“It’s hard,” my friend whispered through tears. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to Sarah. She’s in a world of her own, and no one can reach her.”
“I’m praying.” The two words seemed dwarfed by the term “schizophrenia,” the diagnosis faced by my friend’s loved one.
After our conversation, I thought of a family member who had suffered a devastating mental illness for most of her life. Unable to care for herself, she’d spent her final years in an institution.
Although her mind was often clouded by darkness, she still beheld life with the eye of faith, attending daily Mass until she was hospitalized. She was devoted to the Blessed Mother and to St. Joan of Arc, whose courage she admired.
I’ve wondered how she experienced God amidst the shadows of her disease. Could she sense him even when her mind had lost its grip on reality?
We pray for the mentally ill and their caregivers, and we look to psychiatry, psychology, pharmacology, and social work for treatment. But amidst prayer and therapy, do we ever ask if the mentally ill, in all their struggles with everyday reality, have a relationship with God?
Genesis 1:27 declares that “God created mankind in his image,” and no matter how marred that image, God recognizes and restores it. The Scriptures recount several cases where the Lord clearly healed mental illness. In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar was struck with madness as divine punishment for his pride, and was delivered only when he finally repented (Daniel 4:1-34).
Biblical scholars suggest that some demonic possessions cured by Christ may have been instances of schizophrenia, psychosis and the like.
Whether or not he chooses to heal it in this life, God promises to walk with us through mental illness: “When you pass through waters, I will be with you … when you walk through fire, you shall not be burned” (Isaiah 43:2).
So if God holds the hand of the mentally ill, how do they feel his grasp?
Some perceive him through profound creativity. Kay Redfield Jamison, a leading psychiatric researcher and herself a manic depressive, asserts that many of the most brilliant artistic minds in history were “touched with fire” — including those of artist Vincent van Gogh and composer Robert Schumann.
Although they wrestled with unseen demons — van Gogh famously cut off his ear and later committed suicide, while Schumann died in an asylum — they produced works of inspired and lasting beauty.
For others the simple, unwavering support of family and friends provides the most powerful evidence of the divine.
“(Such) relationships have given my life a meaning and a depth, and they also helped me navigate my life in the face of symptoms,” says Elyn Saks, a renowned expert in law and mental health — and a chronic schizophrenic.
Honoring the spirituality of the mentally ill enables us to treat them with compassion and dignity. “There are not schizophrenics,” explains Saks, a professor at the University of Southern California and author of numerous books. “There are people with schizophrenia. They are people, not diagnoses … The humanity we all share is more important than the mental illness we may not.”
Several saints remind us that the shadows of the mind cannot dim the light of God’s love. St. Louis Martin, father of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, bore the cross of dementia for the final seven years of his life. St. Benedict Joseph Labre very likely suffered from an unspecified mental disorder, yet he is known as the “Saint of the Forty Hours” for his intense devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
More recently, author Alice A. Holstein has described her long battle with manic depression as an experience of “tough grace.” Reflecting on episodes of homelessness and hospitalization, she concludes that “(her) illness has been a profound journey to the soul, a blessed path” that now allows her to “(live) a life of service” as a support specialist at a mental health clinic.
Writer and blogger Evelyn Anne Clausen shares this redemptive view. “I consider my mental illness to be a part of a spiritual gift of suffering,” she says. “I grow in compassion for others, in appreciation of God’s mercy and in the strength God gives me to handle pain and discomfort. As my capacity for suffering grows, so does my capacity to feel joy, peace and every other fruit of God’s Holy Spirit.”
Of course, mental illness cannot be romanticized as artistic madness or a less traveled path to spiritual enlightenment.
“If there were a pill I could take that would instantly cure me, would I take it?” asks Saks, whose brilliant academic career has been dedicated to researching her disease. “In an instant.”
The heartache of mental illness nonetheless provides an opportunity for a mysterious, authentic encounter between God and the soul. “The schizophrenic mind is not split, but shattered,” Saks observes.
Yet through those shards, the divine can, and does, shine luminously.
Gina Christian is a writer in Philadelphia and a member of St. William Parish.