Making Space for Mystics and Madness

Here’s another bit of writing from one of my classes this semester, this one from the Pastoral Care and Mental Illness course I’ve been taking.  This particular course has had some interesting overlap with another of my classes: Desert Discipleship, which explores the legacy of the desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries of Christianity.  In this assignment, which I conceived as an article for a church newsletter, I propose a connection between schizophrenia and the legacy of St. Anthony.  Enjoy!

st-anthony-the-great-3St. Antony, also known as Anthony the Great, was a Christian monk who lived in Egypt in the third and fourth centuries. He renounced the wealth left to him by his parents and chose to live an ascetic life in the desert, fasting and meditating on Christ. Antony became a wise and famous figure of Egyptian monasticism, but more than anything, he was known for his battles with demons.

St. Athanasius, the fourth century bishop of Alexandria, described these battles in The Life of Antony, which quickly became one of the most popular books in Christian history. Many modern readers will find these accounts more than a little odd, but there was something about Antony’s life and his battles with the demons that earlier generations undeniably found compelling. Athanasius describes how Antony withdraws further and further into the desert, at one point enclosing himself in a deserted barracks and receiving stores of food only twice a year. Athanasius writes:

Those friends who came to see him, since he would not allow them to come inside, often remained outside day and night. They heard what sounded like mobs of people creating a ruckus and crashing around inside, letting loose their pitiful voices and crying out, “Get away from what belongs to us! What are you doing in the desert? You will not be able to endure our connivings!” Those outside at first thought some people… had gotten inside by means of ladders… but when they knelt down to look through a hole in the wall, they did not see anyone. (Athanasius, 2003, p. 89)

1an33__24635_1405404609_900_900Antony instructs his followers to be wary of these demonic voices, telling them that they fill one’s head with “filthy thoughts” and cause “apparitions,” that “they pretend to frighten us by changing their shapes and taking on the appearance of women, wild beasts, reptiles…” (Athanasius, 2003, p. 113)

Hundreds of people flocked to the desert to be taught by Antony, to the point that Athanasius writes that they “forcibly tore down his door and forced him to come out.” (Athanasius, 2003, p. 91) Reading this in the 21st century, I have a hard time imagining this happening in our day. Even though the Christian church has centuries of history and tradition of mysticism and mystery, I can’t imagine people rushing out to sit at the feet of anyone who heard voices and saw apparitions and warned others about demons putting thoughts into their heads today. Can you? If St. Antony lived today, many folks would probably be pretty quick to label him a schizophrenic. They would probably say that he was crazy.

I don’t say this glibly. I want to make this connection in order to open us up toward understanding people whose experience of reality is radically different from our own, whether we be neurotypical or not. Just as early Christians understood Antony differently than modern Christians do, perhaps we can come to a broader understanding of our communities as ones which include and embrace multiple perspectives on reality.

Schizophrenia is a mental illness “in which disturbances of thinking are predominant.” (Albers, 2012, p. 60) It is very important to note that schizophrenia is not the same thing as multiple personalities, a condition known as Dissociative Identity Disorder. And it’s even more important to note that those among us with schizophrenia are not inherently violent; the vast majority are “nonviolent and passive, and are more likely to be victimized by violent crime than to perpetrate it.” (Albers, 2012, p. 62)

Somewhat like Antony, people with schizophrenia hear voices and see things that other people around them do not hear or see. These are called hallucinations. People living with schizophrenia also frequently suffer from delusions, by which is meant “fixed ideas and beliefs that do not follow logically from evidence that others would consider reasonable.” (Albers, 2012, p. 61) It’s actually not at all uncommon for these delusions and hallucinations to take on religious or spiritual overtones. Some people with schizophrenia believe that they are hearing the voices of demons or of angels. When I worked as a hospital chaplain in Chicago, I met more than one person who was convinced they were Jesus Christ.

It can be very difficult and off-putting for a neurotypical person to try to speak with or even be around a person who is hearing or seeing or thinking things that don’t make any kind of sense to them. For this reason, people living with schizophrenia – along with their families and friends – bear an enormous burden of social stigma. Caring for someone with schizophrenia is made even more difficult by a broken public health system with cracks so wide that many of them fall through it and end up living in homelessness. These folks in particular often take up substance abuse just to cope with the living hell of utter social rejection.

The church can help. We can recover the rich Christian tradition of mystics like St. Antony, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and so on, and open ourselves to the possibility that there may be more to our reality than what we perceive, that perhaps God is working through others in ways we don’t fully understand.  But even more than this, we can find ways to make space in our community for all our beloved siblings in Christ, especially for those who desperately need the kind of unconditional love and acceptance that followers of the Way of Jesus can provide. We can open our hearts to make our communities places of warm hospitality for whole people, where each and every person is welcomed as Christ.

What are some ways we can do this for our siblings with schizophrenia?

First of all, it is important to note some things that should not be said to people living with schizophrenia. It is not helpful to tell them that what they are hearing or seeing is only a figment of their imagination; even if it is the result of quirky brain chemistry, these things are very, very real to them. In the same way, it is useless to try to talk a person with schizophrenia out of their delusions; as I wrote above, these are fixed ideas and beliefs that will not be budged by logic. Instead, a caring response is to listen to them with empathy and compassion, gently and carefully entering into their reality in the same way one might enter the reality of a loved one with dementia. And all of us can affirm God’s unconditional love for our siblings with schizophrenia, especially in the face of voices in their heads who might be telling them that they are worthless or sinful, and in the face of the social stigma that often tells them that they are unwelcome and unwanted.

What’s more, we can embody the unconditional love of God for ourselves and others simply by our presence, by our willingness to accompany one another on our journeys. We can show our care for those among us living with schizophrenia – and the people who care for them – by showing them that they are not alone. Schizophrenia is a difficult, complex, and still not fully understood condition, one which takes an enormous toll on those living with it and on their loved ones. Even if the church can’t give all the answers a person is looking for, together we are more than capable of standing beside our beloved siblings and supporting them in the midst of uncertainty and difficulty.

I firmly believe that, with God’s help, we can enlarge the heart of our communities to be like that of Christ: with room enough to hold both mysticism and madness in love.

• • •

Works Cited

Albers, R. H. (2012). Ministry with Persons with Mental Illness and Their Families. (W. H. Meller & S. D. Thurber, Eds.). Fortress Press.
Athanasius. (2003). The Life of Anthony: The Coptic Life and the Greek Life. (T. Vivian & A. Athanassakis, Trans.). Kalamazoo, Mich: Cistercian Publications.

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Allison Siburg

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