Many notable spiritual leaders, prophets and saints experienced voices and visions, here are some examples (click on the name for more information):
- Saint Anthony
- Saint Augustine
- Saint Birgitta of Sweden
- Joseph Caro
- Saint Catherine of Siena
- Saint David
- Evagrius Ponticus
- Saint Francis of Assisi
- Mahatma Gandhi
- Hildegard of Bingen
- Joseph Smith
- Julian of Norwich
- Margery Kempe
- Paul the Apostle
- Saint Patrick
- Emanuel Swedenborg
- Joan of Arc
- John of the Cross
- Teresa of Avila
- Ellen G. White
- John Wesley
Abraham whose birth name was Abram, is the eponym of the Abrahamic religions, among which are Judaism, Christianity and Islam. According to both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an, through his sons Ishmael and Isaac, Abraham is the forefather of many tribes, namely the Ishmaelites, Israelites, Midianites and Edomites. Abraham was a descendant of Noah’s son, Shem. Christians believe that Jesus was a descendant of Abraham through Isaac, and Muslims believe that Muhammad was a descendant of Abraham through Ishmael. Abraham is notable for his advocation and promotion of monotheism.
God appeared to Abram and told him to depart. After settling in Haran, where his father Terah died, God then told Abram to leave his country and his father’s house for a land that He would show him, promising to make of him a great nation, bless him, make his name great, bless those who blessed him, and curse those who cursed him. (Genesis 12:1–3) Following God’s command, at age 75, Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and the wealth and persons that they had acquired, and traveled to Shechem in Canaan.
God appeared and said to Abram,
“Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
So Abram left as he was told. He was seventy-five years old at the time. Later on through his travels God spoke to him again, saying that he was confirming their covenant. That it will be kept with Abraham and his descendants. In exchange for land for his family to flourish, every male along them shall be circumcised as a sign of the covenant.
Anthony the Great or Antony the Great (ca. 251–356), also known as Saint Anthony and Father of All Monks, was a Christian saint from Egypt, a prominent leader among the Desert Fathers. He is celebrated in many churches on his feast days: 30 January in the Old-Calendar Eastern Orthodox Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church; 17 January in the New-Calendar Eastern Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Coptic Catholic Church.
The biography of Anthony’s life by Athanasius of Alexandria helped to spread the concept of monasticism, particularly in Western Europe through Latin translations. He is often erroneously considered the first monk, but as his biography and other sources make clear, there were many ascetics before him. Anthony was, however, the first known ascetic going into the wilderness (about A.D. 270–271), a geographical move that seems to have contributed to his renown. Accounts of Anthony enduring supernatural temptation during his sojourn in the Libyan Desert inspired the often-repeated subject of the temptation of St. Anthony in Western art and literature.
According to Athanasius, Saint Anthony heard a voice telling him, “Go out and see.” He went out and saw an angel who wore a girdle with a cross, one resembling the holy Eskiem (Tonsure or Schema), and on his head was a head cover (Kolansowa). He was sitting while braiding palm leaves, then he stood up to pray, and again he sat to weave. A voice came to him saying, “Anthony, do this and you will rest.” Henceforth, he started to wear this tunic that he saw, and began to weave palm leaves, and never got bored again. Saint Anthony prophesied about the persecution that was about to happen to the church and the control of the heretics over it, the church victory and its return to its formal glory, and the end of the age. When Saint Macarius visited Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony clothed him with the monk’s garb, and foretold him what would be of him. When the day drew near of the departure of Saint Paul the First Hermit in the desert, Saint Anthony went to him and buried him, after clothing him in a tunic which was a present from St Athanasius the Apostolic, the 20th Patriarch of Alexandria.
Augustine was born in 354 in the municipium of Thagaste (now Souk Ahras, Algeria) in Roman Africa. His father, Patricius, was a pagan, and his mother, Monica, was Christian. Scholars believe that Augustine’s ancestors included Berbers, Latins and Phoenicians. In the summer of 386, after having heard the story of Placianus about his and his friends’ first reading of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert, which greatly inspired him, Augustine underwent a profound personal crisis, leading him to convert to catholic Christianity, abandon his career in rhetoric, quit his teaching position in Milan, give up any ideas of marriage, and devote himself entirely to serving God and to the practices of priesthood, which included celibacy. According to Augustine his conversion was prompted by a childlike voice he heard telling him in a sing-song voice, “Take up and read”. More information here.
Bridget of Sweden (1303 – 23 July 1373; also Birgitta of Vadstena, Saint Birgitta (Swedish: den heliga Birgitta or Birgitta Birgersdotter), was a mystic and saint, and founder of the Bridgettines nuns and monks after the death of her husband of twenty years. She was also the mother of Catherine of Vadstena.
She is one of the six patron saints of Europe, together with Benedict of Nursia, Saints Cyril and Methodius, Catherine of Siena and Edith Stein.
As a child, she had already believed herself to have visions; these now became more frequent, and her records of these “Revelationes coelestes” (“Celestial revelations”) which were translated into Latin by Matthias, canon of Linköping, and by her confessor, Peter, prior of Alvastra, obtained a great vogue during the Middle Ages. Her visions of the Nativity of Jesus had a great influence on depictions of the Nativity of Jesus in art. Shortly before her death, she described a vision which included the infant Jesus as lying on the ground, and emitting light himself, and describes the Virgin as blond-haired; many depictions followed this and reduced other light sources in the scene to emphasize this effect, and the Nativity remained very commonly treated with chiaroscuro through to the Baroque. Other details often seen such as a single candle “attached to the wall,” and the presence of God the Father above, also come from Bridget’s vision:
…the Virgin knelt down with great veneration in an attitude of prayer, and her back was turned to the manger…. And while she was standing thus in prayer, I saw the child in her womb move and suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour, that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle that St. Joseph had put there, give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle…. I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining. His body was pure from any kind of soil and impurity. Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty…
After this the Virgin kneels to pray to her child, to be joined by St. Joseph, and this (technically known as the Adoration of the Child) becomes one of the commonest depictions in the fifteenth century, largely replacing the reclining Virgin in the West. Versions of this depiction occur as early as 1300, well before Bridget’s vision, and have a Franciscan origin, by which she may have been influenced, as she was a member of the Franciscan Order. Her visions of Purgatory were also well known.
Joseph ben Ephraim Karo, also spelled Yosef Caro, or Qaro, (Toledo, 1488 – Safed, 1575) was author of the last great codification of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, which is still authoritative for all Jews pertaining to their respective communities. To this end he is often referred to as HaMechaber (Hebrew: “The Author”) and as Maran (Aramaic: “Our Master”).
Karo’s literary works are considered among the masterpieces of rabbinic literature. The Maggid Meisharim (1646; “Preacher of Righteousness”), another major work, a strange and mystical diary, is a kind of diary in which Karo during a period of fifty years recorded the nocturnal visits of an angelic being, his heavenly mentor, the personified Mishna (the authoritative collection of Jewish Oral Law). His visitor spurred him to acts of righteousness and even asceticism, exhorted him to study the Kabbala, and reproved him for moral laxities.
The discussions treat of various subjects. The maggid enjoins Karo to be modest in the extreme, to say his prayers with the utmost devotion, to be gentle and patient always. Especial stress is laid on asceticism; and Karo is often severely rebuked for taking more than one glass of wine, or for eating meat. Whenever Karo did not follow the severe instructions of his maggid, he suddenly heard its warning voice. His mentor also advised him in family affairs, told him what reputation he enjoyed in heaven, and praised or criticized his decisions in religious questions. Karo received new ideas from his maggid in regard to the Kabbala
Saint David (c. 500–589) (Welsh: Dewi Sant) was a Welsh Bishop during the 6th century; he was later regarded as a saint and as the patron saint of Wales. David was a native of Wales, and a relatively large amount of information is known about his life. He lived a simple life and practiced asceticism, teaching his followers to refrain from eating meat or drinking beer. His symbol, also the symbol of Wales, is the leek (this is questioned by some authorities and largely comes from reference in Shakespeare’s Henry V, VI 1). His emblem is a dove. Through his leadership, many monks went forth to evangelise Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Armorica (Brittany and surrounding provinces). The story goes that David prayed for his people to have some warning of their death, so that they could prepare themselves. In a vision, David’s wish was granted and told that from then on, people who lived in the land of Dewi Sant (Saint David) “would be forewarned by the dim light of mysterious tapers when and where the death might be expected.” More information here.
Saint Francis of Assisi (born Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone; 1181/1182 – October 3, 1226) was an Italian Catholic friar and preacher. He founded the men’s Franciscan Order, the women’s Order of St. Clare, and the lay Third Order of Saint Francis. St. Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in history. Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, and he lived the high-spirited life typical of a wealthy young man, even fighting as a soldier for Assisi. While going off to war in 1204, Francis had a vision that directed him back to Assisi, where he lost his taste for his worldly life. After a pilgrimage to Rome, where he begged at the church doors for the poor, he said he had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ in the Church of San Damiano just outside of Assisi, in which the Icon of Christ Crucified said to him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” More information here.
In July 592 BCE, at the age of 30, Ezekiel describes his calling to be a prophet, by going into great detail about his encounter with God who rode upon a chariot of four wheels guided by Cherubs. For the next five years he incessantly prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, which was met with some opposition and drama. However, Ezekiel and his contemporaries like Jeremiah, another prophet who was living in Jerusalem at that time, witnessed the fulfillment of their prophecies when Jerusalem was finally sacked by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Ezekiel was 50 years old when he began to have visions of a new Temple. He served as a prophet for at least 22 years until, according to scriptures, it is believed Ezekiel’s last encounter with God occurred in April 570 BCE.His time of death has not been recorded. More information here
Mahatma Gandhi, the man who almost single handedly achieved Indian independence from Britain, relied on an “inner voice” for guidance.
Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 17 September 1179), also known asSaint Hildegard, and Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath. Elected a magistra by her fellow nuns in 1136, she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165. One of her works as a composer, the Ordo Virtutum, is an early example of liturgical drama and arguably the oldest surviving morality play. Hildegard says that she first saw “The Shade of the Living Light” at the age of three, and by the age of five she began to understand that she was experiencing visions. She used the term ‘visio’ to this feature of her experience, and recognized that it was a gift that she could not explain to others. Hildegard explained that she saw all things in the light of God through the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Hildegard was hesitant to share her visions, confiding only to Jutta, who in turn told Volmar, Hildegard’s tutor and, later, secretary. Throughout her life, she continued to have many visions, and in 1141, at the age of 42, Hildegard received a vision she believed to be an instruction from God, to “write down that which you see and hear.” Still hesitant to record her visions, Hildegard became physically ill. The illustrations recorded in the book of Scivias were visions that Hildegard experienced, causing her great suffering and tribulations.[
The temptation of Christ is detailed in the Gospels of Matthew,, and Luke. According to these texts, after beingbaptized, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judean desert. During this time, the devil appeared to Jesus and tempted him. Jesus having refused each temptation, the devil departed and angels came and brought nourishment to Jesus.
Joseph Smith, Jr. (December 23, 1805 – June 27, 1844) was an American religious leader and the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, which gave rise to Mormonism. Smith is regarded by his followers as a prophet. According to Smith, beginning in the early 1820s he had visions, in one of which an angel directed him to a buried book of golden plates, inscribed with a Christian history of ancient American civilizations. In 1830, he published an English translation of these plates as the Book of Mormon, and organized the Church of Christ, as the restoration of the early Christian church. Church members were later called Latter Day Saints, Saints, or Mormons.
According to the Book of Exodus, Moses was born in a time when his people, the , were increasing in number and the Egyptian Pharaoh was worried that they might help Egypt’s enemies. Moses’ Hebrew mother, Jochebed, hid him when the Pharaoh ordered all newborn Hebrew boys to be killed, and the child was adopted as a foundling by the Egyptian royal family. After killing an Egyptian slave-master, Moses fled across the Red Sea to Midian where he encountered the God of Israel in the form of a “burning bush“.
One day, Moses led his flock to Mount Horeb (Exodus 3), usually identified with Mount Sinai — a mountain that was thought in the Middle Ages to be located on the Sinai Peninsula. There he saw a bush that burned, but was not consumed. When Moses came to look more closely, God spoke to him from the bush, revealing his name to Moses. God commanded Moses to go to Egypt and deliver his fellow Hebrews from bondage.
Muhammad (c 26 April 570 – 8 June 632 also transliterated as Mohammad, Mohammed, or Muhammed), full name: Muhammad Ibn `Abd Allāh Ibn `Abd al-Muttalib was the founder of the religion of Islam. He is considered by Muslims and Bahá’ís to be a messenger and prophet of God, and by Muslims the last law-bearer in a series of Islamic prophets. Most Muslims consider him to be the last prophet of God as taught by the Quran. Muslims thus consider him the restorer of an uncorrupted original monotheistic faith (islām) of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets.
Born in 570 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca he was orphaned at an early age and brought up under the care of his uncle Abu Talib. He later worked mostly as a merchant, as well as a shepherd, and was first married by age 25. Discontented with life in Mecca, he retreated to a cave in the surrounding mountains for meditation and reflection. According to Islamic beliefs it was here, at age 40, in the month of Ramadan, where he received his first revelation from God. Three years after this event Muhammad started preaching these revelations publicly, proclaiming that “God is One”, that complete “surrender” to Him (lit. islām) is the only way (dīn) acceptable to God, and that he himself was a prophet and messenger of God, in the same vein as other Islamic prophets.
Muhammad adopted the practice of meditating alone for several weeks every year in a cave on Mount Hira near Mecca. Islamic tradition holds that during one of his visits to Mount Hira, the angel Gabriel appeared to him in the year 610 and commanded Muhammad to recite the following verses:
Proclaim! (or read!) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created-
Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood:
Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful,-
He Who taught (the use of) the pen,-
Taught man that which he knew not.
—Quran, sura 96 (Al-Alaq), ayat 1-5
After returning home, Muhammad was consoled and reassured by Khadijah and her Christian cousin, Waraqah ibn Nawfal. Upon receiving his first revelations, he was deeply distressed and resolved to commit suicide. He also feared that others would dismiss his claims as being possessed. Shi’a tradition maintains that Muhammad was neither surprised nor frightened at the appearance of Gabriel but rather welcomed him as if he had been expecting him. The initial revelation was followed by a pause of three years during which Muhammad further gave himself to prayers and spiritual practices. When the revelations resumed he was reassured and commanded to begin preaching: “Thy Guardian-Lord hath not forsaken thee, nor is He displeased.”
Sahih Bukhari narrates Muhammad describing the revelations as, “Sometimes it is (revealed) like the ringing of a bell” and Aisha reported, “I saw the Prophet being inspired Divinely on a very cold day and noticed the sweat dropping from his forehead (as the Inspiration was over)”.
According to the writings in the New Testament, Paul was known as Saul prior to his conversion, and was dedicated to the persecution of the early disciples of Jesus in the area of Jerusalem. While traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus on a mission to “bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem”, the resurrected Jesus appeared to him in a great light. Saul was struck blind, but after three days his sight was restored by Ananias of Damascus, and Paul began to preach that Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish Messiah and the Son of God.
Saint Patrick (387 – 460) was a Romano-Briton and Christian missionary, who is the most generally recognized patron saint of Ireland or the Apostle of Ireland. When he was about 16, he was captured from Wales by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he lived for six years before escaping and returning to his family. After entering the Roman Catholic Church, he returned to Ireland as an ordained bishop in the north and west of the island, but little is known about the places where he worked. By the seventh century, he had come to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland.
As a slave in Ireland Patrick worked as a herdsman, remaining a captive for six years. He writes that his faith grew in captivity, and that he prayed daily. After six years he heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home, and then that his ship was ready. Fleeing his master, he travelled to a port, two hundred miles away he says, where he found a ship and, after various adventures, returned home to his family, now in his early twenties. Patrick also recounts that he had a vision a few years after returning home:
I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.
Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, Christian mystic and theologian. Swedenborg had a prolific career as an inventor and scientist. At the age of fifty-six he entered into a spiritual phase, in which he experienced dreams and visions.
Saint Joan’s “voices” have been interpreted in a variety of ways. It seems extremely unlikely from all accounts that she simply made up a claim of hearing voices for the sake of theatricality and attention.
St John of the Cross has been called the greatest psychologist in the history of mysticism. He was a member of the Catholic Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which was characterised by prayer, silence, meditation and contemplation. Just like the early Desert Hermits, silence and contemplation seems to have opened the door to voices and visions for St John.
Teresa was firmly convinced that Jesus Christ presented himself to her in bodily form, though invisible. These visions lasted almost uninterrupted for more than two years. In another vision, a seraph drove the fiery point of a golden lance repeatedly through her heart, causing an ineffable spiritual-bodily pain.
John Wesley (1703 – 2 March 1791) was a Church of England cleric and Christian theologian. Wesley is largely credited, along with his brother Charles Wesley, as founding the Methodist movement which began when he took to open-air preaching. At the age of five, Wesley was rescued from the burning rectory. This escape made a deep impression on his mind, and he regarded himself as providentially set apart, as a “brand plucked from the burning” quoting Zechariah 3:2.
In 1738, John Wesley, now a thirty-five year old Anglican minister, had a spiritual awakening after re-reading the Epistle to the Romans by St Paul, along with a preface by Martin Luther. He realized that true religion is seated in the heart. Wesley wrote: “the real nature of true religion did not consist in orthodox or right opinions, but deeper still, even in the hidden man of the heart.”
Regarding voices, John Wesley’s counsel was: “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions, or revelations to be from God. They may be from Him. They may be from Nature. They may be from the devil. Therefore believe not every spirit, but ‘try the spirits whether they be from God.'”
Ellen Gould White (November 26, 1827 – July 16, 1915) was a prolific author and an American Christian pioneer. She, along with formed what is now known as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Ellen White reported to her fellow believers her visionary experiences. James White, and others of the Adventist pioneers, viewed these experiences as the Biblical gift of prophecy. Ellen White described her vision experiences as involving a bright light which would surround her and she felt herself in the presence of Jesus or angels who would show her events (historical and future) and places (on earth, in heaven, or other planets). The transcriptions of White’s visions generally contain theology, prophecy, or personal counsels to individuals or to Adventist leaders.