Thursday, February 06, 2020


Decades ago when I was serving as a ward clerk for a nursing home that mostly cared for older people, I and the others witnessed the dramatic contrast between a saint's blissful experience and a state of devastation.  A woman plunged into despair, agony, and unmeetable need.  There seemed to be no cause, but she screamed and ranted incoherently for a day before a doctor knocked her unconscious with drugs to spare us all, including her.  She had been a nurse in the ward, one of the most cheerful and kind helpers.

The docs could find no disease, no wound, no blood condition that would account for her agony.  The best guess was it was something wrong in her brain, the sensing and judging ability had turned against her somehow. Part of the puzzle was that she retained a point of consciousness.  We think of bad experiences and even torture in terms of pain but when pain is too great, consciousness shuts off.  A skillful torturer must know how much hurt to inflict before reviving the victim.  The will to survive must endure in order for the torture to reach any goal besides destruction, which is a release, a reward.  But this agony was more profound than pain.

Another option for explaining suffering might be evil, retribution and punishment for something Evil.  But it is plain in the world that many people suffer for no crime.  We blame them, stigmatize them, to let ourselves off the hook.  That's a suffering evil on its own, subtly perpetuating itself.'

Bad drug experiences have tripped some into terror and horror for a simple chemical reason.  This reinforces the idea that it's something in the brain.  If the blissful kind of moment is partly the feeling of being continuous with all of existence -- eternal inclusion -- then it would be logical that the opposite would be estrangement, total separation, lack of contact.  Indeed, some theologians define sin that way.  Psychologists claim that solitary confinement is the worst kind of punishment and can lead to madness.  Parents have been known to thrust their disobedient children into dark cupboards, like Harry Potter, and as adults they still shudder.

People who have used drugs to get high long enough to become addicted, will say that withdrawal is the worst agony they've ever had to live through, overwhelming every attempt to break off the habit.  What onlookers can see sometimes is people who are completely insane, screaming and thrashing, with no presence anyone can reach and no memory afterwards.  What is that?  "Thought" that is the body thinking without the brain, screaming for release?

These are the traumas that remain in the body if it continues to live. There is no ceremony while in the middle of them, except prayer in foxholes if one can stay coherent. Rituals and even superstitions are meant to stand against these times ever happening.  Ceremonies exist for recovery afterwards, even celebrations of survival, like baptizing the baby after the mother being broken and torn by childbirth, in previous years to the point of death.  War is saturated with ceremony.  We give medals to those suffering damage, honor the memory of those who have died, with our flags and brass horns mourning.

At either extreme, a saint's ecstatic moment or an interval subsumed in abject horror, the person affected cannot engage in ritual, worship or ceremony.  Those endeavors are necessary to perform for the witnesses and for those who hear testimony later.  Some might wish to feel that kind of epiphany, which we have been addressing throughout, and others wish to avoid the torturing black hole.  But neither is controllable.  If such ghastliness can descend on a virtuous woman, loved by others, without warning or reason, there is no hope of anything BUT hope.  

Much of religious artfulness is meant to address the circle around the extreme, the spectrum of other felt states that are lesser or mixed.  When trying to find literature on Google, I discover there is a genre of entertainment called "Immersive horror" which purports to fill one with chills and thrills, but all in fun.  Evidently these things are very popular.  Are they a kind of ceremony? Could they be considered Sacred?  Why not?  Isn't an evangelist vividly describing Hell for disobedients or a Catholic teaching the inventive tortures imposed on Saints for their faithfulness also dabbling in "immersive horror" which is claimed to be real?

We hear of mysterious death puzzles about people who spontaneously combust and burn to ash while sitting in a chair that does not burn.  Is that something similar to someone whose mind is sending them screaming and incoherent?  

Here's another thing to think about. "Panic disorder occurs when you experience recurring unexpected panic attacks. ... You may be having a panic attack when you feel sudden, overwhelming terror that has no obvious cause. You may experience physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, breathing difficulties, and sweating. (Mayo)"  This is as close as I could get in terms of mental health.  But mental health with its medical bias does not address damnation on earth as anything but sickness, which is as partial as entertainment.  In spite of resisting the supernatural, the theos, the interference from another world, it seems as though there is still something more that we reach for in our rituals and ceremonies.  This is a related discussion that describes something that happens at a different threshold: the limen that is crossed when we enter sleep.  Often imposing paralysis, a kind of demon squats on them and suffocates them. or so they say.  Reluctance to mention such things has hampered our collection of evidence in order to understand what happens.  But in the most extreme cases of the terrifying black hole of non-awareness, we may never know much.

In ordinary non-religious life most of us try to pursue worthiness or even efficiency or justice to others.  The pursuit of the Sacred and Holy is a little much of an extra burden on those who find it vital and necessary.  Maybe we sequester them and subsidize them, structuring their prayer into certain hours of the day and night, expecting them to rock and chant in unison with others, building monasteries and convents in the Christian context.  But they don't normally burst into spiritual flames or black holes of despair.

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