Saturday, December 29, 2007

Saints who must have been nuts...

Crazy Saints.
I certainly do not think it is an exaggeration to suggest some of the saints may well have suffered from mental illness, or at least some form of neurosis, at one point or another in their lives. Yet many people tend to resist that idea because mental illness has been so misunderstood throughout history. Mrs. Parkes has an interesting post of famous people who have been diagnosed bipolar, which occasioned my reflection upon what saints may have suffered from mental illness, either episodic or long term. The following is my list of candidates of saints who may have suffered some form of mental illness in their lives.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre. Even Fr. Benedict Groeschl says that his namesake was probably psychotic. Of course, that doesn't mean he was a raving lunatic or a danger to himself or others. I suspect he was maybe a borderline personality with bipolar or something. The trials of the dark night would have cured him, I'm sure.
St. Therese of Lisieux. Something was wrong with her when she was little - so maybe she was bipolar too? A couple of her biographers suggested she may have had some early mental illness.
Christina the Astonishing. For sure! She stood in freezing cold water for hours, attached herself to a mill wheel to be repeatedly dragged under water. Astonishing, yes - normal, no way!
St. John of God. His conversion had been so intense he was confined for a time as a lunatic. With counsel, he devoted himself to caring for the poor and destitute, amongst these - prostitutes and vagabonds, whom he invited to live with him. (Imagine the Twilight Zone theme song here.) He endured great criticism and many people continued to think him insane. He went on to found a great order of hospitallers.
Camillus de Lellis. Maybe not nuts - but obsessive-compulsive - and depressive. He was quick tempered and addicted to gambling before his conversion. He also went on to found a nursing order.
Catherine of Genoa. She had to be a depressive - known to be somewhat humorless, she sought escape in the high society of Genoese social life, before entering her deepest depression, which culminated in her conversion. I don't think she was ever fun to be around however. ("Yeah! Let's call Catherine and get together for a drink!" - I don't think anyone ever said that.)
The Penitents, Thais, Mary of Egypt, and other harlots. Thais had a huge public bonfire of her clothes and jewelry before being admitted to monastic life. (Drama is a characteristic of bipolar behavior.) Mary of Egypt... just read about her - not so normal.
The Holy Fools, Basil, Xenia of Petersburg, and others. Basil went about naked in Russian winter and insulted the Tsar, Ivan IV - you know, "Ivan the Terrible". (That's normal.) Xenia was more or less like a bag lady.
Margaret of Cortona. I'm convinced that Margaret went a bit crazy after she discovered her lover's dead body, and the depression which accompanied the rejection she experienced by family and society after her conversion. I'm also of the opinion she wasn't the best mother - she definitely exhibited symptoms of borderline personality disorder in the manner she cared for her son. (I'll bet you anything she called him bastardo a few times.)
These abnormal people give me hope!
[Art: St. Christina the Astonishing, painted by, Cynthia Large]


  1. St Teresa of Avila..more than likely too..there are quite a few lists of famous people with bipolar including the saints..will have a look later. i can relate to much of St Therese's experiences (i'm not saying i'm a saint) but she certainly suffered neuroses..losing her mother at an early age could have triggered her long depressions..

    i try as you know to be very open abouit mental illness..i mean why stigmatise something that 1 in 4 people will suffer from. i always thought it was something that happened to other people..yeah right!

    Great post Terry..keep them coming. i think people with these illnesses when not psychotic are very religious & experience a very close relationship to God that other people can only dream of.

    Of course Therese's father went 'mad' towards the end of his life so perhaps there was a genetic link..

  2. They certainly did have their own ways about them, didn't they? I love the saints. They, too, give me hope.

    Terry, I believe the answer to my question is "yes," but I'm going to ask you anyway since you are quite knowledgeable in this area. Can a single man who recently adopted a child apply to become
    a priest (Roman Rite)? There was no marriage involved, so I don't think any disqualifying factors would come from that. I think the local diocese might have questions as to who would take care of the child while you are in the seminary, or about living conditions after the completion of formal theological training. This question would be in regards to a diocesan placement and not to a religious order.


  3. Where on earth did you find that wonderful picture???!!!
    It took courage to post this, but it's an important point to ponder.

  4. Jackie - I hoped you would like this post.

    Tom - I love the saints too. As for a single parent with a child seeking ordination - I don't really know. Have you asked a diocesean vocation director about it? I would think as a parent the first duty of one's state would be taking responsibility for the child the man adopted. Depending on the age of the child, if the man was permitted to enter seminary, the absence of the father for the long period of study could be detrimental to the child's development. Aside from this, there remain many more practical issues to consider in such a scenario. A newly ordained priest is normally assigned as an assistant in a parish - I don't know how a priest with a child would work out, especially after a year or two when he is transferred - it poses a stability issue for the child. Then there is the issue of income to support and educate the child - priests do not make much money. I also believe it may be counter to the spiritual notion of celibacy as well,which is much deeper than simply the absence of a wife, the heart would still be divided between the child and the Church.

    Anyway - I'd run it by the vocation director. I think he would say the man should wait until the child is older and independent.

    Jeffrey - isn't the image great! I haven't asked the artist's permission yet, so that is why I haven't posted her name.

  5. You bring up some good points, Terry. I ,too, see the welfare of the child as main focus of weather to proceed on a pursuit of this type.

    I have heard of a married man that became a priest in his later years, but that was AFTER his wife passed away and his kids were all grown-up.

    Thank you for time!

    God bless,

  6. Excellent post. I've noticed the Holy Father has brought up mental suffering repeatedly in the past several months, in Spe Salvi and several of the addresses made around Christmas.
    Caryll Houselander, considered by herself to be a neurotic, states repeatedly that we are not surprised when God chooses to NOT cure a person in a wheelchair, but when He choses to NOT cure a person with mental illness/suffering, we are scandalized and often think there is something lacking in the person and the person is often criticized by other Christians (Prosperity Gospel and all that baloney), esp I think in people who suffer with addictions, and they feel they are not members of the body of Christ because of their deficits/sufferings/depressions. And the Holy Father strongly asserts in Spe Salvi that we are not Christians if we lack compassion for mental suffering. Notice, too, the Holy Father has brought up addictions and visited a recovery center in Brazil, where he stretched out his arms and embraced the sufferers. It was lovely, it was Christ!
    C. Houselander (I love her letters) told mental sufferers to always hold fast to this idea: they are FULL members of the Body of Christ just as they are, and she found that if one remembered this, it often aided them in their suffering and made life bearable, that their suffering had meaning, that they did indeed belong to the Church, that they are loved by God, and are in fact, loved dearly, for God loves the weak, the little, the poor, the lonely.
    Perhaps this is why the saints mentioned by Terry loved God deeply, for they were little and His loving Hand stretched down to them and they returned Love for Love in a manner not understood by the proud, the strong. And in the mutual exchange of Love, man with God, they went out from themselves to aid others in need---as the Holy Father often repeats, Love must go out from itself.
    Another addition: Gilbert Keith Chesterton considered suicide during college after a stint in art school----and another, Alice Thomas Ellis suffered depressions and a severe depression after the death of her son---not canonized saints but lovely Catholic writers, defenders of the Church, lovers of God.

  7. Another saint I might add to your list is St. Elizabeth of Hungary; whom I admire for her kindness to the poor and for being instrumental in changing her husband's heart. She sort of went off the deep end after he died; it didn't help that her spiritual director was a bit unbalanced. Her 3 kids were the ones who suffered, she certainly didn't put them first after her husband died. She could have benefitted from your comment to Tom, about waiting till they were older and independent before persuing religious life. St. Elizabeth's penitential lifestyle seems to have resulted in her early death leaving her children orphans, in the custody of family members whose morals were questionable at best.

  8. Susan - your excellent comment is a post in itself. I too have noticed how the Holy Father refers to thos who have mental suffering.

    Melody - I did think of St. Elizabeth and her grief after her husband died.

  9. Wow that's a lot to ponder..really helpful to me personally...thanks all..esp Terry...God bless..

  10. Terry, as you say, "These abnormal people give me hope." We are lucky that being normal isn't a requirement of sainthood, only being faithful is.

  11. St. Therese's dad had a stroke so he really doesn't count.


Please comment with charity and avoid ad hominem attacks. I exercise the right to delete comments I find inappropriate. If you use your real name there is a better chance your comment will stay put.