To be honest, I don’t think I can top my last post. I couldn’t be more honest than I was in that post. And sometimes, honesty has to be tactful. I don’t want to embarrass anyone other than myself with these, so this story will be told largely through other people’s words and art. It’s not for me to give away the secrets of others. I can only give away my own, if I choose.
Edit: This was scheduled to be posted on April 1st at 7am but the post never showed up so now I have to re-write it. Guess that makes me an April Fool for trusting technology…
Before I say anything else, can I just wish all my readers a happy, glorious Easter? Regardless of whether or not you’re reading this on Easter morning when I’m posting it, or years later. If you’re a Christian, every day should be Easter for you. Christ is alive, doncha know? ❤
This will be a three-part series. I mentioned in a post about a month ago that I would explain what all has been going on in my life, so this is it. In part 1, I’ll explain what happened over Christmas/New Years, in Part 2 I’ll explain how I got hospitalized, and in part 3 I’ll discuss my plans moving forward. This has easily been the most traumatic year of my life so far, but it’s also been the most freeing and validating. I’m a little nervous to see what the upcoming weeks will bring, but I’m also excited. What I’ve experienced in the past 5 months has been nothing short of miraculous on many levels.
Don’t ever tell me God doesn’t have a sense of humour. He does.
Overachieving is not always a good thing. Especially if you are trying to overachieve in something God didn’t make you to do.
“If you are what God made you to be, you will set the world ablaze.” ~ St Catherine of Siena.
As many of you already know, my real name is Catherine. I have many patron saints, all of whom used to intimidate me half to death. St. Catherine of Siena had direct conversations with God the Father. St. Catherine of Genoa got to visit purgatory in-person on multiple occasions. St. Catherine of Alexandria got gang-raped and killed for refusing to obey her human father. I was always partial to St. Catherine of Sweden. All she did was talk her fiance into taking a vow of virginity so they could live together chastely like Mary and Joseph (Jesus’ parents).
I think the thing that always terrified me more than anything else, though, was that nearly all my patron saints were nuns. Now, I myself am not called to be a nun. Trust me. I asked God. He told me so. But a few years back I had a priest jokingly tell me that God had told him that I would become a nun someday. I wish he hadn’t said that, because it put me into a lot of spiritual turmoil for a very long time. The thing is, everyone is called to be a saint, but not everyone is called to religious vows. Marriage is an equal calling to the priesthood or religious life. It isn’t inferior. It’s harder. That’s why St. Paul recommends to people that they stay single. It’s easier to be saintly when you aren’t living with another human being and trying to raise children. But who ever said Christianity was supposed to be easy? Certainly not Jesus…
My two favourite saints of all time (next to my mother Mary of course), are St Therese of Lisieux and St Joan of Arc. I will probably do posts about each of them at some point. On the surface, they don’t seem to have much in common. St. Therese knew God was calling her to be a nun at a young age and so she moved heaven and earth to enter a nunnery at age 15, despite everyone (except her dad) trying to stop her. And she succeeded. Eventually she died of tuberculosis at age 24, but not before writing a beautiful story about the art of trusting God (click here for the free audiobook).
St. Joan of Arc began receiving visions of angels and saints when she was a young teen and God raised her up to become the youngest Commander and Chief of France in history (she was 17 years old, and had had no prior training in anything because she was a poor peasant girl). She led France’s armies to victory against the English over and over again despite overwhelming odds and placed a crown on the head of the rightful king, just as she’d promised she would. She was rewarded for her service by being abandoned to her enemies in the hour of her greatest need and burned to death by the Church that she so dearly loved and valiantly served at the age of 19. Mark Twain wrote a fantastic book about her that you can find the free audio recording of here.
What did these two young women have in common? They trusted God completely and were willing to risk everything for him, even their own lives and reputations. So if you’re a Christian, let me ask you something:
What have you risked for God today?
I’ve already risked everything I have for him: my life, my loved ones, my reputation. I’ve been physically slapped across the face, hand-cuffed twice, drugged against my will and shipped off to a mental hospital in a straight-jacket in the back of an ambulance, all because nobody was willing to believe my repeated, calm, ruthlessly rational explanations that I was fine and didn’t need this sort of treatment. That I wasn’t planning to hurt myself or anyone else. That I didn’t need taking care-of. That I wasn’t crazy. That the only label you can truly slap on me from the time I was a small kid is that I’m a goody-two-shoes.
Yes. Kasani Zanetti was at a psych ward this year. Does that make me crazy? I don’t know. You’ll have to decide for yourself. What I do know is that I was terrified the first two days that I was there because it was a mixed-gender ward and I was afraid of the other patients (the last time I was in a psych ward at age 16, I was too innocently naive to be scared of the other patients).
Then I began to realize something.
There wasn’t anything different between me and the other patients, except that they had a whole host of life-problems I didn’t have.
I didn’t meet a bunch of crazy people. I met an anxious, homesick single mother who was ashamed to be attending group therapy at a mental hospital while her own mother looked after her baby boy at home. I met a pregnant mother, no older than myself, with a physically abusive husband at home taking care of their two other young children. I met a young, overweight native man in a wheelchair because he’d lost his temper and kicked something so hard it broke his leg. I met a teenage girl who wants to become a singer/songwriter, who joked about Monty Python and was brave enough to admit in group therapy that she was there voluntarily because she was struggling with self-harm.
And those are just the patients. Don’t even get me started on the staff.
I went to a mental hospital, and guess what? I met a bunch of fellow human beings who had various labels stuck to them but their real problems weren’t “mental” problems. They were “life” problems. And the doctors still tried to screw me over and act like they knew better than me. Fortunately, I’ve done my research and am smarter than anyone ever gives me credit for.
Yes, I can take care of myself. No, I don’t need medications to do it.
Christmas was an immensely powerful time for me. I had a re-conversion experience in which I gave my life to God completely, again. I was surrounded by friends and family and overwhelmed by the beautiful, generous gifts I received from them.
My dear friend Penelope down in the U.S made me these posters and mailed them to me.
The above picture is of my two original characters, Muir and Althea, sprites from my fantasy novel that I’m currently working on. Muir was originally Penelope’s character, Mordred, from her authorian fantasy that she’s working on, but we thought he would make a cute pairing with my main character. So then I loaned her my main character in return and she named her Anya. (See below picture)
I had already been working on a Mordred-inspired piano composition last fall but the immense gratitude I felt for all the gifts, combined with inspiration from the bible (See Mary’s canticle in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke) helped me finish this composition early in 2018.
Penelope and I are teaming up as artists and pooling our resources (our fan-bases) so we can launch out into the great not-so-unknown and become published authors. Penelope already has an online business doing commissions, so if you ever need any art done, please, please check her out. She is fantastic, and you can find her Patreon page here: P.J. Manley’s Patreon Page.
As for me. I will continue writing blog posts, making YouTube videos, and living my life. I refuse to let other people tell me what to do any longer. I will take respectful advice but I won’t necessarily follow it unless I agree with it. If you’re interested in my Patreon page you can find it here.
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:
Jesus is condemned to death
Jesus willingly takes up His cross
Jesus falls for the first time
Jesus meets His Blessed Mother
Simon the Cyrene helps Jesus carry His cross
Veronica wipes the Holy Face of Jesus
Jesus falls for the second time
Jesus comforts the Women of Jerusalem
Jesus falls for the third time
Jesus is stripped of His garments
Jesus is nailed to the cross
Jesus dies on the cross
Jesus is taken down from the cross
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.
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 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 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.
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.