First, a confession…
Sometimes in Mass, my mind wanders. This is not entirely my fault. I love St. Peter’s and its architecture, but the acoustics have always been terrible. Everything said from the altar or the pulpit bounces around in the dome above it, so that the last thing a speaker said is competing with what he or she is saying after that. This is particularly bad for me with my Meniere’s problem, because it causes me to have particular trouble separating speech clearly from background noise. Add to that the fact that the Mass I attend is in Spanish, and while my pronunciation is good, my understanding isn’t what it was 50 years ago when I lived in Ecuador. Even when I can hear it clearly, I have to work hard to catch enough words to get the drift.
Put all that together, and I have a lot of trouble following what is being said. So my mind wanders. Frequently. And when it wanders, I often think of religious-themed posts for the blog. But then, by the time the Mass is over, and I go home and have lunch and, if I have my druthers, have a nice Sunday afternoon nap, I’ve forgotten about it. So Sunday posts remain rare.
But here’s the one that was going through my head in Mass yesterday…
The night before, I watched on Netflix an episode of “House,” from Season 5, titled “Unfaithful.”
It opens with a weary, dissolute-seeming young priest (Greene’s “whiskey priest” in The Power and the Glory seems to be a literary antecedent) who has just taken off his collar and is trying to relax in his dingy cell, located in the charity that he runs for the homeless, by knocking back a whiskey or three.
A few moments before, a homeless man had knocked, seeking a warm coat, which the priest gave him. Now, someone is insistently knocking again. Reluctantly, grimly, he drags himself to the door, opens it, and before him is a bloody Christ, with fresh stigmata, scourge wounds all over, and the crown of thorns.
The priest says, “That’s not funny, freak.” The figure before him answers, “No one is laughing, Daniel.” The priest looks down and sees that the figure’s nail-pierced feet are hovering several inches from the ground.
This, to say the least, freaks him out.
The priest immediately turns himself in to the hospital where House works — because, of course, he was hallucinating. He leaps to that conclusion because, after being hounded from parish to parish by a false sexual abuse charge leveled at him by a young man several parishes back, the priest has no faith left.
So to him, as to the atheist House, the only explanation for such an incident is that there is something wrong with his brain. It’s a symptom, not a message from God — a diagnosis with which the writers of the show clearly agree. And we viewers, being moderns, are meant to assume this is the case.
The next day, thinking about this in Mass, it occurred to me that there’s something wrong with the logic underlying the show’s premise. To follow me, I ask my unbelieving readers to suspend their disbelief for a moment. Stipulate — just for the sake of this discussion — that there is a God and that He does try to tell us things from time to time.
So, if we accept that… why would the incident being a hallucination mean that it wasn’t an actual message from God? Mind you, I can’t tell you what the message in this case would be, beyond shocking the priest out of his faith slump.
But what about a hallucination makes it an invalid form of perception, within the context of faith? Think about this: The Bible is filled with instances of people receiving divine messages through dreams, from the original Joseph of the many-colored coat to Joseph of Nazareth. No one says, “It can’t be a real message because it was just a dream.”
And what is a hallucination except a waking dream?
We mortals have a wide variety of methods of communication. We can speak to people face-to-face, or tell them what we’re thinking with sign language. There’s writing, smoke signals, Morse code, email, videochat, texting — some of which are more “virtual” than others, but all seen as genuine communication. And let’s not forget movies with special effects — do such effects mean that they can’t communicate a serious message? (Not that CGI-rich films tend to be heavy on ideas, but they can be, just as any other film can.)
The hallucination, or the sleeping version, seems to be a favorite mode of communication of the Almighty.
And you don’t have to be a believer to find meaning in dreams, to see them as powerful communicators of important ideas. Ask a Freudian. Absent God, it could be your superego is trying to tell you something.
We empirical moderns like to think that something isn’t real if it can’t be independently confirmed — which seems rather narrow and limited of us. If someone else looking out his window at the moment the priest was having his waking dream did not see the crucified figure hovering there, then the priest didn’t, either. Except that he did. And if anyone could make him see something that his neighbor didn’t — encoding the message for him alone to see, which is not a radical concept — an all-powerful God who knows everything about how every individual is made would be the one. Again, you have to believe in God to follow this, but if you do, why would you think the Deity couldn’t do that?
A photograph taken at the time wouldn’t show the Jesus figure. There would be no drops of blood on the sidewalk. But then, there was no physical evidence of Moses’ burning bush experience, either. The scripture specifically notes that although it was burning, the bush was not consumed.
So while you might not believe, if you do believe, why is this priest’s vision automatically less legit than that of Moses, or the dream in which Joseph was urged to go ahead and marry Mary?
There are some belief systems that are all about hallucination, even about deliberately inducing them — I think of shamans who treat peyote as a sacrament.
Have you ever read any of Carlos Castaneda’s books? They’re all about achieving greater enlightenment by inducing hallucinations, and actually entering into those hallucinations and taking action within them. The Separate Reality is as legitimate, within the context of that system of thought, as one that concrete thinkers see as the only reality.
So, given all that, what’s the justification for seeing a hallucination as just a hallucination, and therefore automatically devoid of meaning? That seems a very shallow, and at the least unimaginative, explanation.
Anyway, that’s what I got to thinking about during Mass when I was supposed to be paying attention…