Spiritual Practices to Combat Mental Illness

September 4, 2009 at 12:14 am | Posted in Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

Walking the labyrinth is a well-known form of devotion in the Episcopalian church.

Walking the labyrinth is a well-known form of devotion in the Episcopalian church.

For some reason, people assume that I’m an atheist unless I tell them otherwise. I may have a certain look or air, since I was one for much of my young life. Now I’m an Episcopalian, which, at different times, I’ve thought of as everything from Pope-Free Catholicism to Unitarianism With Free Commemorative Communion Bonus. But seriously, folks, as strange as it may seem to say it, I am a Christian. That’s one reason why today I’m bringing you a list of spiritual practices that help to ward off mental illness. Also, I read somewhere once (“somewhere” is my favorite source to cite) that spiritual practice is one of five building blocks of mental health. Sad to say, I can’t name the other four offhand.

1. Repetitive liturgical prayer — the Rosary, for example — doesn’t require a lot of mental sharpness, but does gradually sink in and comfort you. I find that it helps me to concentrate if I read a short passage from Scripture or one of the church fathers before saying each Hail Mary. For the duration of the Hail Mary I mull over the reading. I concentrate on saying each Our Father slowly and letting each phrase sink in, especially the bits about “Thy will be done” and “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Hint: this is great for gratitude for material blessings, but of course it also refers to Christ’s words, and to grace).

2. Try reciting the Jesus prayer (long form: “Lord Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” short form: “Lord, have mercy.”) or some other mantra when you catch your inner self babbling along in a negative vein. My favorite is “Be still, and know that I am God.” Almost any short prayer or memorized line of Scripture will do. For years this practice, known as continual prayer, totally puzzled me — why recite the same damn prayer over and over again? According to an excellent guide to the spiritual life, Marjorie J. Thompson’s Soul Feast, the point is to replace the contents of the mindless drone layer your brain — the part that is singing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or “Jingle Bell Rock” right now — with a short prayer. Not a bad idea, particularly if your brain, like mine, sets particularly pernicious negative thoughts to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and serenades me with them for hours at a time. (Here is a good review of Thompson’s book, which I can’t recommend enough.)

3. Try your hand at writing a psalm. I know that my last post may have left you gasping for more Hopkins, so I’ll give you his take on one. There’s also a lovely one by Paul Celan, translated from the German by your humble narrator. It goes a little something like this:

No one molded us again from earth and clay,
no one spoke of our dust.
No one.

You have been praised, no one.
We wanted to bloom
for your sake.

We were,
we are, we will remain
a nothing, blooming:
the nothing-, the
no one rose.

soul-clear pistil
stamen heaven-ravished
red corona
of crimson-word we sang
over, o over
the thorn.

Then there are my own psalms. As with the above, you may use them as you like as long as you provide credit and a link:

It is no accomplishment to have made me —
careless breath on a handful of clay.
My own unfolding thrills and frightens me.
I am a night-blooming cereus, white burst of petals
pistil and stamens tender green,
plush with fine hair, pollen-glazed
bursting from unpromising pulp and thorns
a burning blossom, sun-scorched, shivering with ants.
I thrust into a void,
reflexively, ceaselessly.

And this:

It is good that God hides his face from us.
If he were present, we would not need him so
and we might be inclined to take a bold breath and ask
what he meant by Auschwitz
and why there is a platypus.
The surveillance camera’s hard red eye
exacts more strict obedience
than the guard nodding off
before his wall of monitors.
Absent, God appears to us in each leaf-stroke
caught by the Impressionist’s eye.
His silver fish flash from every bumper.

So, yes, write a psalm or two, and include your doubts, fears, and rage.

4. Make a collage of religious imagery that appeals to you, since scissors and Elmer’s glue are very healing. Personally, with the exception of Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross, I have patience with very little beyond Renaissance painters. You may feel differently. Try stealing from Titian, though. He rocks.

5. Go to your usual worship services no matter how crappy you feel. Listen, look and feel.

6. Express compassion for someone else who is suffering, either by listening, or, if you are feeling shy, by intercessory prayer.

7. If you feel uninspired, pray for inspiration and belief. For me, this is where reading St. Augustine really helps. I have a little book of prayers and sayings of his, Early Will I Seek You, and it often uplifts me. Come on, how could you not love a guy who wrote both “[M]ay I wholly burn towards thee, wholly be on fire toward thee, wholly love thee, as though set on fire by thee,” and the much more famous, “Lord, give me chastity — but not yet.”

8. Express compassion for yourself. Imagine the scene that makes you happiest and gives you the greatest feeling of security — for me, it’s being in a little hut on a desert island in the rain — and just dwell in it for awhile.

9. If you belong to a church, ask the congregation to pray for you when you are hospitalized or very ill. When you’re in the hospital, also ask for a chaplain to give you Holy Communion, or for visits by lay Eucharistic ministers if your church provides that service.

More and more I believe that if you have even the vaguest spiritual stirrings, you should church-shop until you find a community that fits you. It’s very common to speak as if “organized religion” were somehow inferior to personal devotions (or, rather, the conviction that one is, after all, a nice enough person without heavenly intervention, since a lot of people who call themselves “spiritual” don’t actually have any spiritual practices); I disagree. I think that community is central to sustaining and challenging your beliefs, and to supporting you in tough times. If you’re bipolar, there will be tough times; you need all the support you can muster up.

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