Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mysticism or Psychosis?

When reading Julian of Norwich's "Showings" I couldn't help but wonder if the mysticism of old is homogeneous to a modern day definition of psychosis. In her accounts of various visions, which are often vivid and extremely detailed, Julian could easily be misconstrued as psychotic. Is this rightly so? It is incredibly easy to interpret her incredible visions of Jesus, which are very much direct experiences outside the influence of an intermediary, as nothing more than religious hallucinations of someone with a mental illness.
I decided to do some research into this subject. Dr. Tomas Agosin, a former psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, tackled the very question that crossed my mind while reading Julian of Norwich. In his words, would the "great mystics of the past have been considered the psychotic patients of the present," or subsequently, would his patients, many who experienced similar religious visions, have been considered the great saints in the past?
" Is the mystic psychotic?  Is the psychotic patient a misunderstood mystic?" Dr. Tomas Agosin

It is surely an interesting question, and one Dr. Agosin is far more qualified to answer than myself. Here is his explanation, mixed with my own analysis of Julian after the jump.

Mystical experiences and psychosis have many characteristics in common. The first is a sense of intense subjectivity, where the person is totally focused inwardly so that the real world seems irrelevant. This is partly the case for Julian of Norwich. She recalls the personal nature of her visions, "for I saw him, and sought him…we can never seek God until the time when he in his goodness shows himself to us…so I saw him and sought him" (193). It was very much in inwardly experience, so much so that it directly affected her soul. Without words, she believed God conjured in her soul certain revelations on the Passion and the shame of the Devil.  This caused her to laugh greatly, and those around her to laugh, which was pleasing to her (202). While Julian never mentions who was around her, as an anchoress she would have been enclosed to the confines of her cell, and the likelihood of people being around her during her visions, I believe, is doubtful. Does this bring her sanity into question? Absolutely.

This leads to Agosin's second example of psychosis--an intense affective experience--which he defines as intense emotions, great ecstasy and moments of terror. One of the fundamental aspects of her visions are the pseudo-sexual, almost romantic emotions she has towards Jesus. She continually refers to him as a "lover" like figure, most notably on page 177 when she wished "I had been at the time with Mary Magdalene and with the others who were Christ's lovers, so that I might have seen with my own eyes the Passion which our Lord suffered."  Mary Magdalene and the topic of Christ's lovers is surely a topic for another day, but if anything, Julian's desire to be like those closest to Jesus exemplify her intense yearning to proliferate her visions into a real aspect of her life. Julian wants to live vicariously through those who knew and loved Jesus, and her visions could very well be the vessel into making this reality.  She also depicts the intense moments of terror mentioned by Agosin. When she saw the bodily vision of the fact of Jesus, as the blood dried and retreated into the body, she was frightened, yet filled with ecstasy and joy. The visions scared her, but almost paradoxically she had this overwhelming sense of calm.

Agosin goes on to mention many other traits characteristic of psychotic patients which bear a striking resemblance to Julian of Norwich.  The "sense of noesis" which is that something very important is happening to the person, is clearly evident in Julian considering her visions are that of Jesus. Heightened perceptual changes are also characteristic throughout her showings, which include "heightened perceptions in all sensory modalities" which would explain the vividness and detail of her visions.

Agosin presents a laundry list of terms that liken mystics to psychotics, but also a long list that show the various differences between the two. Ultimately, for Agosin, a mystical experience leaves the mystic "more connected and involved in the world" expanding his or her capacity to love, and serve with an overwhelming feeling of reverence for all life, and death as sacred elements to our existence. Julian's visions help her understand much more than just herself, as her visions taught her to understand that some souls profit by experiencing both pain and joy from God--that God wishes us to know that, despite moments of sorrow and joy, he will keep us safe at all times. 

Psychosis though, according to Agosin, leaves a person much more self-centered, " The psychotic reduces his/her capacity to love because he/she cannot forget him/herself. The psychotic spends so much energy on survival that there is little psychic energy left for more." 

As easy as it is for someone to jump to conclusions, it is incredibly hard to explain why mystics like Julian saw what they saw. Could it be a psychotic hallucination? Or, was it truly something divinely inspired. Could it be neither? For such a personal account, it is hard to come up with an exact answer. 

Feel free to read more of what Dr. Agosin had to say at the following link:

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