"I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form,” Teresa of Avila recounts in her autobiography. Medieval and early modern texts are full of accounts of sensory encounters with beings whom many modern readers assume are not materially present. Modern readers might even doubt that the beings exist at all.
We can no longer interview the humans who left these records, but a rich understanding of contemporary experience may shed some light on their experience. Tanya Marie Luhrmann comes to this topic as an anthropologist with more than three decades of ethnographic and experimental research on the visionary and voice-hearing experiences of those who struggle with psychosis, as well as those who are religious and who show no signs of illness. These modern phenomena cannot tell us what medieval mystics actually experienced, but they can help us think more deeply about what the mystics might have seen and heard.
Tanya Marie Luhrmann
Watkins University Professor of Anthropology, Stanford
Tanya Marie Luhrmann is the author of Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft, The Good Parsi, Of Two Minds, and When God Talks Back, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship.