This letter, originally sent to the primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, is being published with permission from both the author and the primate.
Last year, the Anglican Journal’s publication of a series of articles on mental health and spirituality resonated with a lot of our readers. It was hardly surprising—an estimated 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Mental illness also “indirectly affects all Canadians,” through a family member, a colleague or friend. It afflicts people regardless of age, education, culture, income level, race or religion.
The author, who has lived with mental illness for more than 40 years, reflects on the role that faith has played in his life.
Dear Archbishop Hiltz,
I am a member of St. Aidan’s Anglican Church in London, Ont.
I have lived with a mental illness, bipolar disorder, for over 40 years.
It has affected every aspect of my life. Many times I almost killed myself, because I could no longer endure the pain and despair. At such times, it was my belief in God’s abiding love, no matter my condition, that enabled me to choose life.
In light of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, I believed I was not alone in my suffering, because Christ was at my side. I believed that my suffering was not the final word. The final word was the Father’s faithful love.
I also knew of Christ’s special care for the poor, the sick and the outcasts. It leaps off the pages of the gospels. Christ even went so far as to identify with the least of his brothers and sisters. I cannot adequately express how much all of this meant to me. Mental illness brings with it a profound shame and loss of dignity. In spite of this, I still believed I was God’s beloved son.
Therefore, I have been deeply saddened, to the point of tears, that Christian churches have not proclaimed to the mentally ill these words of consolation. How much suffering would have been allayed. We are like the man in St. Luke’s parable who was left half-dead in the ditch as the priest and Levite passed by.
The church needs to stop and take notice of us, and then climb down into the ditch, kneel by our side and whisper into our ear that we are God’s delight. He will never leave us alone. If the church were to take time to listen to our stories of terror and darkness, it would never pass us by. Remember the words Yahweh spoke to Moses from the burning bush,
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings” (Exodus 3:7). These words initiated the Israelites’ long journey into freedom. Would that we who live with mental illness could hear these words proclaimed by the church. We would know that God was with us as we traversed our personal deserts.
I am dumbfounded why the church has failed to do this. Is it because of ignorance on the church’s part or the stigma attached to mental illness? It is as if we are invisible or unworthy of being cared for. The church, by not seeing us or caring for us, implicitly increases our shame and intensifies the stigma. We are not worthy of its attention. This is no longer tolerable, given our numbers, the severity of our suffering, the number of us who commit suicide and society’s increasing understanding of mental illness. We are no longer in the Dark Ages when mental illness was seen as a form of possession or the result of sin.
In an effort to increase the awareness and understanding of the impact mental illness has upon a person, on several occasions, I have shared my experience of mental illness with the St. Aidan’s community. I spoke of the importance my faith had been in providing me with a life-sustaining meaning to my experience of mental illness. Jesus’ death and resurrection have been the foundation of my hope. The response of the community has been heartwarming. I do not have to hide. I am loved and consoled in all the seasons of my life. I am free to be me.
With the encouragement and support of the Rev. Kevin George, our rector, our church has reached out to the mentally ill and their families in the greater community. Twice we have held a blessing ceremony for them to manifest that they are beloved children of God. At each of these ceremonies, an Anglican priest spoke of his/her experience of mental illness, thus providing the power of testimony. We plan to continue offering these blessings in the coming years, and we hope they might spread to other Anglican churches in our diocese.
What I am requesting of the greater Anglican church would not require a substantial expense. It would only involve opening its eyes, listening to our cries and proclaiming God’s good news to us. In recent times, the church has reached out to members of the LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/ Questioning] community and affirmed their dignity in the eyes of God. In a similar fashion, now is the time for the church to proclaim God’s good news to the mentally ill, to announce God’s special love. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” “ The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18). If this were done, how many hearts would be consoled? If the church were to listen to and act upon the words of Jesus, “As long as you did not do this to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:40), there would be no option in this matter.
I conclude with the words of Jean Vanier: “He who is or has been deeply hurt has a right to be sure he is loved” (Tears of Silence).
Joseph Corcoran, PhD
Professor emeritus Western University (University of Western Ontario)