Are Saints Sane?
Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture’s recent forum Religion & Madness: Spirituality & Pathology used the medium of theater to explore the connection between spirituality and mental illness. As a woman who tends to get demonized by select male Christian leaders for daring to speak my mind, I identified with the scene they presented from Emily Mann’s Mrs. Packard where a woman gets committed for defying her husband’s religious beliefs. Throughout church history feisty women like Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc get branded with labels like prostitute and heretic by male-dominated religious structures determined to keep their voices at bay. Yet today these women have been elevated to the status of sainthood.
In my forthcoming book Jesus Died for This? A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ, I touch on this subject through the life of St. Francis of Assisi, one of Christendom’s all-time favorite saints. Would he be welcomed into the sanctuaries of today’s churches? Doubt it. In the novel Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale, the main character Chase Falson observes, “I’ve met people who claimed they could talk to animals—most of them were pretty heavily medicated.”
On a whim, I did a pseudo-psychological work-up on this popular Franciscan for The Wittenburg Door:
AXIS I: Psychiatric Disorder
Manic-depressive with grandiose delusions (calls himself a Herald to the Grand King) and psychotic features (claims to receive messages from God, talks to self and animals), Suicidal ideation (claims to die with Christ)
AXIS II: Personality
R/O Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder: Need to further assess subject’s unceasing prayer life and creation of devotions and other ritualistic practice
R/O Borderline Personality disorder—subject appears to have no sense of self as he identifies himself as a living embodiment of the crucified Christ
AXIS III: Medical conditions
Self-mutilation (subject wears hair shirt, refuses to show stigmata of Our Lord which he claims is imprinted on his body, confesses to running into a bush of thorns and jumping into a pool of water in the dead of winter).
R/O Body Dysmorphic disorder—subject calls his body “my brother the ass”
AXIS IV: Social factors
Embraces poverty (sheds tears of joy over his impoverished state)
Need to ascertain if the Orders of Friars Minor, the Poor Clares and The Third Order are truly sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church or a cult.
Poor diet—mixes ashes with food to dilute taste
My suggested treatment plan included: Place subject on suicide watch. Stabilize with Prozac until can get a full psych write up to determine appropriate drug cocktail. Meet with dietician to establish a healthy diet. Consult with medical doctor for appropriate treatment from self-inflicted injuries. Keep subject away from the Crusades and other religious military maneuvers to combat martyrdom.
In his delightful book, My Life With the Saints James Martin, SJ writes that St. Francis brings out “a kind of crazy I’d like to be around.” But if he came back today, could the church handle a character like Francis? Would they permit him to roam the hills preaching the Good News to all or would he end up locked up in a padded cell and excommunicated from the church for refusing to follow the proper protocol?
The panelists at the Religion & Madness forum seemed to reach a consensus that one way to ascertain if this project is of God or a product of one’s delusions would be an analysis of the fruit of the spirit. In examining the ministries of those like St. Francis who demonstrate signs they might be crazy perhaps the church could benefit from the discerning words of the great Rabbi Gamaliel. When Peter and the apostles were by taken before the Sanhedrin for breaking the law by proclaiming Jesus, Gamaliel stood up and suggested that these men be set free. For as he proclaimed, “if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (See Acts 5:17–39).
Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).