Things We Don’t Talk About: Jesus and Mental Illness

Today is Superbowl Sunday, that festival of all the sacred American traditions: football, junk food, and most of all, commercials.

If you think of the Superbowl as a high holy day of secular American culture, you will notice that people are much more demonstrative at this ritual than they are in most churches.

Even stoic, polite Episcopalians lose their inhibitions when their favorite team is down to 4th and goal with one minute to go.

Nor am I innocent of devotion to this American religion. I may be a priest of the Episcopal church first, but second, I love football.

I mean, I really love football, in the most undignified way possible.

I used not to care about sports at all, and then once I got to college and had a big state university team to root for, I started to get interested. Four years of college plus three of graduate school transformed me into a rabid fan–win or lose, rain or snow, you’ll find me in the stands for a home game and in front of the T.V. for any team I can watch.

I have to watch myself or I’ll be one of those crazies who paint their stomachs and scream like banshees into the camera on the front row of the stands.

What makes people act so crazy at sports events?

And why do we find this type of behavior perfectly normal and acceptable in this particular context?

Anyone who painted their stomach and screamed random slogans at church or in the office or at the grocery store would be thought to be insane.

And we Americans do not do well with insanity.

You can have almost any medical problem in the world and still be taken seriously and treated like a human being, except for mental illness.

Why is that?

There is nothing we human beings fear so much as being out of control.

The man possessed by an unclean spirit in our gospel lesson today touches a very deep place in us, a place so deep that we perhaps fear to face it.

In moments of great stress and emotional upheaval, there is often a question in the back of our minds that we do not really want to know the answer to: how do I know that I’m not crazy?

In Jesus’ time, people with a variety of physical and mental illnesses were described as being demon possessed.

Anything from epilepsy to schizophrenia could be called an unclean spirit.

It seems strange to our modern, scientific minds to hear Jesus commanding a demon to be silent and come out of the suffering man.

If that happened in an emergency room today, the self-proclaimed healer would find himself strapped down to a cot and whisked away to the psych ward.

What is it about the ailments of the mind that we fear so much?

I think it is because we locate our identity and sense of self in our minds.

Our personalities, our abilities and even our souls find expression as channeled through our brains, and so we wonder, if there is something wrong with my brain biology, maybe there is something wrong or bad about the essence of who I am.

Shame came to accompany fear very early on in the history of mental illness.

Madness was seen by the onlookers in Mark’s gospel as something one had to assert moral authority over, and they were impressed by the sheer force of Jesus’ word.

As time went on, often people suffering from these types of illnesses were called witches and consorts of the devil, and faced all manner of torture and death for their conditions.

Even as the tide slowly began to change during the Enlightenment with the medicalization of madness, crude and violent treatments such as freezing ice water baths, frontal lobotomies, and simple isolated imprisonment in a straitjacket for a lifetime were the only options offered to the victims.

People tried to exorcise their own fear of madness by brutalizing the patients who could not control their minds.

Now the outright violence of psychiatric treatment has ended, but the stigma lives on.

No one wants to admit that they’ve struggled with depression, that a family member committed suicide, that they are on medication for an emotional disorder of some kind.

In some parts of the country, everyone who’s anyone has a therapist, but many Americans consider depression and anxiety a simple weakness of character and therapy a waste of time and money.

Modern medicine can provide wonderful relief and support to people experiencing temporary or enduring mental difficulties, and we should encourage one another to take advantage of the medical resources available to us.

But what about the spiritual side of being unbalanced of mind?

In times of great despair and confusion we may pray to God to take away the circumstances pushing us to the edge, but how often do we actually ask God to heal our hurting minds?

The question the demon asks Jesus in our gospel suddenly leaps to life in our own attitudes toward mental illness: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

Think of a time in your life when you felt like the demon-possessed man in Mark’s gospel.

Perhaps when a loved one was at the end of a long battle with cancer and there was no hope of recovery.

Perhaps when you had a diagnosis confirmed of clinical depression or bipolar disorder.

Perhaps when the simple daily grind of work had so dragged you down that life seemed empty and meaningless.

Perhaps when a break-up or divorce so shattered your self-image that you felt unlikeable and unlovable, a reject and an outcast.

Madness is more than a mismatch of chemicals in the brain.

Madness is a place that lives within us all that some of us visit more often than others.

Driving this unclean spirit out of this man is the first miracle Jesus performs in the oldest gospel we have.

I think it is very significant that it is an act of healing that Jesus chooses to make his debut on the stage of history as a Savior and the Son of the Living God.

But what is as equally important as the nature of his miracle is the place he chooses to enact it.

Jesus drives out the demon and brings peace to this tormented man in the synagogue.

Here is where we find sacred truth in this story.

The demons that live within all of us can make us feel dirty, ashamed, afraid, and confused.

Jesus drags them out of the dark, secret places in which we try to conceal them and brings them out into the light.

More than that, he brings them out in the synagogue. He draws them out into a holy place.

Think about where you are right now. You are inside the sanctuary of your cherished church, clear in its communication to all of us that this is a place of prayer and sacrament.

We are on holy ground, and this is the place where Jesus will help us to face our demons.

Let go of the fear that binds you and summon your courage.

Open up that dark and forbidding door in the back of your mind, the place where you store your most troubling desires and rages and fears.

You will find that Jesus is there already.

And Jesus has total power to calm the waters of our raging souls. Jesus is unmoved by any sin we can dream up, any departure from logic or reason.

He wants to be with us not just when we are cool and collected and on top of our game.

He wants to be with us when we are lost and confused and feel perilously close to losing our grip on reality.

What a relief it is to know that we don’t have to be in control all the time!

What a relief it is to know that there is one person in this world—Jesus—and there is one place in this world—our church—when we don’t have to pretend that we have it all together all the time.

Let down your barriers and you may find pain come surging forth.

Don’t fight it.

Instead, bring it to this altar and offer it to Jesus, as did the man in Mark’s gospel.

May we not only find the same freedom and healing that he did, but may the seeds be planted in us to pass on that gentle grace to others.




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