Karen Armstrong

My neurologist once told me that people with temporal lobe epilepsy are very often intensely religious. Certainly just before I have a grand mal fit I have a ‘vision’ of such peace, joy and significance that I can only call it God. What does this say about the whole nature of religious vision? Certain episodes in the lives of the saints have acquired a new meaning for me. When Theresa of Avila had her three-day vision of hell, was she simply having a temporal lobe attack? The horrors she saw are similar to those I have experienced, but in her case informed by the religious imagery of her time. Like other saints who have ‘seen’ hell she describes an appalling stench, which is part of an epileptic aura. Is it possible that the feeling I have had all my life that something – God, perhaps? – is just over the horizon, something unimaginable but almost tangibly present, is simply the result of an electrical irregularity in my brain? It is a question that can’t yet be answered, unless it be that God, if He exists, could have created us with that capacity for Him, glimpsed at only when the brain is convulsed. What I can say, however, is that if my ‘visions’ have sometimes let me into ‘Hell’ they have also given me possible intimations of a Heaven which I would not have been without.

— Karen Armstrong
Armstrong, K. (1983). Beginning the World. New York: St Martin's Press.