Category Archives: Faith and Mental Health

A History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe

The book A History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe (2 vols., 1865) is a seminal piece of literature. This well written work helps to provide valuable insights for the modern reader with the backstory on the conversion of Europe from a mystical to a rational society.

This book was written by William Lecky, an Irish-Anglican historian and politician (1838–1903). He greatly succeeded in studying and narrating the complex and evolving web of rationalism, morals, miracles, the supernatural, Catholicism, and Protestantism into a systematic and comprehensive portrait.

His work assists this blog in three different ways. Firstly, it demonstrates why the patristic writings were blotted out of the modern history on the doctrine of tongues. Lecky provided the logic behind this notable absence. (The following article on this blog The Historical Rejection of Patristics and its Legacy covers this in detail.)

Secondly, the book provides some history behind the doctrine of cessation in the protestant movement. He gives some hints as to why this doctrine arose.

Thirdly, he contributes to another interest of this blog and that is with the intersection of faith and mental health. He outlined a period that was consistently engaged in moral and spiritual purity – one which was percieved to bring them safety, health, stability, and protection from the elements. It was the antidote for humanity’s ills. Science was considered tertiary in this struggle for security. The greatest enemy to these four aims was the devil and his army of angels. Society felt that the active pursuit and limitation of the powers of evil would ensure their personal physical, emotional, and spiritual security. This fight against the devil allowed the excess imagination of many to run wild and caused countless executions. This supernatural crusade was especially against women. Many of whom were accused of being witches. Most of these women today would likely be listed with some form of mental illness, but back in this period, there was little concept of such a thing. It is a sad chapter in Western history.

However, this was not always the exclusive approach by the Church. Jean Claude Larchet demonstrates in his book Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing that at least from the Eastern Christian Church perspective, the treatment of mental health by the institutional church has had some progressive and merciful aspects too.

The reader must keep in mind that the irrational social response to the fear of the unknown cannot be restricted or blamed on the christian faith. It is a problem of the human psyche. Today we wrestle with the same problems of fear. Our world has significantly changed after the events of 9/11. The ever apparent fear of terrorists at the door have weakened citizen rights and has created serious suspicion upon any Muslim or anybody who looks Arab. The United States decision to ban citizens from seven Muslim dominated countries from entering their land underscores this irrationalism. This is but one of many examples. North American society is now driven by an irrational culture of fear in almost all of its decision making.

Many readers will not have the time to soak in Lecky’s voluminous treaty. The following are snippets from his work. The book itself is available at the Online Library of Liberty.

Quotes from A History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe

Pg. 27 “There is certainly no change in the history of the last 300 years more striking, or suggestive of more curious enquiries, than that which has taken place in the estimate of the miraculous. At present, nearly all educated men receive an account of a miracle taking place in their own day, with an absolute and even derisive incredulity which dispenses with all examination of the evidence. Although they may be entirely unable to give a satisfactory explanation of some phenomena that have taken place, they never on that account dream of ascribing them to supernatural agency, such an hypothesis being, as they believe, altogether beyond the range of reasonable discussion. Yet, a few centuries ago, there was no solution to which the mind of man turned more readily in every perplexity. A miraculous account was then universally accepted as perfectly credible, probable, and ordinary. There was scarcely a village or a church that had not, at some time, been the scene of supernatural interposition. [Pg. 28] The powers of light and the powers of darkness were regarded as visibly struggling for the mastery. Saintly miracles, supernatural cures, startling judgments, visions, prophecies, and prodigies of every order, attested the activity of the one, while witchcraft and magic, with all their attendant horrors, were the visible manifestations of the other.”

Pg. 32 is in reference to cleansing the nation of perceived evil, and of demons, witchcraft and sorcery, the author goes into great detail showing the innumerable deaths that were caused by this superstitious conflagration.

Pg. 32 “Such was the attitude of the Church of Rome with reference to this subject, but on this ground the Reformers had no conflict with their opponents. The credulity which Luther manifested on all matters connected with diabolical intervention, was amazing, even for his age; and, when speaking of witchcraft, his language was emphatic and unhesitating. ‘I would have no compassion on these witches,’ he exclaimed, ‘I would burn them all!’ In England the establishment of the Reformation was the signal for an immediate outburst of the superstition; and there, as elsewhere its decline was represented by the clergy as the direct consequence and the exact measure of the progress of religious scepticism. In Scotland, where the Reformed ministers exercised greater influence than in any other country, and where the witch trials fell almost entirely into their hands, the persecution was proportionately atrocious.”

Pg. 36 “Indeed, the philosophy of madness is mainly due to Pinel, who wrote long after the superstition had vanished; and even if witchcraft had been treated as a disease, this would not have destroyed the belief that it was Satanic, in an age when all the more startling diseases were deemed supernatural, and when theologians maintained that Satan frequently acted by the employment of natural laws.”

Pg. 37 “It may be stated, I believe, as an invariable truth, that, whenever a religion which rests in a great measure on a system of terrorism, and which paints in dark and forcible colours the misery of men and the power of evil spirits, is intensely realised, it will engender the belief in witchcraft of [pg. 38] magic. The panic which its teachings will create, will overbalance the faculties of multitudes. The awful images of evil spirits of superhuman power, and of untiring malignity, will continually haunt the imagination. They will blend with the illusions of age or sorrow or sickness, and will appear with an especial vividness in the more alarming and unexplained phenomena of nature.”

Pg. 63 “Amid all this strange teaching, there ran, however, one rein of a darker character. The more terrible phenomena of nature were entirely unmoved by exorcisms and sprinklings, and they were invariably attributed to supernatural interposition. In every nation it has been believed, at an early period, that pestilences, famines, comets, rainbows, eclipses, and other rare and startling phenomena, were effected, not by the ordinary sequence of natural laws, but by the direct intervention of spirits. In this manner, the predisposition towards the [Pg. 64] miraculous, which is the characteristic of all semi-civilised nations, has been perpetuated, and the clergy have also frequently identified these phenomena with acts of rebellion against themselves. The old Catholic priests were consuin mate masters of these arts, and every rare natural event was, in the middle ages, an occasion for the most intense terrorism. Thus, in the eighth century, a fearful famine afflicted France, and was generally represented as a consequence of the repugnance which the French people manifested to the payment of tithes. In the ninth century, a total eclipse of the sun struck terror through Europe, and is said to have been one of the causes of the death of a French king.”

Pg. 69 “We find then that, all through the middle ages, most of the crimes that were afterwards collected by the inquisitors in the treatises on witchcraft were known; and that many of them were not unfrequently punished. At the same time the executions, during six centuries, were probably not as numerous as those which often took place during a single decade of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the twelfth century, however, the subject passed into an entirely new phase. The conception of a witch, as we now conceive it—that is to say, of a woman who had entered into a deliberate compact with Satan, who was endowed with the power of working miracles whenever she pleased, and who was continually transported through the air to the Sabbath, where she paid her homage to the Evil One—first appeared. The [Pg. 70] panic created by the belief advanced at first slowly, but after a time with a fearfully accelerated rapidity. Thousands of victims were sometimes burnt alive in a few years. Every country in Europe was stricken with the wildest panic. Hundreds of the ablest judges were selected for the extirpation of the crime. A vast literature was created on the subject, and it was not until a considerable portion of the eighteenth century had passed away, that the executions finally ceased.”

Pg. 81 “When the belief is confined to the lower class, its existence will be languishing and unprogressive. But when legislators denounce it in [Pg. 82] their laws, and popes in their bulls; when priests inveigh against it in their pulpits, and inquisitors burn thousands at the stake, the imaginations of men will be inflamed, the terror will prove contagious, and the consequent delusions be multiplied.”

Pg. 84 -85 “I know, indeed, few stranger, and at the same time more terrible pictures, than are furnished by the history of witchcraft during the century that preceded and the century that followed the Reformation. Wherever the conflict of opinions was raging among the educated, witchcraft, like an attendant shadow, pursued its course among the ignorant; and Protestants and Catholics vied with each other in the zeal with which they prosecuted it. Never was the power of imagination—that strange faculty which casts the shadow of its images over the whole creation, and combines all the phenomena of life according to its own archetypes—more strikingly evinced. Superstitious and terror-stricken, the minds of men were impelled irresistibly towards the miraculous and the Satanic, and they found them upon every side. The elements of imposture blended so curiously with the elements of delusion, that it is now impossible to separate them. Sometimes an ambitious woman, braving the dangers of her [Pg. 85] act, boldly claimed supernatural power, and the haughtiest and the most courageous cowered humbly at her presence. Sometimes a husband attempted, in the witch courts, to cut the tie which his church had pronounced indissoluble; and numbers of wives have, in consequence, perished at the stake. Sometimes a dexterous criminal availed himself of the panic; and, directing a charge of witchcraft against his accuser, escaped himself with impunity. Sometimes, too, a personal grudge was avenged by the accusation, or a real crime was attributed to sorcery; or a hail-storm, or a strange disease, suggested the presence of a witch. But, for the most part, the trials represent pure and unmingled delusions. The defenders of the belief were able to maintain that multitudes had voluntarily confessed themselves guilty of commerce with the Evil One, and had persisted in their confessions till death. Madness is always peculiarly frequent during great religious or political revolutions; and, in the sixteenth century, all its forms were absorbed in the system of witchcraft, and caught the colour of the prevailing predisposition.”

Pg. 86-87 “It is very difficult for us in the present day to do justice to these works, or to realise the points of view from which they were written. A profound scepticism on all subjects [Pg. 87] connected with the Devil underlies the opinions of almost every educated man, and renders it difficult even to conceive a condition of thought in which that spirit was the object of an intense and realised belief. An anecdote which involves the personal intervention of Satan is now regarded as quite as intrinsically absurd, and unworthy of serious attention, as an anecdote of a fairy or of a sylph. When, therefore, a modern reader turns over the pages of an old treatise on witchcraft, and finds hundreds of such aneedotes related with the gravest assurance, he is often inclined to depreciate very unduly the intellect of an author who represents a condition of thought so unlike his own. The cold indifference to human suffering which these writers display gives an additional bias to his reason; while their extraordinary pedantry, their execrable Latin, and their gross scientific blunders, furnish ample materials for his ridicule. Besides this, Sprenger, who is at once the most celebrated, and, perhaps, the most credulous member of his class, unfortunately for his reputation, made some ambitious excursions into another field, and immortalised himself by a series of etymological blunders, which have been the delight of all succeeding scholars.”

Pg. 102-103 “The foregoing pages will, I trust, be sufficient to elucidate the leading causes upon which witchcraft depended. They will show that it resulted, not from accidental circum stances, individual eccentricities, or even scientific ignorance but from a general predisposition to see Satanic agency in life. It grew from, and it reflected, the prevailing modes of religious thought; and it declined only when those modes were weakened or destroyed. In almost every period of the [Pg. 103] middle ages, there had been a few men who in some degree dissented from the common superstitions; but their opinions were deemed entirely incomprehensible, and they exercised no appreciable influence upon their contemporaries.”

Pg. 114-115 “From the publication of the essays of Montaigne, we may date the influence of that girted and ever enlarging rationalistic school, who gradually effected the destruction of the belief in witchcraft, not by refuting [Pg. 115] or explaining its evidence, but simply by making men more and more sensible of its intrinsic absurdity.”

Pg. 119 “The history of witchcraft in Protestant countries differs so little from its history in Catholic ones, that it is not necessary to dwell upon it at much length. In both cases, a tendency towards the miraculous was the cause of the belief; and the degree of religious terrorism regulated the intensity of the persecution.”

Pg. 157 “Nothing could be more common than for a holy man to be lifted up from the floor in the midst of his devotions, or to be visited by the Virgin or by an angel. There was scarcely a town that could not show some relic that had cured the sick, or some image that had opened and shut its eyes, or bowed it head to an earnest worshipper.”

Pg. 159 “All this has now passed away. It has passed away, not only in lands where Protestantism is triumphant, but also in those where the Roman Catholic faith is still acknowledged, and where the mediæval saints are still venerated.”

Pg. 161 “If these propositions be true—and I scarcely think that any candid person who seriously examines the subject can [Pg. 162] question them—they lead irresistibly to a very important general conclusion. They show that the repugnance of men to believe miraculous narratives is in direct proportion to the progress of civilisation and the diffusion of knowledge.”

Pg. 163 “We find, accordingly, that from the very beginning, Protestantism looked upon [Pg. 164] modern miracles (except those which were comprised under the head of witchcraft) with an aversion and distrust that contrasts remarkably with the unhesitating credulity of its opponents. The history of its sects exhibits, indeed, some alleged miracles, which were, apparently, the result of ignorance or enthusiasm, and a very few which were obvious impositions.”

Pg. 169 “Middleton met it by an attack upon the veracity of the Fathers, which was so eloquent, so uncompromising, and so admirably directed, that all England soon rang with the controversy. He contended that the religious leaders of the fourth century had admitted, eulogised, and habitually acted upon principles that were diametrically opposed, not simply to the aspirations of a transcendent sanctity, but to the dictates of the most common honesty.”

Pg. 171 “If the Fathers were in truth men of the most unbounded credulity and of the laxest veracity; if the sense of the importance of dogmas had, in their minds, completely superseded the sense of rectitude, it was absurd to invest them with this extraordinary veneration. They might still be reverenced as men of undoubted sincerity, and of the noblest heroism; they might still be cited as witnesses to the belief of their time, and as representing the tendencies of its intellect; but their pre-eminent authority had passed away. The landmarks of English theology were removed. The traditions on which it rested were disturbed. It had entered into new conditions, and must be defended by new arguments.”

Pg. 186 “Whatever is lost by Catholicism is gained by Rationalism; wherever the spirit of Rationalism recedes, the spirit of Catholicism advances. Towards the close of the last century France threw off her allegiance to Christianity, endeavoured to efface all the traditions of her past, and proclaimed a new era in the religious history of mankind. She soon repented of her temerity, and retired from a position which she had found untenable. Half the nation became ultramontane Roman Catholics; the other half became indifferent or Rationalist.”

Pg. 194-195 “. . .and the spirit of Rationalism has become the great centre to which the intellect of [Pg. 195] Europe is manifestly tending. If we trace the progress of the movement from its origin to the present day, we find that it has completely altered the whole aspect and complexion of religion. When it began, Christianity was regarded as a system entirely beyond the range and scope of human reason: it was impious to question; it was impious to examine; it was impious to discriminate. On the other hand, it was visibly instinct with the supernatural. Miracles of every order and degree of magnitude were flashing forth incessantly from all its parts. They excited no scepticism and no surprise. The miraculous element pervaded all literature, explained all difficulties, consecrated all doctrines. Every unusual phenomenon was immediately referred to a supernatural agency, not because there was a passion for the improbable, but because such an explanation seemed far more simple and easy of belief than the obscure theories of science. In the present day Christianity is regarded as a system which courts the strictest investigation, and which, among many other functions, was designed to vivify and stimulate all the energies of man. The idea of the miraculous, which a superficial observer might have once deemed its most prominent characteristic, has been driven from almost all its entrenchments, and now quivers faintly and feebly through the mists of eighteen hundred years.”

Emile's Encounter with Christ

Third Beach
Third Beach, Vancouver. Creative Commons License by Kyle Pearce

The strange case of Emile Lacoste. An unusual man who many people have tried to figure out and help, but with only mixed success.

He is an odd man. No one can define him because his problem lies in the realm of different thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors. All of which have defied a medical, spiritual or psychological solution. A state that some think only God can mend. But then, does he need help at all?

Emile liked to sit between two enormous logs washed up on the Third Beach in Vancouver. Before that, he just sat on whatever logs were available. He has habitually been found on that beach for as long as most nearby residents can remember. What he silently contemplates for long periods of time between these gigantic uprooted trees is only known to himself, the winds and God. Emile is like the unpredictable Vancouver weather. You just never knew when he would be there. A few days out of the week he was somewhere else. No one knows where that somewhere else was.

Part of the problem about Emile is that he was always under the radar. He wanted to remain unnoticed. Those who did see him, their eyes quickly ventured to a different endpoint. Emile wondered if he had the power of invisibility. Well, not really in the most practical sense, but in an imaginary, childlike way.

The local food shelters provided for all that he needed. His large belly showed that this wasn’t a problem. His clothing had seen better days. His undersized white shirt had lost its glory and looked as though it was in need of a serious washing, that is, of course, if it would survive being washed without shredding. His gray hair was long and thick and stretched down to his shoulders. He also had a yellow streak that started at the mustache below the nose and continued linearly on his beard. This hue was a sign of a passion and one of the few external vices he possessed.

This vice was so strong that Emile would quietly wait for a passerby to toss their almost complete cigarette in the sand. He would quickly recover the stub, drawing whatever remaining life it had left in it. This sometimes made onlookers shudder or pretend this never happened.

Everyone had a different reaction when they saw him. A local newspaper crowned him the mascot for the homeless. The write-up outlined his physique as a modern-day Santa Claus. This celebrity homeless status was not an honor he owned with any pride. He wasn’t the type that didn’t like good company, but he didn’t appreciate being the center of a party either. That moment of popularity passed very quickly and he quietly went back into the shadows of humanity.

He did have another brush with popularity that just made him laugh. Emile fit in with the stereotype of the homeless millionaire that was once the water-cooler talk of Vancouver. This relates to a previous newspaper story of an old man who looked and dressed similarly to Emile. He was a big burly guy with an unkempt black beard who sold newspapers at the Hastings and Burrard intersection for years. No one knew his name until after he died. He was a disheveled paperman who died and left unclaimed, as the story goes, over a million dollars.

Emile wasn’t normally that popular. Children playing on the beach would walk a wide half-circle around Emile. Mothers would often shout, “beware of strangers,” within his earshot, and often tightly held their children’s hands as they passed.

Many people who would walk by him on the beach paid no attention to his presence. However, Emile saw them. He knew many of the mysteries that people carried in their hearts – the hurt, the pain, the elation, joy, loss, and successes. Did he quietly join the person in these moments of passing because he was a deeply sensitive man? Or was it because these people reminded the deep hurts that may have haunted him. The answer is not known.

A social worker came and offered Emile lodging and a small stipend for food, but he gratefully declined. “I am not a beggar,” he replied, “and I like it here.” The soft white puffs of clouds in the sky, the inquisitiveness of the seagulls, the comings and goings of ships of every kind of shape and color, and the ever-changing shoreline always caught his attention.

An evangelist came by and urged him to accept Christ. Emile humbly bowed his head and followed his lead. The recited together, “Dear Lord, I am a sinner, need your help, and ask for forgiveness. . .” Emile constantly looked down at the sand while praying but that indifference went unnoticed. The evangelist, delighted at his conversion, invited Emile to come to their Church. Sunday was four days away. Emile will say yes but would not attend. “They are really nice people, but it is not really a place for me,” he thought. He would never say this out loud nor would he refuse an evangelist’s prayer. He never likes to hurt anyone’s feelings. Neither did the evangelist realize that Emile has been converted three times in the last month.

Every night as Emile wanders about, he thinks about God and often prays. It is a kind of muttering self-talk. No one really knows what he is saying. He doesn’t even really understand either. The few times he went to Church have helped. The tele-evangelists have encouraged him along the way with their promises of a better life. He had never forgotten their words. He even tried to send $20.00 to the television preacher Peter Popoff because Peter desperately needed the money. However, he didn’t have any cheques or even a bank account to make this happen. He didn’t like to send cash through the mail. “Too many people would try to steal it before it got there,” he thought.

A politician came by and sat with Emile. “Isn’t it bad Emile that the government has cut off social assistance to such a degree that it forces people like you to live between these logs?” Emile shook his head in agreement and gave a small smile. His golden rule to never hurt or offend anyone even if it means to lie was effectual in this circumstance. They posed together for a picture. The politician left, promising Emile a better life if he ever got into office.

A doctor and a nurse came by to give Emile a brief check-up. The doctor was a friendly man who Emile always appreciated. The physician gently but firmly asked, “have you been taking your medication?” Emile apologized. The doctor wrote a prescription with a few extra words of encouragement along with advice. Emile asked some questions and thanked both him and especially the nurse. The doctor patted him on the back and wished him a good week. He returned the greeting with a slight smile and then asked, “hey doctor, would you have an extra smoke?” The doctor shrugged his shoulders and answered, “that’s a bad habit that you should get rid of Emile. Smoking is not good for you”. “I know, I know,” Emile replied.

The doctor left and Emile didn’t know what to do with the prescription. He thought he should wait for his friend Alan who always appeared at the most unexpected times. Alan always helped him with going to the pharmacy. Emile didn’t like going there, but it wasn’t so bad if Alan came along. Alan didn’t mind helping him. This way they could share the prescription together. Well, sharing was what Emile thought, but Alan gave little in return, except that he was always fun to be with — except for the time Alan took much and had a serious condition called lock-jaw. There was no option for him but to go to the emergency ward and get treated. He told his gray-bearded friend that he would never do so much at once again. Emile knew that Alan may have learned this lesson but He wasn’t the sharpest saw when it came to experimenting with things. Sooner or later trouble would find him again in another form. Of course, Emile would never tell him that directly. He didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Friends don’t do that.

What if one takes this story a step further and look it from a spiritual angle. What if Jesus was walking on the Third Beach while Emile was in his usual pose sitting between the logs? Obviously, throngs of people would be surrounding Christ for numerous personal reasons.

Would Jesus stop and call Emile far away between the sand and the logs to join Him? Probably not. He knows Emile is sensitive to being singled out and that it would hurt more than help.

Would He forget about Emile while being among the pressing crowd? Emile’s legacy is minuscule compared to those extroverts who see Christ and think that salvation is by the act of physically coming to Him and speaking humbly. Both these acts gave Emile a morbid fear – not because it was simply a God thing, but because approaching or speaking emotionally to anyone was a fearful encounter.

Jesus talking, healing, and converting the multitudes who did not have such fears would have an immediate impact and could go viral. Almost anything He would do with Emile would have a negligible cosmic or social impact.

Emile is also too shy to move into Christ’s personal space and too humble to ask for anything.

What if Christ came to him? Would He explain that Emile must be born again and begin to read him the four spiritual laws? Would He cast out the demons that some would candidly believe Emile to possess?

No. It would be a different type of exchange. It would be a simple look that happens in a micro-second. The gaze a mother gives a child that goes far beyond words and warms the heart. Emile has seen it at the beach many times. The child doesn’t even pay much attention to it, or so it seems. One instance in particular that Emile recalls was a little girl with her mom. She had green shorts with white polka dots and t-shirt that has a picture of Dora on it. Two little pony tails tied up her reddish-brown hair. She sang while making civilizations in the sand while building imaginary worlds — a world of people, doctors, firetrucks, police, good guys and bad guys. Emile quietly watched from a distance. In these situations, he often has wanted to join. An hour or two later, the mother would wrap a towel around her child, gently stroke her head and say, “it is time for this little policeman to go home, get something to eat and go to bed.” The little girl would smile and give that wiggly little dance, or protest such a command that only four-year-olds can do. She may even ask for a few more minutes because it is fun to run away from the tidal ocean waves battering the beach, watch the birds, perhaps wait because a whale is about to come and talk with her, or see the boats and smell the salty breeze. In a moment, Emile will see them walk past the logs and the dunes, holding hands as they went their way. They would stop at the sidewalk and shake the sand from between their toes. They proceed further away, becoming dots on the landscape and in a few moments their frames would disappear altogether.

This look would be enough for Emile. A moment that would give him peace, though he probably wouldn’t budge from between the logs. However, the crowd from the beach wouldn’t even notice his change in countenance. Emile would appear to be the same stoic self, but inside he would be satisfied.


Emile is a fictional character based on Charles Sullivan’s experiences with transient males as a Residential Care Worker at the Salvation Army in the early 1990s.

This article is part of a series that focuses on the Christian and mental illness. See the Life Issues category for more information.

Book Review: Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing

Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing: Teachings from the Early Christian East by Jean-Claude Larchet is an examination of mental illness from an Eastern Christian perspective.

It is very well done work on the topic at hand, but it is not intended to prescribe therapeutic solutions for those who are suffering, or dealing with a person struggling with some form of mental illness. One has to read it for the historical value. It is a detailed history on the perceptions and practices by various Eastern Church leaders on the subject.

The author’s knowledge of both modern psychological conventions and Eastern Church practices regarding this subject is finely interwoven. There is some very well documented work here.

It is partly an apologetic of the Eastern Church writers in light of modern psychiatry. Larchet strives to promote that these Church leaders were very thoughtful and insightful in relation to those who had mental illness. He clearly demonstrates that these leaders were not foolish and neither quick to attach a demonic definition to everyone who had mental health issues.

He does go into significant detail showing that many of the Eastern Church leaders discerned that it was a multifaceted problem — a physical disease or injury, a persons temperament, demonic influences, and a number of other variables could be valid sources of a persons mental suffering. Some of the solutions to this problem were a patient long-time intervention, one-on-one intense relationships, a specialized prayer, holy oil, singing or reciting scripture, seclusion, fasting, and encouraging sufferers to participate in their own healing as much as possible. Larchet does not demonstrate any serious negative viewpoints on the treatment offered by these Eastern Church leaders.

It outlines a general idea on how to deal with mental illness within a Christian context, but fails to build a clear doctrine. A large number of Church leaders are introduced on the subject but there is no perceivable pattern or evolution of thought around this issue.

This book hardly addresses the theological basis of mental illness and spirituality. It assumes that readers know what demons are, and that they do exist. He hardly addresses these axioms. Neither does it address the question of why there was so much emphasis on expelling demons in Jesus’ ministry while other Jewish literature was less inclined to do the same during this period. Nor did he express what the influences were that led to the informal structure Eastern Christians used in response to this malady.

Jennifer Doane Upton would disagree with the assessment of this book so far, she takes an altogether different perspective in her book review found at the publisher’s website, Sophia Perennis:

Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing presents the viewpoint on mental disorders held by the early Church Fathers, and in so doing provides a fresh “new” look at psychotherapy, as seen from the standpoint of a tradition which knows the human being as composed of body, soul and Spirit, and gives precedence to the Spirit. The author, Jean-Claude Larchet, is a practicing psychiatrist as well as an Eastern Orthodox Christian.

One wonders if he is choosing the best writers on the subject and ignoring the poorer ones, such as the writings of Pachomius, who believed that anyone who has a demon had a sign of a physical entry point. It was Pachomius duty to find the entry point and expel the demon, whether it was in the finger, foot or whatever. Although the many writers he lists are prominent, one questions whether their opinion was the popular one, or did the masses follow something similar to Pachomius.

This is definitely not a how-to guide on distinguishing between mental illness and demonism. If anything Larchet promotes that the eastern fathers treated whatever state the person was in with respect, though some of their practices seem barbaric to our standards — like placing a violent-to-self or -other type person in a secured sack until the anger abates.

The real strength of this book is in two observations. The first one is the Eastern Church perception of a psychological condition they called acedia — a type of sadness equivalent to what we call depression. The book itself does not make this correlation but it seems close. It goes on to list various remedies that do not deal with the sadness directly but with addressing or limiting the various expressions of sadness to cure it. It also demonstrates that ancient authors have identified a human condition whose appearance has not changed even to this day.

The second is found in the last chapter, entitled, A Most Singular Kind of Folly: The Fool For Christ. It has little to do with defining mental disorders at all, but is about a stratum of Christians who purposely pretended to be mentally ill for various reasons; whether for attaining humility through abuse or rejection, or it was a representation for detachment from this world, or it was for charity purposes. For if one feigned madness, this gave entrance to world of the low and downtrodden. This association became a source of ministry.

It is not a difficult book to read. The author does use some technical vocabulary but never quotes esoteric texts in the original Greek or Latin to prove his point. Everything can be understood by the English reader.

The whole subject of the relationship between mental illness and spiritual influences is severely under-represented in Christian literature, The author is one of the few, and maybe the only one, that has attempted such a rigorous examination. It is a good start. Hopefully more researchers will use this to build a more complete framework.

Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing: Teachings from the Early Christian East by Jean-Claude Larchet, Translated by Rama P. Coomaraswamy and G. John Champoux, can be found at Amazon. It is only available in print format.

See also the previous article on this subject A Religious Look at Miracles and Mental Illness.

A Religious Look at Miracles and Mental Illness

Personal and historical observations of mental illness from a christian perspective.

If one reads the Gospels and analyzes the healings that Jesus did, approximately a third involved what is now classified as some form of mental illness. That was a large part of His ministry.

The Gospels were written over two thousand years ago and the mental health statistics have hardly changed. The Canadian Mental Health Association has calculated that 21.3% of Canadians will have a mental health issue in their lifetime.1 It is an important topic for the christian community to address.

What exactly is mental illness and how to deal with it from within a christian framework is a difficult question to answer. Some say it is a demon, others, only biological, and most simply ignore the subject. A large majority of ministers refer the mentally ill to skilled practitioners.

The interplay of faith, demons, and mental illness is a subject that is obscure and hard to nail down. There is so little, if any, good literature from a faith perspective on the subject. There is yet to be seen a history of the doctrine of mental illness from the inception of the church until now. If there are some graduate students from a faith perspective looking for a thesis subject, consider this one.

Pierre Gilbert’s Demons, Lies and Shadows is one of the few books that addresses the definition and nature of the subject, but is not a full framework. There are also books such as the American Exorcist by Michael Cuneo, or, Ronald Howard’s Charismania. Cuneo’s book is polemical in nature against most current practices, and does not build a Christian framework. I have not read Charismania but it appears to be polemical as well.

Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing comes closest to building a christian doctrine for mental illness. Unfortunately, it dwells on the historical aspect of mental illness in the Eastern Church and does not show a religious progression to modern practices.

The ancients didn’t understand the body chemistry as we do today either and many conditions they would ascribe to demons can now be scientifically understood. The ancients wouldn’t have any knowledge about cancer, especially brain cancer. The effects of brain cancer are far reaching and effect a large range of mental capacities. It can cause once stable people to become impulsive. Some can become compulsive liars, others can turn angry and violent, some can inflict self-harm or punish others, and many more. The same type of conditions can happen after someone sustains a concussion – most likely through a car accident or through a contact sport, or falling and hitting their head.

Nor would the ancients have understood epilepsy, whose seizures cause people to fall to the floor and violently shake.

Strokes can cause changes in moods and personalities. For example I heard the story about an esteemed person and positive contributor in a nearby community. One night, while sleeping, he woke up and started angrily shouting and screaming at his wife. This never abated. Afterwards, he would scream and shout at every person he met for no apparent reason. He was out of his wits. It was found that he suffered a stroke which effected this part of the brain. The concept of strokes wouldn’t have been understood by the ancients either and this sudden change in condition would likely have been subscribed to demons.

Neither would the ancients have understood the chemical effects of substance abuse. In the case of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder this may have hardly existed because their conservative religious environments did not allow women to imbibe. But let us entertain in some epochs of european and christian history that it did. This is an irreversible brain condition due to mother’s intake of alcohol, usually excessive, during the child’s gestation period in the womb. The physical effects would likely have caused the ancients to believe this was demonic.

These people are not demon possessed, not even close. Our understanding of the body is still in the pioneer range. There is so much more to learn. What differentiates a physical malady from a spiritual one? I don’t know.

Antiquity did not have human environmental contributors either like leaded gasoline. This was a hidden epidemic that some attributed to higher rate of violence, ADHD, and lowered intelligence. Since the legislated removal of lead in gas, these figures have declined. How many man-made chemicals are affecting our brain functions, moods, and temperaments? We don’t know, and it is a far more complex situation. We wish the simple solution of casting out a demon could solve it.

There are those who think they are struggling with depression but have lifeskill problems – they don’t know how to problem solve or properly communicate and this leads to all sorts of expressions and behavioral patterns. But then there are others who struggle with depression and it can be traced to an environmental or physical factor. Some are born in a geographic area where the ground does not contain enough iodine, and this is known to cause cognitive impairment. Others suffer through malnutrition, which can also have severe consequences on emotional and intellectual development. Some can be born with slight impairments with body chemistry, or have undeveloped or interrupted parts of the brain from birth which regular medicine cannot detect and is expressed in some form of mental illness. It can be hardly recognizable with some and others it can be severe.

What if a doctor examines a person with a psychological condition such as clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, borderline personality, etc., and finds no known physical cause? Do these have situations any association with the spiritual realm? This is a loaded question, which may not be the right one to ask. There is no properly designed christian framework that can answer.

The ministry of Jesus demonstrates a sensitivity in this area and He did heal people who had mental issues. So how can we transfer this spiritual discipline to today’s mental health challenges? Here are a few examples from a few of my own experiences that demonstrate the tension.

“No matter how much you pray, it won’t make any difference. You left her for too long before bringing her in and the illness has progressed.” This was a psychiatrist’s response to us bringing Susannah* in a completely deluded state. She had transformed from a bubbly waitress one day into a serious form of psychosis the next. When it first began, her husband called a number of people including myself to assist in this situation. We came and prayed, exorcized, and then prayed some more. Things happened but nothing that permanently altered the situation to the better. There was also the natural hope that time and rest would do restorative work. Over a short period of a few days, it was clear neither worked. Out of fear of her potentially hurting herself or someone else, she was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital where she was evaluated by the psychiatrist and immediately admitted.

After staying a number of months in a hospital, and having received post-psychiatric help, the woman returned to her old self. The modern medical solution was the most beneficial.

Then there was Bill. Bill was staying at the Salvation Army emergency shelter for men in Winnipeg. A place where I was employed as a residential care worker. Bill had been standing vertically in one position for over two days. He hardly blinked or moved. The modern word for this describes him as in a catatonic state. Given his uncertain past, and the potential for violence, police were called to escort him to the hospital. In the meantime, I prayed with him. He didn’t move nor blink throughout the whole prayer, but a tear began to trickle down his left eye. The prayer had penetrated his innermost being. Something happened. I do not know what, but it was significant. Shortly afterward, the police took him away. I don’t know whatever resulted with Bill. I am sure medical intervention helped significantly.

It is not unusual to attend a hyper-Charismatic Church and see people prayed over for an emotional condition. Some who are prayed for scream out loudly, fall to the floor and convulse. What these screams, falling, and convulsions are, I do not know. Nor do I understand what the long-term emotional results from this are. There appears to be some temporary relief, but nothing permanent.

The ritual implies at the outset that the person is bad and needs to be expunged of some sort of evil. For people suffering from depression, who often struggle with an inner voice that says, “I am not good enough” in the first place, this may give an initial temporary high, but in the long-run increase negative tendencies and inhibit full recovery.

The simple prayer formula for addressing mental illness could make people with emotional scars more skeptical. If they come to a minister or lay leader looking for emotional healing, and leave unchanged, they are turned-off from religion because of unmet expectations.

Exorcisms may be re-victimizing the already victimized. For example, a portion of mental illness can be traced back to sexual abuse. This may be a minority in the mental health community but I have frequently come across many people deeply impacted by such an injustice. The pain, loss, and anger are sometimes so intense that it detaches a person from certain types or all of reality. Some hyper-charismatic or -pentecostal persons may mistake these expressions to be demon influenced and attempt to rectify the situation through exorcism. By doing so, they have twice-shamed the person and intensified the conflict raging inside. The evil circumstances and the perpetrator that influenced their specific situation are left untouched and the injustice is further reinforced. In these situations, these people do not need an exorcism, they are need of long-term affirmation and loving support in a healthy and stable environment.

There are occasions where prayer, if used correctly can liberate a person from the depths of injustice, but if prayer is improperly used, it can significantly do more harm than good.

On the other hand, the church often does get it right. Take George Munsden* for example, who has Tourette’s syndrome. For whatever reason, this syndrome caused George not only to have the tics and involuntary flailing of the arms, but also could swear full paragraphs, and frequently produce the middle finger. I knew George from his residency at the Salvation Army and discovered that he was a decent man. He attended Calvary Temple — one of the largest and oldest pentecostal churches in Winnipeg. He sat on the first bench on the balcony, muttering curse words, involuntary flailing his arms, and often producing the middle finger while the preacher spoke. But no one seemed surprised nor were taken aback. The security didn’t even take a second glance. It was just George.

One must be cautious too and not reject the supernatural world entirely. Something does occur that is beyond the normal in some circumstances but it is like playing with fire. Used improperly and in ignorance, it can damage people emotionally. One must always keep in mind what is best for the person at hand.

There is no current answer to this tension, but let me conjecture for a moment. When people were brought or came before Jesus seeking emotional healing, was He really doing an exorcism, or was the narrator describing it as a demonic episode because he couldn’t think of another explanation and this was the default for anything that cannot be explained? Jesus healed, didn’t take the time to reveal how He did it, and left it for our own imaginations to examine. Perhaps, He knew that the person had brain cancer, a stroke, fetal alcohol, or so many other conditions, and healed this malady. We couldn’t rationalize the phenomenon, so we simply ascribed it to being a demon – a word denoting something we don’t understand and out of our realm. This is far from a satisfactory solution and I am probably revising history to fit in our modern paradigm, but it is the best explanation yet.

When I see someone now with a serious emotional condition needing intervention, an exorcism prayer is no longer used — though oft tempted. I now treat them like George, or refer them to a medical institution or specialist. When the day comes when there is more information on mental illness from a christian framework, then I may change my position.■

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