Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong: one of the best books on religion I’ve read.
Karen Armstrong was a nun for seven years. She left the convent, partly because its discipline was harsh and inhuman, but primarily because she was unable to pray, and never even came close to the complete self-surrender which was the only path to God (p 9).
She had begun Oxford University in England while still a nun. She did well, but soon realized that she had no ideas of her own. On the contrary, she had been trained not to have them. A clever woman, she could put together the ideas of others, even use one criticize another, but that’s as far as she could go. This reminds me so much of graduate school, where I spent almost ten years of my life (I was a slow learner). At least in the social science and humanities, students are trained to put the ideas of others together in new ways, but rarely encouraged to think on their own.
While at Oxford, she began to experience panic attacks during which she would hallucinate, the world seeming to melt and fragment, faces around her dripping like wax (p 141). Years of psychoanalysis were useless, and eventually she was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. Proper medication stopped the seizures and the hallucinations. But the experience of the hallucinations stayed with her.
It is as though a comforting veil of illusion had been ripped away and you see the world without form, without significance, purposeless, blind, trivial, spiteful, and ugly to the core. (p 55)