I have been thinking a lot lately about Christ’s assertion, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” perhaps because I see it as one of the only ways the gospel can in fact be good news for those with mental illness. Let me explain. Growing up in Evangelical circles, the emphasis was on a relationship with Christ. The primary problem was that this emphasis didn’t allow for any of the complexities of real relationships. For instance, telling someone to sit and talk to God like one would talk to someone over coffee is just fine I suppose if one is a normal, tolerably-well, middle-class kind of persons. But think about going into a psychiatric ward. What does it mean to tell someone to relate to Christ “as one would normally relate” then? What does that look like? It probably doesn’t look like coffee with healthy white middle class people. Now, let’s get a bit more complicated. Imagine one is not in the psych ward and is better at hiding such problems. Still, such a person is left out in the cold by particular normative expectations. If one has certain forms of social anxiety, the prospect of coffee with anyone – even or perhaps especially Christ – might be terrifying. And yes, when people ask someone like me, who has left Evangelical circles for more liturgical ones, whether liturgy is not a little artificial – would I relate to another person like that? – I reply that yes, yes I would.
Why? Because the Evangelical understanding of the gospel is too often summed up in a rather simplistic assumption that being a Christian means being oneself with Christ. It means letting Christ in to see the real you rather than the trappings that you show to others. It means an opening of one’s interior, one’s heart, and the experience of Christ in that act of opening. And it is a completely dead letter for those with mental illness because it depends on a stable understanding of the self that healthy, middle-class white people can take for granted. Those still hoping that someone will eventually get to know their “real” selves are really, often unwittingly, inheritors of a certain kind of privilege. Because for those with mental illness, there is such extreme confusion over that self – whether it exists and what that real self might even look like – that a gospel preaching a deep connection of real selves, between God and the person, can only sound like despair. Are my feelings really me? What about when there is a deadly bio-cocktail coursing through my veins and making me wish I could kill myself? Are my actions me? How about my thoughts? Such questions reveal the problem: when someone tells one to be comfortable and be oneself, that person usually means letting go of a certain order of operations and “letting out” whatever is inside. But what about the cases where those things that are inside are in fact insanities, and what if the “order of operations” is the only thing that keeps one in a civil relationship with society? It never feels right, and there is always emotional disconnection because it is a matter of living in two worlds. There is the world in one’s head, which unleashed would lead one who knows where. And there is the world outside. Navigating the outside means the person with mental illness is always going to feel like an actor playing a part in a world not his own. “Letting it all out” here is of course not the answer – it is hard to know what that would even look like. Which part of my madness do you want me to let out, and is that part also part of me? What exactly is the “me” you want me to be when you tell me to be myself? What is myself?
And so you can see how my liturgical relationship with Christ is indeed very much like my relationship with other people. My “normal interactions” – like the liturgy I step into every Sunday – are often alien formalities that I step into, not because I feel comfortable in them, but because I hope. I hope that, at the end of the day, there is such a thing as love, and friendship, and joy, and I demonstrate my hope by stepping into the forms these things seem to take in the lives around me. And though sometimes I glimpse them, much of this is an act of faith, ignoring the disproportionate chaos of emotions and thoughts swirling in my head. Many are the times I cannot feel love, or friendship, or joy – but that must not keep me from loving, being a friend, or stepping into the formal enactment of joy, even when it is hard. Even so, many are the times I do not feel saintly – but that must not keep me from attempting to imitate the formal postures of saint.
I realize that readers who have a warm and fuzzy view of what persons are and what personal relationships look like may have trouble with this perspective, but I would, at the very least, ask them to consider Christ’s words about the poor in spirit, because I would like to hope it is us he is talking about. I would like to hope that he is looking around, seeing those who have vibrant, intense, and normative relationships with God, and saying: blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who don’t experience, who don’t get it, who can’t relate, to whom a relationship with God comes neither easily nor naturally. Blessed are those who are frustrated, whose inner life doesn’t match their outer life, and who are not even sure where or what that life – that self – is. Blessed are they, because the wind of the Spirit has carved out hollow caves in their hearts – empty spaces that will serve as refuges and shelters to others who are spiritually homeless. Blessed are they because they more than others have had the thing they thought was their “self” blown to bits – they have seen the kingdom of heaven, that their “self” is not here, but hidden with Christ in God.