by Michael Niewodowski
Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Antony is a religious hallucination. St. Antony of Egypt (cir. 251-356) was an ascetic monk that lived in the Libyan Desert; he is said to have experienced supernatural temptations. In Flaubert’s novel, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Greek gods, Lust, Death, demons, heretics, science, the Sphinx, and others tempt him. Like the many paintings that St. Antony’s story has inspired, Flaubert’s work is surreal, spectacularly visual, and nearly impenetrably dense.
There are some pretty fantastic highlights. The Greek gods appear in all their glory, with Hercules holding up Mt. Olympus; eventually Hercules is crushed by the weight of the mountain, and all the gods perish. Later, Antony rides on the horns of the Devil as they fly into space, past stars and galaxies while the Devil argues science and reason.
When I was twelve years old, I went on a religious pilgrimage to the small village of Medugorje in the former Yugoslavia (now Bosnia/Herzegovina), where supposedly the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to six children since 1981; this has not been confirmed nor denied by the Catholic Church. While I was there, many other pilgrims experienced religious hallucinations: one person reported an out of body experience, others said their rosaries turned to gold, and yet others said that the mountainsides were lit up at night by brilliant supernatural lights. I didn’t see any gold rosaries, and the mountains looked dark to me. One American family claimed to see the ‘miracle of the sun’ in which the sun dances, splits, and changes colors and shapes. I was sitting very nearby this family while they were experiencing this hallucination; I looked at the sun, but didn’t see anything. I prayed and prayed to see what they were seeing, but the sun didn’t change. I asked my father why I couldn’t see it; he told me, “If you stare long enough into the sun, you’ll see all sorts of strange things.” (Indeed, each member of the family described seeing a different version of the dancing sun.) I felt like something was wrong with me- that my faith was not strong enough because I did not experience any of these ‘miracles’. Later, I came to realize that I was a lot like the child that recognized that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. One of the things I did notice about all the pilgrims that experienced religious hallucinations- they were all quick to brag about the ‘miracles’ they had experienced, like it was a status symbol of their faith. My own mother, the most religious person I know, did not experience any religious hallucinations on that trip.
At the end of The Temptation of St. Antony, Antony, having defeated all temptations, sees the face of Jesus Christ in the disc of the sun. Finally at peace, he makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.
I no longer hold resentment towards the pilgrims that experienced religious hallucinations. Many members of other religions put themselves into altered states through asceticism like St. Antony to have religious hallucinations. They seem to experience a great deal of joy from the ‘miracles’. After all, the people all cheered with joy when they saw the Emperor’s new ‘clothes’. I just hope that that American family didn’t experience permanent eye damage from staring at the sun for so long. I choose to keep my health and wits instead of hallucinating to get closer to God.