God's priestly fool

There are spiritual lessons to be gained even from mental illness and even when the church itself seems to be going mad. A parish priest shares his painful experience

 

I am a parish priest who endures mental illness. I suffer from bi-polar affective disorder, what is sometimes called manic-depressive illness (MDI). I live on a daily regime of tablets to stop the manic, tablets to limit the depressive, and anti-psychotics to hinder the switchback between the two. I also have to endure the monthly humiliation of attending a psychiatric clinic and the subsequent visit to the pharmacy, from where I emerge with a carrier-bag full of medication.

Manic-depressive illness is a severe and persistent mental condition. It is characterized by periods of deep, prolonged and profound depression that alternate with periods of excessively elevated and/or irritable mood known as mania. Between these highs and lows, patients usually experience periods of higher functionality and can lead a productive life. MDI is a serious lifelong struggle and challenge.

Life on a knife-edge

I have lived with it since 1990, and for six years before my present job I was unable to work at all (and no one will sing the praise of the Church of England Pension Board more highly than I: throughout those six years they were wonderful). I tend to live on a knife-edge, helped unquestionably by enjoying the support of my diocese and bishop. Few of my parishioners know of my condition. There is no reason for me to feel ashamed of it; it is not my fault.

Manic tendencies can always be accepted as lovable eccentricities and the depressive accorded a certain spiritual gravitas. I have to take good care of myself, recognize changes and mood swings and operate accordingly, avoiding as far as possible those things that cause tensions to increase. With good medical support there is every reason to hope I can continue to function as a priest.

I endure it and hate it. But I have learnt some valuable lessons:

Objectivity not feeling

Sufferers from MDI are subjected to a barrage of feelings. They come from bio-chemical failure and usually have no obvious external trigger. Both the up and down have siren voices: one leading to ecstasy, the other the ecstasy of despair. Increasingly we live in a time in which faith (and the Faith) is being reduced to a matter of feelings, but feelings are transitory and tend to illusion.

I have had to learn again to live faith without recourse to feelings of any kind. This means I have come to recognize that only something objective and solid can be relied upon. Many of us know that through (in my case) thirty years and more of the Daily Office and the centrality of the Mass.

It is absolutely essential for me to know that the Faith itself remains constant and not ever-shifting, something which has not been easy for me to see in the Church of England of the past fifteen years. If only the CofE had played its part in not constantly rewriting the Faith, swinging back and forwards in response to its desperate longing to be popular and, of course inevitably failing. Perhaps the truth about the CofE is that it cannot any longer survive embodying the contradictions, nor the complementarities, of its various factions and groups.

Care for self

This is not an easy time in which to serve. Priesthood is a lonely business. It is also not necessarily balanced. One of the constant difficulties I encounter, as a priest with MDI, is that my work is not quite as equilibrant as I need it to be. I am conscious that much of a priest’s work consists of periods of quiet followed by adrenalin bursts. That does not make for inner peace in any of us, and taken with the sheer difficulty of being a priest in an often alien world, I am never surprised when one of my brother priests turns to drink, or some other relief of inner tension and pain.

MDI is ultimately only an extreme condition of what may in part be true of all of us, though it is only fair to point out that the manic phase of MDI often produces the most amazingly bizarre behaviour. Many bank accounts and marriages do not survive MDI – I have been fortunate.

My own condition first came to light when the movement towards the ordination of women to the priesthood was coming to its climax, and no doubt was exacerbated by it. I hope that none of us will lose sight of the need to be gentle with ourselves as we endure times of great loss and pain. To be a faithful priest, in such a church at such a time, is demanding; the essential quality we need is gentleness and self-forgiveness. There will be more casualties.

Consolation

The one consolation of MDI has been the gift of a greater appreciation of beauty. Perhaps the capacity to fly high and low in the turning of a moment opens heights and depths of perception not otherwise accessible. Not until I began to suffer from MDI did I quite see the luminescent beauty of Our Lady as now I do, or appreciate the heavenly frescoes of Fra Angelico (which I visit each year as part of my annual retreat). And just possibly, if told that the price of these was MDI, I might be willing to pay it.

My former teacher, Dr Mascall, would be glad to know that philosophically at least MDI has confirmed to me the reality of the Self or Soul. I may have been led a merry dance at times, but at least I also knew there was an ‘I’ being led. We are not merely machines or animals even when our bodies and minds misbehave. I have held on to that at difficult times, and not least when being dealt with by doctors who were seriously reductive in their thinking.

Mental illness carries a heavy stigma, but it is not our fault. Holding on to that is essential, even in the worst moments of despair. Happily, Shakespeare thought highly of the mad, and in the Orthodox Church fools for Christ are honoured. I am consoled. Sometimes too when I look and listen as reports of the latest novelty of the Church of England I am left wondering just who is madder: me or them? Perhaps the difference is that I know I am but still know where sanity is to be found.

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