by The Editors
We’ve gathered a collection of historical figures who have been touched by divine mystery. Visions, dreams, callings and more led these people of faith to make positive impacts that are still felt to this day. From Christian mystics, to saints, to authors and activists, here are stories of people whose divine experiences—and inspiring legacies—point to a hidden heavenly hand at work in our world.
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, “the little flower of Jesus,” was a nun, writer and mystic. She felt the presence of God in mysterious happenings throughout her life, most notably during her sudden healing from a life-threatening childhood illness. She entered a Carmelite convent as a 15-year-old and practiced her “little way,” recognizing her smallness before God and humbly embodying his love through the quiet acts of charity that we are all capable of. Her writings, including her epistolary autobiography, Story of a Soul, sought to inspire a similar spiritual awareness in others. At the age of 24, she died of tuberculosis. She was canonized and later designated a doctor of the Catholic Church—the youngest person ever to receive such an honor. —Amanda Ericson, Editorial Intern
In 1910, Howard Thurman’s mother took him to observe Halley’s Comet. The future theologian, civil rights leader, mystic, author and educator, then 11 years old, asked what would happen if the comet fell to earth. “Nothing will happen to us, Howard,” his mother said. “God will take care of us.” He instantly felt a unity “with what created and controlled the comet.” That connection between God and the natural world shaped Thurman’s theology and writings. He rooted his civil rights activism in faith and radical nonviolence, ideas that influenced Martin Luther King Jr. Thurman helped create the nation’s first interfaith, interracial church in San Francisco, telling congregants to “celebrate the spirit of God within us by quiet acts of adoration and praise....” It was a belief that first emerged to him from the night sky decades before. —Amanda Ericson, Editorial Intern
Mildred Lisette Norman was an American activist, mystic and spiritual teacher. In her thirties, a period of spiritual unrest led her to call out to God, “Please use me!” Peace overtook her, and she became devoted to something beyond herself. She gave away belongings and dedicated herself to serving others. In January 1953, she embarked on a cross country trek by foot to promote peace and unity. By 1964, wearing a peace pilgrim tunic, she’d walked 25,000 miles. After 28 years advocating to overcome “evil with good, falsehood with truth and hatred with love,” she died during her seventh cross country walk. —Amanda Ericson, Editorial Intern
Jarena Lee’s ministry began with a message from an ethereal voice: “Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth and will turn your enemies to become your friends.” Surprised, she asked God if she understood his instruction—the image of a Bible on a pulpit appeared. AME church founder Rev. Richard Allen told Jarena it was against policy for women to preach. At a service eight years later, in 1817, the preacher was unable to deliver a sermon. On a “supernatural impulse,” Jarena gave a powerful address. In the audience, Reverend Allen was so moved, he endorsed Jarena as the first African-American female preacher. Directed by God, she spent the next 20 years preaching to audiences of mixed genders and races, even in areas where slavery remained legal, and published an autobiography—all because of that divine directive. —Amanda Ericson, Editorial Intern
Elizabeth Fry was a prison reformer in nineteenth-century England. Her life’s mission had mystical origins. Born into an upper class family, Elizabeth as a teenager began having terrifying dreams of being swept away at sea. One night, during the dream, she felt “true and real faith” in God and was finally spared from the waves. Taking this as a sign, she chose a simpler life devoted to charity. In 1813, philanthropic efforts led her to London’s Newgate Prison, where she found horrifying conditions for women inmates and their children. Founding a female-led organization to aid imprisoned women, she spearheaded prison reforms now considered standard, such as providing clothing. The legacy of the “angel of prisons”—which started with a mysterious dream—lives on to this day. —Amanda Ericson, Editorial Intern
Sojourner Truth championed the rights of women and African-Americans in the United States—a mission informed, she said, by her talks with God. Born into slavery in New York State as Isabella Baumfree, young Sojourner ventured into the woods daily to speak with God, who empowered her eventual escape to freedom. Later she experienced a profound vision: “The whole world grew bright, an’ the trees...waved in glory, an’ every little bit o’ stone on the ground shone like glass.” God revealed he “pervaded the universe,” filling her with a love she’d never felt before. She devoted her life to activism and preaching and called on God for a new name. He chose Sojourner, for all her travels to come, and Truth because she was “to declare the truth to the people.” —Amanda Ericson, Editorial Intern
As a child, famed primatologist and activist Jane Goodall, Ph.D.,pored over her parson grandfather’s books. Their sense of awe and spirituality ultimately informed her groundbreaking work as a conservationist, much like the mystical experience she had at her chimpanzee research facility in Tanzania in 1981. Entranced by the forest’s splendor after a storm, she slipped into a state of “height-ened awareness.” Colors, shapes and sounds held new intensity. Jane felt a oneness with everything, as if “an unseen hand had drawn back a curtain,” and sensed “a truth of which mainstream science is merely a small fraction.” That day, Jane gained a deeper perspective of the compatibility of science and religion, which both seek to explore the wonder of creation and humanity’s place in it. —Amanda Ericson, Editorial Intern
In 1934, William Griffith Wilson checked himself into an elite Manhattan detox facility for the fourth time. The 39-year-old was trying to get sober—again. Alcoholism had wreaked havoc on his Wall Street career, his marriage and his finances. Staunchly agnostic but desperate, Wilson turned over his plight to God, inspired by a friend who’d found sobriety through faith. From his rehab bed, Wilson cried out, “If there is a God, let him show himself.” At that instant, a white light filled the room. He felt unbelievable peace. As if God himself had embraced him. The desire to drink was lifted, and he never drank again. Wilson was inspired to pass on his spiritual awakening and help others find healing by turning themselves over to a higher power. A year later, Wilson, also known as Bill W., co-founded a 12-step program that would go on to help countless people find sobriety: Alcoholics Anonymous. —Amanda Ericson, Editorial Intern
Kahlil Gibran was a poet, painter, philosopher and Christian mystic hailed for his writings on spiritual love. In 1895, his mother moved his Maronite Catholic family from Lebanon to the United States. Gibran found inspiration in religious and mystical traditions of both the West and Middle East. He’s best known for his 1923 book The Prophet, a collection of 26 poetic essays and fables written from the perspective of a wise man returning after a 12-year exile. The idea for the book—which explores parenting, death and marriage—came to Gibran in a dream. His romantic prose was ridiculed by some critics, but his works went on to influence everyone from John F. Kennedy to Johnny Cash. Today, Gibran is one of the world’s bestselling poets. —Kristin Hauge, Editorial Intern
Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon was a French writer and mystic. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a nun but was forced into an arranged marriage at age 15. Her husband had little patience for her pious ways, and Madame Guyon frequently escaped the house at night to commune with God in secret. Widowed at age 28, she embraced the life of a mystic. Her writing focused on cultivating the inner life through quiet, contemplative prayer, also known as Quietism. Her views were controversial at the time, and she was imprisoned twice for her teachings, once in the Bastille. Madame Guyon kept writing; her books, especially A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, influenced the seventeenth-century Quakers and today’s mindfulness movement. —Michelle Krishnanand, Editorial Intern
Artist and poet William Blake was no stranger to the mystical. Born to a working class family in London, he encountered the divine at an early age. At four, he saw God’s face in his window. As a boy, he happened upon a tree filled with angels. His visions continued into adulthood, greatly influencing his paintings and prints. Blake depicted what he saw—otherworldly scenes and beings. His poetry was fantastical too, reflecting the interplay between the physical and heavenly realms. Blake eventually became famous for his relief etchings. A groundbreaking printing technique that came to Blake in, yes, a vision from his deceased brother. Today Blake’s works continue to inspire people to envision a world beyond their own. —Kaylin Kaupish, Contributing Editor
Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun Teresa of Ávila was known for her writings on “mental prayer,” the practice of engaging in internal dialogue with God. Teresa felt called at a young age and, as a teen, secretly joined a convent against the wishes of her family (who were of the nobility). Her poor health often led to fevers, during which she would experience ecstatic trances, famously depicted by the Italian sculptor Bernini. In one celebrated vision, she saw the soul as a great crystal castle with seven mansions and God in the innermost room. The concept formed the basis of her most popular book on contemplative prayer, The Interior Castle. Revered as a saint, Teresa of Ávila still inspires believers to take the journey within, into the castles of our souls.—Alyssa Witte, Editorial Intern
Philosopher and rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was best known for his writings on ethics and mysticism. Born into a family of Hasidic rabbis in Warsaw, Poland, he was called to the spiritual life at a young age. In 1939, weeks before the Nazi invasion, Heschel fled to London and then New York City. His mother and sisters died in the Holocaust, a tragedy that greatly shaped Heschel’s theology. Most significantly his conviction that people can choose to live in a state of constant awe and gratitude, and act alongside God to create a better world. A belief that led Heschel to march alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, of which he famously said, “I felt my legs were praying.” Heschel’s words continue to spur new generations to live in radical amazement.—Kaylin Kaupish, Contributing Editor
Evelyn Underhill was a philosopher and pacifist best known for her writings on Christian mysticism. Born into a wealthy family, she led a quiet life as the wife of a London barrister. Early on, she became fascinated by medieval saints, such as Teresa of Avila, as well as Greek Orthodox traditions and her travels to Italy—the only place that was, she said, “medicinal to the soul.” In 1911, those interests led Evelyn to write Mysticism, a guide on everything from voices and visions to the dark night of the soul. Evelyn’s later work, considered groundbreaking for its time, emphasized a mystical world that was accessible to everyone, not just saints or clergy. Her books still encourage people to seek transcendent encounters with the divine in every aspect of their lives.—Alyssa Witte, Editorial Intern
John O’Donohue was an Irish poet, scholar and priest, best known for his writings on Celtic mysticism and the natural world. He grew up in County Clare, a landscape that profoundly influenced his work. He called the west of Ireland “a huge wild invitation to extend your imagination...an ancient conversation between the land and sea.” In 1982, O’Donohue was ordained a Catholic priest and spent much of his time in solitude, contemplating the “the invisible world”—what we see with our souls, not our eyes. A topic he explored in his international bestseller Anam Ċara, which means “soul friend” in Gaelic. In 2000, O’Donohue left the priesthood to focus on his writing. He passed away in his sleep in 2008, at the age of 52. Today his work continues to inspire many to take a closer look at that which they cannot see.—Rakeem Nelson, Editorial Intern
Rābi‘a al-‘Adawiyya was a revered mystic and sage born in Basra, in present day Iraq. According to biographical texts, Rābi‘a’s father received a divine message in a dream on the night of her birth: His daughter was destined to become a great saint. As a teen, Rābi‘a was forced into slavery. Legend has it that during one of her all night prayer rituals, her master saw a heavenly glow radiating above her head. Moved by this sign, he set her free. Afterward, Rābi‘a led an ascetic life and acted as a spiritual mentor for men and women. Her mystical tenets, including Divine Love—pure, reciprocated love between worshipper and God, without any selfish aims—went on to help found Sufism. Some 1,200 years later, Rābi‘a remains a hallowed cultural and spiritual figure, just as her father’s dream foretold.—Amanda Ericson, Editorial Intern
Edgar Cayce(1877–1945) was a Christian mystic known for his visions and dream interpretations. Born in Kentucky, Cayce had mystical experiences from a young age. He claimed to speak with his late grandfather and know a book’s contents after sleeping on it. As an adult, Cayce, dubbed the “sleeping prophet,” discovered he could put himself into a trance and connect with a universal consciousness. He often gave health readings and interpreted dreams in this state. He believed dreams were how the human spirit experienced new levels of awareness. On January 1, 1945, he prophesized his burial four days later. He suffered a stroke soon after; his funeral was indeed on January 5. Cayce said that “each soul enters with a mission.” This couldn’t be truer of Cayce himself, who fulfilled his mission by offering comfort and urging people to look seriously at their own subconscious messages. —Kaylin Kaupish, Contributing Editor
Did you know one of the best-selling poets in the United States is a Sufi mystic from the thirteenth century? Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, aka Rūmī, was born into a scholarly Muslim family in what is now Afghanistan. He worked as a religious teacher until he met a traveling mystic in 1244, who convinced him to lead a spiritual life instead of just studying it. So began Rūmī’s career as a poet—he wrote more than 40,000 verses about everything from love to death to the interior life. Rūmī believed that one’s relationship with the divine must be active. Instead of simply reciting poetry, he sang it while spinning in circles. Today Rūmī’s quotes show up everywhere from pop songs to Pinterest, inspiring people of all faiths to join in the dance with the divine. —Kaylin Kaupish, Contributing Editor
Mystic George MacDonald(1824–1905) was a Christian fantasy writer best known for his fairy tales for children and adults. Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, MacDonald grew up steeped in Celtic folklore. He became a minister but, after a disagreement over doctrine, devoted himself solely to writing. For MacDonald, religion and fantasy weren’t mutually exclusive. His stories, rich with enchantment and symbolism, are really about the great journey of faith. Such as Phantastes, which tells the tale of the hero Anodos, who travels through a land of tree spirits, giants and doorways before making the ultimate sacrifice. MacDonald’s work went on to influence the greatest fantasy writers of our time, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Madeleine L’Engle. As C.S. Lewis wrote of MacDonald, “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ himself.”—Kaylin Kaupish, Contributing Editor
French philosopher Simone Weil was a mystic known for her ascetic lifestyle and ecumenical spirit. Born into a wealthy Jewish family, she was highly empathic. At age five, she gave up sugar because soldiers on the Western Front had none. As an adult, she spent time on assembly lines to better understand the working classes. Simone was first moved to her knees to pray in an Italian chapel in 1937. Later, while reciting a George Herbert poem, she said, “Christ himself came down and took possession of me,” although she remained open to all faiths. Simone compared humanity’s relationship with God to two prisoners banging on a wall—they communicate via the very thing that keeps them apart. In 1942, Simone and her family fled Europe. She died a year later of tuberculosis, in part because she ate no more than those on rations in France. Her writings were published posthumously.—Kaylin Kaupish, Contributing Editor
Raised working her family’s farm and walking miles to a missionary school, Mary McLeod Bethune found her “whole world opened” when she learned to read. After finishing higher education, she felt called to create educational opportunities for Black children. Mary began having a recurring dream: educator Booker T. Washington on horseback, carrying a handkerchief. He’d open it to reveal a diamond, saying, “Take this and build your school.” Mary took her dream as a sign she was meant to open a school. A voice inside told her Daytona, Florida, would be the place for it. She raised funds for the school, paying for the land with money wrapped in a handkerchief, an homage to her dream. What began in 1904 as a small school for Black girls would grow into Bethune Cookman University—all because Mary heeded God’s call. —Amanda Ericson, Editorial Intern
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