So why can’t a hallucination be an actual message?



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…

19 thoughts on “So why can’t a hallucination be an actual message?

  1. Brad Warthen

    Actually, to be completely accurate — the hallucination is INITIALLY seen as a symptom, but turns out to be a red herring, and not a symptom of the more serious underlying illness that manifests itself after the priest is admitted. The hallucination is written off to the whiskey.

    But that’s unrelated to my point. I think…

  2. Kathryn Braun Fenner

    Top thought: if you have special difficulty hearing Spanish Mass, and an English one is surely readily available, can we not conclude that understanding what is said in Mass is not a priority for you?

    Second thought: define hallucination.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      On the first point — I don’t do much better, in terms of hearing what’s going on, at the English Masses. And I don’t like the way the English Mass changed a couple of years back. I’m more comfortable saying those things in Spanish. Long story.

      Main reason: I’m a reader, and Eucharistic minister, at the Spanish Masses. I have a job to do at those. There are plenty of people to do those jobs at the English Masses.

      On the second: I think you can define “hallucination” any way you like. Do it in a materialistic, medical sense if you like, of the misfiring of neurons or some such. I would say that in a faith context, if the hallucination is indeed a message from God, then the neurons are firing perfectly for communicating that message.

      Information is being perceived, whether it’s a dream, a hallucination, or what everyone would agree is objective reality. Doesn’t matter. You’re perceiving something that can have meaning to you.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        A tiny, tiny example of what I don’t like about the new English Mass…

        Before, when the priest said, “The Lord be with you,” we responded, “And also with you.” Which was natural, and made sense. Anglicans (and perhaps other liturgical denominations; I don’t know) still say that.

        But now we’re supposed to say, “And with your spirit.” Which to me is a really odd, oblique sort of response. The natural complement to “The Lord be with you” is to express the wish that the Lord be with the person who said that to you. But rather than respond in kind, we change the subject to say, “I just want the Lord to be with your SPIRIT.”

        Silly objection, I know, but I consider it to be a silly change, adding obfuscation to what was a clear, understandable exchange.

        Never mind that we say the same thing in Spanish (“Y con tu espíritu.”). I’m used to that; it’s been that way as long as I’ve been participating in the Spanish Mass, so it doesn’t bug me as much. Basically, this new Mass supposedly reconciles the English Mass more with the old Latin Mass, and apparently the Spanish version was already closer.

        And yet, there are other things that are very different from the Spanish version.

        For instance, at another point in the Mass, we used to say, “It is right to give Him thanks and praise.” Now, we just say, “It is right and just,” period. Which is shorter, and yet introduces a wasteful redundancy, “right” and “just” being almost synonymous.

        In Spanish, we say, “En verdad es justo y necesario,” which translates as, “In truth, it is just and necessary.” Which is quite different.

        I haven’t seen or heard any convincing justification for these edits, so as an editor, they bug me. Probably a lot more than they bug most people.

        And I’m not even touching on my BIG objection, which involved changing the Creed from “We believe” to “I believe…” That is HUGE for me…

        1. Doug Ross

          You aren’t big on change, are you?

          FYI, I go to a church where they opened a series called “Rock Theology” last week with the church band playing “Take It Easy” by the Eagles. That would probably have caused your head to explode. I think they are covering Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” next week.

          If you’re looking for a modern church with an excellent band and a great pastor who delivers a message that is positive and Bible based, you can’t go wrong with the Village Church in Blythewood. The pastor, Eric Estep, is the son of Wendell Estep who has been the pastor at First Baptist Church downtown for a long time.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I’m not big on changing WORDS without good reason. I do it all day, but I know why I’m doing it. I have yet to see or hear a good argument for these changes.

            Words, to me, are holy things.

            And if “Take it Easy” works for you, more power to you. Not my preferred flavor, though. (I’d prefer “Let it Be,” or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” if you force me to take popular recent music — but I could do without them in my liturgy.) Which is why we’re blessed to live in a pluralistic country…

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Kathryn, I find myself in Episcopal churches pretty frequently, and I find their respect for the old words soothing (actually, the NEW words in Catholic churches are the old words, but they predate me, so they’re not MY old words).

              The priest says “The Lord be with you,” and we all say, “And also with you,” and my inner Anglophile adds, “Quite right…”

              There’s an oft-repeated meme in Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars: The sailors, the ordinary foremast jacks, are all deeply conservative. They work hard and their food is plain, but as O’Brian says over and over, “It was what they were used to, and they liked what they were used to.”

              Time and again, jarring, stressful, deadly events shake up the floating community, but after a few days and weeks of blue-water sailing, with all the routines back in force, everything is soothed and made normal again.

              Of course, part of their routine is the standard Anglican service on deck on Sundays. But when he has no parson aboard, Captain Jack Aubrey generally resorts to simply reading the Articles of War when he “rigs church.” Because to Jack, God’s Laws and the Admiralty’s orders are in many ways the same thing. And even though the Articles are replete with such threats as “every such person so offending, and being thereof convicted by the sentence of a court martial, shall be punished with death,” the sailors find it calming, read in his authoritative voice.

              It is what they are used to, and they like what they are used to…

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              I just looked back at the Articles, as amended in 1757, and here was the first provision:

              All commanders, captains, and officers, in or belonging to any of His Majesty’s ships or vessels of war, shall cause the public worship of Almighty God, according to the liturgy of the Church of England established by law, to be solemnly, orderly and reverently performed in their respective ships; and shall take care that prayers and preaching, by the chaplains in holy orders of the respective ships, be performed diligently; and that the Lord’s day be observed according to law.

              But Jack usually just read the Articles — solemnly, orderly and reverently…

            1. Doug Ross

              Interesting how close minded some people can be… I’ve tried all sorts of services at least before choosing mine. I’ve been down the Episcopal path for several years and was bored beyond belief at the repetitive rote recitation, funeral dirge-like music, and sermons that were aimed at divinity students. Did a long stint in a traditional Southern Baptist church but found the people tended to think politics was a topic suitable for Sunday School.

              Give me electric guitars, a bass, keyboards, and three excellent singers any day of the week including Sunday. Much like my politics, I believe in a personal relationship with God. I don’t think He cares how I get there.

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              And more power to you, Doug.

              I’m particularly sorry you had a bad experience at Trinity, and I’m sure many of its congregants would be saddened to hear that.

              I, too, have “tried all sorts of services” in my life. I was baptized a Southern Baptist, but mostly grew up in a sort of vaguely Protestant ecumenism. We attended military chapel services when on or near a base. During the 2.5 years I lived in Ecuador, we attended nondenominational services in English led by a missionary whose sect I still don’t know (although I did learn, years later, that he was an agent of the CIA).

              After I was no longer a military dependent, I attended churches representing a variety of faith traditions. (Aside from the faith journey aspect, I was academically interested in the subject. One of my favorite courses in college was “U.S. Social and Intellectual History Before 1865,” which dealt largely with the wide varieties of religious experience in this country, since in that period most intellectual pursuits had a significant religious element — most universities being, you will recall, faith-based.)

              But the whole time, I was drawn more and more to Catholicism. I made it official in 1981.

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    My mind probably turns to such topics because, when I was in college, I read too much R.D. Laing (The Politics of Experience) and Aldous Huxley (specifically, The Doors of Perception).

    And then later, Castaneda.

    And yes, Castaneda’s accounts strain credulity. They go way too far. But the concept — that one can perceive an alternative reality that itself has meaning and power — is intriguing to me…

  4. Karen Pearson

    Of course, an hallucination can be from God. So can almost anything if it opens your heart and your mind to hearing, to understanding, and to love.


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