I am the man who has seen affliction…
His portrait would have him
serenely contemplating a garden,
one hand raised beatifically
like the saints of old.
Often I would have my days like that,
passed in that perfect serene of green,
spirit quiet within like the waters without,
no trouble straining pastoral brow.
But poems and pastors are not made like this;
the cure of souls is the work of the broken,
and contemplation is fuel for deed,
the quiet where turmoil turns to seed,
and the man who knew thoughts that were all cases of knives
was no doe-eyed dreamer but a brother to affliction,
and in earth’s pulley his grief pulled upward
and poems sprung from the love-mended rhyme.
Last week I posted a poem in honour of Christina Rossetti, who I declared one of the Anglican church’s greatest literary exports. Today, in this week’s uncovering, I want to share with you the work of a widely forgotten gem, the Anglican poet Ruth Pitter. I have my friend Nathanael to thank for this discovery, a poet who is sometimes known as “the woman who should have married C.S. Lewis” (and who is widely recognised as a better poet than he ever was). She was also the first woman to receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, alongside winning a number of other prestigious awards. And yet few have heard of her today. In fact, I only discovered her because my friend printed out some articles on her for me – and I’m very glad he did.
Pitter is not, perhaps, the sort of poet who will win many fans easily this century. Her verse is determinedly traditional. Her first book of poems (just called First Poems) has more references to fairies than are wholly to my liking (though she means it in the Tolkien or Neil Gaiman sense, not in the vein of Tinkerbell). But most of all, she is hard to get into today because her work is largely unavailable. You have to be willing to do a fair amount of your own work to discover her, and what incentive do you have if you’ve never heard of her?
Well, the purpose of this post is simply to make some of her work a little more readily available to those who are interested. Because, apart from the obstacles in our 21st-century way, Pitter deserves our attention. Her work is delicate, in a way that is both beautiful and illusive. It refuses to be pinned down, yet it is filled so often with a clearly sacramental imagination. For Pitter, the world is fleeting but points to lasting things. Darkness hurts yet is transfigured by day. Relationships are imperfect yet transfixed by irreducible grace.
One of the best clues to Pitter’s work for me came from this interview, in which she distinguishes between two types of obscurity: the “noble” obscurity in which the poem illuminates something unseen or unknown, and the “slovenly” obscurity that detracts from meaning without adding to it. Pitter’s best work feels like crystal-clear water, of a kind that perfectly allows us to see the rich complexities of the rivers’ floor beneath.
Here are just a few snippets of her work. I’ll let them speak for themselves.
And to finish, here is one of her most joy-filled offerings that I’ve found. The Plain Facts
See what a charming smile I bring,
Which no one can resist;
For I have found a wondrous thing –
The Fact that I exist.
And I have found another, which
I now proceed to tell.
The world is so sublimely rich
That you exist as well.
Fact One is lovely, so is Two,
But O the best is Three:
The Fact that I can smile at you,
And you can smile at me.
“We’ll have follow-the-leader,” Jacob decided, “and Jeshua can be the leader.”
“No – you do it,” said Jeshua. “I like it better being last.”
(Eleanor Spence, Me and Jeshua, 1984)
Australian author Eleanor Spence has not been completely forgotten. Text Publishing recently reprinted her novel Lillipilly Hill as part of their Australian classics collection, and back in the 90s, she formed a reasonably large part of my primary school English education, with her books The October Child and The Leftovers both being prescribed texts. But her 1984 novel, Me and Jeshua, despite receiving quite a bit of critical acclaim, was last reprinted in 2001 and has all but completely vanished from the cultural memory.
When it came out, it was nominated for Children’s Book of the Year and, surprisingly for a mainstream author, won Christian Book of the Year for 1985. I found it in a collection of free books at the theological college where I study and, having heard of the author but not the book, was intrigued enough to take it home. And it has proven to be one of those forgotten gems that makes rummaging through old tattered books so worthwhile.
The story is written with that just-recognisable form of camouflage that allows familiar stories to become so fresh for the reader. Spence uses literal translations of all place names to make them, at first, hard to identify. Bethlehem, for instance, is called the House of Bread. And the characters of Jacob, Jude, Simon, Miriam, Josef, Elissa, Jona and, most importantly, Jeshua, take a few chapters to become familiar again to us as Jesus and his earthly family. The camouflage is aided by Spence taking the approach of making Jacob (James), Jude and Simon be Jeshua’s (Jesus’) cousins not brothers (a traditional Catholic view that allows Mary to remain a virgin after giving birth to Jesus). But, whatever reservations some readers might have with this take on the story, the rest is utterly plausible. Jude, the narrator, grows up hearing stories of his infamous but beloved aunt Miriam who conceived a child under scandalous circumstances but was married by the decent and generous Josef, and one day they return from a mysterious sojourn in Egypt to live with their family in what readers familiar with the Bible story will know to be Nazareth. Jude, learning who he is himself within his family and culture, is drawn more and more to this mysteriously wise, kind and altogether good cousin of his. Meanwhile, Jeshua must learn why he is so different to everyone else and what his true father wants him to be.
What arrested me so much about this novel was the beauty of the storytelling, influenced in no small part by the powers of Spence’s language and her evocation of place. Palestine is both palpably magical, with figs and fresh loaves you could almost pick off the page and eat, as well as torn apart by violence and poverty. Jude is a perfect narrator: aware enough of himself to be compassionate and imperfect at the same time. And Jeshua just shines: simultaneously an ordinary boy with fears and insecurities and yet good in a way that is never questioned or corrupted and – most remarkably of all – remains utterly credible.
I do not know what Spence’s personal conviction was about Jeshua the real, historical man. But in this remarkable, forgotten gem, she has made him human and glorious in a way that has drawn me anew to who He is.
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.
Melancholy, though it so weakens and disorders the mind, as to render a person unable, to enjoy the comforts, and to perform the duties of life, is, nevertheless, seated in the body. But the state of body which accompanies this disease, is acknowledged by the best Physicians, to be in general beyond the reach of their investigation.
(John Colquhoun, “Of the Nature and the Signs of Melancholy”)
Art, literature, philosophy and science have for a long time dealt with the question of mental illness. Modern audiences may be baffled or confused by discussions about excesses in bodily humours, or the distinctions between body and mind which often appear in the literature on the subject. These do, however, demonstrate that, for a long time, humans have wrestled with a variety of ways to answer the ever-complex question of how seemingly disproportionate emotional or mental distress could be understood or remedied. Whether it was Hamlet’s mother and stepfather chastising him for his “obstinate condolement”, and his “heart unfortified”, or Hippocrates and later physical scientists speculating about the destructive powers of black bile, we have long struggled to understand why some people seem to be controlled by emotions or mental battles which cannot be externally explained.
For a long time, humans have wrestled with a variety of ways to answer the ever-complex question of how seemingly disproportionate emotional or mental distress could be understood or remedied.
When speaking of depression – once called “melancholy”, from the ancient Greek concept of black bile – modern-day psychologists and psychiatrists will now distinguish between exogenous and endogenous depression, the former seemingly stemming from external factors, the latter from internal. Yet even this does not fully tell the story. Exogenous depression might seize upon a traumatic life event, for instance, yet the “unprevailing woe” which results from it can still appear disproportionate to others. Indeed, it may seem so to the sufferer themselves.
Church father John Cassian wrote in the first century that “of dejection there are two kinds; one, that which springs up when anger has died down, or as the result of some loss we have incurred or of some purpose which has been hindered or interfered with: the other, which comes from unreasonable anxiety of mind or despair”. Certainly, it is helpful to distinguish between the two. Yet for many it can be nearly impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Hamlet, speaking to his childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, perfectly expresses the “unreasonable anxiety of mind or despair” which can stem from seemingly reasonable causes:
I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
Having recently lost his father and seeing his mother hastily remarrying to his father’s brother, it is not to our eyes altogether unusual that Hamlet should feel deep grief. Nor are we convinced by his stepfather Claudius’ criticisms of his “unmanly grief”: Claudius, after all, has just killed Hamlet’s father and seduced his mother. Yet even Hamlet speaks of his own grief as if he does not fully understand it, as though even for him it goes beyond what might be expected of his circumstances. Nor is his grief confined to the circumstances themselves: all of life, it seems, has become meaningless, and humanity has revealed itself to him as merely “this quintessence of dust”.
That grief can sometimes take such a disproportionately powerful hold upon us is testified to in the Bible. In Psalm 42, the psalmist asks, “Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” Many consider the psalmist here to be “preaching to himself”, to be declaring that deep sorrow in light of God’s mercy is never entirely justified. Such a reading, however, fails to recognise that the Bible so often gives full voice to grief, whether rational or not. Psalm 88 is perhaps the clearest example of this, with not the smallest sign of the psalmist “preaching to himself”; and the book of Lamentations famously refuses the “happy ending” which many people wish it would offer. Grief, even in light of God’s goodness, is part of human life and it has the power to take hold of our pre-existing brokenness in ways which the most comprehensive of scientific theories still cannot fully explain.
The church, however, has perhaps struggled more than other areas of society to grapple with mental illness. Perhaps this is in part because we resist reductionist views of things like emotions; if our emotions are more than mere chemical responses – which surely a Christian view must argue – then it seems overly simplistic to say that a correction in neurochemistry is all that is needed to fix the deep agonies of the heart. Yet it must also be equally reductionist to say that, in creatures who are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, our brain’s chemistry has nothing to do with how we feel. We continue to make distinctions between “heart” and “mind”, for instance, which, though they may be helpful to a point, are more metaphorical than we recognise. Emotions no more come from our hearts than they do from our “humours”; what happens in our brains (significantly, not the same as our “minds”) affects our entire bodies, in a complex relationship which only our Creator can truly understand.
But, complex and confusing though the subject itself is, it remains worth asking: why does the church struggle so much to accept the existence of mental illness? Perhaps it is a lingering scepticism about the scientific method of psychology. Few Christians today deny that physical illness is real and that medical help is a gift from God in dealing with it. Yet the thought that adjustments in our brain’s chemistry could help our emotions seems strangely discomforting to many still, as though it constituted a kind of “lack of faith” of which we would never accuse someone if they took antibiotics for their throat infection.
…complex and confusing though the subject itself is, it remains worth asking: why does the church struggle so much to accept the existence of mental illness?
Perhaps it also results from the fact that, while we now view our bodies in medical terms, we still think of our minds and our emotions mystically, distinguishing between facets of how we are created in ways which are neither helpful nor accurate. Look at the Biblical texts which deal with suffering and you see there a connection between the physical, the spiritual and the mental that is highly informative for even modern readers. In Psalm 42, the psalmist speaks to his soul – that is, he gives intellectual instruction to it, suggesting a mental process used to help in a spiritual one. He also describes the physical effects of his mental and emotional malaise. Or, to consider another type of example, Jesus often sought to cure not only the physical distress but also the spiritual needs of those who came to Him; think of the times he said, “Your sins are forgiven”, when surely only a “medical” cure was required.
If the connection between physical and emotional or mental illness is stronger than we might instinctively think, then we have a helpful way forward, perhaps, in dealing with our discomfort about the latter. While some Christians struggle to understand how physical illness can continue for those who pray against it in faith, the majority have had to find ways of acknowledging that, while sickness is not God’s will, it persists in a fallen creation, and that healing is not always forthcoming, for reasons only God can fully know. Many who have wrestled for long periods of time with physical illness have also had to consider the ways in which God uses illness to strengthen His people and to teach them things which they would never have otherwise learned. And, if this can be true for physical illness, then also why not for mental illness?
Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski – although not himself a Christian, heavily influenced by Christian writer and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard – once gave a definition of mental illness which, though many would question it, makes a challenging point which I believe can be quite informative for how we think about this question. For Dabrowski, “disintegration” – that is, the breaking down of simple, neat structures of thinking, feeling and interacting – is necessary for personal growth, and often it is a painful process while it is happening. Yet this process in itself is not necessarily an “illness”. It is an illness, he argued, when it fails to result in positive growth.
While for a variety of reasons I believe it is still helpful to use the term “mental illness” to denote conditions such as depression, OCD, bipolar or schizophrenia, Dabrowski’s point is a fascinating one, because it suggests that what we often consider an ailment can under the right circumstances be a productive force, even – hard though it may be to comprehend – a gift.
We need only look at the many significant people throughout the ages whom we would consider to have had mental illnesses in order to see how this can be the case. Sometimes great artists or thinkers managed to contribute much while still themselves falling prey to their own mental malaise. Figures like Ernest Hemingway, Gilles Deleuze, William Cowper or Sylvia Plath come to mind, whose lives ended either in suicide or despair, or artists like Brian Wilson whose genius and mental illnesses have existed in such an uneasy balance that the latter has often destroyed the former. Yet few can imagine a world without Beethoven, Mozart, Isaac Newton or the countless others who, at the very least, managed to achieve greatness in spite of their mental illnesses. So much so, that it seems worth asking if their mental illnesses in fact helped contribute to their greatness.
…what we often consider an ailment can under the right circumstances be a productive force, even – hard though it may be to comprehend – a gift.
In the realm of Christian faith, we should arguably have a particularly strong capacity for understanding how this can be so. Christians believe all humanity to have been created well by a loving God; we believe that illness exists in this world, yet we also believe that God can use all things in His redemption plan. We know that He never allows suffering to persist in the lives of His children without a good reason for doing so. We also know that He often chooses to work redemption through suffering rather than in spite of it or against it. The many testimonies in the Bible of God working good through trials and despair should surely convince us of this, few more compellingly than St Paul’s in his second letter to the Corinthians:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)
A similar testimony is given by pastor and writer John Newton, in his hymn “Prayers Answered by Crosses”. Newton knew much about mental illness, though not entirely from personal experience. He was in many respects a happy and contented man himself, yet his wife suffered from a variety of ailments and his closest friend, William Cowper, was severely depressed – and at times psychotic – for many years of their friendship. “Prayers Answered by Crosses” was believed to be written around the time that Cowper entered a period of prolonged mental illness, believing God to be demanding that he sacrifice his own life much like Abraham nearly sacrificed the life of his son Isaac. The Olney Hymnal which Newton and Cowper had been writing together hit a dramatic standstill because of Cowper’s breakdown, and for some time it seemed that it would never be completed. Yet Newton was able, through remarkable perseverance and a prodigious amount of writing, to complete the hymnal which has given the world the most ubiquitous worship song, “Amazing Grace”, and numerous others. Remarkably, when Newton reflects on his trials in “Prayers Answered by Crosses”, he does not suggest that God simply delivered him out of these trials, but that God used these trials to teach him what he could not otherwise have learnt.
As we reflect on the ways in which mental illness can in fact be a gift to the world, we would do well to begin by considering the God who makes such things possible.
I ask’d the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and ev’ry grace,
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek more earnestly his face.
’Twas he who taught me thus to pray,
And he, I trust has answer’d pray’r;
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hop’d that in some favour’d hour,
At once he’d answer my request:
And by his love’s constraining pow’r
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in ev’ry part.
Yea more, with his own hand he seem’d
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Cross’d all the fair designs I schem’d
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cry’d,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way,” the Lord reply’d,
“I answer pray’r for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou mayst seek thy all in me.”
Colquhoun, J. 1814. A Treatise on Spiritual Comfort. Edinburgh: J. Ogle.
Dabrowski, K. 1964. Positive Disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Newton, J., and Cowper, W. 1779. Olney Hymns.
Winter, R. 1986. The Roots of Sorrow: Reflections on Depression and Hope. Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books.
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.
One of the original purposes with which The Consolations of Writing was created was to celebrate the ways in which God can use our trials and struggles to grow good fruit in our lives. This purpose emerged out of my own struggles with mental illness – depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder – and the ways in which, in my darkest times, evidence of God’s presence could clearly be seen in the writing that I was able to produce at those times.
So, it is with great excitement that I announce my next writing project, due to begin after Easter: an eight-month project, going until the end of the year, exploring the fruit of mental illness in the lives of prominent Christians throughout the ages.
This is where I need your help. While I have a number of figures already whom I am looking forward to exploring, I am sure there are others I am missing. Please feel free to comment with any thoughts or suggestions: whose are the stories you have found comforting in your own struggles? Whose work, whether it be writing, music, art or theology, has demonstrated God’s work within and through mental illness?