From Ashes Part 1: Melancholy and Silence

"Melancholy" by Lucas Cranach the Elder Wikimedia Commons
“Melancholy” by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Wikimedia Commons

 

When I announced, both on my blog and on Twitter, that I would be writing a series of pieces on significant Christians’ struggles with mental illness and asked for suggestions, I had thought I was onto a good thing. I had in mind as a starting point the stories which had brought me great comfort in my own struggles: of Luther’s and Bunyan’s journeys through conditions strongly resembling my own illness, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or of Kierkegaard’s long-term battles with anxiety and depression; of Therese of Lisieux’s discovery of the “little way” through her own struggle with OCD (or “scrupulosity”, as it used to be called); of Spurgeon’s famous “fainting fits”.

Yet surprisingly the response my call for help received was sparse. I received a detailed list from one of my regular readers, and tweets from two church friends. In most cases, the suggestions – though helpful and much-appreciated – only confirmed the figures I was already familiar with. My discussions with colleagues at the Christian school where I work were less helpful. One colleague told me about William Carey’s first wife “going loopy”; a friend who trained in psychology said he was unaware of anyone.

Scans online proved more productive; a number of lists can be found, though these tend to recirculate the same names as one another. A handful of contemporary figures have had the courage to share their struggles, mega-church pastor Rick Warren and singer-songwriter Sara Groves among them. Yet in many cases I needed to look further, following hunches that particular people must have experienced struggles, sometimes confirming these hunches, sometimes finding the Internet altogether silent.

We must, of course, be wary of posthumous diagnoses. Conditions like bipolar disorder and OCD were unknown until relatively recently and therefore we have no official diagnoses for any of the famous figures believed to have suffered from them. Yet there is more than an historical problem at work here: quite apart from the difficulty of identifying which now-deceased celebrities struggled with what we would now call “mental illness”, there is simply the fact that churches have themselves struggled to acknowledge such kinds of illness and take them seriously, both in the past and in the present. In the past, this was partly due to a lack of medical knowledge: what we can now state about the chemical workings of the brain and its connection with psychological distress was simply unknown at the times that many of these figures were alive. Yet it does not fully explain the problem. After all, we now know much more about mental illness; yet in so many cases the silence continues. What, we must ask, does the church have to say about it today? How do Christians deal, privately and publicly, with their struggles?

This is a bigger problem perhaps than I can address here. Instead, I intend to offer a small step in the right direction: to examine the ways in which probable mental illnesses impacted upon the lives and ministries of many significant Christians. The value in this project is at least threefold. First, it can help to dispel the myth that “serious Christians do not struggle with mental illness”. Second, it can help those of us who struggle to feel less alone. Third, it can offer examples for us of how the church has benefited from Christians with mental illness. In many cases, in fact, it is arguable that the contributions made by these figures would not have happened had it not been for their own “dark nights of the soul”. Some are artists, some composers, some writers, some theologians or philosophers. All are known for their creativity, whether artistic creativity or innovation or reformation in how we think and act in our faith. How mental illness served as a catalyst for this creativity is something which I hope will emerge helpfully from their stories.

The story so often begins, however, with silence: with an agonising inability to express the hidden griefs of the soul; a conviction that it should be otherwise but a dread that it cannot; an angel – as Lutheran painter Lucas Cranach the Elder represented it – unable to fly, confined to pushing leaden balls through hoops while clouds gather outside.

Where, sitting sympathetically with the burdened ones, can we go from here? How can we move from this leaden silence to a place of creativity and hope? The journey is one that must be taken together if the silence is to be overcome.

3 thoughts on “From Ashes Part 1: Melancholy and Silence

  1. Some people – especially Christians – are still not willing to acknowledge mental illness. Their holier than thou, self righteous attitude angers me. My minister and his wife both suffer from depression and are being treated for it. I’ve given them a copy of Tony Roberts’ book, “Delight in Disorder.”

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