Stendhal Syndrome and God's Presence

michelangeloIn the early 1800s, a French novelist visited Florence, Italy, the epicenter of the Italian renaissance and home to many of the world’s greatest works of art. As he toured the city and viewed its resident masterpieces, he began to be overwhelmed with emotion.

Upon visiting the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo at Santa Croce cathedral and seeing Giotto’s ceiling frescoes there, he was physically overcome. “Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty,” he later wrote, “I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations . . . Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”

A century and a half later in the 1970s, a psychiatrist in Florence noticed how tourists frequently experienced similar symptoms. She labeled the malady “Stendhal syndrome” after that French novelist who had unknowingly described this psychosomatic phenomenon. Patients who had been visiting Florence from abroad were coming to the hospital with panic attacks and worse—one story tells of a young American woman visiting the city to fulfill a dream, but who spent four days in a psychiatric ward after seeing great works of art.

Transcendent beauty, it seems, can short-circuit the human mind.

More Beautiful than Florence

The fact that human beings today have suffered from “transcendence overload,” for lack of a better term, makes passages like Daniel 10:7-11 and Revelation 1:17 all the more real and relevant. In the first passage, Daniel had a heavenly vision that left him stunned. “I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless,” he wrote (verse 8). In Revelation 1:17, John saw the glory of Jesus: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.”

If creations like frescoes, paintings, and statues can blow a gasket in the human psyche, the effects of a divine encounter would certainly do the trick—in the extreme. No wonder every visitation of deity in scripture prompted a meltdown on the part of the person visited. No wonder people were awed by Jesus—often with physical reactions (Matthew 17:6; Luke 5:8; Mark 5:33)—when they realized who he was.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have an overwhelming encounter to that degree. I’ve had some that approach it; there have been times in worship when I’ve had to sink to my knees, and times in prayer when I’ve felt compelled to get on my face. I know what it’s like to become unraveled in his presence. But to actually see and hear the presence as Daniel, John, and others have? That would be amazing.

Shocked by a Greater Power

I once had the unpleasant experience of accidentally plugging an electric appliance made for a 110-volt current into a 220-volt outlet. The result was, to say the least, a little hair-raising. That’s a small picture of what a God-encounter is like. What happens when a finite human mind gets plugged into the current of deity? A blown fuse, a short-circuit, a reaction something along the lines of Daniel’s and John’s. It’s literally stunning.

It sounds dangerous, and according to several scriptural warnings it must be so. But there’s still something within us that wants that kind of encounter more than anything. There’s a hunger within us to come face to face with transcendent beauty. And knowing that the throne room of God contains far more beauty than the galleries and cathedrals of Florence, we don’t want to settle for the human version. We want the ultimate treasure: an encounter with glory.

That encounter is possible. The glory really is near. The reality that blows people’s minds is right next to us. When we pray, we’re in that Presence that would incapacitate us if we sensed it. Sometimes we have transcendent moments of experiencing that glory, and they are awe-inducing. But even when we don’t see it, don’t hear it, and can’t touch it, it’s still there.

I think about that when I pray. It helps me feel connected to the Spirit who lives within me and the Savior on the throne. Sometimes I can almost hear the thunder and taste the dew of heaven. On the screen of my mind, I can see colors that I have no words to describe. I can sense the beautiful Presence when I take time to realize he’s really there.

I highly recommend letting your mind run wild with God-centered, biblical thoughts of glory. (Try reading Revelation 4 before you pray, for example.) Somehow, prayers seem more powerful when we remember the heavenly environment in which we pray. There’s nothing wrong with imagining the encounters of Daniel, John, and others; in fact, I’m convinced that God described them in scripture so we would envision them—and even pursue them.

Treasure those tastes of glory when you find them. Let them undo you, even if you are physically overwhelmed. In this age, they are exceptional experiences. In the age to come, you will call them normal. And you won’t have to imagine anymore.

Click to tweet: Transcendent beauty, it seems, can short-circuit the human mind.

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Joan B 07.12.2018 07:53  
Yes No   I began with Indeed. Discovered Experiencing the Presence of God. That devotional truly impacted my walk with Jesus. He used you to reach out and draw me closer to His heart. I have encouraged others to get your devotionals and to seek His presence. I have several of your devotionals and books. Thank you for listening to the Spirit and sharing with us. I am learning and growing in the Spirit and want to hear His heart beat daily.  
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Chris 07.12.2018 21:09  
Yes No   Thanks, Joan! So glad you've found the devotionals helpful.  
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Maude Carolan Pych 06.03.2015 10:14  
Yes No   Dear Chris, Today is the first I've heard about you. This morning, I was ministering to a friend who has cancer about experiencing God's presence during life's most difficult times. She called back a bit later to read one of your devotional messages to me which was right on target with what I shared earlier. I asked for your name and found your blog online. It's a blessing! I'll be back to read more. I am an inspirational poet and post regularly to my blog at Come, visit.  
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Chris Tiegreen 06.03.2015 18:19  
Yes No   Hi Maude, thanks for the comment. That's wonderful how the devotional message fit with what you shared! God has a way of coordinating things like that, doesn't he? Glad you stopped by the site. I'm looking forward to visiting yours and taking a look at your poetry.  
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Anni Mikkelsen 03.03.2015 01:20  
Yes No   Hi Chris, We have been revived a few years ago after being in contact with Bethel, Toronto, Heidi Baker, Johnny Enlow, Randy Clark, Andrew Wommack, etc., etc. and of course longed for this encounter. Hasn´t actually hit us yet, but in the meanwhile pressing on in intimacy with the Father and finding Him close and faithful. I listen to all your sermons and find the perfect balance to so much powerful teaching as we probably come from similar background. My husband and I are 72 years.  
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Chris Tiegreen 03.03.2015 12:06  
Yes No   That's wonderful, Anni -- great that you're pursuing that intimacy and finding him so close. Glad the sermons are helpful. Many blessings!  
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Mary Agrusa 02.03.2015 09:37  
Yes No   Love this post. I'm right there with you. I've not had a complete meltdown encounter, but I've come close. The realm of Heaven isn't somewhere out in space and only for some future time, it really is here and now and totally accessible. I pray that you have even greater experiences with God and look forward to hearing about them.  
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Chris Tiegreen 02.03.2015 12:25  
Yes No   Thanks, Mary. Will pray these experiences become more common for both of us and many others.  
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