"The body never lies" has been a popular expression in holistic health circles for years. I don't know who originated it or in what context, but when I first heard it, it rang true. Now I wonder: Is it always valid, particularly in the case of certain dramatic religious or spiritual experiences? How do we know whether our body has fallen into a state of divine rapture or is manifesting symptoms of a disease?

Lying Awake, a new novel by Mark Salzman, deals with this issue. Sister John of the Cross, living in a Carmelite nunnery in Los Angeles, sincerely believes she's undergoing mystical transcendence with each bout of headache, vertigo, and collapse. This is what she senses just before losing consciousness:
Pure awareness stripped her of everything. She became an ember carried upward by the heat of an invisible flame. Higher and higher she rose, away from all she knew. Powerless to save herself, she drifted up toward infinity until the vacuum sucked the feeble light out of her.
As she begins to come out of the darkness, she is aware of a "nova:"
More luminous than any sun, transcending visibility, the flare consumed everything, it lit up all of existence. In this radiance she could see forever, and everywhere she looked, she saw God's love. As soon as she could move again, she opened her notebook and began writing.
When the prioress and other sisters express concern and urge her to seek medical help, Sister John demurs. She tells them she's not pushing herself too hard but rather "being pulled." The implication is that God has singled her out for these extraordinary experiences. The involuntary writing that follows each blackout has resulted, so far, in one published book of essays and poems about contemplative life.

As the story progresses, Sister John learns that her divine episodes are temporal-lobe epileptic seizures. When offered surgery to remove the cause (a small growth above her right ear), she is conflict-ridden. For so long she had prayed, "Please God, let me know you." Now she faces the possible loss of her special relationship and doesn't want to relinquish what she interprets as "favors from God," including the gift of writing. Have they been nothing but a neurophysiological condition, a cerebral imbalance?

Christian theologians...insist that hearing celestial voices or music...are "indisputable evidence of the presence and works of divine power." Scientists reading the same descriptions attribute them to epileptic seizures.

Physicians and theologians have long clashed at this intersection between mysticism and pathology. Known in ancient times as the "sacred disease," epilepsy is linked throughout history with what scientists call "magical beliefs." People thought epilepsy, along with other diseases, was an invasion by gods or demons.

Many neurologists and psychiatrists contend that there is a "physiology of faith." Tests with individuals suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy have revealed a range of behavioral characteristics. Religiosity, including deeply held religious beliefs, multiple conversions, mystical states, and "cosmic helplessness" at the hands of God, is one of them. Hypergraphia, or a tendency toward voluminous, even compulsive, writing is another.

Christian theologians are convinced of the reality and validity of the ecstatic experiences that saints have described. They insist that hearing celestial voices or music, and seeing Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary are "indisputable evidence of the presence and works of divine power." However, scientists reading the same descriptions attribute them to epileptic seizures.

Academic studies are filled with the names of individuals who claimed God as the source of their ecstasy but who possibly were afflicted with epilepsy or some other condition. Among them are the apostle Paul, St. Teresa of Avila, Pope Pius IX, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Shaker founder Anne Lee, St. Cecilia, German mystic Hieronymus Jaegen, Seventh-Day Adventist matriarch Ellen G. White, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Catherine of Genoa, Mormon founder Joseph Smith, and St. Marguerite Marie.

Authentic mystics know that what really matters is not the razzle-dazzle of cosmic oneness, but what we do after such altered states.

But for centuries, the term "epilepsy" was so comprehensive that it included all trance-like states. This has made it difficult to distinguish between authentic religious experiences and the "falling sickness." Also, the biographical details of saints and mystics are too inadequate for accurate medical diagnoses. Despite this, doctors don't doubt that at least some of these "souls on fire" suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, which causes states of altered awareness.

Who's right? Physicist Freeman Dyson offers some insight into the conflict between science and religion. He sees them as two windows we look through in our desire to understand why we are here. He says, "The two windows give different views, but...look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete.... And both are worthy of respect. Trouble arises...when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible."

What matters ultimately is not who is right--the physicians or the theologians. Whether the person's mystical insights stem from a pathological condition or from divine intervention is far from the issue. Authentic mystics know that what really matters is not the razzle-dazzle of cosmic oneness, but what we do after such altered states. Do we swell with pride and set ourselves apart as "favored"? Do we keep seeking more "highs"? As Dr. Sheppard explains to Sister John, one of the characteristics of her form of epilepsy is "becoming so drawn into the altered world created by the disorder that one loses interest in everything else." In the title of his latest book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Jack Kornfield, an American teacher of Buddhist meditation, reminds us that our spiritual journey continues in the ordinariness of daily life.

The great sages of all traditions point out the danger of getting seduced by the exquisiteness of mystical rapture and mistaking it for enlightenment. Yes, perceiving with uncommon vividness, feeling an overwhelming luminous presence, and being flooded with enormous well-being are delicious. But do they profoundly transform us? Does ecstasy inspire us to deepen our spiritual practice beyond the bright lights? Does it open our hearts to others? Does it empower us to do good work, however ordinary, in the world? Chinese Taoist master Lao-tzu said he had only three things to teach: simplicity, patience, and compassion. He called them our "greatest treasures:"
Simple in actions and in thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.
When faced with the prospect that surgery will end her mystical/epileptic occurrences, Sister John confides in Father Aaron about her struggle to sort out God's will from her own. She says, "I feel confused. Should I automatically assume that my mystical experiences have been false, or should I stand behind what my heart tells me? Is God asking me to let go of concerns for my health, or is he asking me to let go of my desire for his presence?"

Father Aaron reassures her, "You may feel separated from grace right now, but in reality you are probably closer to it now than you ever were before.... Because we're all better off having doubts about the state of our souls than presuming ourselves to be holy.... You allowed yourself to think that loving God meant enjoying His company, having ecstasies. It was all about you, wasn't it? But loving God is supposed to be all about Him."

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