The gift of Being bi-polar: Heaven and Hell in the arms of God

serenity prayer path

On the grounds of Jesuit Retreat House in Parma, Ohio

It is a tremendous thing to have spiritual warfare going on in one’s heart, to see God vanquishing the devil and his dark thoughts day after day. A tremendous thing to be invited by God into the drama of the life of his Son who was tormented by dark thoughts day after day and who triumphed in love even at his lowest.

It is a gift to have one’s heart open to spiritual movements, as much of a gift as it was to be a disciple following Jesus all the way to the cross. The spiritually vulnerable are not to be pitied or clucked over by those above the fray. Is anyone above the fray? We might pity those who think so. Should we pity Mary, Jesus’ mother, for her sufferings? Or should we rather rejoice with her for being in her son’s presence all the way to the cross—for it is in this rejoicing, this joyful sorrow, that we find the depths of true com-passion.

This is the boldest thought for one with what today is called a chronic mental illness: that it can be received as a gift from God, with all of God’s tools being given to endure the crosses, the temptations, the stumblings and betrayals, just as they were given to Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene and the others. To see God in the dark nights, to know that these too have their role to play in the story of salvation, to share in community and prayer the silly attempts of the devil to draw us from the love of God and the sure knowledge that even our darkest days do not separate us from the love of God. Confident to the point of what the mystics called insania amoris, insane love, that such days may even bring closer to the one who cried from the cross.

And so this thought today: I thank you God, for making me so marvelously, for all of the many gifts you have given me, not least of which is the gift of a soul that swings from heaven to hell with such ease. May I never reject this gift, but always seek you and your presence wherever you may lead me. Help me to help others to see me as you do, not as damaged goods, but as a glorious child of God, who lives in the darkness and the light, which to you are both alike. Amen.

I call upon you from the ends of the earth with heaviness in my heart; * set me upon the rock that is higher than I.

For you have been my refuge, * a strong tower against the enemy.

I will dwell in your house for ever; *I will take refuge under the cover of your wings.

The Episcopal Church. (2007). The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 (Ps 61:2–4). New York: Church Publishing Incorporated.

Gurdon Brewster’s Bust of Reinhold Niebuhr and the art that sets us free: “Imposters yet true”

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We are treated as impostors, and yet are true
(2 Corinthians 6:8).

I will always associate this verse from Paul with Reinhold Niebuhr’s remarkable sermon from his book Beyond Tragedy which I read while at the University of Chicago Divinity School in the mid 1990’s.

Niebuhr really stretched out in his sermon, reading this verse as a way of thinking of the art of storytelling, myth, legend and poetry as privileged means of theological exploration.  i.e. myths are sometimes seen as ‘impostors’ because they aren’t ‘literally’ true, and yet, as Niebuhr passionately argued, our stories as much as our dramatic, poetic leaps of body and spirit are often the closest we can get to articulating the mysterious truth of God’s presence in our lives.

It was, I realized only much later, a rather brilliant rejoinder to Plato’s dismissal of the artists from his ideal polis, Niebuhr suggesting that there was more “truth in myths” (which I think was the title of the chapter in Beyond Tragedy) than there was in the desiccated reasoning of the literalizers.

Speaking of Niebuhr, I can’t wait for the chance to head to NYC, to visit the library of Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr’s stomping grounds for most of his theological career. There I believe still sits the bust of Niebuhr made by our beloved Gurdon Brewster, who shared with me the story about how Niebuhr growled at him when Gurdon asked to do his bust. “Don’t do it in bronze, I’m not dead yet!” was his response, and then he insisted he was too busy to sit for Gurdon to study and cast him. Classic Niebuhr gesture, who once told Paul Tillich to hurry up on one of their daily theological talk/strolls because Tillich was too busy smelling the flowers. “They’ll still be there tomorrow!” Niebuhr impatiently reprimanded. Score one for Tillich in their ongoing theological debate. Stopping to smell the flowers while on a walk is always good-better-best theological practice!

Gurdon accepted the challenge, by the way, and gathered as many photographs of Niebuhr as he could to do the painstaking work of casting Niebuhr’s bust while the man himself continued to fly about his work with barely a pause to catch his breath. Is the bust an accurate representation of the man? Given that he never stood still, a bust of Niebuhr is in and of itself a bit comical, but I can’t wait to give it a look. Niebuhr was for many years my theological hero and it when Gurdon dropped his name during my first  conversation with him over lunch in 2008, I knew I’d made a friend worth his weight in bronze or gold.

Gurdon Brewster, imposter, yet true…thank you my dear friend!

Spirituality, art, and prophetic justice

Though the artist must be willing to enter into the crux of human suffering, anxiety, and the propensity for violence against both self and other, the artistic spark comes from a deeper place.

Here is Juan Diego responding to Our Lady of Guadalupe’s visitation to him even as he struggles with his own deep sense of loss from the ravages of colonialist violence:

“Then he dared to go to where he was being called. His heart was in no way disturbed, and in no way did he experience any fear; on the contrary, he felt very good, very happy…The mesquites, the cacti, and the weeds that were all around appeared like feathers of the quetzal, and the stems looked like turquoise; the branches, the foliage, and even the thorns sparkled like gold. He bowed before her, heard her thought and word, which were exceedingly re-creative, very ennobling, alluring, producing love.”

Here I am reminded of one of Gurdon‘s last sculptures, the overpowering Prophetic Thunder. I remember him telling me about how tired he was of images of King that sanitized his prophetic fire.

And I imagine that in order to articulate this fire into bronze, he must have had to discipline himself with exquisite attentiveness: returning again and again to this ‘re-creative, very ennobling, alluring…love,” in order not to go astray into bitterness and resentment as he worked. This spiritual discipline of the artist is deeply analogous to what King had to do day after day as he faced the violence of American racism and economic and political inequality. Art, spirituality, and social justice are intimately related in this tradition Gurdon brought to Cornell and shared for so many years.

In this inspired sculpture, currently on display at the Tompkins County Public Library, we see that in Gurdon’s time with Daddy King and the beloved community, he learned his lessons well.

20160115GH GURDON BREWSTER Sculptor Martin Luther King Jr. Sculpture

20160115GH GURDON BREWSTER Sculptor Martin Luther King Jr. Sculpture

Living large with mental illness: the other side of the coin

flames of spirit

James Turrell’s Light Raiment II at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus Ohio

It is commonly said that many more people suffer with severe mental illness than we realize and that this is because of the bitter stigma that surrounds mental illness in our society. It is dangerous to share and so many people suffer in silence. This is no doubt true and I have experienced this stigmatization first hands in ways that have been cruel and rather violent in their effect on my life. There are good reasons why many choose not to share their sufferings which, unlike some chronic physical illnesses, are often invisible to those outside.

But there is another side to this invisibility, and it is a more positive side. The truth is that many many people labor under the cruel effects of mental suffering every day and do so incredibly successfully. And not just the so called suffering artist that is so often trotted out as an example of mental illness and creativity. No, its also doctors, social workers, teachers, therapists, yes, even parish priests, who have mental illnesses of some severity and yet day in and day out they do their jobs with great skill, consistency, and even joy at their labors. The resilience of the human spirit is nowhere greater than in such remarkably full, productive, loving lives.

Part of the stigma is in not believing that this other side of the story is real or even possible. This is why revealing one’s illness is crucial, because it gives a lie to the idea that having a serious mental illness is either a death sentence or a mark against one’s ability to be incredibly skilled in one’s job and loving and supportive in one’s family and other relationships. And it gives some  courage to those who are still in the early stages of their diagnosis and recovery to know that a full life is not only possible, but even enhanced by the skills gained and disciplines developed in the ongoing effort to live into the fullness of life one has been blessed to be given. I will never forget the day I discovered the work of Kay Redfield-Jamison, one of the leading psychiatrists specializing in bipolar disorder who also suffers under its afflictions. It is no exaggeration to say that her bravery in describing how it nearly took her life, and exuberance in the full life she now lives helped save me when I was at my lowest. So we pay it forward.

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