Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/30/2010

The First Freedom, Perhaps a Seizure, and Antonin Scalia

"Storm" by Victor Gugliuzza - personal collection

"Storm" by Victor Gugliuzza - personal collection

Every day as I walk to the building where I teach, I pass through a forest of green that some days frightens me and other days calms me. “Forest” is not the correct word. In a shady spot where the university tried unsuccessfully for years to make grass grow, the gardeners finally gave up and planted a ground cover that grows tall, thick, and dark green, some variety of plant with broad leaves standing up straight as tall as a normal person’s waist.  When the gardeners first set out the plants a foot or so apart, they looked ridiculous—spindly leaves appearing to stretch toward the scarce light among the tall trees surrounding the building—to a non-Texan appearing to have no hope of spreading out to cover the ground. Now the area is a dense growth of (how romantic shall I wax?) emerald. The sidewalk leading to my building cuts a swath through the thicket.

Yesterday walking through the thicket my whole self, body, mind, and spirit, experienced the almost-overwhelming shadowy greenness as my whole self feels on rare occasions. Attempting to put the experience into words is futile. The green seemed to shimmer. The air became heavy enough for my body to feel, the light almost disappeared—although I saw clearly. Nothing but the greenness, the air, and the darkness impinged on my consciousness. My inner self broke free in a moment of some kind of exhilaration or—do I dare say the word in polite company—ecstasy which, I am sure, lasted only a second but seemed eternal. Wouldn’t you be frightened? Or, perhaps, indecently jubilant?

I can’t tell if the experience was a simple physical reaction of my animal self to the reality of the world around me or a moment of spiritual connection to the numinous, or—most likely—the beginning of a seizure that the massive doses of medication I take control except for such momentary breakthroughs of the inexplicable aura. Whatever the cause, the effect is one at the same time of intense reality and total suspension of reality.

Shall I spoil the moment with arrogance and misunderstanding?

See then! Here are the signs you asked for. If you have any experience of them, you will be able to test (partially at least) the nature and meaning of the summons and awakening of grace which you feel touching you interiorly during your spiritual devotions, and exteriorly whenever you read or hear about contemplation. As a rule, few people are so singularly touched and confirmed in the grace of contemplation as to have an immediate and authentic experience of all these tokens together, in the very beginning. (1)

Am I a mystic, a temporal lobe epileptic, or a natural animal reacting to the natural world?

If it is epilepsy, I find it slightly distasteful, distasteful because, being weak, self-centered, and cowardly, I have allowed the experience of my partial-onset seizures to wreak havoc in my life. This experience of momentary suspension of reality has never harmed me, but it has unnerved me (pun intended) so often that I have allowed it—I fear, although this is probably too harsh self judgment—to be the cause of (or the excuse for) a kind of inattentiveness to the details of life in society. If it is pure animal reaction to the world, I find it joyful, if somewhat bewildering. There seems to be no reason for humans not to feel this way in the natural world at all times—or perhaps everyone else does, and I am simply out of touch with reality.

If it is a “mystical” experience, it boggles my mind enough for me to fear it. I don’t know if I believe in God. I understand the words “exteriorly whenever you read or hear about contemplation.” I have spent my life hearing about contemplation (because I am an organist spending much time in places where contemplation is considered). It is perfectly natural for me to associate this ineffable experience with the language I have heard all my life. But I find talking about (much less accepting) the idea of God problematic. How, then, can this moment of reality/unreality be mystical?

my inner self breaking free

my inner self breaking free

One of the mysteries of my life is that I know no one (yes, friends and family, I’m writing to you) who ever speaks of such experiences. I don’t have a clue whether that’s because no one I know has such experiences or no one I know is willing to talk about them. The mystery is heightened because I am absolutely, without a shadow of doubt, aware when my brain has switched into overdrive in a full-blown seizure. Shall I be crude? Yesterday’s experience seemed like foreplay to the real thing.

If my experience is “mystical,” I have another fear. I am not of a mind or temperament to make a religion of my experience or even to try to find others who have similar experiences and make any sort of agreement or association with them. I might want to try to share what we understand with each other. But I detest institutions. I would not found one for any reason I can think of.

The fact is that, even though I have all my life been a member of religious institutions, I have come to understand that any religious institution is most likely meaningless (at least to me) and most likely not conducive to “momentary breakthroughs of the inexplicable aura” when I least expect it. This is my own experience (I am not saying that I am some sort of special spiritual creature—except in the way all creatures are special). Trying to understand the meaning of these moments walking through thickets of lush green nameless vegetation is my FIRST FREEDOM—my first Constitutional freedom as an American (“Congress shall make no law . . .”).

My First Freedom

My First Freedom

Congress shall make no law. By the extension of the First Amendment in the Fourteenth Amendment (no matter what some Tea Baggers might think, it is part of the Constitution) state legislatures or city councils shall make no law “prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” Shall make no law prohibiting my contemplating or even acting on those momentary breakthroughs. Yesterday I quoted Martha Nussbaum who said, “ . . .  protection and support for the capability of searching for the meaning of life in one’s own way is no small matter: it requires careful protective action on the part of the State. . .” (2).

That protection includes also strict adherence to the first part of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .” Nicholas Quinn Rozenkranz asserts that

If Congress makes a law that uses religious words–“religion,” “worship,” “church,” “prayer,” etc.–such a law, on its face, implicates the Free Exercise Clause. The words invite First Amendment scrutiny, because they may restrict religious beliefs or practices “as such.” (3)

I am not a legal scholar. I am not any kind of scholar. I am most likely misquoting both Nussbaum and Rozenkrantz. I am an American struggling as best I can to “[search] for the meaning of life in [my] own way.” I worry that, with Antonin Scalia having become the driving force on the Supreme Court, abridgments will be made to my freedom to make sense of and live my life in accordance with “. . . my inner self [breaking] free in a moment of some kind of exhilaration or—do I dare say the word in polite company—ecstasy. . .” even the freedom to realize for sure that I am simply having a seizure.

The Scalia court has already approved many such abridgments.
(1) Anonymous. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling. Ed. by William Johnston. New York: Doubleday Image (1973), 186.
(2) Nussbaum, Martha C. “Foreword: constitutions and capabilities: ‘perception’ against lofty formalism.” Harvard Law Review 121.4 (2008): 4+.
(3) Rosenkranz, Nicholas Quinn. “The subjects of the constitution.” Stanford Law Review 62.5 (2010): 1209+.


  1. If it is any consolation I am also prone to these events and cannot find the words to describe them to others


  2. […] one be a mystic and not believe in a God (or the gods)? Is a mystical view of the world a choice or—horrors!—merely a function of seizures in the temporal lobe? Does […]



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