Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul
Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.(Acts 12:9) This is a most unusual remark from the narrator of the Acts of the Apostles. How could Peter not know the difference between a vision and reality? This gives some idea of what a vision was for the early Christians. We often think of visions as dreams or hazy, even if overwhelming, ideas. They are the sorts of things that can be clearly distinguished from reality just as we ordinarily distinguish thoughts from the experienced world. But this text makes clear, for the early Christians a vision was more serious. It not only took over the mind and the sense perceptions but presented itself as reality. In a vision, one could walk and talk and respond to the environment. A vision, for them, was more like being transported to an alternate reality.
This has implications for our own discernment. People often seek signs and visions from God to know what to do. They want a way forward but cannot imagine one. In this anxious state, anything becomes a sign or vision. A candle burning out too early, an unexpected thought popping into the mind, all sorts of trivialities become a basis for making a major decision. These trivialities do not rise to the level of the biblical witness. Which is not to say that God cannot speak to us through them. Rather, it means that we must be all the more discerning in those moments. The biblical witness leads us to believe the intervention of God is clear and apparent to the believer. A hardened skeptic could surely still find a way to doubt, but those possessing faith and an abiding relationship with God have certainty. Even in the example of Peter not knowing if he was having a vision or not, he was certain God was speaking. Something important was being communicated to him, so he listened and obeyed.
In our lives we should look to this standard as well. While Jesus could reach out to us by means of little coincidences, we can also easily create them in our loves. Our brains are like pattern finding machines. The brain creates order anywhere it can and this can lead us to being deceived. True discernment requires we doubt those patterns, that we open ourselves to the possibility of being wrong, and even the possibility that God will not answer. When God wants to be heard, he will be. There is no need to fear missing signs so long as we remain in relationship with him and faithful to the life of prayer.