When I was still working for a living—I am now retired—when I motored to and from work every day, part of my route took me up Portland’s N.E. 82nd Avenue, a major north-south boulevard infamous for its connexion to prostitution, adult video parlors, and strip joints.
One morning, a forty-ish looking prostitute with long, curly auburn hair, wearing skin-tight blue jeans, and taking a drag on a cigarette, was walking along the road with a man. I just happened to notice her and in that fleeting moment, she stared me in the eyes with an intense look of mixed contempt and anger, and then was gone.
Another morning, a man in a shabby linen suit, looking about fifty years old, with a shock of red-gold hair and a very thick but trimmed beard to match, was standing on that same sidewalk right at the road’s edge shaking his fist at on-coming traffic and shouting angry words. He wasn’t standing at a corner or at a bus stop. He made no move to jay-walk the busy avenue. He was just expressing himself.
One night about seven years ago, a friend of mine who happens to be Orthodox, was homeless and staying with me for awhile, was sitting in my livingroom. I was upstairs in my bedroom. I thought I heard the sound of the front door being opened and shut, and I heard him talking to someone, then—silence. I waited a minute or two, and then came downstairs and asked him if there was someone at the door. His response was, ‘No.’
‘Well, who were you talking to then?’ I asked. ‘I was talking to the man who has been tormenting me for the last ten years,’ he answered in an annoyed tone of voice, then mumbled as if to himself, ‘who’s been tormenting me for the past forty years…’ and then trailed off. ‘What are you talking about?’ I responded. ‘Spirits! There’s spirits outside! Roman, the world is full of spirits!’ he retorted in an angry, panicky tone of voice. I left him there and went back upstairs to my evening ‘quiet time.’
It seems that the world we inhabit is full of insanity or, as my friend put it, spirits. Even though he was a Christian, his mental illness continued and worsened. The Church could do nothing for him, because everything it can do must be done with his full consent, and he wouldn’t give it. Thinking about him and his condition makes me wonder if an insane person actually has free will.
Once, writing about mental illness, I said, ‘Turning to Christ means sanity; turning away from Him means insanity.’ The world that I used to see every day on one leg of my drive to work was (and still is) an insane world, and that world can get very, very close sometimes. It intrudes on my Church, on my own family, even on me. It all comes down to this: Do we turn to Christ or away from Him?
It’s not hard to see how those who live in the world without Christ can be insane, but how can an Orthodox or any Christian be insane? Well, we still have choices and we make them. Some insanity, maybe most of it, is caused by disorders deeper than the level of will, but there are those forms of insanity which we welcome by our persistent rebellion, our refusal to accept help.
We can see it in small doses affecting ourselves, but the same rebellion repeated and unrestrained seems to lead us to a point where we no longer have the will to resist it. Insanity, then, becomes our ‘normal’ state, from which we emerge only as necessary to survive interactions with others, and into which we retreat when we find ourselves alone.
How could my friend be insane and a Christian at the same time? In his case, it seemed to me, it was a disorder of the will, a bent towards the rebellious, a turning away from the real Christ combined with a turning towards an idolatrous image of Christ. He would spend his time ‘praying’ and reading the bible aloud in Greek (he didn’t understand Greek, he just knew how to pronounce it) when he couldn’t find anything else to do. He couldn’t bring himself to actually work (hold a job) because everyone ‘out there’ was out to prevent him from working and leading a normal life. He couldn’t see how he could possibly be responsible for any of his misfortunes.
It’s the mercy of Christ, coming to him because of his confession of His name, that has kept my friend from total insanity, but it’s like he is hanging on to life by a shoestring. We see him now and then as he cycles through a round of different Orthodox parishes, staying only a short while, and then disappearing again.
It makes me wonder just how much of what we do and what we are is only because of God’s grace, and how it is that some find themselves turning to Him, and others turning away.
And so my prayer, tonight and every night, drawn from the Night Litany in the Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book (Anglican), is ‘For the insane, Lord, keep them in Thy power.’