From Ashes Part 8: No work for tinkers

William Blake, "Christian Reading in His Book" Wikimedia Commons
William Blake, “Christian Reading in His Book”
Wikimedia Commons

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.

References

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.

From Ashes Part 7: Weariness

James McNeill Whistler, "Weary" Wikimedia Commons
James McNeill Whistler, “Weary”
Wikimedia Commons

 

Living Vapour
Drag your heels –
the ground sinks beneath your thudding feet
and dunes defy your constancy.

 

Watch the sun –
it rises and sets,
then runs to the place from whence it has set
while your heavy feet echo.

 

And is there a thing
of which it is said,
Here is something new?
What eye has forgotten
and ear can’t contain,
what heart rejects as vanity:
it has all been, it already slips
and sublimates as vapour.

 

I have made great works and built
houses, planted vineyards and
swum in pools and watered trees,
but I could not build the clouds.

 

And though I put it in my heart
to test all madness and all folly,
all my flesh was quicksilver
and all my mettle, vapour.

 

But after the sand-castles, what could we build
that kings had not built before us?
 
And after the storm-clouds, what could the wind
blow that had not yet fallen?
 

 

And after the sun had already seen
all wisdom and all my folly –

 

who could still stand
who could stand tall
what worth were all of my towers?

 

My father gave me silver cords;
they have all been cut.
He gave me bowls of gold and they
now lie broken on the floor.
I have cast my bread upon
the water’s edge; the sea retreats.
He has shown me how it comes
back to bring my bread to me.
We skimmed our stones across the sea;
they left, not to return.
But I have cast my bread upon
my Father’s sea. It stays.

 

The wind holds us still
and our hearts beat with awe
and the hand that draws closed
the blinds of the day
pulls the day’s strands
together and seeks
once again all
that is lost.

~ 

Wisdom, Study and the Weariness of the Flesh

The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
(Ecclesiastes 12:11-12 KJV)

The teacher searched to know and understand all wisdom and folly. In all his studies, he saw history repeating and the goodness of the wise being thwarted by foolishness and by the pervasiveness of evil under the sun. The same fate overcame both the wise man and the fool. And so, he asked, what profit was there in all this toil? Why did the wise man labour when he suffered the same fate as the fool?

Here, in his summation of all that he has found, the writer of Ecclesiastes declares the study of books to be a weariness of the flesh. The Hebrew word for “weariness” which he uses – yegi’ah (יְגִיעָה) – has an interesting context to it. The word itself appears only here in Hebrew scripture, and its Greek equivalent – κόπωσις or koptó, used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and in a number of New Testament passages – denotes lament, mourning, or cutting off. Yegi’ah, however, is related to a group of Hebrew words which can variously be used in relation to toil, labour or weariness. The root word, yaga, appears for instance in Ecclesiastes 10:15 when the writer declares that “a fool’s work wearies him”. The same word is used when Job laments, “Since I am already found guilty, why should I struggle in vain?” (Job 9:29). David uses the word when he declares that he is “worn out” from his “groaning” (Psalm 6:6) and elsewhere when he is “worn out calling for help” (Psalm 69:3). Isaiah uses it repeatedly when he tells Israel that God will not “grow tired or weary”, that He “gives strength to the weary” and that “those who hope in the Lord…will run and not grow weary” (Isaiah 40:28-31). Yet, when Israel does not seek out God, they are said to be have not “wearied” themselves for Him, and God is later said to be “wearied” by their “offences” (Isaiah 43:22, 24).

Most interesting, perhaps, is the use of the word yegi’ah outside of the Bible. It appears in extra-biblical Jewish writings as one of the ways in which the Torah can be read or studied: formal, intensive study, as opposed to cursory reading. Some Hebrew and Christian commentators have interpreted Ecclesiastes 12:12 to be a warning against the reading on non-scriptural texts. Amos Bitzan, in his dissertation on pleasurable reading in Jewish thought, quotes a passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi which refers to the often-cited statement by Rabbi Akiva warning that “one who reads in external [ie. non-Biblical] books” shall not “inherit the land” as per Isaiah 60:21. Yet the rabbinical injunction against external books was not universal: some noted that such books “were given for recitation not for tiring study [yegi’ah]”. In this sense, exhaustive study of Biblical books was not wrong, but it was when such study was exercised with non-Biblical books.

My mother, I remember, used to remind me of Ecclesiastes 12:12 when I was completing my Honours thesis in Literature. She was not, I suspect, viewing the passage in light of this school of Jewish thought, yet was warning that too much study could be an exhausting experience. This view is not, I suspect, altogether separate from what the writer of Ecclesiastes was saying. A book which has been famously hard to locate comfortably within the flow of Hebrew scripture, Ecclesiastes is not perhaps as opposed to non-Biblical learning as some try to make it to be. Indeed, some view the book as a kind of thought experiment – an examination of the world through secular eyes – a process which is given an inexplicably large space in the Bible if its only conclusion is that secular wisdom is destructive and to be avoided at all costs. Yet such “wisdom”, apart from God, is clearly not liberating. If the toil that is placed in studying scripture gives life, the toil of studying the many books which the world produces is only going to be like the other forms of toil which the Teacher decries:

What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever. (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4)

The word for “toil” used here is a different Hebrew word, yet it has similar connotations, also used throughout the Old Testament to denote both toil and weariness. The weariness that comes from the mind studying may not be the same as that which comes from physical toil, yet each leads to the same end: the futility, the vapour or vanity which the Teacher finds everywhere he looks. 

*

A former student of mine, now studying at University, asked me a few years ago why so many academics seem depressed. The reasons, of course, could be many, but Ecclesiastes’ Teacher could tell us some of the reason why. New theories are developed, new ideologies and epistemologies circulated, yet they fail to transform or change the fundamental hardships of this life. Academic endeavour, the accumulation of knowledge, the development of theories: all of these are, in the end, wearisome, if they cannot push beyond the entropy of the human state.

Some in this world believe that, if God exists, He should be understandable and accessible via human reason. That may be. Yet the end-point of the weariness discussed in Ecclesiastes is not our arrival at some transcendent epiphany but one of broken humility before a transcendent God. This is something which is arguably aided, not prevented, by mental illness. Some of the most intelligent people throughout human history have been beset by deep sadness, weariness or anxiety – sometimes because of their great learning. Some have reached an intense point of crisis precisely because their learning only brings them ever more profoundly to its own impasse; and some of the world’s most significant changes have been accomplished at this point of crisis.

Yet what is accomplished on a large scale in some cases can occur in a smaller day-to-day sense in each life, when we recognise that, for all we know, we are not God and our knowledge can only perpetuate and re-interpret what already is until we encounter and humble ourselves before the God who Is.

Intellectual endeavour may enable us to understand the workings of the human mind, and many have been blessed by what psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience have taught us. When I read the stories of significant believers in the past who experienced mental illness, some cry out for the kind of care which they would have received had they lived today. William Cowper’s story, for instance, might have been a far happier one had his particularly intense form of paranoid depression been properly diagnosed and treated; yet perhaps his hymns would not have impacted as many lives with their raw emotional faith if that had happened. Martin Luther would perhaps have been better able to manage his guilt complex with the help of modern psychotherapy, or reduced his compulsive confessions if he had received Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy; yet perhaps the European Reformation would not have happened, or would have taken a very different direction, if this had been so. John Bunyan might have wrestled less with thoughts of intense blasphemy and destructiveness had he learnt better strategies for confronting and resisting them; yet the world would not now have Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners or, more significantly, The Pilgrim’s Progress.

We cannot know how these figures’ contributions might have changed had their mental illnesses been treated by twenty-first century standards, and in some ways it is futile to consider what might have been. The key truths that we can learn from these lives are not techniques for reducing mental distress but for knowing how to take such distress and the deep sense of futility in human endeavour that it brings and present it before God.

*

I vividly remember the night that a friend told me I no longer needed to comfort myself with my own mind, that God wanted to be my comfort. I lay in bed and prayed Psalm 131 to myself: My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes not haughty. I do not concern myself with things too great or wonderful for me…That, I remember, was the start of a significant change in my mental health.

In a world which values intellectual toil so highly, to accept that such toil is, in the end, weariness of flesh without God is humbling and counter-cultural to say the least. Yet it may be the only way that we can escape the cycle of toil and weariness which fills this world. For many in the past, it was the only way to escape from the terror of sin and death which consumed them; and we will turn to some of their stories now.

References

Bitzan, A. 2011. The Problem of Pleasure: Disciplining the German Jewish Reading Revolution, 1770-1870. Doctoral Dissertation, The University of California, Berkeley. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/20c378fm