Here are more accounts of those who have experienced God in their lives, followed by a discussion of the impact of experiencing God on the brain. Can experiences of God be measured?
Claude Newman and James Hughs
In late 1943, Claude Newman was a young African American man awaiting execution in the Warren County jail in Mississippi. He had murdered his step-grandfather, Sid Cook, in revenge for Cook’s having sexually abused his grandmother. During an evening’s conversation with the four prisoners who shared his cellblock, Newman noticed a Miraculous Medal hanging around the neck of one of the men. Not being familiar with the medal, Newman asked about it. The young prisoner who wore it, apparently embarrassed and angry, took it from around his neck and flung it at Newman’s feet, saying, “Take the thing!” Newman did, picking it up and placing it around his own neck.
That night, as Newman slept on his cot, he felt a touch on his wrist. When he woke, he saw what he later described as, “the most beautiful woman that God ever created.” Newman was frightened at first, but the woman told him, “If you would like me to be your Mother, and you would like to be my child, send for a priest of the Catholic Church.” She then disappeared. Newman got up and started yelling, “A ghost! A ghost!”, and demanding to see a Catholic priest.
Fr. Robert O’Leary, SVD came to see Newman the next morning. Newman told Fr. O’Leary about his vision. He and the other men in his cellblock began receiving instruction on the Catholic faith. After some weeks, Fr. O’Leary announced that the lesson of that day would be on the sacrament of Confession. “Oh, I know about that!” Newman said. “The Lady told me that when we go to confession we are kneeling down not before a priest, but we’re kneeling down by the Cross of her Son. And that when we are truly sorry for our sins, and we confess our sins, the blood He shed flows down over us and washes us free from all sins.” Amazed to hear that Our Lady had visited Newman a second time, Fr. O’Leary asked about the vision. Newman explained that the Lady had told him that he was to remind Fr. O’Leary of a vow the priest had made in Holland in 1940 to build a church in honor of her Immaculate Conception. Fr. O’Leary was astounded. No one else had known of this promise he had made to the Blessed Mother. Fr. O’Leary was convinced that Newman’s visions were authentic.
Claude Newman was baptized into the Catholic Church on January 16, 1944. On January 20, he was scheduled to be executed in the electric chair. As Newman knelt in prayer with Fr. O’Leary, the sheriff of the prison announced that Newman had received a two-week reprieve from the governor. Shaken, Newman began to cry, but not for joy. He explained to the priest and sheriff, “If you ever saw her face, and looked into her eyes, you wouldn’t want to live another day!” Fr. O’Leary, touched by Newman’s deep faith, recommended that he make a sacrifice of the next two weeks for the sake of another prisoner, James Hughs. Hughs was a white prisoner who had been raised Catholic but had abandoned the faith. What is more, he hated Claude Newman with a great passion. Speaking of James Hughs, Fr. O’Leary said, “This man was the filthiest, most immoral person I had ever come across. His hatred for God and for everything spiritual defied description.”
Fr. O’Leary told Newman, “Maybe Our Blessed Mother wants you to offer this denial of being with her for his conversion. Why don’t you offer to God every moment that you are separated from your heavenly Mother for this prisoner, so that he will not be separated from God for all eternity.” Newman agreed, and offered his sacrifice for James Hughs. At the end of the two weeks, there were no more reprieves. Claude Newman was executed on February 4, 1944. He was twenty years old. His last words to Fr. O’Leary were, “Father, I will remember you. And whenever you have a request, ask me, and I will ask her [the Blessed Mother].”
Three months later, it was James Hugh’s turn in the electric chair. He had refused the comfort of a priest or the sacraments. When strapped to the chair, the sheriff asked if he had any last words. He started a stream of blasphemies, but then suddenly stopped. He looked up in horror and screamed, “Sheriff, get me a priest!” Fr. O’Leary came to Hughs, and the condemned man confessed his sins with great remorse. The sheriff asked Hughs what changed his mind. Hughs explained, “Remember that black man Claude – the one whom I hated so much? Well, he’s standing there, over in that corner. And behind him with one hand on each shoulder is the Blessed Virgin Mary. And Claude said to me, ‘I offered my death in union with Christ on the Cross for your salvation. She has obtained for you this gift of seeing your place in Hell if you do not repent.’ I have been shown my place in Hell, and that’s why I screamed.” James Hughs was executed as scheduled, but in the last moment of his life he repented of his sins and was reconciled with God.
In 1947, Fr. Robert O’Leary fulfilled his promise to Our Lady and built Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The parish is still active today.
When Anjese Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was a little girl growing up in Skopje in Macedonia (then a part of the Ottoman Empire), she was inspired by stories of missionaries. At 18, she left her home to join the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish missionary community, and was sent to Darjeeling, in West Bengal, India for her novitiate training. In 1931, she took her first vows and the name Teresa, after St. Therese of Lisieux. Sr. Teresa was sent to Calcutta, where she taught geography and religion at St. Mary’s School, eventually becoming head mistress in 1944. In 1946, however, she contracted tuberculosis and could no longer teach. The Sisters of Loreto arranged for her to return to Darjeeling to recuperate. On the train ride back to Darjeeling, September 10, 1946, Sr. Teresa received what she later described as “the call within the call.” She understood God’s will for her to take a different direction with her life. As she explained later, “I was to leave the convent and work with the poor, living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”
The moment transformed her. After receiving “the call within the call”, Sr. Teresa began the formation of what would become the Missionaries of Charity. The mission of her order, in Mother Teresa’s words, is to care for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” From a small beginning, the Missionaries of Charity have grown to a community of 4,500 sisters serving in over 130 countries, plus brothers, priests and lay co-workers. Mother Teresa herself became the embodiment of Christian care for the poor, the dying and any who suffer, as well as an example of religious poverty. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work of caring for all in need. In 2003, she was beatified by Pope St. John Paul the Great.
Dave Brubeck was an internationally famous jazz musician. Perhaps best known for his 1959 album, “Time Out,” which included the hits, “Take Five,” and “Blue Rondo A la Turk,” Brubeck was the first jazz musician to be featured on the cover of TIME magazine.
In 1980, Brubeck was contacted by Ed Murray, editor of the popular Catholic newsweekly, Our Sunday Visitor. Murray wanted Brubeck to compose a musical piece based on the Catholic Mass. Brubeck, who had been raised without religion (at the time, he identified himself as “nothing” when it came to religion), had no experience of the Mass. He tried to refuse the commission, but Murray would not take “no” for an answer. The result was, To Hope! A Celebration. Shortly before the premier of his Mass, however, Brubeck was approached by a priest who asked him why the composition didn’t include a section for The Lord’s Prayer. “They didn’t ask me to do that,” Brubeck replied. When the priest suggested that The Lord’s Prayer was an integral part of the Mass and really should be included, Brubeck balked. “No,” he told the priest. “I’m going on vacation and I’ve taken a lot of time from my wife and family. I want to be with them and not worry about music.”
Brubeck went on his vacation with his family. He later explained, however, that, “The first night we were in the Caribbean, I dreamt the Our Father.” Brubeck got out of bed and wrote down as much as he could remember of the piece he had dreamt. It was at that moment that Brubeck decided to become a Catholic. Of course, he added The Lord’s Prayer to his Mass.
To Hope! A Celebration was to be performed for Pope John Paul II during the pontiff’s visit to San Francisco in 1987. Brubeck was approached again, this time to compose a processional piece to accompany the pope’s entry into Candlestick Park. Brubeck initially refused, then asked to see the text. It was one line only, from the Gospel According to Matthew: “Upon this rock I will build my church and the jaws of hell cannot prevail against it.”
“So I’m thinking, ‘Now they want nine minutes on this one sentence. How am I going to do that?’ I went to bed and in the middle of the night I thought the only way to do this is how Bach would have done it – with a chorale and fugue. We can use the words over and over. I was dreaming the subject of the fugue. And when I woke up, I said, ‘Jeez, I’ve got it. This is the way I can do it, is with a chorale and fugue.’ I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.”
Sally Read is a respected English poet who has published four volumes of her poetry, three in English and one in Italian. Having been raised in a thoroughly anti-religious home, before her 2012 conversion Read described herself as, “a really committed atheist,” who, “really hated the Catholic Church.”
While living in Santa Marinelli, a coastal Italian city, she began work on a volume of poetry based on her experiences as a trained psychiatric nurse. Read began to wonder about the existence of the human soul. She began discussing, and sometimes hotly debating, the subject with a local Catholic priest. Over the course of these discussions, Read began to question her atheism. “I kind of had this feeling as a poet,” Read explains, “that God was the ultimate poet and the ultimate Creator, and I was simply being used as an instrument.” She admitted to her priest friend that she was no longer an atheist, but would not yet make the leap to Christianity.
Still, her worldview had been turned topsy-turvy, leading to inner confusion and unrest. “It was very, very difficult. I mean, I wasn’t sleeping at all. I was very emotionally traumatized. It was, she says, “the most disrupted period of my whole life.”Then Read visited a local Catholic Church and found rest. “Just one day, I was in tears and said to this icon of Christ, ‘If you’re there, then you have to help me.’ And, this thing happened which is very hard to explain, but I felt as if I was being physically lifted up and my tears stopped, and I felt this presence.” Read was received into the Catholic Church in December, 2012.
But, isn’t it possible that religious experiences are rooted in neurology? Is it not possible that our religious experiences say more about how our brains work than whether or not God exists? If our religious experiences are nothing more than our brains working overtime to provide comfort during stressful times or, worse, more a manifestation of our brains not working properly, then religious experiences can be explained by advances in neurology, and there is no need to posit the existence of a God to explain even our most personal religious experiences. God is just an invention of the mind, either to comfort us, or as a symptom of serious mental and/or neurological pathologies.
Dr. Andrew Newberg is Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, and author of Why God Won’t Go Away (Random House, 2002) and How God Changes Your Brain (2009). He is a pioneer in what is called “neuro-theology,” the study of the relationship between religious experience and the brain. In a 2012 interview with bigthink.com, Newberg was asked if humans are “wired” for religious experiences, to believe in God. Newberg replied:
“Well, it certainly looks like the way the brain is put together makes it very easy for human beings to have religious and spiritual experiences. When we talk about the frontal lobes and parietal lobes and other areas of the brain, like our emotional centers, all of them are able to work together when people have these very powerful experiences. So, it certainly seems like the apparatus is there for us to have these experiences and for us to engage them fairly easily, and in that regard, I would say yes, we are wired for these kinds of experiences.”
Newberg does not leave it there, however. He goes on to ask the next question, which is: “Why are we wired for religious experience?”:
“Is it there because of evolutionary forces where religion and spirituality wind up being very adaptive for us as human beings, and that’s why it ultimately got into our brain? Or, you take the religious explanation: Of course it makes sense that we would have a brain that is capable of perceiving God and connecting with God, because it would be kind of fundamentally silly to have the disconnect where God is up there and we’re down here and we have no way of ever having any kind of communication with God. It would make sense that we would have a brain that is able to do that.”
Newberg’s research demonstrates that religious experiences are, indeed, neurological experiences. He is willing to consider, however, that these experiences themselves are rooted in the reality of God. As he says, if God is real, it only makes sense that our brains are “wired” to interact with Him.
Consider that many believers over the centuries have described coming to faith in God as similar to the experience of falling in love. But, falling in love is very much an experience of the brain, involving increased levels of dopamine and the release of testosterone, causing increased feelings of excitement, happiness and sexual arousal. Neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine and phenylethamine, cause increased alertness and focus on the object of one’s desires, and the giddiness that so often accompanies the experience of falling in love (while annoying those around us who are still single!). A feedback loop is created with the brain’s reward system encouraging us to think about and interact with our loved one. The more we encounter our loved one, the better we feel, so the more we want and are drawn to those encounters. There is no question that the experience of falling in love is rooted deeply in the activity of our brains. This truth, however, doesn’t in any way, shape or form, prove that the object of our desire does not exist! Generally, people who fall in love fall in love with another real, live person.
Atheists would have us dismiss religious experiences as the result of brain activity, either normal or pathological. But, religious experience is hardly pathological brain activity because it’s religious experience. Some atheists have become fond of equating religious experience with mental illness, but this betrays a misunderstanding of both and a tendency toward an atheistic brand of dogmatism. The frequency of religious experience, along with the credibility of those claiming such experiences, suggest that such is far more than the pathetic yearnings of a warped mind, or the purposeful artifice of religious snake oil salesmen. Advances in understanding how our brain works have done nothing but increase the reasonableness of religious experiences for, after all, if the experience of falling in love is ultimately founded on one’s encounter with a real, live other as the object of one’s affection, why not falling in love with God?
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.