Teach Us To Pray…But Be Gentle: Prayer and Mental Illness

So, God said to Job, everything’s over and you need to pray for your friends so they can be forgiven.

And Job paused, and thought a moment, and then said, “Yeah, okay, I can do that – I know the power of prayer – I used to pray for my kids. Maybe it’ll work for my comforters too.”

Gerard Seghers, Martyrdom of St Dymphna and St Gerebernus, public domain vie Wikimedia Commons

That opening zinger is not at all a theologically acceptable interpretation of the story of Job, and I really do deserve a tongue lashing or worse from St. Gregory the Great for it. But it is the sinister way I think in some of my darker, more cynical moments, and behind it there is a real theological question: After going through everything, what was Job’s prayer life like? Could he even pray? And if he could, how could he trust the God who might it seems pull everything out from under Him again? No; correction. He lost children. The rug was already out from under him. There is no restoration save resurrection that can fix that.

Though there are both similarities and differences, I was reminded of my musings on this today as I read Anne Carpenter’s post on prayer and mental illness over at The Rule and the Raven. More particularly, I read Anne’s post after a day of barely functioning, just pulling together enough energy to get my son through the day and make some uncharitable Facebook arguments. I wanted to disappear, to hide – because I am afraid. The things I love most in the world are God, my family and friends, and my students – and so I curl up in bed, all too aware of fears – frustration at being a poor and inadequate contributor to my family and friends; fear of being entrusted with matters of truth and beauty in my formal academic writing; fear of the preciousness of a student’s work placed in the way of my critical gaze; fear of wounding where I do not mean to wound, mistaking where I do not mean to mistake, erring where I do not mean to err. Go away, I am a man of unclean lips. Of wrecked mind. I love you. And that is why I want you to get as far away from me as possible.

And so it was that as I lay there trying to evade consciousness – experiencing the madness of slowly going off meds for a desperate medication switch that is the only thing a GP can do for me because there are no psychiatrists after seven months of begging – as I lay there experiencing these wonderful fruits of the Canadian health care system and mindlessly trawling Facebook as though Lethe might be found there, I found Anne’s post. And it leapt from the page. Because people just don’t talk about things like this usually.

For the record, I have become more or less resigned to the constant misunderstandings, the doctors who would explain away my prayer life and those Christians who would explain away everything else. I have become resigned to the kind of people who think that maybe one should work on getting better first and then worry about prayer later – yes, I want to say, and when will that be? – Godot is more likely to arrive before that happens. And they don’t understand the crushing need for prayer. Not the comfort (how is it comfortable?) – not the attraction (unless like a moth to a flame?) – but the thirst, the necessity. Teach us to pray – for we are crushed by it. Teach us to pray – for we are swallowed by the hollowness of it. Teach us to pray – but could you sometimes be gentle with us and listen to our stories?

I may have a bad memory (because hey – madness in my head!), but so far as I can recall, I haven’t read anything that “gets it” quite the way Anne does in her post. Prayer is hard, awful, and confusing for those of us who are mentally ill. But it is also what we need. So yes, teach us to pray, but be gentle. Our prayers may be nothing. But for many of us, their very poverty is all we have left.

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