Medieval mystics had a strong sense of who they were. Catherine of Siena was a strong, formidable woman who knew who she was as a creature of God. She was of God, but not God.
If she was tempted to think that her visions made her someone special or better than others, she very soon learned that visions are not all sweetness and light. At one point in the three years of solitude in her cell, the sweet presence of Christ was replaced with demonic visions and voices, including vivid visions of naked couples copulating all around her cell.
The buzzing in her ears, too, became so bad that she left her room and sought out churches where she could remain and pray without demonic oppression. But as soon as she returned home to her room, the demons would start assaulting and tempting her again.
No doubling of her prayers and petitions helped. In the end, when she was about to succumb to complete exhaustion, she remembered to remember that she was the one who was not, and she threw herself upon the mercy of God, trusting wholly in her beloved—the One who is. She then told the demons to do with her as they pleased; she found them merely amusing! Almost immediately the demonic visions and voices began to diminish and disappear.
Later in her life Catherine said that what was terrifying in this experience was not the presence of demons but that they were in her mind, and she did not yet know that she was not her mind. She was able to mock them at last because she could distance herself from her own thoughts. Thoughts change, but the center of who we are, the self, transcends and is more permanent than changeable, fleeting thoughts.
We all have experiences analogous to Catherine’s. For example, there is something we’ve been afraid of all our lives, something that terrifies us, and we keep running from it, letting it tyrannize our minds. Then one day we turn around and face what has been pursuing us, and there’s no one there, or what is there is much smaller, much less threatening than what our minds have made of it.
God told Catherine not to argue or get into a conversation with the demons because they would then have a hold on her. But throwing herself upon the one who is, and then mocking the demons who are powerless without God, the demons themselves were rendered powerless over her.
Of course, some readers, I’m sure, see in Catherine every sign of psychosis: the split personality, hearing voices, demonic visions, and a mystical marriage. The signs, to be sure, are there, but even if her experiences up to this point had proven to be temporary mental illness (which they were not), what happens next locates Catherine among the saints and intimates of God.
Catherine’s actions are, from the modern point of view, a bit extreme. Yet we see the same kind of extremes in the lives of modern mystics like Simone Weil and Caryll Houselander, both of whom were anything but uncritical in their assessment of their lives and both of whom lived under the critical psychological and scientific scrutiny of others.
But the test of their authenticity is the same as it is for all of us: charity. The visions and ecstasies of the true mystics do not debilitate charity, do not make them less able to holistically respond to Christ’s two commandments to love God with our whole heart and mind and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
On the contrary, the mystics’ visionary life makes them more charitable, more energized for others. For one thing, their ecstasies are usually comparatively brief—they do not live in perpetual ecstasy. Second, though the mystic may seem wholly debilitated, almost comatose during the ecstasy, the true mystic afterward returns to an intense gospel life of service to others, especially the sick and those on the margins of society, or to involvement with the social and ecclesial problems of his or her time.
The ecstasy or vision, in other words, does not drive the mystic inward to self-centeredness, but takes her out of herself into God, only to return recharged, as it were, with increased love of God’s creatures. The true vision is God’s work, God’s initiative, not the result of a diseased mind. It leads to charity, not self-absorption and paralysis in doing good works.