It is autumn in my home town of Melbourne as I write these words, and outside the University library the streets are bathed in orange, golden and golden-brown leaves. It is a glorious sight, one of those moments where something seemingly hopeless – the dying of leaves – can be simultaneously so beautiful.
I was having to reflect on the converse of this today while teaching my Year 9 Creative Writing class about Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia”. We were discussing the strange juxtaposition of hopeful and hopeless imagery: an angel looking like a baby yet helplessly motionless; a rainbow framing a magnificent sunrise that looks like a shower of stars, while a flying rodent carries a banner bearing the picture’s title. What does it all mean, this fusing of beauty and tragedy? Teenage minds, strangely rigid, struggle to grasp the concept. Adult minds struggle too, yet nonetheless know it to be all too often true.
Dürer’s picture came at a time when scientific understanding of mental illness was speculative and theological understandings were vexed. Yet melancholy and attendant disorders of the soul (the Greek word for soul, “psyche”, is the source of our word “psychology”) were a particular focus during the Renaissance; either they were more prevalent, or were more openly discussed. Ian Osborn in his book Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? (2008) makes a case for OCD in particular increasing through the heightened emphasis during the Renaissance on the significance of the individual. Certainly, present-day emphases on self-actualisation stemmed first from the Renaissance and then from the Enlightenment. First the individual became a figure of intellectual or cultural development, then he or she became the “measure of all things”. OCD, with its peculiar emphasis on responsibility, was more likely to be an issue in a society where the individual had power over his or her own circumstances; and so the Renaissance gave rise to heightened “scrupulosity” and, later, to anxieties over one’s ability to impact one’s own salvation. In this respect, Osborn takes a similarly critical view of the increased emphasis in Roman Catholicism on confession and penance and of the Calvinist need to “make your election sure”, criticising each not so much for its theological merits as much as for the impact it had upon tender consciences. It is within this changing and complex religious world that Osborn introduces the story of John Bunyan, the village boy and son of a local tinker who became one of the most famous and widely published authors in the English language.
Writing of the common tendency in this period towards “scrupulosity” – a Renaissance term for compulsive and unnecessary confession or mortification of indwelling sin – Osborn notes that, despite the Reformation, such unhealthy delicacy of conscience persisted sometimes within Protestant groups. He quotes Puritan writer Richard Baxter as saying of such “scrupulous” types:
They are endless with their scruples, afraid lest they sin in every word and thought. They ensnare themselves in many vows, touch not, taste not, handle not; and in self imposed tasks, spending so many hours in this or that act of devotion. They think against their will that which they are most afraid of thinking. They are troubled with hideous blasphemous temptations, against God or Christ, or the scripture.
Theologically speaking, many may be troubled by Baxter’s words, implying as they seem to do that the Reformation, with its striking emphasis on salvation by grace through faith, did nothing to help people of this temperament. This is not necessarily the case. Many today still come to faith in contexts which teach saving grace explicitly yet themselves take long to come to grips with it at a personal, heart-felt level. Nor do we need to dismiss the entire Reformation project in order to acknowledge that, in its attempt to avoid the false teachings over which it broke from the Catholic church, the Protestant church sometimes strayed into its own forms of legalism.
Yet we also need to think for a moment about the implications of the term “tender conscience” which has often been applied to a number of key religious leaders. There are significant temperamental differences that exist within Christians of the same denomination and theological persuasion, and it is possible for two Puritans, for instance, to have the same theology yet strikingly different ways of embodying this in their own personal devotional lives. When these tendencies of personality become damaging or detrimental, we label this as a “mental illnesses”, a term which, for all its weaknesses, at least acknowledges that there is a problem requiring a unique solution. Scrupulosity during the Renaissance was considered a problem for which many solutions, medical, practical and spiritual, were tried; yet it is not difficult for a modern reader to look at Baxter’s description of the scrupulous type and see a striking case study of an obsessive-compulsive.
The most cursory descriptions of John Bunyan’s life show symptoms of mental illness from an early age. Catharine Morris Cox, in her 1926 study of the “early mental traits of three hundred geniuses”, writes:
When he was 9 or 10 Bunyan’s spiritual interest was first awakened; his tender conscience became oppressed by a conviction of sin, and yet he continued to enjoy the usual pleasures of the village.
Later, Cox comments also on Bunyan’s “second spiritual awakening” after which he experienced “several years of severe mental struggle and frequent periods of despondency”. This period of despondency is the primary focus of Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), which Osborn has termed “the most fearless account of obsessive-compulsive disorder ever composed”. My first reading of this work, when I was teaching in Malaysian Borneo and experiencing a period of intense spiritual struggle myself, was somewhat like looking into a mirror which showed not the outward things but what Bunyan termed the “unfolding of my secret things”. My own secret things unfolded as I read it; I was reading a description of my own mind.
I did not know when I read Bunyan’s autobiography that either he or I suffered from OCD. Yet his description of childhood and adult obsessions rang frighteningly true of my own experience. The key difference, perhaps, between my life and Bunyan’s was that as a child he acted frequently in a way which offended his own conscience, while my conscience was simply offended by the potentials of my mind. Despite these differences, Bunyan’s description of guilt and torment as a child is remarkably similar to my own:
Being filled with all unrighteousness, the which did also so strongly work and put forth itself, both in my heart and life…Yea, so settled and rooted was I in these things, that they became as a second nature to me; the which, as I also have with soberness considered since, did so offend the Lord, that even in my childhood He did scare and affright me with fearful dreams, and did terrify me with dreadful visions; for often, after I had spent this and the other day in sin, I have in my bed been greatly afflicted, while asleep, with the apprehensions of devils and wicked spirits, who still, as I then thought, laboured to draw me away with them, of which I could never be rid.
Also I should, at these years, be greatly afflicted and troubled with the thoughts of the day of judgment, and that both night and day, and should tremble at the thoughts of the fearful torments of hell fire; still fearing that it would be my lot to be found at last amongst those devils and hellish fiends, who are there bound down with the chains and bonds of eternal darkness, ‘unto the judgment of the great day.’
Some of what Bunyan has written here may seem problematic to our eyes today. Did God, we may ask, truly send those torments upon Bunyan as a child, or were they simply the workings of his troubled mind? Given perhaps that Bunyan knew he was sinning yet persisted in this sin, it is possible to see the torments he knew as a conviction of sin, albeit of a particularly vehement kind. Yet the story of this kind of torment continued into Bunyan’s adult life, after his “second spiritual awakening”. Indeed, Bunyan describes, in painful detail, a number of experiences of intense doubt and fear over his own salvation, and repeated periods of searching through the Bible in a way which is frightening to read, so intense was his search for truth and so intricate the webs of doubt and self-condemnation in his mind.
It is tempting, while reading Bunyan’s account, to want to shake him out of the circuits of his mind. Yet anyone familiar with OCD will know that what Bunyan is describing of his faith is a common experience for OCD-sufferers, whatever the specifics of their obsessions and compulsions. Bunyan’s particular fear was that, if those who were to be saved were elected by God, then how could he know if he was one of the elect? And, if he was not, then was “the day of grace…past and gone?” The circuitous ways in which Bunyan read and second-guessed scripture in response to his doubts is particularly difficult to read, so intricate is the detail with which he describes it and so honest is he about the ways in which “by these things” he was “driven to [his] wits’ end”.
It is difficult also to understand why a committed believer should be allowed to get so inextricably stuck within their own labyrinthine obsessions. I am tempted to think, Was it necessary? Did Bunyan need to go through such excruciating doubts and fears in order to arrive at the level of faith which he later displayed? Such a question, however, is impossible to answer. There is something profound, however, which Bunyan’s agonies achieved – or, more accurately, which God’s grace achieved in these agonies. He, like others in his situation, reminds believers of how deeply they are dependant upon God’s grace.
Many Christians operate with a propositional kind of faith in God’s grace yet live day-to-day out of faith in themselves. Many believers could be the target of Paul’s vehement rebuke in his letter to the Galatians:
Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing – if it really was for nothing? (Galatians 3:3-4)
Believers who suffer from OCD can remind the church of this truth: that, as we began in grace and the Spirit, so we continue in this grace. Osborn writes:
All that is needed [for sanctification] is unconditional trust in God. What happens, unfortunately, is that in the Christian church this truth keeps on getting overshadowed by others. When this has happened, it has taken obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers – theological canaries who can sense when individual responsibility has become choking – to take Christianity back to its pure source.
I remember being particularly comforted by reading these words when I first encountered Osborn’s book and the stories it told of Luther, Bunyan and Therese of Lisieux whose struggles, like mine, had led them to a far deeper understanding of salvation by grace through faith than they could have ever found through calm, untroubled lives. The term “theological canaries” is particularly apt. Believers who rely on themselves at an implicit level may take a long time to recognise this fact; believers whose self-reliance begins to attack itself will be forced to deal with it much sooner, and much more decisively. All believers swing between complacency over sin and legalistic striving for righteousness in oneself. OCD-sufferers cannot handle the swing of the pendulum; it either drives them to self-destruction or to broken humility before the only one who can save them from their thoughts.
Bunyan’s experience of this kind of grace is a particularly striking one. It is possible to be discouraged by the failure of all his attempts to salvage his faith by searching the Bible frantically for truth. Yet we can see even in this an attempt to self-sanctify, to fix himself through spiritual discipline rather than broken humility before God. There is none of this in the story of how he was finally delivered:
[O]ne day, as I was passing in a field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest yet all was not yet right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven; and methought withal, I saw, with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, is my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was a-doing, God could not say of me, He wants my righteousness, for that was just before Him…Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed[.]
Osborn notes that Bunyan’s vision of Christ as his righteousness was unusually mystical for a Renaissance Puritan, concluding from this that his mental illness drove him to an encounter with God of an intensity that his religious upbringing would never have prepared him for. Regardless of how true this observation is, there are few accounts of God’s saving grace more beautiful and comforting, outside of scripture, than this one.
We can speculate about how Bunyan’s life may have looked had he never experienced OCD. We can wish that he had been delivered sooner, that he might have been spared the agonies of obsessive doubt and compulsive spiritual discipline. We can certainly wish that he had never suffered so much that the goodness of faith should feel like such torture to him for so long. Yet the goodness which God brought out of this circumstance stands nonetheless, and has gone on to bless many.
My grandfather had a saying which seems strangely apt for Bunyan, the tinker-turned-writer/preacher: If ifs and ands were pots and pans there’d be no work for tinkers. The saying, in its archaic charm, reminds us that there is little or no point wondering what could have been. This, in a human sense, is true and wise: what has happened is not erasable; we cannot see how our lives or how the world may have turned out, had this or that tragedy or trial not occurred. Yet it is all the truer in the light of God’s grace, which turns our every tragedy to His glory, if we trust in Him. Just is an autumn beauty is seen even as things die, God is working in the dead and broken things to give them a life and a beauty which they would never have had of their own accord.
Bunyan, J., 1666. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/b/bunyan/abounding/grace_abounding.txt.
Cox, C.M., 1926. Genetic Studies of Genius Vol. II: The Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses, ed. Lewis Terman. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press.
Osborn, I., 2008. Can Christianity Cure Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? Grand Rapids, Mi.: Brazos Press.