Some years ago, the greatest comfort I found in the Bible was in the book of Ecclesiastes. This may sound strange to some people: it is hardly most people’s first choice for scriptural encouragement, with its repeated catch-cry variously translated as “everything is meaningless”, “everything is vapour”, or “everything is vanity”. Yet I remember nights when all I could read to help me sleep was this book, sometimes considered either the most depressing or most existential work in the Bible. If you look for the closest thing that scripture has to twentieth century philosophy, you will find it in the book of Ecclesiastes: curious, perhaps, but what is likely to be comforting in this?
Well, first of all, it needs to be said that I was not the first to be comforted by it. Throughout history, believers struggling with what is now termed “existential depression” – a sense of weight, of languor, of despair, over the nature, structure and meaning of life – have strangely found comfort in Ecclesiastes. Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, a devout Christian who still struggled with melancholy and sickness for much of her life, turned to the book in a number of poems, including the sonnet “The One Certainty”, “A Testimony” – written from the perspective of Ecclesiastes’ unnamed “Teacher” – and even wrote a book on the subject, entitled Ecclesiastes, or, The Preacher. Rossetti seems to testify to what I too found two years ago: that it is comforting to see melancholy, disquiet, existential depression reflected in scripture. It makes us feel less alone, less like the Bible is a theoretical work that knows nothing of our sorrows.
Rossetti’s journeys into Ecclesiastes are among some of her bleakest, since she refuses the kind of comforting answer that we might feel forced to impose upon the book. Yet the bleakness of Ecclesiastes, and of Rossetti’s poems, is one which forces us to look elsewhere. If it is ultimately disquieting, it is because we still live in the “evil under the sun”. We witness the same cycles over and over again; we feel the weight and weariness of our flesh; we see others prospering from that for which they did not labour; we are never satisfied:
The earth is fattened with our dead;
She swallows more and doth not cease:
Therefore her wine and oil increase
And her sheaves are not numberèd;
Therefore her plants are green, and all
Her pleasant trees lusty and tall.
Therefore the maidens cease to sing,
And the young men are very sad;
Therefore the sowing is not glad,
And mournful is the harvesting.
Of high and low, of great and small,
Vanity is the lot of all.
A King dwelt in Jerusalem;
He was the wisest man on earth;
He had all riches from his birth,
And pleasures till he tired of them;
Then, having tested all things, he
Witnessed that all are vanity. (Rossetti, “A Testimony”)
Where, then, do we go with this disquiet?
Ecclesiastes itself provides a number of answers, though sometimes we have to look carefully for them. The first comes in what is perhaps the most famous and most often-quoted passage from the book – the third chapter, with its memorable poem about the seasons of life, famously set to music by the Byrds. Within this series of declarations of what different seasons life affords, there is the statement that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance”. Note, these seasons, though contrasting, are given equal weight. They are, seemingly, as important as one another, as much a part of life. Indeed, while we may struggle with some of the contents of the chapter – a “time to kill”, for instance – we must recognise that there is manifold complexity to the fabric of life which we, not being God, fail often to understand. Wisdom literature, with its emphasis upon “the fear of the Lord”, contends that the best place to start is to acknowledge our inability to understand what only God can truly hold together. Therefore, we can strangely take comfort in seasons, because all seasons are ordained by God and have their purpose – “and God will call the past to account”.
The second answer comes two chapters later, when the Teacher, having just criticised those who labour for their own advancement, turns to God’s majesty and our weakness before Him:
Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart
to utter anything before God.
God is in heaven
and you are on earth,
so let your words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:2)
The answer, then, to the weight of existential depression? Mourn. Recognise your own lack of understanding and stand trusting before God. Recognise the seasons, and their value. Let this be a season of mourning, and rejoice that God ordains other seasons.
In the end, this is not, perhaps, an answer. Those wrestling with the apparent meaninglessness of life may not necessarily be comforted immediately to know that there is not a clear answer to the problem. Yet it is indeed comforting to know that God holds together what we cannot possibly understand.
The book of Ecclesiastes, for me, is comforting for a similar reason to why I find the Psalms comforting. It reveals life’s complexity, its many pleats and colours, in a way which ardent declarations of faith, however well-intentioned, cannot always do. And, revealing that complexity, it tells me to stand trusting before God. If this is a time for mourning, then mourn. But trust that God sees more than I see, and trust that He will call all things to account.
It takes weariness with life to write a book like Ecclesiastes. And it also takes a deep, abiding knowledge of our Creator, which can only come from acknowledging life’s pain, mourning it with Him and, in the end, standing in awe before Him.
Rossetti, C.G. Goblin Market and Other Poems. http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/rossetti/christina/goblin_market/contents.html
…if the evil which is the cause of sorrow be not so strong as to deprive one of the hope of avoiding it, although the soul be depressed in so far as, for the present, it fails to grasp that which it craves for; yet it retains the movement whereby to repulse that evil. If, on the other hand, the strength of the evil be such as to exclude the hope of evasion, then even the interior movement of the afflicted soul is absolutely hindered, so that it cannot turn aside either this way or that.
(Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I-II, Question 37)
Famous for his attempts to reconcile faith and scholarship, it is unsurprising perhaps that when Thomas Aquinas first approaches the topic of sorrow it is with the question, “Whether Pain Deprives One of the Power to Learn?” Turning first to Isaiah, who speaks of Israel learning during times of sorrow, he initially states that sorrow can in fact enable learning. Yet sorrow, he acknowledges, weighs down the body, and this in turn can prevent the mind’s faculties from focusing on learning. Sorrow also indicates distress over evil, he writes. This too can weigh down the body and mind.
What, he then turns to ask, differentiates between the kind of sorrow which enables learning and that which prevents it? There is a kind of sorrow, he notes, which weighs down a man so much that he cannot see a way out of the sorrow which he experiences. Such sorrow indicates an absence of hope. He writes:
The more one sorrows on account of a certain thing, the more one strives to shake off sorrow, provided there is a hope of shaking it off: otherwise no movement or action would result from that sorrow.
If, however, there is no hope of shaking off the sorrow – if, perhaps, the evil which causes the sorrow is seemingly too great, or if the mind is weighed down too much by melancholy – then the mind and body are overwhelmed and cannot move. Indeed,
Fear and anger cause very great harm to the body, by reason of the sorrow which they imply, and which arises from the absence of the thing desired. Moreover sorrow too sometimes deprives man of the use of reason: as may be seen in those who through sorrow become a prey to melancholy or madness.
Aquinas’ method is careful and rigorous in all things, and it is for this that he is perhaps most famous. Examining objections to each question or thesis he poses, he then responds to these objections systematically, the conclusions at which he arrives being always logical and clear, even if they sometimes answer questions which we ourselves have never asked ourselves.
Yet it seems difficult to consider depression and sorrow in such purely scholarly terms. Did Thomas, we feel forced to ask, know of this kind of sorrow himself? He speaks of it as one who knows its dimensions well, yet there is never anything personal in how he considers it – not that we should expect this, since he is rarely personal in anything that he considers. Chesterton writes of Thomas that “there is a sort of enormous quiet hanging about St. Thomas. He was one of those large things who take up little room”.
There is, however, the story of the voice of Christ which Thomas reportedly heard from a crucifix late in life, an encounter which caused him to reflect that he could no longer write since, in light of this, “all that I have written is but straw”. Whether this was a spiritual encounter or a symptom of depression, the biographers and critics are not in agreement. Certainly, his prodigious literary output seems to have ended at that point. Denys Turner comments on the fact that the Summa finished “midpoint in the discussion of the seven sacraments”, a fact which remains enshrouded in mystery. There is also the story which Chesterton relates of the Pope inviting Thomas to a Council on the Arabian sophists, which Thomas was unable in the end to attend because of the sudden, incapacitating illness which eventually took his life. In an act which, for Chesterton indicates that he was deeply aware of the emotional dimension of faith, Thomas asked to have the Song of Solomon read as comfort to him in this time. The story is, perhaps, not illuminating, except that it gives us a glimpse of a man whose inner life was as complex as his academic system. Chesterton writes that
in the world of that mind there was a wheel of angels, and a wheel of planets, and a wheel of plants or of animals; but there was also a just and intelligible order of all earthly things, a sane authority and a self-respecting liberty, and a hundred answers to a hundred questions in the complexity of ethics or economics. But there must have been a moment, when men knew that the thunderous mill of thought had stopped suddenly; and that after the shock of stillness that wheel would shake the world no more; that there was nothing now within that hollow house but a great hill of clay; and the confessor, who had been with him in the inner chamber, ran forth as if in fear, and whispered that his confession had been that of a child of five.
If we can move beyond the slightly laboured idiom in which Chesterton tells his account, we see here something of the humility that must lie at the heart of such truly deep contemplation of the truths of God. Whatever the truth of Thomas’ audible encounter with Jesus from the crucifix, it seems clear that he emerged from it with a vocal awareness that all he needed as the reward for his work was Christ Himself. And so it is fitting that, at the end of his life, he should express his faith with an alarming, childlike simplicity – not the end of a great mind, but the fulfilment of one.
Similarly, Thomas’ examination of sorrow and melancholy is a fascinating mixture of careful scholarship and earthy practicality. Considering carefully why and how tears, for instance, can be understood to alleviate rather than worsen sorrow, he also recommends the medicinal power of the company of friends, sleep, and a bath. Of equal importance seems to be the place towards which we direct the movements of sorrow and emotion. For Thomas, the soul is seemingly in constant motion – either towards God, towards sin, or into itself. This latter idea is surprisingly consistent with later, phenomenological schools of psychology – with Kierkegaard’s idea of despair as the “sickness unto death”, and of Dabrowski’s concept of the “involuted” self which fails to learn because it becomes too entwined within itself. The soul which is weighed down with sorrow is the soul which cannot look to God and to the truth and thus cannot receive the alleviations of sorrow which God gives in everyday pleasures and comforts.
In a world which still struggles to reconcile the rational and the spiritual, Aquinas is something of a healthy antidote, both in his work and his life. Thomas’ awareness of both natural and spiritual explanations for mental distress should at least somewhat dispel the confusion which arises in the literature around his apparent “hallucinations”. In his psychological study of Thomas’ hallucinations, Simon McCarthy-Jones writes that Aquinas had “a sophisticated, well-developed and holistic view of hallucinations”, and – I would add – of mental illness in general. If Thomas himself had a well-developed understanding of these kinds of phenomena, it seems reductionist for us to then treat his own mental struggles as either/or propositions, whereby the natural and the spiritual are irremediably schismed. If we are to consult Aquinas’ own writings on the subject of sorrow and the “passions”, we see that what matters most is not the cause of the sorrow or distress itself but the direction in which the soul moves in response to it.
Thomas’ soul, it is clear, moved towards God in response to his encounters with distress, whatever their nature or cause. What we can best take from Aquinas’ writings and own experiences seems to be the sufficiency of Christ, whether over natural or spiritual phenomena. If Christ was indeed the only reward that Aquinas needed for his labours, so was He also the only comfort Aquinas needed in his sorrow and his death.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae, I-II, Treatise on Passions. Logos Virtual Library http://www.logoslibrary.org/aquinas/summa/2037.html
Chesterton, G.K. 1933. Saint Thomas Aquinas. Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/chesterton/aquinas.i.html
Dabrowski, K. 1964. Positive Disintegration. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
McCarthy-Jones, S. Seeing the unseen, hearing the unsaid: Hallucinations, psychology and St. Thomas Aquinas. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 14: 4, 353-369.
Turner, D. 2013. Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. New Haven: Yale University Press.
…a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up, because the soul is more intent on it: whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul’s intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened.
(Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae,Part I-II, Question 38)
(John Dowland, Tears of Lamentacions of a Sorrowfull Soul)
So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”
“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.”
To understand what it is to be ill, we also need to understand what it is to be well. As I am writing these words, I am struggling with the early signs of a virus. I know that I am not well because I know how my body should feel. The pain in my throat tells me that something is amiss; it should not be there. The same rule applies to mental illness; if we know how our minds should “feel”, then we can recognise also what is abnormal.
But is it so simple? Sometimes our bodies’ responses of pain and distress are signs of health, not of illness. If I were to feel a sudden, inexplicable pain in my chest, I might fear that I was ill. If, however, the pain corresponded to an injury – an object hitting me in the chest, for instance – I would not fear illness. Instead, the pain would be a normal physical response. Far from showing that my body was unwell, it would show that my body was working very well indeed; it would be doing exactly what it should do at that moment.
Much psychology over the last century and a half has sought to establish what “normal” is for the human mind and thus to understand divergences from this norm. Sometimes this is a problematic process. Freud, for instance, famously developed his theories primarily based on highly unusual cases, meaning that he was not able to gain a clear picture of what “normal” actually was. Yet, that aside, Freud’s concept of “normal” – and those of figures who came after him – was premised on some interesting and problematic assumptions. One key assumption seems to be that guilt is a neurosis, perpetuated by religion, and that the healthy human mind should be free from such guilt. This is a concept which Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenges in Ethics when he writes of guilt as a healthy response to a relationship with God:
Genuine acknowledgment of guilt does not grow from experiences of dissolution and decay but, for us who have encountered Christ, only by looking at the form Christ has taken.
Rather than pathological or neurotic, guilt for Bonhoeffer is an appropriate response to the true and pure knowledge of God. Likewise, many of our responses of sadness or guilt over our lives may stem from an awareness that things could and should be other than they are.
Guilt and grief pervade the human experience, not only for those who suffer from these emotions in extreme forms. We may assume that extreme feelings of guilt or grief, if not accompanied by some “reasonable cause”, are pathological. Yet it is worth asking if those who do not feel intense guilt or grief are in fact the ones who are not entirely healthy. For some, the everyday pain of life is an intense source of grief, and the on-going disappointments of life with self, others and circumstance can cause a degree of pain which, though not based on clear, concrete causes, is nonetheless palpable and reasonable.
We may assume that extreme feelings of guilt or grief, if not accompanied by some “reasonable cause”, are pathological. Yet it is worth asking if those who do not feel intense guilt or grief are in fact the ones who are not entirely healthy.
Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia explores this idea powerfully. The main character, Justine, struggles with feelings of deep depression which make no sense to those around her. They argue that she should just “try to be happy”. When, by the end of the film, the entire fabric of life on earth is under serious threat, Justine seems the most stable and secure among them; having encountered and confronted the emptiness of life, she is able to deal with what everyone else has previously hidden from. Von Trier’s film operates from an almost nihilistic viewpoint whereby meaning is dictated by the “fact” that “we are alone” in this universe, a view which many – including me – would struggle with. Yet what he presents compellingly in the film is that sometimes the emptiness perceived by those with depression is not entirely a symptom of an illness but a fact from which others hide.
Death, for instance, is a reality which hangs over every human life. Then there are all the ways in which we enter life with expectations and hopes which may never be met, both in life and in ourselves. We repeatedly do not live up to the expectations we have of ourselves, and the disappointments we can suffer at the hands of others are equally great. Additionally, there are the numerous sources of anguish and distress in the world around us. We surely cannot confront the realities of famine, disease and oppression throughout the world, of which the majority of us are knowingly or unknowingly culpable, without feeling both guilty and grieved.
Yet this is a truth from which many in the world today hide. Christians so often hide from it because we expect better of life after finding Christ. We expect ourselves to be good, and we expect life to conform to divine will. Admitting otherwise is often painful and requires a more solid, God-centred faith than we are entirely ready for. In some Christian circles, lamentation seems to demonstrate a lack of faith. In most circles, it simply isn’t done. For those who do not hold to religious belief, it is equally hard. Acknowledging the deep pain of reality without an answer or a reason behind it is no easier than recognising that life does not always conform clearly to that answer or reason.
If so many in the world today suffer from depression, a possible explanation could be that we simply do not give space in life for meaningful acts of grief, mourning and repentance, thus causing grief to fester. In his beautiful series of meditations on the Eucharist – noting that the word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving” – Henri Nouwen speaks of the importance of first “mourning our losses”. Without doing so, he writes, we are inclined towards resentment – perhaps in a quiet form, of which we are not readily aware, yet sometimes in more overt forms which manifest themselves in intense anger towards ourselves or others. That, or our resentment reappears in the forms of bitterness or disillusionment. The answer to this problem begins both with an acknowledgment of loss and of the fact that we are in some ways culpable for this loss, the cry for mercy with which the Lord’s Supper begins:
This cry for mercy is possible only when we are willing to confess that somehow, somewhere, we ourselves have something to do with our losses. Crying for mercy is a recognition that blaming God, the world, or others for our losses does not do full justice to the truth of who we are. At the moment we are willing to take responsibility, even for the pain we didn’t cause directly; blaming is converted into an acknowledgement of our own role in human brokenness.
Perhaps this culpability is part of the reason why we do not confront grief: because it might lead to guilt, and we are even more afraid of that than of grief itself. Yet guilt that is justified is not pathological or dangerous, not when there is a clear solution to that guilt: the mercy of an all-loving God.
The reality that life disappoints and hurts is unavoidable, yet it is similarly not the whole story; this is precisely why we can lament. We can recognise that life is imperfect, mourn this fact, and through faith in God participate in the possibility of a different reality. If we grieve the fact that this reality takes a long time in coming, we are of the same mind and heart as all creation, which according to the apostle Paul “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). Like Naomi of the Old Testament, we can mourn that life has become bitter for us, yet it is does not need to end there. To mourn means ultimately to avoid bitterness or resentment in ourselves, because we acknowledge pain openly, before God. Yet the key is to also mourn our own guilt and culpability with the tragedy. If we recognise before God that we are part of the problem, we can be enabled by His grace to be part of the solution.
Grief and guilt can become pathological, it is true. They can become such overwhelming emotions that they themselves create new and unnecessary pains and disappointments. Yet they originate in a rational place, and part of the reason why we struggle so much with how to deal with pathological and neurotic feelings is arguably our reluctance to deal with them in their more reasonable and justifiable manifestations. When we walk with God’s people through the valley of weeping, when we recognise our own unworthiness before a holy God, we should mourn. To be mentally healthy in such a place may well involve such mourning.
The good news, of course, is that it does not finish there, but this is a truth that we cannot fully or sympathetically celebrate until we too have walked through the valley of weeping ourselves.
Bonhoeffer, D. 2005. Ethics. Ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd Jr. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
Nouwen, H. 1994. With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life. New York: Orbis Books.
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?