Letters from a Hospital Bed is a series of reflections by Jim Houston, now entering his 100th year, in which Jim seeks to capture and reflect new insights of his ever-discoverable God, revealed through his own hospitalization, for the encouragement of all care givers.
July 7, 2022
As we continue to explore the loving healing of our tender God in the unreached dimension of our emotions, I want to begin with what seems on the face of it to be a radical and to our 21st century ears, even jarring. Asaph, the psalmist, writes in Psalm 82:6 “I said, you are ‘gods’; you are all sons (and daughters!) of the Most High”. Most of us struggle with our emotional lives, with anxiety or with the kind of fearfulness I knew so well as a young man, or that numbing we choose so as to avoid what hurts too much to engage. Some whom I know and love experience those deeper and darker places, places of depression, and yet, the psalmist challenges this low sense of self with a virtual absurdity. For the ancients, the ‘gods’ were transcendent, lived beyond the realm of the ordinary and seemed just like our envied neighbour to ‘have it all together’, to be ‘successful’, to have such ‘confidence’ or ‘capability’. The ‘gods’ were who I wasn’t but wished I was. They were the epitome of what was beyond my own reach, for myself. And yet, in the previous verses of Psalm 82, Asaph writes, “The ‘gods’ know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness. It seems the emotionally self-possessed ‘glitterati’ don’t glitter after all!
For the desert fathers, the most prevalent emotional sickness was acedia (accidie, in Latin). Anthony likened it to “a large river of sadness whose delta had many rivulets, such as sloth, or boredom, disgust and languor, lassitude and torpor, all in a vague dissatisfaction with the status quo that poured its great river into the ocean of our emotions”. Others called it the “noonday devil” because for the ascetic monks, sitting in the cave in the heat of the day, were then most tested, reflecting in our more modern vernacular ‘being here, seemed like a good idea at the time but now, I’m not so sure”! (I can just hear my dear Rita with her sensible suggestions that she’d be depressed sitting in a cave all day just meditating!). St Anthony had good reasons to question why he might have traded wealth for poverty, food for hunger, servants for hard and demanding work. These were the times when he was tested most deeply.
Such times of testing can so easily lead us to a kind of mindless fatalism reflected in the well-known lyrics ‘Que sera, sera…whatever will be, will be’. No, we are not victims, we are not passive creatures stuck with whatever grieves our spirits. Our emotional struggles are very real but they are not supreme. While it took me decades to learn that my own fearfulness was not a life sentence, it was moving through that fear, not remaining stuck there, that saw me through. Another of the ancients of our faith, Gregory of Nyssa, reminds us that to be made in the image and likeness of God is to possess the former by gift but the latter by will. The gift is the potential of Imago, but we choose our likeness with minds that are equipped to seek healing, perhaps and even often, through the therapeutic skills of others for whom we may simply just need to choose to show up and receive their help.
As the flood tides of this pandemic seem to be receding, at least for the moment, they reveal the immense darkness and damage of mental illness that has gripped so many of us and our loved ones. Many of us and our friends sit each day with St Anthony, in the heat of the noonday sun, our spirits scorched with the searing heat of so much separation and anger and division and dis-ease. It is hard sometimes to even want to move out of this deep sadness that smothers too much. But that is not who we are. It is not our ‘lot’ to be less than the ‘gods’, the cheer-filled folks who struggle not. We are more than the imagined ‘fortunate few’ whose emotional well-being seems to us, in our struggles, to be all tidied up and in order…we are all sons (and daughters!) of the Most High”. Image-bearers! Who can choose to embrace the likeness of our Heavenly Father.
My prayer for you is that you not become caught in what is, or seems to be, inevitable, or that to which you feel confined or trapped emotionally, but that you catch a glimpse of the glorious potential you have in Christ to take on His likeness, to flourish in being Image bearers. The trap of acedia can smother us all. Join with me as I press on, toward the goal, to win the prize for which God has called me – as He has called you each – heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Eph 3:14)
Jim (For some reading in this area see:DR. Jean-Claude Larchet, ’THERAPY OF SPIRITUAL ILLNESSES, vol. One, Alexander Press, Montreal, 2017, pp. 16-17, 20-21.