According to Dr. Jerome Engel, a number of men and women who have attained religious prominence may have done so in spite of, or perhaps due to, their epileptic signs and symptoms. In fact epilepsy, as "the sacred disease," has been profoundly intertwined with religious practices throughout the ages and the world.
Saint Paul's seizure-like experiences are the best documented of the major religious figures. On the road to Damascus he saw a bright light flashing around him, fell to the ground and was left temporarily blinded by his vision and unable to eat or drink. Paul is thought by some physicians to have had facial motor and sensitive disturbances coming after ecstatic seizures; they have diagnosed him with temporal lobe epilepsy which occasionally developed into secondary tonic-clonic attacks.
Mohammed, the founder of the Islam, is reported to have had seizures since the age of three and to have said, "This is a common affliction of prophets, of whom I wish to be counted as one."
Joan of Arc was an uneducated farmer's daughter in a remote village of medieval France who altered the course of history through her amazing military victories. From age thirteen Joan reported ecstatic moments in which she saw flashes of light coming from the side, heard voices of saints and saw visions of angels.
"There is no evidence that having seizures or epilepsy can cause exceptional talents."
In the opinion of the neurologist Dr. Lydia Bayne, Joan's blissful experiences "in which she felt that the secrets of the universe were about to be revealed to her"- were seizures, and they were triggered by the ringing of church bells. Joan displayed symptoms of a temporal lobe focus epilepsy: specifically, a musicogenic form of reflex epilepsy with an ecstatic aura. Musicogenic epilepsy is generally triggered by particular music which has an emotional significance to the individual. Joan's voices and visions propelled her to become an heroic soldier in the effort to save France from English domination and led to her martyrdom in 1431, burned at the stake as a heretic when she was 19 years old.
Soren Kierkegaard, the brilliant Danish philosopher and religious thinker considered to be the father of existentialism, worked hard at keeping his epilepsy secret.
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