Thursday, April 15, 2010

Faith in Recovery

Last night I went to St. Mary of the Hill Parish to speak to their "Faith in Recovery" group. What is "Faith in Recovery"? They describe themselves as "A Mental Health Ministry in Faith Communities." There are a number of groups that meet throughout the Milwaukee area.

The title of my talk was "Can Suffering Have Any Value?" and the ad for the talk described it as follows:

"Suffering can be mental, physical, or due to circumstances in our lives such as job loss, broken relationships, stress and anxiety. The world approaches suffering as having no value. How can we have a balanced approach to suffering? Does our Christian faith give us an answer to this question? What about the spirituality of 'offering up' suffering?"

One of the goals of "Faith in Recovery" is to help people understand mental illness. One of their brochures has the following facts: 1) "mental illness is far more common than cancer, diabetes, heart disease or arthritis;" 2) "more hospital beds are occupied by people with serious mental illnesses than with any other disease;" 3) "it is estimated that 1 in every 4 families is affected by mental illness."

My family is among the 25% that has been affected by mental illness.

I began my presentation talking about my family and how my oldest sister Judy struggled for years with a dependency on pain-killers. Both of my parents died of cancer, my mother when she was 68 and my father when he was 75. When my sister turned 60 she developed a terrible anxiety that she too was going to suffer and then die of cancer. She was so afraid of dying of cancer that she could no longer face living. In early 2003 she went through a series of 13 electroshock treatments. On December 23, 2003, she put a plastic bag over her head and suffocated herself.

Why? That's the question that went through everyone's mind. Of course we knew the immediate answer. She couldn't kill the pain of her depression and anxiety so she killed herself. But why was this illness of hers "terminal?" Why couldn't she get better? Why didn't God answer all our prayers for her the way we wanted them answered? Why, as the title of the book goes, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

It seems easier to deal with physical illnesses and the deaths they cause. We don't blame the person with cancer, unless he or she was a smoker. We don't tell them to just work a little harder and they'll get better. Somehow the illnesses of the mind don't receive the same sympathy. We tend to blame the person who is depressed and expect that if they just tried harder they could get better. We don't get angry at the person with cancer, but we easily slip into anger at the person with a mental illness. We don't tell the cancer patient to get over their symptoms and we feel sorry for them when they experience bad side effects from their medications and treatment. We don't have the same sympathy for the mentally ill; we expect them to use will-power to get over their symptoms and we try to ignore the side effects of their medication.

I can't help thinking that Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit poet of the Nineteenth Century, struggled with depression and/or spiritual desolation, perhaps "the dark night of the soul." Some of his verses certainly describe what people who struggle with an illness of the mind feel.

In one sonnet, he writes:

"O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.

Those who struggle with mental illness know the mountains of the mind and how dangerous they can be. At times they hang, as it were, by a thread over a precipice. Those of us who have not struggled in this way have a hard time understanding.

Another among what are known as "The Terrible Sonnets," captures the experience of darkness and despair and the silence of God.

"I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,
What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must yet, in longer light's delay.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

How does the poet deal with this? How does he try to deal with himself?

"My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.

Illness, pain, suffering--these lead us to ask "Why?" But there is no satisfactory answer. It is a mystery in the truest sense of that word. Not something we will understand this side of eternity. And suffering is inevitable in everyone's life, but we have a choice in how we deal with it. I offered three suggestions that I have found helpful.

First, the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Basically this is a prayer of acceptance. It leads us to accept suffering when it comes and cannot be avoided instead of reacting with resentment, blame, self-pity, or denial. Acceptance doesn't take away the pain, but it can lead to inner peace.

Second, the 12 Step spirituality of recovery programs. The 12 Steps of AA are not just for alcoholics, drug or sex addicts, over-eaters, or the spouses, children, and friends of them. They're for everyone. Bill W., the author of the 12 Steps and founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, used the 12 Steps to deal with a compulsion to drink that was out of control. After some time of sobriety he ended up facing a new challenge--depression. He came to realize that he could use the same program that got him sober and helped him maintain sobriety to deal with depression. He wrote an article about this called "The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety."

Third, the Apostleship of Prayer. At the beginning, in 1844, the Jesuit seminarians learned to make a prayerful offering of their frustrations and sufferings. In this way they found meaning and purpose in them. Years later Dr. Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, wrote a book about his experience entitled "Man's Search for Meaning." He concluded that under the terrible conditions of a concentration camp, people didn't survive simply to survive. Those who survived generally had a purpose that transcended mere physical survival. They were committed to surviving for a greater purpose that transcended themselves--a family, a research project, a work of art, God.

Ultimately the secret of the Apostleship of Prayer is that the pains and sufferings we meet in life can have value. It's the value of prayer which, when joined to sacrifice, becomes most like the prayer of Jesus. To offer up the pains and sufferings that come our way helps us find light in darkness. It helps us to trust that even when all we have to offer is our pain, we are doing a great work because it's joined to the work that Jesus accomplished on the Cross when He saved the world.


  1. Father, this is so hopeful and helpful. Thank you for writing it. And please, again, about your sister, I am so terribly sorry and I thank you for using the pain of that experience to help others who may be struggling with the same anguishing pains that make them look for any way of escape, including death.

  2. I have much in common with Judy, seeking an end to my pain with a plastic bag over my head. I tried suffocation in three different ways, but God had other plans. I survived and I'm strong in the Lord now.

    I loose patience with myself, but God soothes my guilt with some timely word from scripture (usually Psalms) or holy reading of blogs like yours.

    Thank you for your post, and along with Anne, I sympathize with your loss.