Let Him Easter in UsApril 6, 2012
Far as I’m concerned religion ain’t nobody’s business but the person whose business it is. But I was at church today for the Good Friday service, and on the walk home (I can’t drive—I’ll tell you why in a minute) got to thinking about the journey that’s taken me to where I am, which I thought I’d share with anyone who cares to share, and if you don’t that’s fine. I was raised a Roman Catholic. But by the time I graduated from college, except for a secular appreciation for the artistry of literary masters like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Gerard Manley Hopkins, I’d developed contempt for religious belief in general and my childhood faith in particular. Then one day thirty years ago, I had what I can only describe as a “conversion experience.” Waiting for a bus and contemplating the laughable insignificance of my life and the lives of the strangers around me–ephemeral specks adrift in an indifferent cosmos–I was possessed by a different thought. No one nearby, I’m sure, had a clue of the dramatic turn my mind was taking. But where there had been a void, there was a Person, a real Presence, a Being who knew me by name. I returned to the practice of my faith yet shared my experience with few. There didn’t seem much to share: no dramatic tumble off a horse like St. Paul or battlefield wound like St. Ignatius Loyola. (For God’s sake, all I did was wait for a bus!) I was also sure that most of my friends, agnostics at best, would think I’d either taken temporary leave of my senses or had some kind of seizure. A few years later, I did just that: had a seizure–a full-blown, grand mal “cerebral incident.” The doctor in the emergency room, equipped with the bedside manner of an SS officer, speculated that an MRI would reveal a tumor in my brain, the most common cause of seizures for people in my age group.
I turned out not to have a tumor. The wise and kindly neurologist who took my case told me my seizure was “idiopathic”: “We idiots can’t find the cause.” After a hiatus of several years, the seizures returned. A friend with whom I’d shared my conversion immediately equated the two. She cheerfully pointed out that as well as sharing religious faith and literary ambitions with Dostoyevsky, I now shared epilepsy. Alas, if epilepsy aided Dostoyevsky’s literary career, it had no such side effect for me. Since being diagnosed, I’ve published two novels and am working on a third. But in matters of style or volume of book sales, epilepsy has made no improvement. What it did do was deepen my interest in the stigma attached. In biblical times, epilepsy was equated with demonic possession. There’s an story in Mark’s Gospel in which a man brings his son to the apostles and asks that the boy be cured of “a spirit of dumbness in him” which when it takes control “throws him to the ground and he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and goes rigid.” When the apostles fail to cast the spirit out, the father pleads with Jesus to try. At the same time as he takes pity on the boy, Jesus rebukes the apostles for their lack of faith. He commands the spirit to leave and never return, and the child becomes so calm, the onlookers mistakenly think him dead. Mark’s account focuses not so much on the epileptic boy as on Jesus’ frustration with the way his followers were more concerned with exercising power than practicing compassion. (“The more things change,” as the French say, “the more they stay the same.”) Medical science demolished the notion of a tie between epilepsy and demonology. Yet the ancient stigma persisted. Epilepsy remained a shameful affliction, characterized by physical and emotional loss of self-control. Congress voted in 1903 to bar entry of persons with any history of insanity or epilepsy. Connecticut was the first of several states to forbid marriage by the “epileptic, imbecilic or feeble-minded.” When the Supreme Court rendered its 1927 landmark decision in Buck v. Bell, upholding compulsory sterilization, the petitioner, Carrie Buck, was held at the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg, Virginia. The eugenicists who ran the Third Reich’s “Hereditary Health Courts” also judged epileptics worthy of sterilization.Today, epilepsy is primarily the focus of medical research rather than superstition or state-sponsored persecution. Myths persist–no, we epileptics can’t swallow our tongues–but important advances in anti-seizure medications continue to be made.
For my part, I attribute no special spiritual or mystical dimensions to the seizures I still occasionally experience. Neural misfiring causes epilepsy. Neither God nor the devil deserves credit or blame. One memory persists, however, from my initial seizure 15 years ago. The day after was Monday of Holy Week. Leaving my house at dawn, dreading the diagnosis I might be given by the doctor, bruised and sore, my mind still clouded, I glanced up at the Palisades. Though I’d viewed the same scene countless mornings, the vivid splotches of budding trees dotting the cliffs’ granite grandeur stunned me. It was as if I were seeing them through a newborn’s eyes. Fragments popped in my head from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s masterpiece, “Wreck of the Deutschland,” the first poem he wrote after his conversion and now a part of my own religious journey: “Our passion-plungèd giant risen, The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides…Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east…”