In Part 2 of this series we looked at Christ’s Agony in the Garden and how it relates to mental illness. In this post we’ll address the second of the Sorrowful Mysteries: The Scourging at the Pillar.
If you missed Part 1 I encourage you to check it out. It explains why I’m writing these posts in the first place.
This will probably be the shortest post off the bunch because I find this particular mystery to be the toughest to incorporate into a mental illness discussion. On the surface it’s an entirely physical torture. It could be argued that such a degree of physical torture as what Jesus experienced is worse than any mental or emotional torture inflicted by mental illness, but that’s not the point of view I intend to take. Physical pain and psychic pain are two completely different things, and I don’t think one can realistically argue that one is worse than the other. It’s all a matter of degree.
The startling thing about this mystery is how easy it is to overlook. In the previous post, I quoted the full scripture passage from Mark of the Agony in the Garden. It’s a large enough piece of text that you can’t simply gloss over it without registering its presence. But Jesus’ scourging is mentioned so briefly in each of the Gospels that for a long time I hardly noticed it. Here are the passages from three of the Gospels (Luke doesn’t explicitly state that Jesus was scourged. It’s implied by Pilate’s words):
“Then he [Pilate] released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged, he handed him over to be crucified” Matthew 27:26
“So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified.” Mark 15:15
“Then Pilate took Jesus and had him scourged.” John 19:1
The scourging receives one sentence in each Gospel. It makes it terribly easy to overlook. But one viewing of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ forever cures a person of the tendency to do that. The scourging scene is easily the most distressing part of the movie, which is saying a lot when you consider everything that follows after it. If you haven’t seen the movie, I strongly recommend watching it, but with the caveat that it is not for the faint of heart. One of the scourges used is made of leather thongs with small sharp bones attached to them. This isn’t something to Gibson made up for dramatic effect. It’s what actually took place. According to Isaiah:
“…many were amazed at him–so marred were his features, beyond that of mortals his appearance, beyond that of human beings–“ Isaiah 52:14
Jesus was so mutilated by what he underwent during his Passion that he was hardly recognizable as human. As horrible as crucifixion is, it doesn’t cause physical mutilation that makes you unrecognizable. But a horrific scourging does. Gibson stays true to that image.
So how can any of this possibly tie into mental illness? Well, in and of itself, it doesn’t. But there are two aspects surrounding the ordeal that have stood out to me as familiar.
The first one is the utter inadequacy of language. There are some things for which words fail us. The simple sentence “Pilate took Jesus and had him scourged” seems a massive understatement. But really, how do you communicate the horrors of such an experience to someone who hasn’t ever seen or experienced it? I don’t think you can. Not being able to accurately describe it doesn’t make the experience any less horrible. And yet it becomes painfully easy to gloss over a person’s suffering in such a situation. Similarly, you can’t communicate the bottomless depths of depression or the convoluted confusion of psychosis in words to any meaningful degree. Comparing it to a nightmare or to a living hell tends to just slide off people. I ran up against this several weeks ago when I had to try and explain to someone what would drive me to want to kill myself when I have such a good life. The person in question couldn’t fathom how I could get into such a head-space. I was left grasping at straws trying to communicate the experience of severe, clinical depression to someone who hadn’t ever experienced it. When it comes right down to it, all the analogies in the world fall short of the actual experience.
The second aspect of the Scourging experience that bears some similarity to a certain aspect of mental illness is the fact that Jesus saw it coming. There are times in mental illness when we see things coming too. For instance, the first moment when you realize your depression is coming back after a temporary reprieve. Suddenly the horror of the experience you’ve just gone through comes crashing down on you, and panic begins to set in because you don’t think you have the strength to survive the experience again. But there is nothing you can do. You’re trapped, waiting for the inevitable. It’s terrifying.
Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to him. He even warned his disciples:
“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” Matthew 20:18-19
Yes, the Agony in the Garden was the “official” moment of dread for Jesus. But stop for a minute, place yourself in his shoes, and imagine what it must have felt like to walk up to the pillar, seeing the various torture tools laid out on the table, and be tied there, knowing you’re about to be mutilated beyond recognition. Trapped. Waiting for the inevitable. There’s absolutely no way around it, so somehow you have to survive it.
It’s a chilling thought.
I think most people would agree that such a situation more than matches up to the level of pre-episode, pre-panic attack, pre-you-name-it dread that slams into you when your illness (whatever it happens to be) rears its head. Keep in mind, too, that during the Agony, Jesus still had the tiniest, flickering hope that his Father might rescue him from the experience. As he’s standing tied to the pillar, waiting for the first lash to fall, that hope has long since been abandoned. He understands and accepts that what is about to happen has to happen and that there’s no way around it. But somehow I doubt that lessened the horror.
So next time you feel a relapse coming on, just know you aren’t alone in the feelings of panic or dread that it stirs up. Jesus gets it.
In the next post I address the third Sorrowful Mystery, The Crowning with Thorns.
Take care and God bless.