When I was a psychiatric nurse we studied a text by someone called, I think, Szasz (it was a long time ago) and his premise was that psychiatric medicine had replaced religion in abusing and denouncing those viewed by society as ‘different’ , and that now medicine labels as ‘insane’ those the priests had once labelled ‘wicked’. His book, The Manufacture of Madness, made some valid points but, for me, he stretched the analogy too far and too thin.
There’s a woman I’ve never met, whose husband accuses her of religious mania. She lives in far far Scotland and sends me brief and apologetic emails, usually appreciating the sermons from our church which she listens to online. Her husband, she tells me, has ‘forbidden’ her from church meetings, she can’t talk to him about God, and as she has no Christian friends this poor soul is really alone. She seems timid and vulnerable so it’s hard to know how best to support her, and to gauge how much contact she wants or can safely have. Her emails don’t sound as if she has a mania, just as if she’s desperate for contact with another soul like her.
In this time of enforced solitude for so many people, when you don’t have to be hundreds of miles away to be isolated and lonely, I’ve been thinking about mental health and wondering how best to make contact with those who are struggling. This woman has more than physical isolation to cope with – she has a husband she holds in awe. Or maybe she’s just anxious not to rock the marital boat. I’m sure, from what she says, that he’s a kindly man, and he genuinely wants to keep her safe, but he has become her parent as much as her husband, so anxious is he about her faith and her need to worship. He tries to limit her devotion, to keep her safe from God.
When the world worships science with all its uncertainties, controversies and dogma, it’s become acceptable to consider someone who lives by faith in God to be insane.
I suppose I’ve thought about mental health as much as anyone has. And I’ve come to some small understanding that God is in this, even this. My Mother died of a brain tumour and in the later stages of her life she hallucinated, before going blind, when everything became chaos for her. She could no longer believe in God because her cognitive ability was fractured, and she lived her last months in frightened bewilderment. But I know that God is just and loving, and I know that he was there in even that terrible time. My Aunty Lucy, who I was named after, spent most of her adult life in Winwick Mental Asylum, and of all my aunties, she was my favourite. She lived in the grip of a condition we didn’t even have a name for. She wore dozens of bangles and a great garland of necklaces and her clothes clanked with brooches and pins, there were plastic flowers in her hair and she was just amazingly resplendent and grand and colourful and loveable and ‘other’. In a family where there was no love or razzamatazz anywhere else, I thought she was amazing.
A clinical definition of insanity is when ‘a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behaviour.’ Many atheists would say that my belief in Jesus, in spite of the life I led as a child, the evil of the family I grew up in, is a retreat into fantasy. I believe that, on the contrary, it is a recognition of reality.
A more often quoted definition of insanity comes from some wit who said that it is “Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.”
Well, we all do that. Take democracy for starters – we keep on voting, hoping against hope that this time, this election, we’ll get a good leader (how’s that working out?). Take New Year’s Resolutions – when did they ever last beyond March? But we keep on making them. I do the same stuff over and over in hope, but that hope is never realised. I keep on and on attempting to communicate what’s on my heart when I know, deep down, that it’s impossible. Only God knows my heart. But I keep on and on.
When I read the Bible and something leaps out at me I want to shout “Look! Look! Look what I’ve found.” and to hear an answering yell of “Yeah! Wow! Amazing!” It’s a bit like catching a glimpse of a hippo wallowing in the Thames or a vulture carrying off a bank manager – you’d just have to turn to the person nearest to you , clap them on the shoulder and shout “Did you see that?” But of course, in my Bible reading or prayer life, no one has at that exact moment seen what I’ve seen, felt what I’ve felt. And even if they had, they probably wouldn’t respond as I do, because while we each have our own wonderful discoveries, we aren’t all brash and shouty about them, or scribbling them down into the wee small hours, like me.
And so maybe, just maybe, I seem a bit mad.
Of course I don’t always obey my impulse to share but surely moments of celebration, wonder and joy shouldn’t be hidden? But how can I do that without making myself a damn nuisance? I reason that a phone call is intrusive, and I’m not great in conversation, so I communicate in an email, telling myself that the recipient will read it in their own time, and it won’t be too annoying. Hah! How we wheedle our way into doing what we want to do anyway. How we excuse our own foibles.
But here’s something that makes me wonder; I never, have absolutely never, received an unsolicited, spontaneous email from someone also bubbling over with wonder/excitement/joy/thankfulness and just needing to share it. Let rip. Never had an email from someone who’s just discovered something AMAZING from reading the Word. Hah! How strange. I thought that in a church I might find others like me, splurgers, but not so. Square pin, round hole, me. Maybe friends don’t trust me, maybe I am too trusting. Maybe I’m just not in the right place at the right time. I don’t know.
Even this blog is me ‘letting rip’ I suppose. I don’t get much response from this, either… but my madness is that I keep on doing it!
Am I just plain wrong to go on like this? Annoying? Tedious? Arrogant? Shoutey? Am I like the bloke walking around Speaker’s Corner with a sandwich board declaring “The end of the world is nigh”? Do I have a borderline case of religious mania? And do I want to be cured, if I have?
No. Even if I the world thinks I’m nuts, even if you think I’m barmy, I don’t want to be cured of this amazing joy. Yes, I’d like to share the asylum with a few other lunatics, but I don’t want to be cured.
I hope that my email friend in the far reaches of Scotland doesn’t feel that she has to be cured. I hope that she gets stronger, braver. And that her husband will one day listen to one of those online sermons with her so that she will not, for that moment at least, feel alone. That they’ll both think about the amazing miracle of life and God’s goodness together.
I delight greatly in the Lord;
my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. Isaiah 61:10
How can we gauge our own sanity? We can’t. All we can do is give a true and honest account of our lives and our certainties. I have some certainties, God is good, God loves me, God loves you.
How can I stop from singing, exclaiming, writing, shouting , when I know this with total certainty?
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16