Monday, December 27, 2004

Unio Mystica in Montreal

Nuns Brains Probed for God
The Carmelite nuns live a life of silent prayer, separated from the modern world by the high stone wall that surrounds their monastery in an industrial part of Montreal. Except for medical care, they rarely leave their sanctuary. But that changed late last month, when they began to make periodic visits to, of all places, a science lab.

The sisters arrive at the neuro-science laboratory in the University of Montreal's psychology department two at a time, wearing habits sewn from thick, dark cloth, high white collars and veils that frame their faces and flow down their backs. On their feet are sensible brown laceups that appear to have never seen the outdoors before.

They come to take part in an experiment that will probe a mystical and very private part of their lives. Sister Diane, the monastery's prioress, and Sister Teresa admit to being nervous as they peer curiously into a dark chamber about the size of a walk-in closet and equipped with an old barber's chair.

It is here that they have agreed to try to relive unio mystica, a religious experience so intense that Christians profess to sense their Lord as a physical presence. The nuns hope to help Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard uncover just what happens in their brains when they feel the hand of God.

My favorite part of this article is the following section:
When the analysis of all three experiments is done, he hopes to have a clear biological picture of an experience that mystifies even those who have lived it. Ultimately, he would like to know enough about how it works to be able to offer the same experience to anybody seeking spiritual growth.

Sister Diane says she is certain that Dr. Beauregard will discover a biological basis for the Carmelites' spiritual experience, one she says is shared by all human beings. God equipped people with the brains they need for a spiritual life, she insists. "Our body has a spiritual component. To be a human being is to be a spiritual being. I'm convinced this will show in the results."

Sister Diane is possessed of a deep and lovely faith! Some people find the idea of a "biological basis for the Carmelites' spiritual experience" threatening, with the implication that "it's all in our heads." Sister Diane, on the other hand, believes that this is a gift from God Himself. Beautiful.

And I like the part about "offering the same experience to anybody seeking spiritual growth." I wonder what that will actually mean, though; an electrical zap to the brain when somebody's got a jones for God? That would seem to take the journey away, and everything one might learn from it. The effort counts for something, after all. If I hadn't gone through the pain of getting sober - if they had just zapped me when I needed to get my mind in order - I wouldn't have learned how to pray. I wouldn't have learned how to meditate and order my own mind. I wouldn't have learned all the things I learned (often the very hardest way), and God wouldn't have been able to "instruct my heart, not by ideas, but by pains and contradictions."

It would have been a flat experience, in other words, one without depth. Pain is the price of admission to a new life, it says in the 7th Step. In every case, it adds.


Annie said...

Beautiful! Yes, I do also believe that it is an experience that is available to all and that this is what all the teachings of Christ in the Gospel point to.

bls said...

Thanks, Annie. I love the idea that somebody is studying this, and that the sisters are taking part so eagerly.

(And thanks for commenting! You're my very first visitor on this blog!)