moses, of the apostles, of the shepherds, of Mary Magdalen, of Reuben who were all given glimpses of the depths of reality even in this shadowland. Why does it feel like we’ve lost this? I know many traditions still exist which believe these things possible. But why does it feel like we have no expectations of this kind of thing? Maybe we’ve let New Age Spiritualism take mysticism away from us. Maybe we’ve forgotten that the true mystics are those who are servants of the Triune God, those who cling to Jesus Christ. If we have, it’s time to remember. It’s time to take back mysticism.

Remember Peter’s sermon and his quotation from Joel, this is our religion:

“‘”And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”‘” (Acts 2.17-21).

Sincerely,
David

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Unbearably Light: Reflections on My Sons’ Love of Light and an Unbearably Light Vision

David Russell Mosley

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Ordinary Time
St Cyril and St Methodius
14 February 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Ever since we spent all that time in the hospital for Edwyn’s cancer treatment, I’ve been meaning to write this post. Tonight, another minor vision, more of a palpable sense than a vision, has finally been the impetus to do so.

I noticed it first when we were in our first room when the cancer treatment proper began. Both of my sons had an obsession. They loved to look at light. When the sun would pour in as it began to set. While we adults would shield our eyes, my sons soaked it in, preferring to look at what it illumined in contrast with what it did not. Shadows and light were their delights, often catching their attention. Little has changed in this regard. Now, however, rather than being merely content to watch light, they seek it out and attempt to grasp it. So often when the sun shines (and it almost always the sun or a reflection of it that they are attracted to, not artificial light) and lands on their highchair trays will they try to grasp it. Or when the sun is reflected off a watch or a phone or something similar they will gaze upward as it moves across the ceiling and the walls. It reminds me of a portion of one of George MacDonald’s fairy tales.

The whole fairy tale is ultimately about light and the love of light in its varying shades. The story is about a witch who raises a boy and girl, quite separately from one another. The girl knows only night and the boy only day from infancy. While both have an obsession with light, the girl’s is stronger. She falls in love with the moon, her lamp as she calls it, and is confused when it is gone one day. So she decides to go in search of it:

‘She followed the firefly, which, like herself, was seeking the way out. If it did not know the way, it was yet light; and, because all light is one, any light may serve to guide to more light. If she was mistaken in thinking it the spirit of her lamp, it was of the same spirit as her lamp and had wings. The gold-green jet-boat, driven by light, went throbbing before her through a long narrow passage.’

I’ve always been drawn by this passage. MacDonald gives us here a kind of participatory ontology (as he usually does, he is very much a Platonist). This little insect is thought of as made of light ‘it was yet light’ and also ‘driven by light’. Light is its being and yet is also its source and its power of motion. What is more, there is the light out of which the firefly is made is derived from a more ultimate, and in this story, unnamed Light. C. S. Lewis describes Christianity by comparing it to the sun. He believes in it not because he see it but because by it he can see everything else. All of this is, I believe, my sons’ love of light.

This brings me to tonight. Every night when we put our boys in their cribs, I sing them a lullaby; read them a bed time story; and pray for them. My prayer for my sons usually goes something like this: ‘Heavenly Father, be with my sons this evening. Send them your Holy Spirit to guide them and give them dreams and visions; send your angels to watch over them and protect them from the fears and dangers of the night. Blessed Virgin, watch over my sons as you watched over your own Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.’ Tonight however, I was led to pray more. I began to feel an unbearable lightness. I could sense the saints and angels present with me in that room. So I prayer: ‘Saints and angels in this room, praise our heavenly king with me: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.’ I began to weep. The sense of their presence, of God’s presence through his created cosmos which includes the angels and the saints was unbearably light (God, as Dionysius would remind us, is full of these paradoxes).

Light has two meanings here: the radiance of a creature; and of little or no weight. Yet I think they are connected. For the light of the sun is unbearable, not because of its weight but because of its brilliance. While I saw no light during my prayer this evening, it was nevertheless brilliant and it was unbearable for a sinner such as me.

Sincerely yours,

David

A Vision of Angels: Given on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

David Russell Mosley

21 July 2014
On the Edge of Elfland
Beeston, Nottinghamshire

Dear Friends and Family,

A few weeks ago, over on our Caring Bridge site (where you can read about our second son, Edwyn and his battle with the dragon called neuroblastoma), I posted some fatherly and theological reflections on one of my sons having cancer. I wrote this sentence, ‘I believed in angels, and other spirits; I believed in sacred spaces and that yet the whole world is sacred; I believed that the communion of the saints included those who have departed this life and that they can pray for us; I believed that the sacraments were mediations of God’s grace to us in physical, material objects. Now, however, I feel as though I am finally experiencing these things as realities.’ Yesterday at the spoken Eucharist service at our parish church here in Beeston, I had one of those experiences.

Now, I have to be completely honest, I’m not very good at talking about these things. I was raised in a relatively cessationist Christian tradition (that is, the belief that certain miraculous gifts: prophecy, healing, etc., had ceased after the finishing of the New Testament). I’m also still enough of a Modern to be uncomfortable talking about an experience of something un-empirical. This is why I’m writing it down, it provides a degree of separation between you and me. Nevertheless, I have affirmed the possibility of these things for quite a long time now. Here is what happened.

I was sitting in the nave of the parish church as the liturgy was being said. I found myself continually looking at the stained glass window at the back as well as a relief of the Last Supper which was bookended by two angels. It made me think about how little we consider angels, or at least how little I consider them. Again, in much of my upbringing we limited our knowledge of angels solely to the text of Scripture and often ended by saying, they’re a bit of a mystery and Jesus is more important anyway. I started thinking about John Milbank’s interview at Big Ideas from several years ago. John says at one point in the interview, ‘I mean, I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I’m really bitterly opposed to this kind of disenchantment in the modern churches, including I think among most modern evangelicals. I mean recently in the Nottingham diocese they wanted to do a show about angels, and so the clergy – and this is a very evangelical diocese – sent around a circular saying, “Is there anyone around who still believes in angels enough to talk about this?” Now, in my view this is scandalous. They shouldn’t even be ordained if they can’t give a cogent account of the angelic and its place in the divine economy.’ As I thought about this and continued to participate in the liturgy, I found myself staring into the eyes of Christ at the top centre of the window at the back of the nave.

I closed my eyes and as often happens when we close our eyes after looking at something through which light was shining, the outlines of the window remained with me. This alone is a rather brilliant picture of what role angels and the saints play (as well as icons and stained glass windows), they shine forth the light of God. Suddenly, with my eyes closed, the number of shadows began to multiply. I saw myself surrounded by these shadows and I knew that what I was being shown were the saints and angels that are always around us, always watching over, praying for us, and guiding us in Christ through the Holy Spirit to the Father. The vision, as shadowy as it was, was overwhelming in its majesty. My heart began to race; my chest felt as though there were something very heavy pressing down upon it. I nearly began to weep right there in the middle of the service.

Picture of Southwell Minster. Taken by my mom.

Picture of Southwell Minster. Taken by my mom.

Later that day, I was invited by a friend to attend Evensong at the Minster for our diocese in Southwell. With the exception of the anthem, the service was beautiful. The choir sang with fervour and passion. Then we came to the final hymn, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones. The first stanza of which is:

Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
bright seraphs, cherubim, and thrones,
raise the glad strain,
Alleluia!

Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs

As soon as we sang these words I knew that what I had seen was no figment of my imagination. I smiled and praised God and sang all the more the rest of the song. In that moment I was confirmed that my son, Edwyn, in fact my whole family are watched over by God, his angels, and the communion of saints. Here is the song in full:

Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
bright seraphs, cherubim, and thrones,
raise the glad strain,

Alleluia!

Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs,

Refrain:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Alleluia! alleluia!

 

O higher than the cherubim,
more glorious than the seraphim,
lead their praises,

Alleluia!

Thou bearer of the eternal Word,
most gracious, magnify the Lord, Refrain

 

Respond, ye souls in endless rest,
ye patriarchs and prophets blest,

Alleluia,
alleluia!

Ye holy twelve, ye martyrs strong,
all saints triumphant, raise the song, Refrain

 

O friends, in gladness let us sing,
supernal anthems echoing,

Alleluia,
alleluia!

To God the Father, God the Son,
and God the Spirit, Three in One, Refrain

Words: Athelstan Riley (1858-1945), 1906

Music: Lasst uns erfreuen (Geistliche Catholische Kirchengeäng, Cologne, 1623)

Meter: LM with Alleluias

Sincerely yours,
David Russell Mosley