In my over 26 years as a priest (even longer serving in some capacity at the Holy Liturgy) I have witnessed more than a few people faint. Some just slump over; others go out with a real bang. Weddings are a big source of fainting spells, but just about any long Mass produces its share of “lights out” experiences. Some years ago, when I was serving as First Assistant Deacon for a Pontifical Solemn High Mass in the Basilica, we predicted prior to the Mass that at least one person would pass out. It’s usually one of the torch bearers because they have to kneel on the marble for so long. Sure enough, right at Communion time, one of them went down, torch and all. It seems that such a Mass wouldn’t be complete if at least one person didn’t pass out!
In the warmer weather fainting spells are more common. Further, the height of wedding season is approaching. It might not be bad to ponder the topic of fainting.
OK, so what’s going on here? Are people overwhelmed by the presence of God and then they just “rest in the Spirit?” Well, that’s a fine and holy thought; perhaps I should just stop the article here! However, there are probably other explanations.
- Dehydration – The heat in some churches can cause dehydration. Dehydration lowers blood volume, which causes blood pressure to drop and makes it harder to get the blood to the brain. And then out you go!
- Anemia – Some women are borderline anemic, especially at certain times of their monthly cycle. This reduces the number of red blood and thus lowers the ability of the blood to deliver oxygen to the brain. And then out you go!
- Stress – In order to maintain appropriate 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 making the 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 stress” such as seeing blood or just the prolonged stress that often occurs at funerals and weddings. Such things cause too much acetylcholine, which slows the heart, dilates the blood vessels, and decreases blood pressure. Because of this, not enough blood reaches the brain. And then out you go!
- Prolonged standing or kneeling – This can also cause the blood to collect 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 standing because this slows blood flow and makes blood accumulate in the legs. It is important when standing to bend your knees slightly in order to allow for some movement of the legs by shifting your weight. This improves circulation and keeps blood pressure at a proper level. If you don’t do that, then standing for long periods of time can result in more blood in the legs and less going to the brain. And then out you go!
- Low blood sugar – In some cases, this can cause a person to faint. The brain requires blood flow in order to provide oxygen and glucose to its cells. Excessively low blood sugar can cause one to feel drowsy and weak, and in some cases to faint, especially if some of the other factors are present. Hence, if you have been fasting (rare today!) before Communion and also have a tendency to be hypoglycemic … out you go!
There are surely other causes of fainting (some of them very serious (though rare)), but let this list suffice. It would seem that Masses and other church services are overrepresented in the fainting department, due to any combination of the above factors.
It is surely a strange experience to faint. I have done so a number of times in the past, due to an asthmatic cough that I used to get. During an extreme coughing episode, the rhythm of the heart is disturbed, blood pressure drops, and then out you go. When I faint, everything seems to fade to black; the lights just go out. 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 a strange experience to say the least. The brain can only go without blood (oxygen) for a few seconds before unconsciousness ensues, and then 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, dependent upon God for every beat of our heart and every function of every cell in our body. Maybe fainting in Church isn’t so bad after all because it helps keep us humble—and that is always a good “posture” before God. Before the immensity of God, it is good to be reminded of our fragility and our dependence upon Him for all things, even the most hidden processes of our body.
Enjoy this video compilation of people fainting (many of them occurring in Church) and consider well that “To be absent from the body is to be present to God” (2 Cor 5:8).