Richard has asked me to write a short piece for the Fell of Dark website. I have known Richard since 1986 and he is my oldest friend. What has happened to him is a catastrophe and it breaks my heart. His tenacity and courage, and his continued sense of humour in facing the darkness of depression, is admirable beyond words.
We come from different religious traditions. I was an Anglican when I first met Richard but like many Anglo-Catholics of my generation, I became a Roman Catholic in the late 1990s and have remained one since. Religion gnaws at me continuously but I have no answers to many of the most important questions. I believe that the Roman Catholic Church is the Church of the Apostles and that it faithfully holds true to the faith and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth; I do not have any desire to oblige others to believe the same thing.
Through my life experience plus some more study after university, I recognise and understand that mental health problems interact with religious belief in complex ways. In this short contribution to Richard’s website I am hoping to illustrate that there is wisdom and knowledge in the experience of other Christians and that, whilst everyone’s own experience is uniquely personal, there are also some themes and trends which link the human family together even across many centuries. I will draw mainly on the traditions of the Catholic West, without thereby meaning any discourtesy to the Orthodox East whom I like and admire immensely, or to the many traditions which make up Reformed Protestantism.
I will start with the experience of some of those people who have become disconnected from reality (psychosis) that they believe that they are called by God to do certain things, or occasionally that they are figures from religious life themselves. Evidence suggests that it is not always as easy as we might think to determine psychosis from reality. History presents a sobering and somewhat repetitive narrative of human beings trying to decide whether or not ‘religious visions’ were a direct communication from God, or madness. St Jeanne d’Arc was said by her many detractors to be insane because she heard voices from God and saw visions; the peasant girl, St Bernadette Soubirous, who experienced repeated visitations of Our Lady to her in Lourdes was seen by many in the church and her local community to be not only unlettered and simple but also mad. And of course, Jesus himself was frequently thought to have ‘a demon’.
Other people, whose faith and practice are apparently exemplary, experience an emptiness, a distancing and a profound coldness in their relationship with God which, whilst not a psychosis, brings almost unbearable mental pain. Some of the psalms, so ably interpreted on this website by Richard, bear witness to exactly this experience. St Thérèse of Lisieux spent the last few years of her short life in psychological and spiritual torment, struggling to pray, sensing that God had totally abandoned her. And although the popular view of Mother Teresa – St Teresa of Kolkata – is of a holy woman who lived for the poor and outcast, in reality she was also a person from whom any sense of belonging to God vanished for much of her adult life, and who experienced great emptiness and abandonment and frequently doubted whether God even existed.
To borrow another saint’s comment: Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few of them! (Attributed to St Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church).
As a result of trauma, disaster and horror, some people lose their faith altogether or retain a kind of faith but are preoccupied with anger, bitterness and venom. When Richard and I were at university together, it was the generally held view that religious faith had started seriously to decline in Great Britain as a result of the work of Charles Darwin, followed by the impact of liberal theologians. I am much less sure now that this is true: I think that what hammered religious belief in the UK was the Great War and in particular the experience of the Western Front. Trauma and horror, maiming and sudden personal obliteration, these were the experiences that challenged religion and its practice much more so than the intellectual questions presented by Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution.
And then there is the impact of non-psychotic mental illness on religious belief. There is, for example, the connectedness between religious scrupulosity – for example, the obsessive need to remain without sin, or to perform ritual without fault – and overwhelming anxiety and compulsive behaviour. Much of what Sigmund Freud says about religion as a neurosis is driving at this point. There is also the issue of catastrophically low self-esteem, loneliness and a sense of un-lovableness that makes talk of the love of God senseless. Fr Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of whose ‘Terrible Sonnets’ has given the name to this website, belonged I think in this category. The rigorous world in which he lived (which he had chosen for himself), his personality, and his intensely passionate and tactile temperament contributed to a state of depression so grave I think he is perhaps the truest poet of the depressed there has ever been in the English language.
This small collage of interconnected images of the interface between psychological states and religious belief raises very many questions, many of which the psalmist asked and which have continued to be asked ever since. We can explore these questions through medicine – the profession and practice of medicine and the use of medication have transformed many people’s experience of mental distress beyond measure – but medicine is not often very well equipped to deal with issues of spirituality, hampered as it can be by its current Western bias towards reductive biological explanations. We can explore them through some of the various disciplines which make up the practice of theology – spirituality, systematics, ethics and morals and, as Richard is doing here, Biblical studies. There is no shortage of questions and there is much that we do not know or even begin to know.
Fr Hopkins suffered grievously with depression, as we know. But eventually, after much deep pain, there may have been a slight lifting, a lightening of his crushing burden, and through the precious shafts of light he seems once again felt the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.
Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do adviseFr Gerard Manley Hopkins
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather — as skies
Betweenpie mountains — lights a lovely mile.
I pray that Richard, and everyone who reads this website who suffers as he does, may one day find again the light and peace of God’s countenance; betweenpie mountains, once again, or perhaps even for the first time, the lovely mile.