The Sorrowful Mysteries – Part 5: The Carrying of the Cross

In the last post we took a look at Jesus’ Crowning with Thorns and how it ties into our mental illness discussion. Now we’ve reached the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery. This particular mystery has quite a lot to unpack. Realistically I could devote an entire series of blog posts just to this one passage of scripture, but for the purpose of our current series, I’ll try to make it more concise.

If you missed Part 1, I recommend you check it out to get an understanding of why I’m writing these posts in the first place.

As with the Scourging at the Pillar, the Gospels don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on Jesus’ trip from Pontius Pilate to Calvary. Mathew and Mark only state that Simon the Cyrenian was forced to carry the cross for him (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21). Luke adds the bit about Jesus pausing to address the weeping women (Luke 23:27-30). John fails to mention any of the above. The Stations of the Cross, a tradition that allows a person to meditate on certain aspects of Christ’s Passion, provides a lot more detail about this journey. There are usually 14 stations, and the are as follows:

  1. Jesus is condemned to death
  2. Jesus willingly takes up His cross
  3. Jesus falls for the first time
  4. Jesus meets His Blessed Mother
  5. Simon the Cyrene helps Jesus carry His cross
  6. Veronica wipes the Holy Face of Jesus
  7. Jesus falls for the second time
  8. Jesus comforts the Women of Jerusalem
  9. Jesus falls for the third time
  10. Jesus is stripped of His garments
  11. Jesus is nailed to the cross
  12. Jesus dies on the cross
  13. Jesus is taken down from the cross
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

Sometimes a 15th station is included that recounts Jesus’ resurrection as well. For the purposes of this post, we’ll be discussing stations 2-9, though not necessarily in that precise order. We dealt with station 1 previously, and we’ll deal with the final stations in the next post.

Firstly, lets start with some context. Jesus has been through severe emotional torture in the Agony, betrayal by his loved ones, extreme physical torture in the Scourging, and utter humiliation in the Crowning with Thorns. He is covered with deep, bleeding wounds, dust, and spit. He’s weak from lack of food and rest, not to mention blood loss. It’s just been one thing after another, and it’s only going to get worse.

Does that last sentence ring a bell? I know it does for me.

Now a heavy piece of wood is dropped onto Jesus’ shoulders–his bruised, mostly shredded shoulders. Does he deserve this? No. In fact, he’s the only person in existence who doesn’t deserve anything of the sort. It isn’t his fault humanity messed itself up so badly. But he willingly accepts his cross, nevertheless, because it is his Father’s will.  Can we say the same for our own crosses? Of course, we aren’t innocent like Jesus was. We’re sinners. But did we personally do something so horrendous that we were cursed with our mental illnesses as retribution? Probably not. And even if we had done something horrible, God doesn’t go around dealing out punishments. But He does allow us to have our illnesses for a purpose, even though we might not have a clue what that purpose is at the moment. The weight of such a cross tends to provoke thoughts of “Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this?” I don’t have answers to either of those questions, although I’ve asked them myself in the past. All I can say is that Jesus fully understands that feeling far better than any of us ever will.

Jesus, shaking from pain and exhaustion, stumbles, and the weight of the cross drives him to the ground. As his body hits the earth, the heavy cross lands squarely on his back, compounding the pain of his countless injuries. Every inch of his body throbs, his limbs ache with exhaustion. But he hasn’t given up. He tries to gather his strength to get back to his feet, but he isn’t fast enough for the guards. He is kicked and hauled roughly up, then shoved down the road again.

Sometimes mental illness feels like an endless treadmill of misery. You go for days putting one foot in front of the other, struggling to think, struggling to focus, sometimes struggling just to breathe in and breathe out. You raise your head to look down the tunnel you’re in and you can’t see any light at the end of it. You do everything you can to try and pull yourself together and make things work. And sometimes you fail. You hit the ground hard, and you don’t know if you have the strength, let alone the will, to get up again. But you do. You don’t have any other choice. So you get back up and keep walking, even though you don’t see how things are ever going to get better again.

Jesus fell three times on that journey. Three times his legs give out; his horrific injuries slam against the earth and the stones. Each time it’s more difficult than the last to get back to his feet again. And to what purpose? There is nothing good waiting in his future. When he reaches his destination, he isn’t going to be relieved of his burden. He’s going to be nailed to the cross and left to die. He more than understands the feeling of having no light to look forward to at the end of the tunnel.

Partway through this journey, Jesus meets his mother. Can you imagine what she must have felt, seeing her only son in such a condition, with such a fate awaiting him? She is completely helpless. She can do nothing to intervene or save him. She cannot shield him from the abuse of the guards, or make his journey any easier. She stands in the place of every person who has ever had to watch a loved one suffer, unable to aid the afflicted person in any way, shape or form. She feels his pain as if it’s her own.

Anyone who has been in that sort of position can testify to the misery of it. I doubt anyone can feel more helpless than someone forced to stand by while mental illness consumes a loved one. As the person you know and love begins to disappear beneath the symptoms, or the mind-numbing side-effects of medication. Or to know your loved one is struggling with suicidal impulses that they might not be able to curb. But there’s a whole other side to the story. Jesus can see the pain he’s causing his mother. He knows its his fault that she is suffering to such an extent, even though it isn’t his fault that he’s in the position that he’s in. That’s something many mentally ill individuals can understand perfectly well. The added guilt of knowing your loved ones are worried sick, and being unable to do anything fix it.

Partway along this journey to death, Jesus becomes physically incapable  of carrying his cross any farther. The guards are faced with the prospect of him dying before he even reaches the place where he is to be crucified. That’s unacceptable. They seize a bystander and press the man into service, forcing him to carry Jesus’ burden.

There are several things about this particular station that ring true when it comes to mental illness. First, the feeling of being incapable of taking care of yourself. Being unable to handle ordinary burdens while you’re in the midst of an episode. Or being unable to bear the burden of the illness itself. Other people are forced to step in and do the work that you’re unable to complete, or take time out of their lives to look after you. Sometimes these people do so willingly out of the goodness of their hearts. But sometimes, they resent you for it. They’re being forced to deal with something that isn’t their responsibility because you’ve proven incapable. It’s humiliating and guilt inducing. But there is another side to this station. Jesus’ Father knew he would be unable to complete the journey without assistance. A provision was made for that. Whether Simon was willing or not, he wound up being there to unknowingly assist the Savior of mankind. Even though He had to allow his son to go through that brutal experience, He didn’t abandon him. He made sure Jesus would be able to complete his mission. And He will do the same for us.

Along the same vein, Veronica arrives. She breaks past the guards and has to opportunity to wipe clean Jesus’ face. Did that do much practical good? Probably not. But it likely meant more on an emotional level than we’ll ever realize. In the face of such cruelty from the very humans he’s dying to save, there is someone who willingly reaches out to him, makes a conscious effort to comfort him even though she knows there is little she can do. This moment of compassion and solidarity offers him encouragement to press forward and do what needs doing.

Have you encountered any Veronicas in your life? Sometimes they are hard to come by, but sometimes they walk into your life precisely when you need them. A well timed comment or gesture of affection can have an enormous impact. It’s hard to tear our gazes off ourselves when we’re in the midst of misery, but have you ever considered being a Veronica for someone else? Sometimes a suffering person can comfort a fellow sufferer far more than anyone else can.

Finally, we come to the women of Jerusalem. Was it helpful to Jesus to have a group of them trailing after him wailing? It’s hard to say. There is the fact that they were there for him, that they were against his unjust condemnation and cared enough to become distraught. Sometimes its comforting when people are outraged and upset about something on your behalf. But sometimes it’s just frustrating. I can’t say one way or another what sort of impact it had on Jesus, but he can certainly understand what it’s like to have the people that care about you (to some degree or another) bewailing your condition. In the case of mental illness, it really isn’t a helpful response. It can be bewildering, and downright annoying, when other people are more upset about your illness than you are, especially when you’re newly diagnosed. “I’m the one with the disease, here. What reason do you have to be so freaked out?” Not everyone encounters this problem, but some people do. Jesus understands.

This brings us to the end of the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery. Tomorrow is Good Friday. Jesus will reach the end of his journey to the cross and give up his life to save mankind. In the final part of this series, we’ll examine the how the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery, The Crucifixion, fits into our discussion of mental illness.

Until then, take care and God bless!

Kasani

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sorrowful Mysteries – Part 4: The Crowning with Thorns

In Part 3 of this series we took a look at how Jesus’ scourging bore some similar characteristics to mental illness. This post will examine how His crowning with thorns fits into our discussion.

If you missed Part 1, I recommend you check it out to get an understanding of why I’m writing these posts in the first place.

This Mystery is a bit easier to address than the previous one was because it centers around a topic that most mentally ill individuals are uncomfortably familiar with: humiliation. The label “mentally ill” is embarrassing enough all on its own, but when people witness you being tripped up by the symptoms of your illness, it takes things to a whole different level. Different illnesses bring different symptoms, but I can’t think of any that aren’t humiliating to some degree or another when they rear their head.

The list of humiliations is as diverse as the number of illnesses that exist: Panic attacks in public, having to compulsively return to your front door and check that its locked ten times before you can bring yourself to leave for a lunch date with friends, making a complete fool of yourself because you can’t seem to stop spewing out the first words that come to your mind at a speed which is difficult for your listeners to follow, bursting into tears against your will in front of other people, struggling to make sense of what people are saying to you when you’re completely unable to focus on the conversation, finding yourself completely unable to live up to the expectations required of normal people in everyday life, flying into a rage over a minor trigger and spending days afterwards kicking yourself and trying to put back together the pieces of a damaged relationship…the list goes on, and on. Then there’s the shame brought on by the criticism of people who either don’t know any better, or are just utterly insensitive. e.g. “Your life is great. You’ve got nothing to be depressed about. Get over it already.” There’s looks of disapproval and gossip behind your back. Or, rather than scorn, you’re faced with unease, nervous whispers, unwillingness to make eye contact with you, and a desire to get away from your presence at the first opportune moment. Or you have people hovering over you, smothering you with concern, watching you like a hawk, trying their best to be helpful, and unintentionally rubbing salt in an open wound: I’m fine right now.  I am able to make rational choices without assistance. I’m not a child. I don’t need 24 hour supervision.

How does Christ’s crowning with thorns relate to all of this? Well, a look at the Gospel passage says a lot. It shows him going through some pretty cruel, humiliating things.

1. Being rejected by the people he loved.

Have you ever had friends, ones you thought would be there for you, abandon you, as if your illness was a plague that they were afraid of catching, or as if you’re somehow a completely different person now that they know you have an “ominous” label slapped on you? Perhaps they turned on you and became like enemies out of fear, misunderstanding or prejudice. Does your own family blame you for your illness as if it’s somehow your fault? Jesus gets it. He spent three years among his people, teaching them, curing their illnesses, offering them hope… And then suddenly he winds up in serious trouble, through no fault of his own, and what happens? Do they remember his kindness toward them? No. They gather in a mob and shout for his crucifixion at the top of their lungs, even after he’s been turned into a bloody mess from a brutal scourging. And where are his closest friends during all of this? Are they there for him, trying to support him and help him through it? No. They run away in fear, abandoning him, after everything he’d done for them and taught them, afraid that something bad will happen to them if they associate themselves with their teacher and friend.

2. Being stripped naked, dressed up and mocked.

Have you ever felt utterly exposed and vulnerable in front of people you know are judging you for something you have no control over? Have you had people assign false motives to your behavior, making unfair accusations based on ignorant assumptions? Have you ever been rendered completely helpless by your symptoms, only to have people tell you that you’re just being weak, that it’s all in your head (no kidding), or blowing you off because they think you’re making it all up? Jesus gets it. In a half-dead state, covered with deep, bleeding wounds, he was dragged before an entire cohort of jeering soldiers. They tore off his clothes–can you imagine how much that would have hurt in his battered state?–leaving him naked and helpless in front of numerous unfriendly eyes. Then they threw a purple cloak over his shoulders, pressed a crown of thorns onto his head and thrust a reed into his hand as a fake scepter, and they mockingly paid him homage, making fun of him for claiming to be who he actually was.

3. Being beaten over the head with a reed and spit on.

Have you ever been kicked when you were down? Have you had people criticize you and harass you when you’re in too poor of a condition to defend yourself? Have you been publicly embarrassed by other people talking about your disorder in front of you in a condescending or derisive way? Maybe you’ve even been physically assaulted or taken advantage of because of your disorder. Things like this cut deep, especially when you’re already embarrassed and hurting to begin with. Jesus gets that too. He’s been beaten, rejected, stripped, crowned with thorns and mocked. And now the soldiers take the reed from his hand and beat him over the head with it, driving the thorns into his scalp, opening new wounds. Then, rubbing his weakness in his face, they spit on him, despising him for who he claims to be, not considering for a moment that perhaps he’s telling the truth. Then they strip off the cloak and the crown, put his own clothes back on him–and you can bet they didn’t do that gently–and drag him out to be crucified.

Jesus understands helpless humiliation intimately. He can sympathize with whatever you’ve gone through or are going through on that front.

In the next post we take a look at the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery, the Carrying of the Cross.

Take care and God bless,

Kasani

 

The Sorrowful Mysteries – Part 3: The Scourging at the Pillar

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.

Kasani

 

 

 

The Sorrowful Mysteries – Part 2: The Agony in the Garden

In this post I’m going to tackle The Agony in the Garden. It’s the first of the five Sorrowful Mysteries. I explained my reason for attempting this series in the first place back in Part 1, so if you haven’t seen it, check it out. To briefly recap: I’m trying to explain why Christ fully understands the pain of mental illness despite not being mentally ill himself.

To start off, let’s take a look at the scene itself from the Gospel of Mark:

Then they came to a place named Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter, James, and John, and began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch.” He advanced a little and fell to the ground and prayed that if it were possible the hour might pass by him; he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” When he returned he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Withdrawing again, he prayed, saying the same thing. Then he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open and did not know what to answer him. He returned a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough. The hour has come. Behold, the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. Get up, let us go. See, my betrayer is at hand. ~ Mark 14:32-42

You can probably see some things right away when you read this passage from the perspective of mental illness. The thing that started me down the path of examining these mysteries in this context was Jesus’ comment to his closest friends:

“My soul is sorrowful even to death.”

Like everyone who has gone to church since childhood, I’ve heard this reading more times than I can even begin to count. In the translation I’ve heard most often the quote actually reads “My soul is sorrowful unto death.” My assumption for most of my life was that this comment related to the fact that Jesus knew he was going to die and was sorrowful about it. I certainly couldn’t blame him. I’d have been pretty upset myself in his position. But that’s not what he meant. My eyes were opened a little over a year ago when I happened to hear a priest discussing this scripture passage on EWTN. Jesus isn’t saying “I’m really sad I have to suffer and die.” The words he said mean: “I’m dying of sorrow.”

I’m dying of sorrow.

Hearing that painted the whole scene in an entirely different light for me. This isn’t a man in anguish because he’s afraid of suffering. I’m sure the knowledge of the horrible death awaiting him certainly didn’t help matters any, but that isn’t the only thing at play here. Jesus’ emotional torment is far deeper than just dread. In the Gospel of Luke it says:

“He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” Luke 22:44

According to that version of the Gospel, an angel had to be sent from heaven to strengthen him. There are a number of things about that particular passage that can be debated, but the point is that the torment Jesus was suffering was unlike anything anyone had ever experienced. Why? Well, think about it. He’s taking on the sins of all mankind. Every single sin, from the most venial uncharitable thought to the worst mass-murders in history, and everything in between and beyond. All the hate, violence, rapes, child-abuse, cruelty, neglect, prejudices, and the list goes on and on. Jesus stepped up and took the blame for all of it so that each of us wouldn’t have to take the blame for our own contribution to it all. It’s easy to give lip-service to that, but when you really stop to think about it, the sheer enormity of that reality is shocking. Can you even begin to imagine the kind of guilt that would induce? It wasn’t just a “well, I didn’t really do any of this but punish me anyway” situation.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21

Jesus became sin. He didn’t sin. But he took responsibility for sin itself. God never does anything halfway. If Jesus took responsibility for sin, you can bet he felt the effects of that just as if he had committed the sins himself. It’s kind of horrifying, isn’t it?

How does this tie into mental illness?

Emotional anguish. Deep sorrow. An unspeakable sense of guilt. If you’ve ever been depressed, all of that sounds awfully familiar. But there’s something else going on here that is also very likely familiar.

First off, Jesus left the majority of his disciples behind elsewhere in the garden. He was only comfortable bringing along Peter, James and John. He had brought them along to see his Transfiguration too, so it’s safe to say they had a special relationship with him. He didn’t begin to show his “trouble and distress” until after he was alone with those three, so clearly he trusted them more than the others to be able to handle the reaction he was having. Anyone who has ever been severely depressed knows that it’s not something one goes out and chats about with any random person on the street. If you open up about it at all, it’s only going to be with someone you really trust. Jesus admitted to them that he was “dying of sorrow.” Now, I don’t know about you, but coming from anyone other than Jesus I think that would sound a bit melodramatic. The reality is, it’s a very valid description of what depression feels like. There’s just no way to communicate that kind of anguish without sounding like you’re blowing things out of proportion. That’s why it’s hard to open up to people about it. To not be taken seriously when you’re in that amount of pain is unbearable.

So Jesus opened up and admitted to these three men just how horrible he felt, and he asked them to “Remain here and keep watch.” I don’t want to put words in Jesus’ mouth, but it’s possible to take this statement to mean “Don’t leave me. I need you here to look out for me right now.” Given the state he was in, that’s a very understandable request. It’s the sort of request that often remains unspoken because a depressed person can’t bring himself or herself to burden his or her loved ones, or perhaps because the “loved ones” wouldn’t comply. When it is spoken, often the response is not what we hoped for. Perhaps they’re uncomfortable in our presence because they can see how much we’re hurting and don’t know how to help. Or perhaps they don’t see how much we’re hurting and don’t take us seriously enough to be of much comfort. Either way, it’s not uncommon for this simple request for the comfort of company to go unfulfilled.

So what did Peter, James and John do when the Son of God asked them for this?

They fell asleep.

They fell asleep!

Have you ever had the experience of daring to open your heart to someone and then looking over and realizing whoever it was slept through most of what you said? Literally, dozed off and slept through it? To call the experience crushing just doesn’t quite cover it.

“Are you asleep? Could you not watch for one hour?”

The utter disbelief in these words is nearly tangible, not to mention the pain and disappointment. If you’ve ever been in the position of reaching out for help and being disregarded, not taken seriously, or just plain let down by the people you love, these words ring painfully true. And if there’s anything that causes intense anguish that most people are incapable of understanding or sympathizing with, it’s mental illness.

It’s not like this happened once and then Jesus’ friends smartened up. They fell right back to sleep again. And the second time Jesus came back to them they “did not know what to answer him.” No kidding. I’m sure they felt bad. I’m also sure they were completely unable to comprehend the kind of suffering Jesus was going through. They knew he was upset, and it bothered them, but what could they do? They didn’t understand what was going on. That seems to be the case more often than not when it comes to mental illness. The people who care about you feel bad, but they don’t know what to do to help. And they aren’t exactly to blame for that. They can’t help not understanding what you’re going through. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

Jesus’ final words to these three are heartbreaking.

“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?”

Is there anger in those words? Quite possibly, though obviously I can’t say that for certain. At the very least they seem to carry a fair amount of exasperated disappointment. If you’ve ever felt frustrated, betrayed or let down by people who you thought would be there for you but weren’t, Jesus fully understands the feeling.

So where does this leave us? Obviously Jesus has experienced more mental and emotional anguish than any of us, and he was let down by his loved ones when he needed them most. That covers two potential aspects of mental illness, but there’s plenty more where those came from.

In the next post I address the second Sorrowful Mystery, The Scourging at the Pillar.

Take care and God bless!

Kasani

 

The Sorrowful Mysteries – Part 1: Christ’s Intimate Understanding of the Pains of Mental Illness

This is, perhaps, a rather somber post to strike off the new year. Discussing Christ’s passion and death on the cross might seem painfully out of place amidst the joy and splendor of Christmas (a season celebrated by the Church in the weeks following that beautiful day, rather than the weeks prior to it). But let’s face it: the season is not always a happy one. Many people have painful memories, disappointments, and resentments attached to this time of year. I admit that my Christmas this year was peaceful and pleasant—something I thank God for. But I understand what it’s like to be in the throws of depression on Christmas. I’ve been there. I also understand what it’s like to be stuck in a psych ward on Christmas. I’ve been there too. Mental illness does not go on hold for the holidays and leave us alone. If anything, the Christmas holidays make it worse because of the stress and bustle and drama associated with them (not to mention the fact that winter is often a difficult time for people with mental illnesses to begin with). But there’s something we need to understand about this season that might act as a balm for some of our suffering:

Christmas isn’t about celebrations with friends and family, gifts, or good cheer. The meaning of Christmas, the truth that is so often smothered by our tacky secular celebrations, is that Christ took on flesh and came down to join us in our misery. He came down to experience our pain, our sorrow, our grief and distress. He came down to suffer and die for our sins. And he did this out of love. So if you did not have a happy Christmas, don’t feel that it was somehow a failure. Christmas isn’t about happiness. It’s about love: a love that reaches down into the depths of darkness and despair to be with the beloved, whatever the cost. Christ is with you, and he’s not going anywhere. He’ll be here every step of the way this year, whatever it brings.

This series of posts will be an examination of the 5 Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary and how they apply to mental illness. Before my protestant readers run away screaming, rest assured that a rosary “mystery” is simply a meditation on a part of scripture–the same scripture you read in your bibles. It hasn’t been tampered with or altered in any shape or form. The Sorrowful Mysteries are a meditation on Christ’s Passion and death. The mysteries include:

Now, I could have brought these pieces of scripture up without mentioning the rosary at all. But the fact that I meditate on these parts of Jesus’ life every Tuesday and Friday via the rosary has helped me to understand how they are applicable to me on a personal level because of my mental illness, and how they are applicable to all sufferers of mental illness. The repetition has helped me grasp things that probably wouldn’t have sunk in otherwise.

Why am I bringing this topic up in the first place? I want to address an issue I found myself running into for quite a while after my diagnosis, because I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s come up against it. It goes something like this:

Christ came down to earth to be with us in our suffering, and thus He understands it on an personal level.  As St. Paul explains in his letter to the Hebrews:

“He had to become like his brothers in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Hebrews 2:17

And later on in the letter:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace for timely help.” Hebrews 4:15

I had always found these passages to be comforting, but after going through the experiences brought on by my disorder, I began to have doubts. Of course Christ suffered. But He wasn’t mentally ill. He didn’t have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or any of the other numerous diseases that affect the mind. Of course, He’s God and therefore must fully understand everything in creation. But can it truly be said that He understands the suffering I experience from my illness at a personal level? How can it be said that He was “tested in every way” when He didn’t have a mental illness to battle?

This objection may sound absurd to some people, and rest assured it’s no longer something that troubles me. After all, Christ lives in me, right now, all the time. He experiences my pain and suffering every moment that I’m alive. It took a while for that to dawn on me. But setting that aside, the reality is He did experience the type of anguish brought on by mental illness during His life on earth, on all its varied levels. It’s plain to see, but for some reason terribly easy to overlook. As we take a look at each of the mysteries I listed above, as well as a few other scenes from the Gospels, I think you’ll understand what I’m getting at.

I tackle the First Sorrowful Mystery in Part 2.

Take care and God bless,

Kasani

The Advantage of Suffering – Part 2: Purgatory

In Part 1 of this post, I discussed the concept of putting your suffering to use by offering it up to God. Now I’d like to suggest a specific intention that you can keep in mind if you don’t already have a few that you can pull off the top of your head. This discussion may seem to diverge a little from the topic of suffering and head in a more theological direction, so bear with me. Purgatory is fundamentally tied to suffering, but for those who don’t understand the concept, I want to explain it first.

My understanding of Purgatory (which is certainly not perfect) goes something like this:

When God thought each of us into existence, we were a masterpiece. But we were born defaced by the effects of Original Sin. As we are now, we are not our true selves. We are not what God intends for us to be. But he sees our potential, and he knows we can be transformed back into the perfect works of art that he first created. As we progress through life, our choices have an effect on who we are. We are either cleaning God’s masterpiece off and revealing what he means for us to be, or we are defacing ourselves even further and becoming more and more unrecognizable in his eyes. If we die unrepentant, we choose to remain apart from God and refuse to allow him to clean us off. We end up like the five foolish virgins in the parable of the ten virgins. Death catches us unprepared, and we are so far from what God intended for us to be that we are virtually unrecognizable. If we demand to be let into heaven, we receive the heartbreaking reply “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” (Matthew 25:12) And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

But what if we die repentant? What then?

I think its probably safe to say that few people succeed in completely cleaning themselves up in this lifetime. Most of us will probably die with stains on our souls that we haven’t quite managed to rid ourselves of: various long-ingrained vices, negative or judgmental mindsets, weakness of faith, stubbornness, pride– just to name a few. As long as those stains are there, heaven won’t be heaven for us. It will be exceedingly uncomfortable, even unbearable. Why? Because we will be in the presence of the all-perfect, almighty God, and our failings will be completely laid bare. We won’t be able to hide from them, and they will become as much a torment to us as deep, festering wounds– not because God is punishing us, but because he loves us so utterly and completely and we will be so very painfully aware of how much we have hurt him and let him down.

This is Purgatory.

Purgatory is not some place we are sent to because we didn’t quite make the grade. It’s a state of existence– an uncomfortable one. Yes, Jesus died for us and paid the price for our sins. If we accept that salvation with our whole heart, we are guaranteed a place in heaven; thus, the souls in Purgatory are full of joy amidst their suffering. But they are suffering. It’s not a suffering being inflicted on them by God. It’s as I described before: when we die and stand before the Almighty, if we haven’t died in a state of utter sanctity, we will be like jigsaw puzzles with pieces missing. The price for our sins has been paid, but we are still not fit for heaven. The fact that we are so close to heaven, but not quite there, will, I suspect, be the main cause of our suffering. It will be like a traveler who has past through a desert and is dying of thirst, but has fallen to the ground just short of an oasis. He knows with a certainty that he will make it to the water without dying. He’s come that far. But oh, that remaining distance. Those final few feet of inching forward along the scorching hot sand, pulling himself with shaking limbs towards the Living Waters.

Now, this analogy isn’t quite accurate. We aren’t “earning” our way into heaven on our own steam through our suffering. It’s God’s grace that is cleansing us. But depending on where we are at when we die, that cleansing process might take a while. It might be difficult for us to submit to his healing touch. We might be willing, but hesitantly so, and God will never force himself on us.

Other people have given much better explanations of Purgatory than what I just gave. It’s simply my understanding of it. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Great Divorce, gave an insightful assessment of the matter:

“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first.” “It may hurt, you know”—even so, sir.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about Purgatory:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter into the joy of heaven.

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

“as for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age but certain others in the age to come.”

This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in sacred Scripture: “therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead, and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

“Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and offer our prayers for them.” (CCC 1030-1032)

When you think about it, it makes sense, doesn’t it? But how does this tie into our discussion of suffering? We aren’t dead yet. We’re still on earth.

There are two points I want to touch on.

First off, our suffering on earth can help us to avoid Purgatory after our death. Think of it as an advance payment. Our free choice to accept/submit to suffering in this life is worth more than our potential sufferings in Purgatory. In one sense, people who suffer unbearably in their earthly existence have an advantage over people who don’t. I very much doubt they’ll be spending much time, if any, in Purgatory. Their earthly sufferings suffice to finish the cleansing process of their souls. With this in mind, accepting suffering in life can prove very beneficial to us after we die. But this isn’t the whole of it.

The second point is more important (as far as I’m concerned). We can assist the souls in Purgatory. In fact, they are relying on us to do so. The souls in Purgatory cannot pray for themselves. They rely on the prayers of the living and the saints (those already in heaven) to secure their entrance into paradise– so pray for your loved ones who have died. All of them. Even the ones who died years and years ago, or those who seemed like hopeless causes. Especially the ones who seemed like hopeless causes. God is outside of time. Your prayers now can assist someone who died decades ago. God can apply the graces you request for them in their final moments, since he sees you praying for that person fifty years after his or her death at the same instant as that person is dying. Your prayers have the potential to open that person’s heart to God, even if it was closed for an entire lifetime. And for those already in Purgatory, your prayers are like soothing balm applied to their wounds.

But even more than your prayers, you suffering can assist them. Just as you can offer your suffering up for a specific intention, you can offer your suffering up for the suffering souls. It’s like what Simon of Cyrene did for Jesus in carrying the cross. You ease their burden. And the wonderful thing is that the souls can return the favour. They can’t pray for themselves, but they can pray for those of us still on earth, and their prayers hold a lot of sway with God– more than ours do. They are much closer to Him than we are, and He takes pity on them in their suffering. You can even specifically ask the souls there to pray for you in exchange for your prayers for them. It’s a beautiful exchange. The value of your suffering is suddenly multiplied. It can be used to ease the suffering of those in Purgatory, or even completely free them, and their prayers for you in turn multiply the grace that your acceptance of your sufferings would have bestowed on you in the first place. And you better believe the souls you free will be watching over you in heaven and interceding for you with God, not to mention being there to pray for you if you wind up in Purgatory yourself.

So, to sum up this post and the previous one in a single sentence: if you accept your suffering and offer it to God, it can prove to be a huge advantage for you, and for others, because of the value it holds in His eyes. I encourage you to give it a try.

Also, I didn’t pull all these facts about Purgatory out of thin air. Most of what I know comes from the marvelous book Day by Day for the Holy Souls in Purgatory: 365 Reflections by Susan Tassone. It’s a very powerful, enlightening read, and I encourage you to check it out if the subject is interesting to you.

Have any questions? I encourage you to go take a look at this fascinating blog post by an Evangelical Protestant convert to Catholicism. He addresses several objections that most Protestants raise regarding Purgatory, and he does so very insightfully. It’s safe to say he has more knowledge about the subject than I do. If you still have any questions after that, feel free to leave me a comment.

Until next time,

Take care, and God bless!

Kasani

 

The Advantage of Suffering – Part 1: Offering it Up

“Brothers and sisters, I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” ~ Colossians 1:24

Suffering is an unfortunate fact of life, and people with mental illnesses experience their fair share of it. The suffering is compounded for those with comorbidity (when a person has two or more illnesses occurring at the same time. e.g. Fibromyalgia often occurs in patients with mood disorders) or when personal tragedy strikes. There are no easy answers to the problem of suffering, although a number of excellent books have been written on the subject (Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft and The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis are two examples). There’s nothing I can tell you that hasn’t been said more eloquently and with better insight by someone else, but I’m hoping to offer you a way of looking at your suffering that allows you to make use of it to achieve something positive.

First off, allow me to chuck a few assumptions out the window. I’m not going to elaborate on the idea that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” My friend and I have a joke that according to that rule we should both be able to bench-press semitrailers by now. It has some credence. Pain changes you, often for the better. But not always. Then there’s the saying that “pain is just weakness leaving the body.” To be blunt, I think that’s one of the stupidest sayings in existence and anyone who tosses it at me receives a withering glare. Pain creates weakness, not the other way around. I’m not talking about athletes and soldiers who have to physically push themselves to the breaking point to achieve a goal. That kind of pain does make you stronger, in a very literal sense. You become physically tougher, with better endurance and better abilities.

Mental illness doesn’t do that.

Depression leaves you curled in a ball of self-loathing pain on the floor, unable to even decide which clothes to wear and lacking the energy to put them on anyway. Hypomania takes your thoughts, shakes them up like a bottle of pop and makes it impossible to remain seated long enough to read one page of a textbook (which wouldn’t have worked anyway thanks to your racing thoughts), and if it progresses to full-blown mania you might get to spend some time in a psych ward. Anxiety gives you panic attacks that leave you paralyzed, unable to breathe, unable to act, so terrified and horrible feeling that you’re convinced you’re dying. ADHD does the same thing to your thoughts as hypomania, except it’s 24/7, 365 days a year, and people blame you and make fun of you for struggling with a disorder that lots of them don’t even think is real (next time you’re tempted to think that, ask an ADHD person to explain their thought process to you at the speed at which their thoughts are traveling. It’s an enlightening experience). People with schizophrenia suffer through hallucinations and delusions that very few people can even begin to comprehend. People with borderline personality disorder struggle with the lonely misery of alienating the people they love because of their behavior, which the disorder makes very difficult to control.

The list goes on and on, and outside of a Christian context, it can be difficult to find positive things within that mire of unpleasantness. There are some: You might develop coping mechanisms that give you strength. You might get used to your disorder and become more resilient to its effects. You might become more compassionate towards the suffering of others. Or not. Ultimately, mental illness makes life a lot harder than it would be otherwise, and to what purpose? How can there be an advantage to suffering? How can you possibly turn abject misery into something good? Unless you’re coming at it from a Christian perspective, I don’t think you can.

Now, when it comes to Christianity and suffering, one of the first objections to God that atheists and agnostics toss out is that very thing: why would an all-powerful, all-good and loving God allow suffering in the first place? I don’t claim to have the answer to that question, but I do hope to tackle it in a later post. For now, I want to offer some concrete suggestions to believers about how suffering can be put to good use. These will not take away your suffering. They will simply give it a purpose, and that can make it easier to bear.

There are two concepts in particular I want to discuss. One of them is Purgatory, and I’ll be attempting to tackle that in Part 2 of this post. As far as I know, Protestants don’t believe in it, so if you’re Protestant then that might not be of much use to you. But there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding revolving around the concept of Purgatory and I might be able to clear some of that up for you, so I encourage you to check it out anyway. The other concept can apply to Christians of any denomination, without question, although I’m not sure if it’s something that is discussed much outside of the Catholic church. I’ll tackle that concept first.

If you’re Catholic, you’ve probably heard of the idea of “offering up” your suffering to God for a purpose. Or you might not have. A few years ago, I had heard about it, but for a long time I had no understanding of its value. I wasn’t close enough to God to feel inclined to try it, especially when I was in the midst of intense suffering. It was an airy-fairy sort of subject that sounded to me like a half-hearted consolation prize handed out by people who didn’t know what else to say to someone in pain. I’ve since revised that opinion. Part of my confusion came from not knowing how to offer my suffering up. It wasn’t as if I could grab it off a shelf and give it to God. I also couldn’t understand how offering God my suffering could have any value. Suffering was forced on me against my will. It wasn’t as if I was making any special effort to do something for God by experiencing it. And then there was the question “if I offer my suffering up, does that mean I can’t ask God to take it away?”

All of this conspired to keep me from exploring the subject. I also, deep down, still resented God a little for having to deal with the suffering in the first place. If you resent God for your suffering then it’s pretty hard to make any use of it at all. It took me a long time to accept the grace that allowed me to pull that deeply rooted weed out of my heart. But once it was gone, I received a whole new dimension to my world-view. Christ’s suffering and death redeemed the entire world. He died once, for all. But that doesn’t make all of the suffering in the world that’s come since his death obsolete and useless. Suffering has merit.

“Dear in the eyes of the Lord is the death of his devoted” ~Psalm 116:15

Other versions of the bible read: “Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his saints.” It means the same thing. God values our suffering. He understands deeply just how much we hurt. It moved him to send his only begotten Son to earth to die for us on the cross. It gave our suffering a purpose. Because Jesus opened up the gates of heaven for us, we can join our suffering to his on the cross and do something with it. I didn’t understand this idea at first. How can I join my suffering to Christ on the cross? For some reason the idea didn’t ‘click’ with me. Then I was given another way of looking at it: because Christ used his suffering and death to pay the price for our sins, we can now go to God with our suffering and say “you used your Son’s suffering to redeem me and the world. Please use my suffering too.”

God can make use of suffering. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know. But he does. When you’re praying for something, maybe for a loved one, or for the resolution of a problem of some sort, you can take whatever suffering comes your way and embrace it for the sake of that intention. You essentially put your money where your mouth is: “God, instead of resenting this bout of depression, I accept it willingly for the sake of my loved one who has turned away from you. Please make use of it to guide her home.” Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t pray for God to take the suffering away. You can. But by accepting it with patience for as long as you’re forced to endure it (or at least making an effort to do so; it isn’t easy) you gain great merit for yourself and for the intention you’re offering it up for. (You can also offer it up as a penance or mortification, but I’ll discuss that in a later post.)

This is one of those things that’s easier said then done. In theory, it’s an exciting possibility. God used his Son’s suffering to redeem me, so he must be able to use my suffering to accomplish something too! In the same breath, we have to keep in mind that we aren’t Jesus. He was a perfect, innocent human being without blemish (not to mention, he was also God). He didn’t deserve any of the suffering he endured on this earth, but he embraced it anyway for our sake. No amount of suffering on our part will ever come close to being worth that kind of merit. Despite being redeemed by his death, we are still sinful creatures. But our suffering can still have great worth when we attempt to imitate Christ by picking up our cross and following him.

This idea also plays into my discussion of Purgatory in Part 2 of this post.

Until then, hang in there, and God bless!

Kasani