I thought harder than usual about the Second Reading at Mass yesterday – The First Letter of St Paul to Timothy, 1:12-17 – because it was my turn to read it.
It starts with St Paul thanking Jesus who called him into his service “even though I used to be a blasphemer and did all I could to injure and discredit the faith.” He goes on to say that mercy was shown him “because until I became a believer I had been acting in ignorance; and the grace of our Lord filled me with faith and with the love that is in Christ Jesus.”
St Paul is clearly alluding to his supernatural experience on the road to Damascus, an event so momentous that it has become the language commonly used to describe a dramatic conversion.
The reason I mention it is because I have been reading A Smell of Burning: the Story of Epilepsy by Colin Grant, published by Jonathan Cape; Grant suggests that temporal lobe epilepsy might have been the cause of the bright light that caused St Paul to fall down during his journey.
Discussing him, alongside St Joan of Arc who also had visions and heard voices, Grant writes, “Were they blessed…with hyper-religiosity or were they suffering from an illness, temporal lobe perhaps?”
Ignoring the slightly insulting phrase “hyper-religiosity” which suggests a religious fanaticism which has nothing to do with true sanctity, I take issue with Grant for not understanding that the two extraordinary people he refers to were anything but ill.
Even if you reject the Christian belief that visions may come from God or his messengers, I would have thought a cursory knowledge of the inspired missionary activity of St Paul or the amazing military exploits of St Joan would be sufficient to recognise their sanity, practicality and leadership qualities; a case of grace building upon their natural gifts as instruments of the providence of God.
Grant’s book is an interesting study of an illness often seen as mysterious. Dostoyevsky, a sufferer, brilliantly describes the strange “aura” that for some people precedes a seizure. But Christians have to resist a reductive reading of human beings as merely complex brains. Most people who experience visions or who hear voices have a mental or physical illness – but throughout history there are a chosen number whose unusual lives radiate holiness rather than pathology.
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