wo well-known categories of religious experience are Conversion and Mystical experiences. Throughout history there have been many reports of people having these religious experiences, and not all of the recipients are necessarily Christian in belief. Famous examples of conversion experiences include St Paul on the road to Damascus, and an example of a mystical experience could be the story of Theresa of Avila.
Firstly I am going to look at the characteristics of mystical experiences, followed by an example of a mystical experience that I shall analyse before moving on to doing the same for conversion experiences.
A philosopher called William James has designed a series of tests to see if a mystical experience conforms to a pattern that has arisen through the history of these experiences. William James said that the receiver of the religious experience should be passive, i.e. does not go out of his or her way to trigger the experience, it happens to them without their provoking it. The experience should be ineffable in that in the aftermath the receiver finds it very difficult to describe what had happened and how they had felt in normal communication, thirdly that there is a noetic quality to these experiences, meaning that some truth or great fact is revealed to the recipient of the experience. Finally the experience should be transient, this means that the actual experience should not take very long at all, perhaps a few hours, but afterwards it has a very long, if not lifelong impact on the person who had the experience. Mystical experiences often have an example of the defying of the laws of nature and physics, for example the hearing of voices or seeing of visions, or receiving of the wounds of Christ, the Stigmata, that came from nowhere and have no rational explanation. An example of a mystical experience, as I mentioned earlier, is the story of Theresa of Avila. Theresa was a Carmelite nun who had been raised as being deeply religious; when her mother died she turned to the Virgin Mary and became a nun. Throughout her life she was often seriously ill and during these bouts of illness she claimed to have experienced religious ecstasy, in which she saw a cherub repeatedly stabbing her in the stomach with a fiery spear, and where he stabbed her she felt bliss and pain equally. In one bout of sickness she lost the use of her legs for three years, and during this time she stopped praying until she was convinced by a priest to start again.
Not long after she began praying again she experienced holy delights from God, which were moments when her senses were overwhelmed by the presence of God. Alongside this she experienced the levitation, meaning that she claimed to have had her body raised off of the ground by the Holy Spirit. The levitation is the main mystical experience of Theresa’s life; this is a very clear example of how the laws of nature are defied by the power of God. The experience is passive as she was ill in bed at the time, it wasn’t ineffable however as she could clearly explain what had happened, however the experiences of having her senses overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit that accompany the levitation certainly were ineffable. There was no great truth revealed directly but there is a lesson in her story. And that is that the Lord will watch over and take care of us when we are sick. It is hard to tell whether or not the experience was transient, as while the levitation took place over just a few minutes, we cannot know how deep an impact it had on Theresa, as she was already deeply religious, we cannot easily see how she changed as a person. Now we move onto conversion experiences, the most key characteristic of a conversion experience is that the recipient of the experience has a complete switch around of their religious beliefs, they are converted. This conversion stays in place for the rest of the experiencer’s life, the religious experience is transient. Conversion experiences can be either gradual or sudden, meaning that a person’s beliefs can change over time due to different stimuli or events, or they can change swiftly as a result of an undeniably holy action.
An important fact to remember when discussing conversion experiences is that they can occur not just in regards to an individual’s religious beliefs, they can also impact on political and social ideals as well, and these kinds of conversions follow the same pattern as that of religious experiences. The example of a conversion experience I am going to talk about is the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus. Before his conversion Paul, or Saul as he was known, was a Pharisee who harshly persecuted the early Christians and was not in any way inclined to believe in the teachings of Jesus. One day Paul was riding down the road to Damascus, as he drew near to the city a light shone down from heaven and Paul was cast down to the ground, then he heard a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me”? The voice identified itself as Jesus and instructed Paul to go to the city where he will be instructed further. The men accompanying Paul were amazed, as they had heard the voice, but had seen no man or any vision as Paul had. Paul opened his eyes, but found that he had been blinded, perhaps by the brilliant light, his men led him to the city and there he stayed, blind, not eating or drinking for three days. After the three days his sight returned, and he was convinced that he had seen the resurrected Christ. After the experience Paul could be found in the company of the disciples that were in Damascus, which shows a very large turn around in his ideals, because before the experience he would have arrested and persecuted those men. This story is a good example of a conversion experience as it shows a very big contrast in the subject before and after the experience, which is as I said previously, the main characteristic of a religious experience. To conclude the essay I would just like to summarise the characteristics of both mystical and conversion experiences, mystical experiences are most easily identified when evidence of supernatural events take place, such as the levitation, while conversion experiences are clearly shown in the change of the recipients religious or political ideals.