Mysteries of the Sacred Disease

Mysteries of the “Sacred Disease,” by Art Remillard

When I was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2000, I asked my neurologist about the cause of my seizures. His answer: “It’s a mystery.” Sister Mary Catherine employed this phrase when I inquired about the Holy Trinity; but I never expected to hear it from a neurologist. Alas, the various tests he ordered revealed nothing. And like so many others in my situation, the doctor explained that I would probably never know the cause.

Indeed, epilepsy is a mystery. Moreover, seizures are downright mysterious, causing many to use religious language to describe their attacks, claiming to have encountered divinity in their moments of neurological chaos. Perhaps this is why Hippocrates called epilepsy, “The Sacred Disease” (actually, it’s a brain “disorder”). Karen Armstrong, historian of religions and epileptic, explained that in the brief time preceding her seizures, “everything comes together in a moment—everything adds up, and you’re flooded with a sense of joy, and you’re just about to grasp it, and then you lose it and you crawl into an attack.” I can only echo Armstrong. Often, I see “something” that I can’t recognize or describe, but desperately want to. While in this state, I think that knowing “it” will bring about enlightenment and/or contentment. Then everything fades away, and the rest is history.

After his recent hospital stay, Chief Justice John Roberts still doesn’t know the source of his seizures. He too will likely contend with the mystery of epilepsy, and the mysterious quality of his seizures. According to one AM talk radio host, however, there may be no mystery at all. Just prior to Roberts’s episode, New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer reportedly vowed that he would never confirm a judicial appointment made by President Bush. This led the radio host to speculate, “Am I to believe there's no connection between Charles Schumer on Friday saying he would never . . . approve another Bush appointment to the court, to any court? And then the chief justice suffers a so-called seizure two days later? You're telling me there's no possibility of a conspiracy by the Democrats to have caused this seizure in some manner?”
If memory serves, I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 instead of Al Gore. I was living in Florida too. So perhaps “they” went after me! And to think, all this time I thought my epilepsy was the result of an angel, demon, genetic disorder, or bump on the head.


John Fea said…
I didn't know Chuck Schumer had such voodoo-like powers. I'll bet he has a Roberts bobble-head that he regularly sticks with pins. Perhaps Alito, Scalia, and Thomas should look into this.
Randall said…
Fascinating topic. Your personal experience is enlightening on the matter.

I thought the HBO series Rome did a good job of depicting the mystery/confusion surrounding Caesar's epilepsy.
Amy said…
Have you read Mark Salman's, "Lying Awake"? I must (fictional) read on this issue.
Art Remillard said…
Thanks for the comments and reference. I'll need to order that Lying Awake--I've never seen it before.

A few random thoughts since the post... There's a strong connection between religion and epilepsy. See:

Caesar is one significant epileptic among others, including Socrates, St. Paul, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, Jr., Ellen G. White, and Joan of Arc. If I could do a retroactive diagnosis, I would put St. Francis and Mother Ann Lee on this list too. Both had so many "visions" that I tend to think some sort of brain activity was at work there.

Some have used epilepsy to dismiss supernatural explainations. In other words, Muhammad was "just" seeing things, rather than hearing directions from a divine source. There's some research on the temporal lobe, aka, the "God Spot." Check here:

I often use the "God spot" article to start discussions in undergraduate classes. I ask whether this negates the presence of religion, or confirms it. Eva LaPlante's _Seized_ (a history of Teporal Lobe Epilepsy) makes the point that all human experience has a neurological starting point. So perhaps the "God Spot" is a divine antena...

I never know what to think of these things. But it's always a good way to get a discussion going in classes. I'm researching epilepsy and religion some this summer, hoping it can become the topic of my next ms. So perhaps then I'll have more answers... Or probably I'll just be more confused!
Amy said…
I'd love to talk/email more sometime. I am finishing an article on demon possession and sexuality (part of a project on evangelicalism & sexuality). While reading contemporary deliverance literature I came across many references to epilepsy. I have a section on genetics --perhaps we could talk more. Good luck with your work, it sounds promising!
Art Remillard said…
"demon possession and sexuality"-Wow! Can't wait to see that one. I enjoyed your article in Church History, also. Yes... my e-mail is Contact me any time.
Anonymous said…
Hey, I was very intrigued by what your post, and I am also very interested in Amy's topics. I went and got Lying Awake right away from barnes and noble and will begin reading it. The synopsis was fascinating considering my own personal.. experiences..

I guess I am epileptic, though I have only had one generalized seizure (In my sleep after watching that "The Secret" about law of attraction) (Haha, now I don't know what to think of it).

I've been diagnosed with having complex partial seizures (Had them all my life). And I would like to get into your discussion with Amy, my email is It would be awesome if you could include me about your research into literature and epilepsy as I am currently working on my term paper targeted towards epilepsy, psychosis, schizophrenia, and tying all these into religion and how it's built into man.

(In reality, I'm just trying to learn more about myself :)


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