There are 3 broad ways in which the individual may experience a vision:
1. An intellectual vision brings knowledge and understanding such as a revelation from God. One such example is Julian of Norwich, the 14-15th century mystic. In The Revelations of Divine Love, she recounted one vivid experience: ‘And he showed me more, a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, on the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it thoughtfully and wondered, ‘What is this?’ And the answer came, ‘It is all that is made’. I marvelled that it continued to exist and did not suddenly disintegrate it was so small. And again my mind supplied the answer, ‘It exists, both now and forever, because God loves it. In short, everything owes its existence to the love of God.’
2. An imaginary vision where something that strengthens faith is seen with the mind’s eye such as Jacob’s vision of a ladder to heaven (Genesis 28: 10-22) or Joseph’s dream to protect Mary and Jesus and take them into Egypt.
3. A corporeal vision is where the figure is externally present such as St Bernadette’s visions of the Virgin Mary. St Bernadette was 14 years old when she had visions of the Virgin Mary over several months. At first the figure she saw did not even speak to her but later Bernadette was given instructions by ‘The Immaculate Conception’ (The Virgin Mary), that the spring water at Lourdes had healing powers and that a chapel was to be built on the site.
A religious vision occurs when an individual believes that they have seen or heard something supernatural or a supernatural being. It is a form of religious experience that can be utterly convincing and life changing to those that experience them, but often fail to convince those that are sceptical. Often students I teach are rather obsessed by the question of whether visions of God, Jesus or the Virgin Mary prove the existence of God, however this question is in my opinion a rather fruitless one - it is much more interesting to think about what they tell us about religious belief and the insights they might give into human nature.
What all these visions have in common is their sense of the Numinous - a term coined by Rudolf Otto in 1936 to describe the feeling of being in the presence of something greater than oneself. It is intriguing that this sense is reported by so many people over history and from a huge range of cultures - does this give it more credibility or is this simple evidence of a shared psychology brought about by a common Human nature? Either way the ramifications for our understanding of humanity are fascinating.