Gazing at the sky
Photo Illustration: Jonathan Barkat
Every day atrocities are committed in the name of faith. It's possible to distinguish between the fires of fanaticism and the abiding glow of our better angels.
“A certain tendency to insanity has always attended the opening of the religious sense in men, as if they had been 'blasted with excess of light.'”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

My neighbor has covered a pile of firewood with a sheet of milky plastic that catches the breeze like a pale silk parachute.

Please notice I said “like.” I know it isn't a parachute. I also know it isn't silk, though I'm not absolutely sure it's plastic. I haven't looked at it up close. I don't want to spoil the illusion. Because every single morning when the sun hits it, I'm startled by the beauty of the thing, by the way it seems to radiate a shimmering, shifting light. At night it's even better. The woodpile is situated beneath a house lamp that comes on when the sun goes down. When that happens, the billowing plastic becomes an opalescent pearl. And every single night, I think: "Angel!"

I could almost worship this firewood covering, if I were looking for that kind of miracle. But in the second it takes me to go through the mind's first drafts—"parachute? silk? pearl? angel?"—a different section of my brain takes over and says, "Plastic: not a thing to waste your time on."

So much work goes on in the brain to keep us located in the world of familiar objects rather than the world of angels.

I'm conscious of the brain's hard work because I'm a writer, and—in writing as in life—those initial drafts, those momentary mistakes, are the source of mystery and wonder; they force you to stop sleepwalking and pay attention. And I'm conscious that I think "angel," "parachute," and "silk" instead of something more...unfamiliar, because even my delusions, however fleeting, are reality bound.

When I was a child, I had a neighbor who saw “real” angels. Never saved by the intercession of the simile (it's only like an angel), she saw heavenly creatures everywhere. But also demons, and horrifying visions of hell. And she heard God speak, and believed, at times, that she was the bride of Christ. She was a kind and beautiful woman, and her delusions, unlike, say, those of the Yorkshire Ripper (who heard the voice of God telling him to kill women), were a danger only to herself.

Still, later on, when I read about Joan of Arc and the mystic Julian of Norwich, I wondered what separated them from my neighbor. Why did such-and-such historical figure walk around with people listening raptly, when my kind and gentle neighbor was given a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and driven to the hospital?

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...”

This was 1917, less than a hundred years ago, at a time when Europe as a whole was mad. In the midst of the Great War, the vision provided solace. Whether miracle (as the Catholic Church has said), meteorological or optic event (everyone was encouraged to look at the sun), or comforting group delusion, I'll let you decide.

Group delusions and the collective experience of miracles, like individual madness and the experience of mystics, occur in every culture and at every time. In the late 1980s, a climatologist named Iben Browning predicted that on December 3, 1990, an earthquake would occur along the New Madrid fault line that runs through parts of the American Midwest. Schools were closed. Employees stayed home from work. Perfectly sane people rigged their cars with generators and tied their hot water heaters to their walls with cup hooks. Insurance adjusters were writing up earthquake riders for months before the predicted event. And even skeptics stockpiled water for Y2K.

The point is that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between reality and illusion, and a group won't help you decide. Charles Mackay, author of an 1841 book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, wrote that people go mad quite easily in groups but come to their senses slowly, one by one.

We are particularly susceptible to group delusions during moments of profound historical change. And throughout history, such delusions have been the cause of war and bloodshed. The theologian Paul Tillich called the destructive fervor that sometimes overtakes societies “demonic.” Stronger than the psychological term “mass hysteria,” the demonic, Tillich explained, often makes its appeal by using forms, symbols, and even liturgies borrowed from religious traditions.

A failed suicide bomber, trying to describe the attraction of martyrdom, spoke of feeling as though he were literally floating or swimming between this world and paradise; such quasi-religious ecstatic experiences are kindled, first, by the dynamics of a crowd. At times when everyday life is difficult, when the world is changing and the old paradigms are falling apart, people seem to want the manic ecstasy that gives meaning, the burning certainty that relieves them of their messy personal freedom and will reveal, once and for all, the real truth. A girl involved in Hitler Youth wrote in her diary after a meeting that it was as though "a torch had been thrown into my heart and it continued to flame and blaze..."

John Lennon suggested in “Imagine” that without religion the world would be a better, or saner, place. Richard Dawkins makes the same point in his recent book, The God Delusion. Without religion, he writes, there would have been “no suicide bombers, no 9/ Crusades, no witch hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim Taliban to blow up ancient statues, no public beheadings of blasphemers, no flogging of female skin for the crime of showing an inch of it.”

But though the Crusades were fought in the name of Jesus and though terrorists blow up trains in the name of Allah, and though religions began and often are sustained by visions and prophecies that are sometimes almost indistinguishable from the ravings of your great-aunt Jane, you can't blame the violence on the religious tradition or dismiss the tradition because of the visions. Those same traditions help people live sanely and die peacefully. They gave solace, support, community, inspiration, and an ethical framework to Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. It's not the religion that's destructive. It's the process that masquerades in its name.

Sylvia Plath, who was both a visionary poet and at times certifiably insane, said in a journal entry that when she was crazy, she was too busy being crazy to write any poems. Where insanity begins, poetry ends. The same is true of fanaticism and religion.

My daughter recently returned from a two-week trip to Eastern Europe with some amazing photos of the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania. According to local legend, the Hill of Crosses—which looks crazy, completely chaotic—marks the spot where a man saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. The hill was razed several times by the Soviets but was always rebuilt, pilgrim by pilgrim, cross by cross. Is it a beautiful piece of folk art or a holy shrine? If the legend is right and there was a vision, was it delusional? Angel or firewood? We can't know for certain. But every day the world is on fire with beauty and with suffering. So we honor skepticism and risk faith.

Susan Neville is an Indianapolis-based fiction writer and essayist, and the author of Iconography: A Writer's Meditation (Indiana University Press) as well as Sailing the Inland Sea, (Quarry Books).


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