Peace and the Thorn

“Mellow out,” they say. If I only could.

Adolescent patient quoted by Dr Michael Piechowski
Three times, the Apostle, says he cried,
yet three times denied:
within his side the unnamed thorn remained.
To fester? To infect? No, to be the site of grace,

for only this reply came: My grace
is sufficient; in your weakness will my power be complete.
And when He said weakness He meant
all the foibles and flaws you could name,
the whole litany of human frailty -
all the deal that He assumed
when He was flesh and frail like us.

And so we hope,
and like naked ones in the cold
crave to be clothed.
I for one shiver with shame
when laid bare by how stabbing thoughts
and fears betray me, how I wince
within, without, at every twinge that divides us,
every failed aim at peace.

Though I long
for numbness, or the certainty of some, I turn
in naked longing and set
the beating of an unquiet mind
to the slow, steady peace at the heart of Christ,
to the quiet words of the Word Made Flesh:
All shall be well. All this shall be well.
You too shall be well.

Damascus 2: Pentecost

Conversion_on_the_Way_to_Damascus-Caravaggio_(c.1600-1)
Caravaggio, “Conversion on the way to Damascus”, c1601

I missed the flames that day,
was at my books, learning the whys and wherefores of Law,
determined that every subscript iota
would not be neglected when I stood before God.

The Spirit blows wherever it wills.
Mine was the letter, not the wind.
When, years later, I clutched letters in hand,
I held every one that spelt, I am right.
I missed the flame, but the wind still arrested;
and the Son spoke assaults on my well-crafted name.
The Spirit caught, sent me – though crooked –
blown by its wind to the street they call Straight.

Damascus 1

Conversion_on_the_Way_to_Damascus-Caravaggio_(c.1600-1)
Caravaggio, “Conversion on the way to Damascus” (c.1600-1601

Something ends here:
paused mid-threat, flung groundward,
the man called Saul can breathe no more murder
while the horse kicks up its hooves and he points
his arms half-desperate at heaven.

Something begins here
yet it looks altogether like dying:
the fall, the pervasive dark,
the eyes failing to see, and yet
the spirit cognisant like never before.

I will show him how much he must suffer.
All this awaits, after the falling of scales;
now is the dying; the blindness preceding sight.
Must resurrection look like this?
With groans of creation, Saul will rise,
and Paul will live anew.

Rainy Day Sermon

saint_paul_rembrandt_van_rijn_and_workshop_c-_1657
Saint Paul – Rembrandt van Rijn

The text is darker in this weather,
     more emphatic, as though
while he wrote,
         outside prison walls Saint Paul
            saw the fall
of some Ephesian rain-drops and thought:
            If my plea should fall on hard soil…

Did he see the runaway slave
     in the wet, uncertain,
standing at
         his master’s door, with letter
            dripping ink
on solid Colossian stones, and fear
            a silent and stony reply?

Raindrops soften soil. Outside is damp,
     garden drenched. Too much heart
is a flood
         when heart hears abject pleading.
            Letter drips
today with softening truth, and yet
            for all my rain I still am clay.

Damascus Road Prayers: Lilyo (Midnight Prayer)

image

Behold all that are asleep, awake and rise to sing praise…
(From Psalm 148, Midnight Prayer liturgy, Syriac Orthodox Church)

Could we have seen it coming?
Was our slumber too deep?
Midnight’s for sleeping, yet You do not sleep,
nor did You sleep
as boundaries changed and names were rearranged.
You did not sleep as serpents hatched their eggs.
As feet kicked against the goads, awake, You rose.
Arise now!
Do You sleep?
We lie now as wide-eyed at midnight as at midday,
yet every praise that You ordain spells death to faithful lips.
          Awake –
And waken us to see the grace
that lies here with us,
sleepless.

Damascus Road: Cradle, Body, Light

image

Your garments glisten, my brethren, as snow;—and fair is your shining in the likeness of Angels.
(St Ephraim the Syrian, “Hymn for the Baptised”)

You are the light of the world;
you are the body of Life.
The persecutor kicked you;
you kick within yourself,
yet you remain – kept, preserved;
you cannot be hidden.

You are the beaten body.
Yet the body shines more for being broken;
more like the Head with every thorn,
you live because your foes assault you.
Hold up the Body by the crown
and it will radiate before all men.

Glisten with water, with blood,
Child of God.
Your cradle is pillaged;
the persecutor walks your roads again.
Over seas, the body binds itself,
strikes and licks its wounds,
kicks its own goads.
Yet you are the child.

Glisten and radiate –
let the earth see and know.
Your roads stood firm beneath the Zealot’s feet;
your foes became your brothers. Shine:
though the cradle may fall, the life remains.

Shine, broken body, and stand.

Eikon

No mirror to reflect,
no voice, only      dust,
sculpted by hands,
                             crafted by plan.
No self-stirring spirit,
no knowledge,     no thrust,
only dust, fingerprinted,
moulded –   with tears
and with blood    and with sweat –
now we stand,
                    heart and body,
earthenware image,
dust reflecting
      in praise.

image

From Ashes 12: Metamorphosis and Sophronismos – Neuroplasticity and the Renewed Mind

Rene Descartes' illustration of the mind-body problem Wikimedia Commons
Rene Descartes’ illustration of the mind-body problem
Wikimedia Commons

As I approach my 30th birthday, which brings with it much reflection on all that God has done in my life so far, I have found myself drawn again to one of the most well-worn parts of my the Bible – Psalm 139. For many, this is their favourite psalm, and it is certainly one of mine. Perhaps its comfort derives from the fact that it is one of the clearest places where we learn of God being deeply invested in us as individuals; and, say what we might about western culture being far too individualistic for its own good, for better or worse we desire the sense that God is intimately acquainted with us. What comfort, then, it is to read:

O Lord, you have searched me

                  and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

                  you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

                  you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

                  you know it completely, O Lord.

And what comfort too to read that God has “knit us together”, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. In a world in which the church sits awkwardly somewhere between secular views on self-esteem and a desire to recognise the depths of human sinfulness, it is a powerful tonic to read that, for all our sin, the Bible declares us, as God found on first creating us, to be “very good”.

This, of course, is not the whole story. We have all learnt sinfulness from a very early age, both being corrupted from birth as affirmed by David in Psalm 51:5 and learning sin as we become more acquainted with this world of sin. Seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan expressed something of this process in his poem, “The Retreat”, when he speaks of the time when he “understood this place”, in the sense of knowing its ways, and “taught [his] soul to fancy” sin, “dispens[ing]/A several sin to every sense”. Certainly, the contrasting view he presents of early childhood, in which he “shined in [his] angel infancy”, seems to over-idealise childhood innocence. Yet the picture Vaughan gives is nonetheless a powerful one. The word “retreat” implies “re-treading”, an act of walking back over a path which needs to be reversed. “Some men,” he writes,

            a forward motion love;

But I by backward steps would move,

And when this dust falls to the urn,

In that state I came, return.

Simplistic though Vaughan’s theology is, he reminds us of something helpful: that it is necessary for us to affirm both that we possess sin in us from birth and that we have learnt to sin more and more throughout our lives. Though no-one had to teach me to be selfish, I did have to learn to yell, to steal, to cheat, to lie, to lust. There are many sins that I know now how to commit which, at birth, I did not know. My sinful nature seized upon those sins as it encountered them, yet I did not at birth possess the same knowledge of sin that I now have.

Recognising this complexity to the nature of human sinfulness can, I think, help us make steps towards bypassing the age-old “nature vs. nurture” debate which has bogged down the church at least since Rousseau, if not for longer. The book of Proverbs affirms several times that the company of sinners corrupts the company of the righteous (see Proverbs 1:8-19, 13:20 and 22:24-25), thus acknowledging that righteousness can be encouraged or discouraged by the environment we are in. Yet this is not to say that we are innately good and that only a bad environment creates bad people. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most significant formalisers of the doctrine of original sin, charted in his Confessions the journey from his infancy into adulthood through which he both learnt to sin and learnt to cry, motion, speak. His childhood impulse to cry when not getting what he desired indicated the innate, sinful sense that his rights were more important than those of others, yet this was still a sin which, once given birth, could grow and manifest itself in many different ways. Nature and nurture, I would suggest, need not be an “either/or” proposition; they walk together throughout our lives.

Avoiding this kind of dichotomy can be highly productive, especially in the realm of understanding mental health. If we take a reductionist view of mental health, then we may understand our impulses, both good and bad, to stem primarily from our nature. In contemporary neuropsychology, this would suggest that our neurological make-up determines the way that we think and act. In this view, our moral impulses, thoughts and feelings are nothing more than chemical signals in the highly complex organism that is the brain. The other extreme, however, is to over-spiritualise our concept of “mind” in a way that divorces it from the physical brain, or indeed the body, as was often done from antiquity into the Enlightenment. Rene Descartes, in a theory now termed “Cartesian dualism”, proposed that the disembodied mind had control over the brain through the pineal gland, arguing in his Passions of the Soul that the

part of the body in which the soul directly does its work is…a certain very small gland deep inside the brain, in a position such that…the slightest movements by it can greatly alter the course of the nearby spirits passing through the brain, and conversely any little change in the course of those spirits can greatrly alter the movements of the gland.

This is a view which few would manage to take seriously today, and we may even struggle to understand how it once seemed so reasonable. Regrettably, however, too much of our thinking about mental health still swings between equally spiritualised, dualistic ideas of mind and body and the reductionist, mechanistic views of some contemporary science. Marilynne Robinson explores the weakness of each view in her essay “Freedom of Thought” in which she considers how mind and soul can be understood by Christians in light of behaviourist and neurological schools of psychology. Speaking critically of attempts to debunk faith through neuroscience, Robinson writes:

Religious experience is said to be associated with activity in a particular part of the brain. For some reason this is supposed to imply that it is delusional. But all thought and experience can be located in some part of the brain, that brain more replete than the starry heaven God showed to Abraham, and we are not in the habit of assuming that it is all delusional on these grounds.

The very fact that our brains contain much of our experience, Robinson argues, does not mean that their reality is in any way less factual than that which exists visibly, quantifiably “out there”. Even if neuroscientists were to discover the part of the brain which is responsible for religious faith, this would not need to diminish the truth of that faith. The heart of our struggle with this concept, Robinson suggests, is that we are fundamentally still dualists in matters of body and spirit:

Nothing could justify this reasoning, which many religious people take as seriously as any atheist could do, except the idea that the physical and the spiritual cannot abide together, that they cannot be one dispensation.

In other words, we either struggle to believe either that the spiritual can exist in physical reality or that, once the spiritual is given some sort of physical explanation, it can continue to have spiritual reality.

Some blame Augustine for this dualistic thinking, and certainly it can be found in his writings, though it surely precedes him by a good few millennia. Nor is he quite as dualistic as some would suggest, famously opposing Manichaeism, the most dualistic system of thought to enter the church in his day. Yet, wherever it comes from, it is hardly helpful. Indeed, if we truly take the Incarnation seriously, then we must be able to believe that body and spirit can coexist, that Christ did not cease to be God when He became man, nor that His humanity is in any way negated by His being God. Body and spirit are not separate, nor are “memory” and “mind”, contrary to what Augustine suggested in Book 10 of his Confessions. Rather, they exist together powerfully, in that complex system of transmissions and signals in the brain which we are only now beginning to understand.

When we read what the Bible has to say, then, about the “mind”, we would do well to remember that the brain as we conceive of it had little or no meaning to the ancients. The Egyptians famously removed it through the nose as a piece of liquefied rubbish; the ancient Greek word for brain essentially meant “the top part of the head”. The understanding that the brain, not the heart, was the seat of the emotions would take much time to develop; indeed, the ancient Hebrews used the word “kidneys” in that context. Yet this aside, conceptions of the mind and its ability to be corrupted or transformed are found in several places throughout scripture. When Paul writes, for instance, to the Romans instructing them to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2), he is suggesting that minds, or brains, can be changed. They can conform to the world, or they can conform to Christ. They can be corrupted or renewed. This view, expressed nearly 2000 years before the world heard of “neuroplasticity”, is remarkably similar to what practitioners of cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) now do: exercising the brain’s ability to change itself through the exertion of an external influence, a view expressed by Richard Lopez in his review of Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul. Quoting Thompson, Lopez writes:

“The way we understand and make sense of our story is reflected in the wiring of our brain. This networking (via Hebb’s axiom: neurons that fire together wire together) tends to reinforce our story’s hardwiring…and will continue to do so unless substantially acted upon by another outside relationship.” The most important outside relationship, Thompson contends, is with God Himself.

Likewise, when Christ cites Deuteronomy in His instruction to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27), He is in some senses telling us that all our being, co-ordinated by the “mind”, can work together in an act of collective, unified love. This can be an active choice, and is part of the process of conforming the mind to Christ. We do not need to be concerned by the fact that “heart”, “soul” and “mind” are spoken of here separately, any more than we need be concerned that when we feel something deeply, it is co-ordinated by the same organ by which we think. Understanding the many different sections and layers of the brain only confirms that verbal and non-verbal thinking, for instance, are, although organised in the one brain, separate actions, and that one can be brought to bear upon the other. We can preach to ourselves, for instance, by bringing verbal reasoning to non-verbal emotions. Augustine, albeit in a somewhat dualistic manner, explores this very complexity to emotional memory when he states in his Confessions:

This same memory [which contains knowledge] also contains the feelings of my mind; not in the manner in which the mind itself experienced them, but very differently, according to a power peculiar to memory…Sometimes when I am joyous I remember my past sadness, and when sad, remember past joy.

Augustine explains this ability to feel one thing in the present and yet remember a contradictory feeling from the past by saying that the “mind is one thing and the body another”. Yet this explanation is as unnecessary as it is wrong; neuroscientists now know that the emotional part of the brain, the amygdala, can store emotional memories and can bring them back to “mind” at unexpected times, as seen most significantly in victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rather than the memory being separate to the mind, memory is as much a part of the brain as rational thought. Yet in treatment of PTSD, for instance, psychologists will often encourage patients to verbalise their non-verbal emotions in order to move emotional memory into rational thought.

Think, then, of what it means for each of our thoughts to be known by God before they enter our heads. Think of what it means for Paul to declare to Timothy, as it is rendered in the Authorised Version, that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). The word for “sound mind” here is sōphronismos, and it is often translated “self-control”, being associated with self-discipline and moderation. Yet what is suggested here is that the “spirit” and the “mind” are connected and that God has given us a sound mind. Indeed, this is affirmed in 1 Corinthians 2:16, when Paul asks, “[W]ho has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?”, responding that “we have the mind of Christ”. There is in this sense of process of mental sanctification exactly like our spiritual one: we are declared saints by God, thus declared right in our standing before Him, yet must also “work out our salvation”. The same goes for our mental state. We are given the mind of Christ, yet we also need to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s]”. The word Paul uses in Greek for “be transformed” has the same root as the word “metamorphosis”, a word which, thanks to Escher posters which once bestrewed the walls of my primary school classroom, I will forever associate with one species slowly turning into another. We are declared new creatures, and both our thinking and our being before God must be gradually brought into alignment with that new reality.

There need be no tension then in how we view human brokenness and the workings of the brain. If sin has corrupted all of creation, then it has corrupted our brains as much as it has anything else under the sun. And, if sin has corrupted our brains, then so can God’s redeeming grace renew them just as He renews all that is brought to Him. What that will look like this side of the new creation none of us can know for sure, yet we need not be afraid to make the most of what we can know now about the human brain in order to help exercise the benefits of grace given to us.

If neuroplasticity and CBT tell us that the brain needs new truths to be spoken into it to transform old faulty connections, what better truth to tell us than that we, wondrously, now have the mind of Christ. What better reality to bring our broken minds into; what better way of finding true mental health in a sick and fallen world.

References

Descartes, R. (2010). The Passions of the Soul, trans. Jonathan Bennett. Retrieved online, 28th June 2014. http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfs/descartes1649.pdf

Lopez, R. (n.d.). “A Response to ‘Anatomy of the Soul: The Neuroscience of Spirituality”. In The Augustine Collective. Retrieved online, 26th June 2014. http://augustinecollective.org/augustine/response-neuroscience

Outler, A.C., ed. (2004). The Confessions of St. Augustine. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Classics.

Robinson, M. (2012). “Freedom of Thought”. In When I Was a Child I Read Books. London: Virago Press, pp. 3-18.

Vaughan, H. (1650). “The Retreat”. In Silex Scintillans Part I. Retrieved online, 28th June 2014. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/vaughan/retreat.htm

From Ashes 11: The Poor in Spirit and the Fainting Minister

Poverty in spirit is the porch of the temple of blessedness…Till we are emptied of self we cannot be filled with God. Stripping must be worked upon us before we can be clothed with the righteousness which is from Heaven.

(C.H. Spurgeon, “The First Beatitude”)


I remember a dream I had once, when I was not yet diagnosed with depression. In my dream, I was altogether unable to relate to those around me. Everything I said sounded rude, offensive, ungracious, and everyone assumed I was simply being unkind. Yet I knew that my words only came out of my inability to feel anything beyond deep sadness. And so I retreated to bed. My bed, I recall, was in a room full of people, and a friend – now a minister – was standing by my bedside, telling others that I needed to sleep. “He has depression,” he was saying to them. “He needs to rest.” The sensation that I felt in that dream was one, strangely, of safety. Someone else understood, even when others around me didn’t – even, perhaps, when I didn’t myself.

This desire to sleep, and sleep, until the trouble is passed, is a common experience of depression. Though I was never so depressed that I could not get up in the morning, though I managed, most of the time, to go to work and fulfil my duties, there were days when I carried there with me such a deep, abiding languor that, though I was there in body, in spirit I was somewhere altogether different. I often thought of the sleepers in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and of Lord Rhoop, beleaguered by the trauma of nightmares turned to reality, who was allowed to sleep among them until his soul was healed. That, I felt, was what I needed most. I later saw this emotional state perfectly, tangibly, evoked in Lars von Trier’s film, Melancholia, probably the most powerful depiction of depression I have ever seen. Yet Melancholia, though it creates and expresses palpable empathy for the broken, can do nothing to heal them. The answer to such brokenness and anguish seemed altogether evasive.

When talking with another friend, now also a minister, about my struggle to feel alive in my faith when everything else in me felt dead, he suggested that I look to figures in the faith who knew the same struggles as me. Perhaps, he suggested, I should read Spurgeon. I had heard of Spurgeon, and recalled his words about divine election being of a particular comfort to me while working in Malaysia, so I began to seek out what I could find of his work and of biographical writings on him. Yet what I found was not the comfort I expected. At a time when I most wanted to hide until it was all over, I read in Spurgeon’s life of a man who continually pushed himself in his work for the Gospel, whose response to depression seemed to be the opposite of what he most wanted to do; he did not sleep, he laboured. Was this what was expected of me? What about my dream of sleeping, and sleeping, until the world was a safe place again for me to enter?

A closer look at Spurgeon’s life shows the truth to be more complex than this. Yet the question remains: how do we handle the deep darkness of the soul productively, in a way that enables healing, when what we most want is to hide until it is over? The first answer is that the Bible promises refuge for the truly broken, expressed perfectly in the opening to Psalm 57:

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,

                  for in you I take refuge.

I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings

                  until the disaster has passed…

Yet David spoke these words when he was fleeing for his life from Saul. The darkness of the soul is much like this, but less tangible. Nor is the “distress” something which always passes; unlike a physical foe which can come and go, the foe of depression can remain far longer, for the very reason that it is not tangible and not so easily defeated or exposed. Spurgeon himself writes:

Causeless depression is not to be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet, all- beclouding hopelessness.

The Psalms, however, always manage to move from this “causeless depression” to a place of hope – with the exception, of course, of Psalm 88. The psalmist may often begin “in the midst of lions”, yet he seldom stays there. Often, he does what Martyn Lloyd-Jones would call “preaching to oneself”. He would ask himself: “Why so downcast, O my soul?”, as though it were not needful, however powerful the source of dread may be.

As my depression slowly came into the light and I began receiving treatment, this idea of preaching to myself became a source of great comfort to me. I also began to see certain activities – working, praying, reading the Bible, going to church; serving others – as a kind of soul-physiotherapy. Just as a patient whose body has been broken by injury or stroke needs to begin exercising her muscles slowly, in agonisingly small steps, until they can handle the rigours of walking, lifting, talking and carrying, so my soul needed to be opened, in infinitesimally small stages, until it too could walk, run and praise. I began to see in figures like Spurgeon not an insensitivity to the pains of depression but rather an awareness of the fact that hiding in bed may comfort but does not heal, that only the Gospel can heal, and that only the life lived under the Gospel is truly life.

In a startling account of ministry now highly influential in Christian thinking, Spurgeon once spoke to his ministry students about a phenomenon which he called “the minister’s fainting fits”. In this lecture, Spurgeon presents depression as the norm, not the aberration, among ministers. Granted, such depression may not always be clinical, and Spurgeon – though he did not have the medical vocabulary that we have now to talk about such things – makes no such claim. Yet experience tells us that his statement is true: the levels of clinical depression amongst full-time ministers and missionaries appear far higher than in other vocational sectors among those in the church. Beginning with this solid conviction, based both on personal experience and observation, Spurgeon moves on to ask the question why this is so, offering a number of highly informative answers along the way.

First, he notes, burdens of the body and soul weigh down all believers at some point in their lives. Just as the benefits of common grace reach out to all humans, so do the troubles of this fallen world. Christians are not spared their realities, and so ministers can expect to encounter the very same burdens as others. Indeed, for Spurgeon, experiencing depression oneself is altogether necessary to be able to reach out to the “poor in spirit” among your flock. “Good men”, he writes, “are promised tribulation in this world, and ministers may expect a larger share than others, that they may learn sympathy with the Lord’s suffering people, and so may be fitting shepherds of an ailing flock”. Indeed, the ability to sympathise with an “ailing flock” seems, to Spurgeon, to be a prerequisite for ministry the way that God ordained it to take place:

Disembodied spirits might have been sent to proclaim the word, but they could not have entered the feelings of those who, being in this body, do groan, being burdened; angels might have been ordained evangelists, but their celestial attributes would have disqualified them from having compassion on the ignorant; men of marble might have been fashioned, but their impassive natures would have been a sarcasm upon our feebleness, and a mockery of our wants. Men, and men subject to human passions, the all-wise God has chosen to be his vessels of grace; hence these tears, hence these perplexities and castings down.

It is curious, perhaps, that Spurgeon does not refer here to the very fact that God Himself chose not to despise the brokenness of human flesh, but was anguished to the point of sweating blood, making Him the Great High Priest who can sympathise with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). Yet, even without this strong Biblical justification, Spurgeon makes his point with almost irrefutable eloquence, and he is not alone among Christian writers in expressing the significance of personal brokenness in developing empathy. Had he lived in the same century as the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, he may have found an unexpected affinity with the sentiment Nouwen expresses in his seminal work The Wounded Healer:

Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a voice of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in their own heart and even losing their precious peace of mind? In short, ‘Who can take away suffering without entering it?’ It is an illusion to think that a person can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.

Spurgeon, like Nouwen, argues that experience of suffering is both necessary in order for ministers to empathise with those for whom they care and a consequence of dealing with human brokenness. Indeed, he paints a vivid picture of the struggles that the minister’s life entails: the intensity of the work, the lack of rest, the weariness of deep, persistent study, the struggles of consistently carrying the burdens of others. “Let no man who looks for ease of mind and seeks the quietude of life enter the ministry”, he warns; “if he does so, he will flee from it in disgust.” Yet he goes further to argue that depression provides a necessary antidote to more dangerous human weaknesses, noting the significance of depression in humbling great men and women of faith in the past, to keep them from what St. Paul described as “becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness” of their encounters with God (2 Corinthians 12:7). Spurgeon evokes the language of Paul’s account in 2 Corinthians when describing the life of Martin Luther as an example: “His great spirit was often in the seventh heaven of exultation, and as frequently on the borders of despair.” The same, he notes, is seen in the life of Elijah, whose ecstatic victory over the prophets of Baal was followed by one of the Bible’s most stark accounts of depression: “For him no notes of self-complacent music, no strutting like a conqueror in robes of triumph; he flees from Jezebel, and feeling the revulsion of his intense excitement, he prays that he may die”.

Spurgeon explains the need for this to happen by saying that “poor human nature cannot bear such strains as heavenly triumphs bring to it; there must come a reaction.” The heights of spiritual triumph need to be offset by despair at our own inadequacy so that we are saved from a greater danger: the dangers of besetting pride:

Men cannot bear unalloyed happiness; even good men are not yet fit to have “their brows with laurel and with myrtle bound,” without enduring secret humiliation to keep them in their proper place. Whirled from off our feet by a revival, carried aloft by popularity, exalted by success in soulwinning, we should be as the chaff which the wind driveth away, were it not that the gracious discipline of mercy breaks the ships of our vainglory with a strong east wind, and casts us shipwrecked, naked and forlorn, upon the Rock of Ages.

Spurgeon is famous for his highly florid metaphors, and this passage is no exception. At times, he tends perhaps towards the purple in his prose, yet the image here is quite an extraordinary one, whereby the rock upon which the ship is wrecked is not a danger at all but a source of salvation: the Rock of Ages. Depression, in Spurgeon’s view, is not always a curse; indeed, often it can even be a means of grace.

Speaking elsewhere of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, Spurgeon notes how Jesus, in “describing the saved”, begins with poverty of spirit in order to provide a “ladder” by which “feeble climbers” can hope to ascend. “Had the Savior said, ‘Blessed are the rich in Divine Grace’,” he notes, “he would have spoken a great Truth of God, but very few of us could have derived consolation from there.” Yet, in beginning with poverty of spirit, all may identify themselves in Christ’s blessing and from there ascend to grace. Indeed, Spurgeon argues that the first beatitude is even more central to our experience of grace in that it

is essential to the succeeding characters. It underlies each one of them and is the soil in which alone they can be produced. No man ever mourns before God until he is poor in spirit! Neither does he become meek towards others till he has humble views of himself. Hungering and thirsting after righteousness are not possible to those who have high views of their own excellence – and mercy to those who offend is also a Grace, difficult for those who are unconscious of their own spiritual need.

How, we might ask, can a minister hope to lead others to an understanding of grace which they themselves have never acquired? And how can they acquire it until they know themselves to be poor in spirit? Depression, Spurgeon seems to argue, is one of God’s primary means of bringing us face-to-face with our own poverty of spirit without Him.

Thus, “the lesson of wisdom” found from depression, Spurgeon notes, is to “be not dismayed by soul-trouble.” Indeed, it seems possible even to consider it an unexpected blessing. The economy of God’s grace is full of strange reversals like this, and the Beatitudes are based on them. Spurgeon writes:

If it be inquired why the Valley of the Shadow of Death must so often be traversed by the servants of King Jesus, the answer is not hard to find. All this is promotive of the Lord’s mode of working which is summed up in these words – ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord’”.

To confirm this, one has only to think of God’s unexpected ways of dealing with people all through scripture: deliberately choosing Gideon, seemingly the least likely warrior, and assembling for him an army of even less likely warriors, to overthrow Midian; choosing the younger usurper Jacob over the hunter Esau, rejected Leah over beloved Rachel, “the griefs of Hannah” over “the boastings of Penninah”; breaking Paul that he might better trust in the sufficiency of God’s grace. This grace has always used the unexpected and the painful, and has used them to work remarkable wonders in ways that show us that He can “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

John Piper, a great admirer of Spurgeon, expresses a similar sentiment when writing a reflection on his experiences of cancer, provocatively entitled, Don’t Waste Your Cancer. According to Piper, “we waste our cancer if we do not believe it is designed for us by God” and “if we believe it is a curse and not a gift”. The greatest use of cancer, Piper argues, is “to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ”. Sometimes cancer, he contends, is the best way for us to do this: a “golden opportunity to show that [Christ] is worth more than life”.

The same, I believe, could be said of depression. I have often thought of writing a book called Don’t Waste Your Depression, yet have not done so, both out of a reluctance to bring law-suits upon myself and an uncertainty that I have the wisdom necessary to write it properly. If, however, I ever write it, I suspect it will be most meaningful if it tells stories like the life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who accepted his depression as a painful yet wonderful way of God working His grace in him. Far from wasting his depression, Spurgeon used it as a way of learning humility before God, and from this starting-point of humility, to move on to deeper understandings of grace than health could ever afford.

My frustration with Spurgeon initially stemmed from his prolific work, which challenged my desire simply to hide from the world until I felt healed. Yet I was also frustrated by the fact that he seemed to write about far more than depression, and wrote in an exhortative style that I struggled with; surely, I thought, knowing depression himself he would recognise the ways in which depression clouds our every other perception of God? Not at all. For Spurgeon, depression should never be the final word on a life; nor was it for him ever the defining feature of a ministry. Instead, it brought him to an altogether essential understanding of his poverty of spirit: the sense of brokenness and mourning over self and pride without which no minister or believer can ever hope to rise from the ashes and praise. May we learn to mourn and praise like him.

References

Nouwen, H. (1979). The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York: Image Books.

Piper, J. (2011). Don’t Waste Your Cancer. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

Spurgeon, C.H. (1909). The First Beatitude: A Sermon Published on Thursday August 5th, 1909. Accessed online, 25th July, 2014. http://spurgeongems.org/vols55-57/chs3156.pdf

Spurgeon, C.H. (n.d.). The Minister’s Fainting Fits. In Lectures to My Students, Vol.1. Accessed online, 24th July, 2014. http://www.onthewing.org/user/Spur_Lectures1.pdf

From Ashes Part 2: Black Bile and Tears

Charles le Brun-Grande, "Les Quatre Temperaments" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_temperaments
Charles le Brun-Grande, “Les Quatre Temperaments”
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_temperaments

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
(William Shakespeare, Macbeth)
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.”

 

References

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.