Are we uncomfortable with mentally ill saints?

You’ve noticed, haven’t you?  Maybe not.

I haven’t been around the blog much lately.  Or the Internet for that matter.

Here’s why:


I’ve gone back to counseling.  Third year in a row, three different counselors.

Funny, when I must mention that I’m going to “therapy”, people think I’m referring to physical therapy.  One of my family members, after having learned that I was seeing a counselor, blurted out, “Why???”  Another very smart and influential person I know, once said on Catholic radio, “People spend so much money on therapy these days . . . but we Catholics have confession, and it’s free!” —  as if the two were interchangeable.

So, you know, I don’t generally tell people that I see a psychologist.

Our society still has a long way to go in educating ourselves and our children about mental health, and banishing the stigmas associated with psychological treatment.  I mean, I just looked up “stigma” in the dictionary, and the example was, “the stigma of mental disorder”.

I think Catholics, especially, need to ponder this for a second: Canonized saints suffered from mental illness.

Having had John Paul II as a recent shepherd, we can readily accept that saints suffered physical ailments or, as in Teresa of Calcutta’s case, even the agonizing ‘dark night of the soul’ . . . but can we accept that saints were afflicted with mental illness?

Would you believe that someone in a mental hospital could be canonized and venerated someday?  St. John of God is among the number of saints who were committed to a mental hospital.  In John’s case, it was for — among other things — publicly beating himself, asking God for forgiveness.  When we read stories like this, do we brush them aside?  “Well, people just couldn’t see his great humility and piety!” we say.  But do we tell ourselves these things because we’re uncomfortable with the idea that a saint could truly have been mentally ill?  Benedict Joseph Labre was a mentally ill, homeless beggar; in a time lacking psychological science, his contemporaries attributed Benedict’s eccentricities to his holiness.

Even a Doctor of the Church, St. Alphonsus Liguori, wrestled with pathological scrupulosity his entire life; now understood as a religious expression of obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Having shared in this torturous struggle, I find inspiration in Liguori’s great achievement — his Moral Theology — demonstrating Christ’s gorgeous reply,

“For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26)

My experience with psychological therapy has helped me to accept, both in my brain and in my gut, the truth that mental illness does not have any bearing on a person’s value.  Though I may become uncomfortable or frustrated around someone with mental illness — or with my own psychological problems — I must remind myself that my discomfort stems from my inability to understand or relate to the illness.  I must separate the illness from the person.

Let’s pause today for a moment, and ask for the grace to see each person as a marvelous child of God — a potential saint, no matter what struggles he or she might carry.

P.S. If you must have a reason to share this, the month of May is Mental Health Month.  Please consider sharing this post, discussing mental health with someone you know, or learning more.

Links of Interest:

St. John of God
St. Alphonsus Liguori
St. Benedict Joseph Labre
St. Benedict Joseph Labre

One comment

Add to the Conversation:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s