When Williams was 17, his kindly grandfather took him, along with others, on a tour of Europe. While walking alone in Paris, Williams began obsessing on this thought: "Abruptly, it occurred to me that the process of thought was a terrifyingly complex mystery of life." OK. (He doesn't elaborate.) But then this idea begins to take him over for the next month, to the point where he says he feels he's going insane: "My phobia about thought processes had reached its climax." When his group gets to Cologne, he enters a cathedral and...
Breathless with panic, I knelt down to pray....
Then a truly phenomenal thing happened.
Let me say that I am not predisposed to believe in miracles or in superstitions. But what happened was a miracle and one of a religious nature and I assure you I am not bucking for sainthood when I tell you about it. It was if an impalpable hand were placed upon my head, and at the instant of that touch, the phobia was lifted away as lightly as a snowflake though it had weighed on my head like a skull-breaking block of iron.
At seventeen, I had no doubt at all that the hand of our Lord Jesus had touched my head with mercy and had exorcised from it the phobia that was driving me into madness.
Thinking himself "cured" of the panic, he nonetheless encounters the same feeling again a couple of weeks later, this time while his group is in Amsterdam:
That night I went out alone on the streets of Amsterdam and this time a second "miracle" occurred to lift the terror away. It occurred through my composition of a little poem...
Strangers pass me on the street
in endless throngs: their marching feet,
sound with a sameness in my ears
that dulls my senses, soothes my fears,
I hear their laughter and their sighs,
I look into their myriad eyes:
then all at once my hot woe
cools like a cinder dropped on snow.
...The moment of recognition that my existence and my fate could dissolve as lightly as the cinder dropped in a great fall of snow restored to me, in quite a different fashion, the experience in the cathedral of Cologne. And I wonder if it was not a sequel to that experience, an advancement of it: first, the touch of the mystic hand upon the solitary anguished head, and then the gentle lesson or demonstration that the head, despite the climactic crisis which it contained, was still a single head on a street thronged with many.