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Issue Date:  November 25, 2005

A doctor probes the how and why of mystical experience


Five years ago my life fell apart. To explain it briefly, illness forced me from my career as a surgeon, and I found myself living in a new city that was quite different from my home in San Francisco. Other large problems added to these stressors. I remember telling a friend about my “infinite tolerance for stress,” since I seemed to be doing so well despite massive life changes. Talk about hubris!

A few weeks later I was hospitalized for a major mental breakdown, and I stayed there for a month. You might think this was a horrible time, and you’d be right. But in the midst of it all I found a pearl of the Divine. God literally touched me. One night I was in abject despair, and praying to a God I didn’t really believe in. I was just so desperate for help that I prayed, “God, you have to exist, you have to help me, or I can’t go on.” I repeated this over and over all night long.

When morning arrived, a whole series of fantastic coincidences and visions occurred around me. This went on for days, but at the most profound moment, my eyes opened up to a shimmering window of light, and a penetrating calm swept over me, leaving me awed and at complete peace. I knew that God was there. God existed, God cared, and I was going to make it through these hard times.

What about my objectivity as a physician? What would I say about a psychiatric patient who announced such experiences? I realize now, though it didn’t occur to me then, that I was experiencing the classic symptoms of a temporal lobe seizure. Hyper-religiosity, ideas that even the most mundane things hold important, vital meaning and feelings of deep and spiritual calm are all hallmarks of this brain condition. The disturbed brain waves during such an event can be measured objectively. This is something that does not require forces outside the mind. Or does it?

How do we know when God is working in our lives? I suppose the answer to that is unique to each person. We all look at the world in a certain way, and look for the Divine in a manner that matches our disposition, beliefs, upbringing and so on. Some people look for fortuitous coincidences, some focus on the circle of love around them, some find God through deep prayer and meditation. No doubt the Divine can manifest in many ways. Can God, then, come to a person through a disordered brain? Mystics and spiritual leaders throughout history have described experiences that sound a lot like my visions. What happened to St. Paul when he was struck on the road to Damascus? Was his brain normal at that moment? What is normal?

The advances in knowledge about the brain make it easy to ascribe all mental states to patterns of neuronal activity. Conditions that might once have been interpreted as matters of faith are now explainable and reparable in material ways. Depressed? There may be a disorder in serotonin modulation. Is your child too dreamy? Maybe we can fix that with Ritalin. God manifests before you? There must be a problem in your temporal lobe. What does this do to our concept of the Divine? Is there a place for the Spirit separate from the ceaseless electrical activity in the brain?

These are questions I have asked myself ever since I was struck down and then lifted up. Following my visions, my faith in God was absolute. I had no doubts whatsoever. I went from a state of studied agnosticism to complete surrender to the Divine. My gratitude for these gifts was all-consuming. I felt unworthy of such grace. I felt like a reflection of St. Thomas since I needed God to appear concretely before my own eyes in order to believe. The Almighty did appear. I was blessed.

Sadly, or predictably, over time my conviction wavered. The questions started crowding in. I wish I could report that my spirituality remained deep and abiding. I would like to tell you that I am now able to guide others who are searching for God. I have not been that strong. Doubts sometimes trouble me, and despair is no stranger. It is all too easy to write off my experiences to messed up brain chemistry. But on the deepest level, I know that within me there is the seed of something grand and all-powerful. I admit that this seed may only reflect a briefly disordered mind, but I’ll take my chances.

So what have I done since those odd and powerful days? Have I grown at all as a person? I suppose you’d have to ask my wife and circle of friends. The direct fruit of my passage through this profound period was my conversion to Catholicism. My wife, a lifelong Catholic, elicited a commitment to Jesus during the time of greatest confusion, when I was convulsed with God’s love and aching for direction. I kept to that promise, and within a year went through the catechumenate program, and took my first holy Communion during Easter of 2001. My resulting relationship with Christ has given the trials of five years ago inexpressible importance. My life fell apart, but when it came back together I was in the company of God.

Will Meecham is a physician in Novato, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, November 25, 2005

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