Visions and Apparitions

Author: Catholic Encyclopedia

Visions and Apparitions

This article will deal not with natural but with supernatural visions, that is, visions due to the direct intervention of a power superior to man. Cardinal Bona (De discret. spir., xv, n. 2) distinguishes between visions and apparitions. There is an apparition when we do not know that the figure which we see relates to a real being, a vision when we connect it with a real being. With most mystics we shall consider these terms as synonymous.


Since St. Augustine (De gen. ad litt., 1. XII, vii, n. 16) mystical writers have agreed in dividing visions into corporeal, imaginative, and intellectual.

Corporeal vision

Corporeal vision is a supernatural manifestation of an object to the eyes of the body. It may take place in two ways: either a figure really present strikes the retina and there determines the physical phenomenon of the vision, or an agent superior to man directly modifies the visual organ and produces in the composite a sensation equivalent to that which an external object would produce. According to the authorities the first is the usual manner; it corresponds to the invincible belief of the seer, e.g. Bernadette at Lourdes; it implies a minimum of miraculous intervention if the vision is prolonged or if it is common to several persons. But the presence of an external figure may be understood in two ways. Sometimes the very substance of the being or the person will be presented; sometimes it will be merely an appearance consisting in a certain arrangement of luminous rays. The first may be true of living persons and even, it would seem, of the now glorious bodies of Christ and the Blessed Virgin, which by the eminently probable supernatural phenomenon of multilocation may become present to men without leaving the abode of glory. The second is realized in the corporeal apparition of the unresurrected dead or of pure spirits.

Imaginative vision

Imaginative vision is the sensible representation of an object by the act of imagination alone, without the aid of the visual organ. Sometimes the subject is aware that the object exists only in his imagination, that it is a purely reproduced or composite image. Sometimes he projects it invincibly without, which is the case in supernatural hallucination. In natural imaginative vision the imagination is stirred to action solely by a natural agent, the will of the subject, an internal or an external force, but in supernatural imaginative vision an agent superior to man acts directly either on the imagination itself or on certain forces calculated to stir the imagination. The sign that these images come from God lies, apart from their particular vividness, in the lights and graces of sincere sanctity which accompany them, and in the fact that the subject is powerless to define or fix the elements of the vision. Such efforts most frequently result in the cessation or the abridgement of the vision. Imaginative apparitions are ordinarily of short duration, either because the human organism is unable to endure for a long time the violence done to it, or imaginative visions soon give place to intellectual visions. This kind of vision occurs most frequently during sleep; such were the dreams of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar (Genesis 41; Daniel 2). Cardinal Bona gives several reasons of expediency for this frequency: during sleep the soul is less divided by multiplicity of thoughts, it is more passive, more inclined to accept, and less inclined to dispute; in the silence of the senses the images make a more vivid impression.

It is often difficult to decide whether the vision is corporeal or imaginative. It is certainly corporeal (or extrinsic) if it produces external effects, such as the burnt marks left on an object by the passing of the Devil. It is imaginative if, for example, the image persists after one has closed one's eyes, or if there are no traces of the external effects which ought to have been produced, such as when a ball of fire appears above a person's head without injuring it. The time most conducive to these visions is a state of ecstasy, when the exercise of the external senses is suspended. However, although the question has been discussed among mystics, it seems that they may also be produced outside of this state. This is the opinion of Alvarez de Paz (De grad. contemp., 1., V, pt. III, cii, t. 6) and of Benedict XIV (De servorum Dei beatif., 1. III, c. i, n. 1). Imaginative vision may be either representative or symbolic. It is representative when it presents an image of the very object to be made known: such may have been the apparition to St. Joan of Arc of St. Catherine and St. Margaret, if it was not (which is more probable) a luminous vision. It is symbolic when it indicates the object by means of a sign: such as the apparition of a ladder to Jacob, the apparition of the Sun, Moon, and stars to the patriarch Joseph, as were also numerous prophetic visions.

Intellectual visions

Intellectual visions perceive the object without a sensible image. Intellectual visions in the natural order may apparently be admitted. Even when we hold with the Scholastics that every idea is derived form some image, it does not follow that the image cannot at a given time abandon the idea to itself. The intellectual vision is of the supernatural order when the object known exceeds the natural range of the understanding, e.g. the essence of the soul, certain existence of the state of grace in the subject of another, the intimate nature of God and the Trinity; when it is prolonged for a considerable time (St. Teresa says that it may last for more than a year). The intervention of God will be recognized especially by its effects, persistent light, Divine love, peace of soul, inclination towards the things of God, the constant fruits of sanctity.

The intellectual vision takes place in the pure understanding, and not in the reasoning faculty. If the object perceived lies within the sphere of reason, intellectual vision of the supernatural order takes place, according to the Scholastics by means of species acquired by the intellect but applied by God himself or illuminated especially by God. If it is not within the range of reason it takes place by the miraculous infusion into the mind of new species. It is an open question whether in intellectual visions of a superior order the understanding does not perceive Divine things without the aid of species. In this kind of operation the object or fact is perceived as truth and reality, and this with an assurance and certainty far exceeding that which accompanies the most manifest corporeal vision. According to St. Teresa "We see nothing, either interiorly or exteriorly. . . But without seeing anything the soul conceives the object and feels whence it is more clearly than if it saw it, save that nothing in particular is shown to it. It is like feeling someone near one in a dark place" (first letter to Father Rodrigo Alvarez). This is the sense of the presence, to use the expression of modern writers. And again: "I have rarely beheld the Devil in any form, but he has often appeared to me without one, as is the case in intellectual visions, when as I have said, the soul clearly perceives someone present, although it does not perceive it in any form" (Life, 31). The vision is sometimes distinct, sometimes indistinct. The former attests the presence of the object without defining any element. "on the feast of the glorious St. Peter," writes St. Teresa, "being at prayer, I saw, or rather (for I saw nothing, either with the eyes of the body or with those of the soul) I felt my Savior near me and I saw that it was he who spoke to me" (Life, 27).

At a certain degree of height or depth, the vision becomes indescribable, inexpressible in human language. St. Paul, rapt to the third heaven, was instructed in mysteries which it is not in the power of the soul to relate (II Cor. 12:4). There is no occasion, however, to accuse the mystics of agnosticism. Their agnosticism, if we may so speak, is merely verbal. The inexpressible is not the incomprehensible. Since Pseudo-Dionysius Areopagitica mystics have been in the habit of designating the profundity of Divine realities by negative terms. The avowal of the powerlessness of human speech does not prevent them from saying, as did St. Ignatius, for example, that what they have seen of the Trinity would be sufficient to establish their faith, even though the Gospels were to disappear. It is impossible to establish a parallel between the degree of spirituality of the vision and the degree of the mystic state or the sanctity of the subject. Imaginative or even corporeal visions may continue in the most advanced state of union, as seems to have been the case with St. Teresa. However, intellectual visions of the supernatural order, as of the mystery of the Trinity, point indisputably to a very high degree of mystical union.


Since the day when, in the terrestrial paradise, the enemy of the human race took the form of a serpent in order to tempt our first parents, the Devil has often shown himself to men in a sensible form. The struggles of St. Anthony in the desert against the visible attacks of the enemy are well known (St. Athanasius, Vita S. Antonii) as also in more recent times are the Devil's visible attacks on the Cure of Ars, St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney. As St. Paul says (II Cor. 11:14) Satan often transforms himself into an angel of light in order to seduce souls. Sulpicius Severus has preserved the account of an attempt of this kind made against St. Martin. One day the saint beheld in his cell, surrounded by a dazzling light, a young man clad in a royal garment, his head encircled by a diadem. St. Martin was silent in surprise. "Recognize," said the apparition to St. Martin, "him whom thou seest. I am Christ about to descend upon earth but I wished first to show myself to you." St. Martin made no reply. "Martin," continued the apparition, "why dost thou hesitate to believe when thou seest? I am Christ." Then said Martin: "The Lord Jesus did not say that he would return in purple and with a crown. I will not recognize my Savior unless I see Him as He suffered, with the stigmata and the cross." Then the diabolic phantom vanished, leaving behind an intolerable odor (De Vita Martini). Newman has given an interpretation of this vision for his own period (Martin and Maximus, 206). The best way of judging of the origin of these manifestations is that given by St. Ignatius, namely, to examine the series of incidents; to question one's self concerning the beginning, the middle, and the end, will lead to a good result (Spiritual Exercises: Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, 5 a).


It is written (I Kings 28) that Saul, when defeated by the Philistines, went to the witch of Endor and asked her to bring before him the shade of Samuel, and the shade rose out of the earth and revealed to Saul that God was angry with him because he had spared Amalec. Numerous pagan cults practiced evocation of the dead; magicians practiced it in the Middle Ages, and in modern times medium or spiritists have taken upon themselves the task of communicating with the souls of the dead or with disembodied spirits (see SPIRITISM). The Catholic Church has on various occasions condemned the practice of magnetism and spiritism, inasmuch as this practice evokes the spirits of the dead and may call evil spirits into action. But it has never thereby declared that each operation puts us into real relation with the spirits of the dead or an evil spirit. The chief condemnations are those of the Holy Office, 4 August, 1856; 21 April, 1841; 30 March, 1898. [See also Acta Concil. Baltim., II (Col. Lac., III, 406).]

LUCIAN ROURE Transcribed by Simon Parent

From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc.

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