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Close encounters with the divine


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Trish Barfield isn't big on religion. But she vividly remembers the day God saved her life.

Years ago, on a trip to visit her boyfriend, she was about to leap off a moving train to avoid paying the fare when someone yelled at her. She assumed she was caught.

"I heard a loud male voice say 'Don't jump,'" recalls Barfield, a retiree from Western Australia. But she says no one was there. Then a large freight train came whooshing by. "Had I jumped, I would have gone into the path of that train. ... I knew that the hand of God had touched my life."

Such accounts seem extraordinary but aren't uncommon, says Jennifer Skiff, a Boston native and former CNN correspondent now based in Perth. She has collected more than 120 "God stories" from people of various countries and backgrounds for a book to be published in late 2007 or early 2008 by Random House.

Her website, godstories.com, invites people to share their experiences. And as the archive grows, she says, themes are emerging to suggest patterns in how people perceive the divine. Again and again, Skiff says, people describe, for instance, a life-saving voice, a glowing image or an overwhelming feeling of connection with the entire universe.

For Skiff and her sources, the stories are "faith-confirming" in that they breed confidence in a benevolent force. She describes herself as "one to question the existence of God," adding that her "church" consists of daily swims in a mountain lake in Maine, where she spends her summers.

Still, she says, God touched her life at age 32, when a doctor said she had a malignant tumor in her bone marrow. Upon getting the diagnosis, "I no longer had a will to live," she remembers. But then she was "overwhelmed" with calls, visits, even encouraging notes from strangers. A week passed before DNA tests came back: benign.

"I felt as though the week had been for me to see all that I had, and to appreciate it and to move forward" with meaningful work and new personal projects, such as running an animal refuge center. "It was kind of like the thunderbolt, the slap in the face that said, 'Get on with it! Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with it!'

"That, for me, was confirmation that a divine power was working in my life."

Now, she says, the book project is something "I feel led to do."

"They're feel-good stories," Skiff says. "Whether you've been in the depth of despair or not, they make you appreciate what you have." Tellers of these stories are convinced they've had a brush with the divine:

*Actress Jane Seymour describes collapsing while filming in Spain and then seeing her body from above as she was being revived. After praying for a second chance and getting it, she felt assured: "There is some spiritual entity that's greater than us."

*London jeweler Patricia Fruttauro tells of an "enormous" mirror that fell in a hallway and sliced off one of her 2-year-old granddaughter's blond curls but left her without so much as a scratch.

*Barbara Eikost of suburban Toledo, Ohio, says that at the moment her husband, Bill, was dying in 1998 of multiple myeloma, her son shouted for her to look up. "Right outside his large hospital window on this gray January day was a vivid rainbow," she says. "There was neither rain nor sun, but this ribbon of color in the sky told us in ways that defy explanation that our beloved husband/father was being escorted from this world to a better place."

Researchers who study the physiology of spiritual experiences aren't surprised by such accounts. Stressful conditions, as well as disciplines of prayer and meditation, cause the autonomic nervous system to kick into high gear and lead to unusual perceptions, says Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania.

"When you turn on the autonomic nervous system, you do make yourself prone to visions, various types of experiences, very strong memories and auditory experiences," Newberg says. His theory: Mystical experiences occur when a person is simultaneously highly alert and very relaxed.

Michael Persinger, a behavioral neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, says he has induced so-called religious experiences more than 1,000 times in his laboratory. He uses a dark, quiet environment to reduce activity in the logical, language-centered left side of the brain and creates a magnetic field to stimulate the emotion-centered right brain. Subjects often say they sense the presence of another sentient being, he says, when no human or animal is there.

Such spiritual anecdotes amount to mere urban legend and are harmful because they discourage a healthy skepticism, says Daniel Dennett of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University and author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

But philosopher of religion John Hick of the University of Birmingham, England, believes the veracity of "God stories" is revealed only over time. What these storytellers describe, he says, "may be a sense of a depth of reality beyond the physical."

But because "you can't prove whether there is something there ... you have to look at the fruits in a person's life" to know whether God really left a mark -- or whether it was just a false alarm.

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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