Each spring a kind of anxious waiting sets in. I never catch it in the approach, but only after it has congealed into a distinct and concrete mood. Over the last several years, my family has suffered trauma in spring as regular as the change of the season: a life-threatening accident, a divorce, my father’s death, a relapse, heartbreak. Even as I have continued to deal with these events on a conscious level, my body always seems to greet spring in mid flinch. It’s as if grief is the bicycle my body will never forget how to ride. That said, it is a strange kind of muscle memory in that it is unrelated to an active task. It is a physical kind of knowing that escapes easy intellectualization. Reduction to “just a feeling” doesn’t give it the gravity it deserves. It’s a posture that I take toward the season. A phantom limb that actively informs my daily gait.

As I’ve been philosophically exploring negative spiritual experiences (hauntings and especially, possessions), I’m struck by the reported physicality of the experiences. Accounts include physical sensations that range from offensive smells, feelings of immobilization and nausea to diverse forms of physical assault. As I have discussed before, I think that considering these experiences as both religious and genuine is a project separate from the validation of their alleged cause.[1]

What I find particularly interesting is that these physical experiences, which are perceived as negative and are certainly invasive, are not unlike the physical experiences reportedly suffered by Christian saints. Within the Christian tradition, there are numerous accounts of spiritually devout persons becoming unable to eat (usually anything but Eucharist), suffering pain and illness, attributing their discomfort to supernatural agency. Some conditions, as in the case of Padre Pio, are both life-long and debilitating.[2] Especially, I think of the example of Julian of Norwich, whose near-death illness formed the basis of her theological reflections.[3] In all of these cases however, the result is that these negative physical experiences, these sufferings, are interpreted as a positive spiritual exercise. And this is not to suggest that the experience of the suffering was any less for that. The discomfort they experienced cannot be rationalized or contextualized away. However, they allowed their physical experiences to speak into their relationship with the God of their tradition, rather than constitute a renunciation of both.

I heard a program on our local NPR station a few years back that claimed that one of the factors driving the over-medicalization of labor was that modern women were unprepared for the pain of childbirth. Being psychologically and culturally unprepared for the intensity of the experience, women associated their intense level of pain with illness. As a result, they sought medical intervention in otherwise uncomplicated deliveries. I bring this up not to suggest that the negative spiritual experiences described at the beginning of my article result from a lack of context or some kind of hermeneutical leverage. Further, I am not advocating a supernaturalization of Christian practice, a reinterpretation of maladies to assign them spiritual origin or significance. But I wonder if a physical mindfulness is not particularly missing from the Christian conversation and practice at this time. While certain celebrity pastors have claimed that yoga is in fact demonic[4], research continues to draw clear connections between physical posture and our comportment to our community.[5] It is not merely a matter of describing spiritual experiences in physical terms, but accepting the possibility that physical experiences may have something to say about our spiritual health.

Catherine Bell cautions us that dichotomies are usually established in order to “afford one term some purchase over the other.”[6] I don’t intend to construct here a competition between the conceptual and physical ways of knowing God, but to suggest that a full account of spiritual experience must be open to both without such prejudice.


[1] My previous article on why I believe negative spiritual experiences deserve scholarly attention. https://theotherjournal.com/2013/08/27/culture-demons-philosophy/

[2] http://padrepiodevotions.org/a-short-biography/

[3] For a very readable translation of Julian’s work, please see Julian of Norwich: Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge OSA and James Walsh SJ, (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978).


[5] http://www.npr.org/2013/12/13/248198314/does-body-language-shape-who-you-are

[6] Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 49