Sorting Through the Voices Inside of My Head

A few nights ago, I went to sleep vexed and agitated with a problem. During the night, I dreamt someone reached down into the bed and gave me a hug.  The encounter felt so real that I asked aloud “Who are you?”  Then I woke up.

Most of the time, I believe my dreams come from within me.  I’m simply processing things: events from the day, the relationships in my life.  But from time to time, someone else penetrates my dream.  I’ve encountered or received messages from my Grandpa in dreams, a friend who died, the BVM, the Little Flower, Jesus, and, as I’ve written about, the devil

Although I haven’t concluded who hugged me, I do think it was an external visitation.

This anecdote touches on an age-old conundrum relating to prayer and spirituality: when am I listening to God, and when am I listening to myself?  And when am I listening to someone who originates neither from myself nor God (i.e. a demon or devil)? 

Saint Teresa of Avila has provided insight into this question. 

Locutions: The Lowdown

In Book of her Life, Teresa of Avila discusses locutions and discernment. 

A locution is an external voice that one hears, generally while praying. They can be intellectual, meaning the voice seems to come from a place outside of ourselves.  Or they can be internal, meaning that the voice seems to come from within yourself. 

Locutions are different from dreams.  However, both dreams and locutions are methods by which God and the devil communicate with us.  And so her insights provide some assistance into interpreting both.

Who's Doing the Talking

According to Teresa of Avila, a locution from God is has an air of authority about it.  It's congruous with Scripture.  We absorb a lot of knowledge from the locution, and the message is clear.  Additionally, a message from God comes at an unexpected time, when we aren’t thinking about the topic in the locution; so as a non-sequitur of sorts. 1 

A priest once told me that when he’s prayed for something continuously for a long time, suddenly the answer comes to him, at a completely unexpected time. 

On the other hand, Avila says that when a locution or message comes from ourselves, we somehow know we’re composing the message.  It requires effort.  And the message tends to be muffled and has no significant impact. 

The difference between the two kinds of locutions is the same as that between speaking and listening. 1  

And messages from the devil bring about agitation and disquiet.  They have negative impacts.  God, meanwhile, brings true, strong spiritual consolations.  If you don’t knows what a strong spiritual consolation is, Avila cautions, then don’t be swayed by flighty consolations: these can be from the devil. 1  

Here's what she has to say in her own words: 

Another sign more noticeable than all the others is that these words composed by the intellect do not produce any effect. Those the Lord speaks are both words and works.  And even though the words may not be devotional ones but words of reproof, they dispose the soul and prepare it from the very beginning, and they touch it, giving it light, favor and bring it quiet.  And if the soul suffers dryness, agitation and worry, these are taken away as though by a stroke of the hand since it seems the Lord wants it to understand that He is powerful and that His words are works. 1  

A Critical Skill 

This kind of listening and discernment isn’t easy to master, as in our noisy world we’re receiving messages All. Day. Long.  And it’s nearly impossible to sort through them all.  

However, through a practice of carving out silence, and deliberately craning our ear for messages sent to us throughout the day—God is always speaking to us—anyone can develop this skill. 

And it’s certainly an important skill to develop. 

Back to my dream.  I was clearly suffering from agitation and the hug provided respite and consolation.  Using Avila’s criteria, then, I’d wager that the visitation came, not from God Himself, but some being on that side.  An angel, perhaps? 

What about you?  How do you discern when a message comes from God or yourself?

1 Volume 1: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD & Otilio Rodriguex, OCD, 1976. Pgs 163-66.