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Researchers who study the links among creativity, religious experience, and madness conclude that the artist, the mystic, and the psychotic have much in common, often including DNA. They're all able to make intuitive leaps between seemingly unrelated things (plastic and angels), but the artist ties those things together, weaving a web of sense between them. William James, who saw the madman and the mystic as existing along a continuum, said the difference lay in the content of their visions, their “luminousness..., reasonableness, and moral helpfulness”—and in whether the beliefs and experiences of other people connected with or confirmed them. Do the visions console or teach, or are they harmful? (My neighbor's delusions included the belief that she was wealthy enough to buy several houses and cars and that the radio stations needed to know she had a message to impart from God.)

The writer Evelyn Underhill believed that the true mystical experience—an “escape from the terrible museumlike world of daily life, where everything is classified and labeled”—is different from a psychotic break in two important ways. First, the mark of the mystic is humility and innocence, while the mark of the maniac is grandiosity. Second, the experience of the mystic brings her into communion with others and deeper into an experience of the real. “When you are really sure that every bush is 'aflame with God,'” Underhill wrote, “you will no longer feel contempt for the triviality of the bush.”

The role of the mystic in all religious traditions is creative: to serve as the kindling that keeps the spirit of the tradition burning. But just as fire is necessary for survival but can also be destructive, the gift of visions can warm with insight or burn with madness.

We're all, always, on some continuum between sane and not. At certain points, we all go a little individually mad. We fall unwisely in love. We become obsessed with Staffordshire bull terriers or office politics or a collection of vintage lunch boxes. Eventually, though, we wake up and wonder what we were thinking.

And sometimes we go mad (or mystical, depending on your view) in groups.

In the early 20th century, in Portugal, three young shepherds saw a vision of the Virgin Mary dressed in a very un-Mary-like short skirt, wearing jewelry and bearing secrets.

It's easy to dismiss the children's story, or to speculate that they were convinced by a woman who believed herself to be Mary. But when the children told people that Mary would reappear on a certain date near Fatima, a crowd of some 70,000 gathered to see her, and Mary, or something important, appeared. O Dia, a Lisbon newspaper, reported, “At one o'clock in the afternoon, midday by the sun, the rain stopped” and “the sky, pearly gray in color, illuminated the vast arid landscape with a strange light.” The reporter goes on to describe the shifting colors of the sun, from gray to silver and then a stained-glass blue. The sun whirled and the blue turned yellow so that “yellow stains fell against white handkerchiefs, against the dark skirts of women. They were repeated on the trees, on the stones...” (The phenomena, as described, suggest an eclipse or an atmospheric inversion. But there was no eclipse that day, and if there was an inversion, it was predicted by three young children and seen up to 40 kilometers away but no farther.) And then, everyone agreed, the sun came loose from the sky and began to “advance threateningly upon the earth...”

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