In my over 21 years as a priest and even longer in serving in some capacity at the Holy Liturgy I have seen more than a few people faint. Some just slump over, others go over with a real bang. Weddings are a big source of fainting spells but just about any long Mass can produce its share of a “lights out” experience. Last year I was serving as First Assistant Deacon for a Pontifical Solemn High Mass in the Basilica and prior to the Mass we predicted at least some one would pass out. It’s usually one of the torch bearers since they have to kneel on the marble for so long. Sure enough right at communion time, one of them went over, torch and all. It wouldn’t be a valid solemn High Pontifical Mass if at least one didn’t pass out!
OK, so what’s going one here? Are people overwhelmed by the presence of God and then just “rest in the Spirit?” Well, that’s a fine thought and I perhaps I should just stop the article here out piety. However, beyond the this holy thought there are probably other explanations.
- It could be the heat in some churches which causes dehydration. Dehydration then causes there to be a lower volume of blood which causes the pressure to drop and makes it harder to get the blood to the brain and out you go.
- Anemia – Some women have borderline anemia especially at certain times of their cycle and this reduces the number of red blood and thus reduces the ability of the blood to deliver oxygen to the brain and, especially after standing a while or getting a little dehydrated, out you go.
- Stress – In order to maintain proper blood pressure there must be a proper balance between two chemicals: adrenaline and acetylcholine. Adrenaline stimulates the body, including making the heart beat faster and blood vessels narrower, thereby increasing blood pressure. Acetylcholine does the opposite. Fainting can happen when something stimulates the vagus nerve and causes too much acetylcholine to be produced at the wrong time. Pain can do this, so can “situational stressors” such as something like seeing blood or just prolonged stress that often happens at funerals or weddings. Such things cause too much acetylcholine to slow the heart, dilate the blood vessels, pressure drops more than it should, blood can’t reach the brain and out you go.
- Standing for a length of time can also cause the blood to collect a bit in the lower legs. The movement of the blood back from the limbs is assisted by the movement of those limbs. I was always taught never to lock my knees when I was standing since this slowed blood flow and made blood accumulate in the legs. More blood in the legs means less blood that can go to the brain and out you go. It is important when standing to slightly bend the knees a bit and to allow for some movement of the legs by shifting your weight. This improves circulation and keeps the pressure at a proper level to get blood up to the brain. The same is true with kneeling.
- In some cases low blood sugar can cause one to faint. The brain requires blood flow to provide oxygen and glucose (sugar) to its cells to sustain life. Hence excessively low blood sugar can cause one to feel drowsy, weak and in some cases to faint, especially if some of the other factors are present. Hence if one has been fasting (rare today!) before communion and also has a tendency to be hypoglycemic it is possible one can faint.
There are surely other causes, (some of them very serious but more rare) but let this suffice. It would seem that Masses and Church services are over-represented in the fainting department due to any combination of the above, especially: stress, dehydration, and standing or kneeling for long periods.
It is surely a weird experience to faint. I have done it a number of times related to an asthmatic cough I often get. When an extreme coughing episode ensues the rhythm of the heart is disturbed, blood pressure drops and out you go. It is a very strange experience to just see everything fade to black, the lights just go out and sometimes I can even feel myself falling but can do little about it. I just hope I fall gracefully :-) I usually come to a moment or so later but it is strange to say the least. Our brains go only go without blood (oxygen) for a few seconds before unconsciousness envelopes and out you go.
We are wonderfully, fearfully made to be sure. And yet we are earthen vessels, fragile and in need of delicate balance. We are contingent beings, depending on God for every beat of our heart, and His sustaining of every function of every cell of our body. Maybe fainting in Church isn’t so bad since it helps keep us humble and that is always a good “posture” before God. Maybe before the immensity of God it is good to be reminded of our fragility and dependence upon Him for all things, even the most hidden processes of our body.
Enjoy this video of Church faintings and consider well that “To be absent from the body is to be present to God.” (2 Cor 5:8)