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Mental Illness and the Suffering Word

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A searingly personal and poignant account of a battle with mental illness and how Word and Liturgy can calm the mind will speak both to sufferers and those who would come alongside them.

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He knows. This John knows. How? Has he peered down into the bottomless pit in the middle of the Wilderness? Seen the Stranger trapped in a small iron Cage lowered on a long iron chain so far into the darkness that only a pinprick of light is visible? And sometimes none at all? Does he know that the Cage sometimes shrinks as it descends and the Affliction electrifies it? Does the mind hurt? Or the body? Where am I? Right. Here I am. Still reading the first page of John Andrew Bryant’s staggeringly moving and beautiful memoir, A Quiet Mind to Suffer With: Mental Illness, Trauma, and the Death of Christ.

The memoir depicts Bryant’s OCD-facilitated death to “Hardness of Heart” and his resurrection through Christ’s gift of a quiet mind to suffer with—in expectation of the apocalyptic Amen. At first it may appear Bryant has discreetly clothed mental illness and trauma with polite poetic euphemisms like the Affliction and A Body That Expects the World to End. Yet this is doubtless the most accurate and realistic portrayal of serious mental illness I have ever read. I say this as someone living with diagnosed bipolar and generalized anxiety disorder who has also been hospitalized for mental illness. Although I do not have compulsions, like John, my mind’s obsessions make me see horrible things. As much as I think it should be widely read, this book, like Aslan, is good but not safe. If the Affliction of mental illness torments you, or if the Past is yet too traumatic, it might not be the right time for this book. Even if you do not live with mental illness, gazing upon an unveiled Affliction is unsettling.

With that in mind, A Quiet Mind to Suffer With begins proclaiming the mystery of Bryant’s faith in the midst of the Wilderness. Bryant unpacks a unique vocabulary (complete with glossary), such as Affliction or Siren (Bryant’s mental illness) and Past or a Body That Expects the World to End (trauma), which feeds Hardness of Heart (the compulsion to save yourself or to sin). Yet the forgiveness won by Christ brings Word (Understanding), the Way (Intention), and the Amen (Expectation) into the Wilderness of Affliction and History.

Bryant’s writing proceeds methodically; each chapter examines the same ideas from slightly different angles. Undoubtedly, some readers will find this repetitious. Yes, I’ve already heard about the Siren, the Affliction, the Wilderness, the Mercy, the Word, Understanding, etc. On the other hand, the circuitous writing gives readers a pinprick experience of rumination: the taking of an idea and turning it over in your mind so you behold it from all angles, stopping, stepping away, returning to reexamine it a second, fourth, and tenth time. What is the Siren? It’s the Affliction. But it’s also What’s Wrong. What is Mercy? Word. The Way. And, most fundamentally, Christ. Although OCD creates terrifying ruminations, Bryant here forces the broken logic of the ill mind to slowly reveal otherwise hidden truths with great beauty and power.

At the heart of Bryant’s crawl through the Wilderness is this paradox: his efforts to save himself led deeper into What’s Wrong, trapped in a Body that Expects the World to End, drifting toward Hell through increasing Hardness of Heart. Only by receiving the Gospel—the Word of Mercy—did the Howling Boy come to possess a patient, quiet, understanding that trusts in Christ alone. This understanding trusts Christ with your Affliction, your History of trauma, your shame, and your Hardness of Heart. It trusts Christ Who has already taken everything in us, sanctifying it in His death and resurrection through the forgiveness of sins.

Bryant writes: “This memoir is the story of how I was freed from the clutches of the Siren and dragged out of the Realm of Ceaseless Cognition by the terrifying fact of Christ and by the recognition of His voice. … I am dragged forward by what I understand, a Mercy that is not felt or even thought but is still, somehow, understood.” But how does one obtain this patient, quiet, understanding? Through the “miraculous power of the Word.” This Word is: Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. In this Word, Christ gives not information about or a representation of Himself, but Himself. Here we see a complete collapse of the signifier and the signified. Christ is the Word. Christ’s words are efficacious, what reforming theologian Martin Luther called Action-Words (Thettelwörter). The Word creates the quiet understanding that trusts the mercy offered.

Bryant preaches the Word by showing his mental breakdown, a stint in a hospital psychiatric ward, and his recovery. Readers view the Mercy offered but also the trauma of revisiting a History that threatens to morph into What Could Happen and then Worst That Could Happen once again. Bryant returns to the Howling Boy in the psych ward and offers him the Word: “I am here to offer the gospel to a prior version of myself.” Bryant preaches the forgiveness of sins to the Howling Boy, who—like us all—is afflicted with Hardness of Heart. Through forgiveness, Christ unbinds the Howling Boy’s heart and gifts him a quiet understanding. With understanding, the Spirit bestows an intention to trust Christ. This understanding and intention—an Ordinary Life of Regular Worship—provides a Way through the Wilderness of this world. Moreover, as we hear, pray, and offer ourselves in service, the Spirit leads to the Mercy that Has Been Given and the Amen of Christ’s Promised Return.

In the book’s second section —Christ Has Died—Bryant describes the journey out of torturous thoughts in the Realm of Ceaseless Cognition through the death of Christ. As a young man, mental illness caused Bryant to retreat into grotesque and overwhelming ideas. The curious reader may wonder just exactly what these terrifying intrusive thoughts were. But Bryant never tells us. To make matters worse, for years Bryant suffered spiritual abuse, which intensified his symptoms. Finally hospitalized, his experience as a patient left him traumatized but provided an opportunity for Mercy to break his Hardness of Heart. Christ harrowed the hellish psych ward in the form of Bryant’s wife and a kind nurse who neither feared nor pitied him but instead recognized his human dignity. Here Bryant captures how physical presence is often a greater ministry of the Word than words. Bryant left the hospital still miserable. Mercy had not healed him. But it did give understanding: trusting Christ with Affliction and History, and expecting the Amen of peace.

The third section—Christ Has Risen—describes Bryant’s slow healing process. Returning home, Bryant found his symptoms worse than ever, like an “invisible tentacle monster” gripping every aspect of his life. He was afraid of everything and binged-watched TV with no “violence or action or meanness.” I sought similar fare after the psychiatric hospital: The Great British Bake Off consoled me in my worst moments.

Bryant’s breakdown occurred in the midst of his ordination process. Honest to a fault, Bryant told his diocesan psychologist details of his intrusive thoughts, ending any chance of a career as a parish priest. Yet this humiliating rejection also meant the death of the wrong expectation—of honor and Life as it Should Be. Instead there would be only the silence of Christ and the cross. During this time, Bryant treasured Mark’s story of Jesus calming the storm. The disciples wanted the storm to end, but Jesus was silent, sleeping on the cushion. Rather than asking for the winds to cease, the disciples ought to have understood who Christ was. Although Christ may not silence the winds or Siren, He is enough.

Over time, Bryant learned to depend on Christ through the Ordinary Life of Regular Worship, consisting of the Rhythm of hearing, prayer, and offering. Using this Thread, Christ gradually pulled Bryant out of the Realm of Ceaseless Cognition, reconciled Bryant’s Howling Boy, and guided him through the Wilderness. In practice, the Ordinary Life of Regular Worship takes the form of the Anglican Daily Office and the Orthodox Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Held secure by this Thread, Bryant became a part-time street minister, riding his wife’s bicycle among drug addicts and schizophrenics. Bryant also took up daily swims. Underwater, as Bryant wrestled with God and frantically punched cross-shaped blue pool tiles, the silent Christ stripped him of Life as He Would Have It, and returned to him a small, sanctified life of dependence and intention through prayer.

In the book’s final section—Christ Will Come Again—we see the eschatological reconciliation between the John in Whom Mercy was Fulfilled and the Howling Boy in a series of memories. First, Bryant began taking rides on his father’s bike and realized he first entered the Haunted House of OCD at age 17, when he decided to leave others to be alone with his thoughts. Bryant then describes a time he felt well enough to take a vacation with his wife. Leaving home, however, is always perilous for the mentally ill because it disrupts the Rhythm of daily life. Traveling rips the carefully constructed safety bumpers away, threatening to send you careening into the abyss. This began to happen as Bryant sat in a cabin with his wife contemplating the mountains. But something else also happened. Standing puny beneath the shadow of the mountains, Bryant realized the OCD that made him vulnerable was also “a place of deliverance, of waiting. Intrusive thoughts were an instruction in Mercy”—trusting in Christ, not having a healthy mind, is what makes you “okay.” Finally, in a visit to the beach, the waves and threatening riptide became a metaphor for the sudden ability of mental illness to take everything. Yet, in the end, Bryant writes it’s this “everything” and our trust in it that destroys us; not the waves of life in a fallen world. Only trust in Christ offers a sandbar, a firm place to stand amid the waves. Through an Ordinary Life of hearing, prayer, and offering, Christ “clothes the shame, casts out the fear, endures every affliction, bears all history, mends all brokenness, overturns all accusation, and buries the hardness of hard. And does this by His Word.”

Oddly, given the structure of A Quiet Mind around a eucharistic acclamation, Bryant has relatively little to say about the role of the sacraments his Quiet Life of Ordinary Worship. In the dominical sacraments, God joins his Word to water, bread, and wine. In so doing, he offers us a visible, tangible Word. The same Word, to be sure, but one that we bodily creatures can see, feel, and taste. When feelings and even senses deceive and reality seems uncertain, the value of Christ’s eucharistic presence cannot be underestimated. Here is an objectively real meeting with the Risen Christ for the forgiveness of sins. In another Lexham publication, Spiritual Warfare: For the Care of Souls, Lutheran pastor Harold Ristau describes visiting a severely mentally ill woman in a hospital: “She didn’t want me to do much talking, praying, or preaching. She simply asked me for holy Communion. … Her faith fluctuated. … Her heart was unreliable. … Her thoughts scrambled. She found no peace from looking inside of herself. She knew to look outside. She claimed that the Lord’s consecrated bread—Jesus’ body—was her only stabilizer and reality check.” When trapped in the Haunted House of psychosis, the True Body and Blood of Christ were the Thread of reality leading toward the Amen.

During his time in the psych ward, Bryant was clearly in no state to chat with his fellow patients. But what he found in a kindly nurse, I providentially found in the handful of others confined to my “block.” Unlike Bryant, who apparently had nothing to do but think while in the hospital, I barely had time to think between the endless group-therapy sessions, adult coloring, and holiday movie viewing (I watched Home Alone II). I also spent a lot of time talking but also listening to the other patients. These, I quickly learned, were my kind of people. Schizophrenics, near-miss suicides, hard drug abusers, anorexics, and more. Many were also brothers and sisters in Christ who spoke the Word of Mercy to me between fragmented stories of overdoses and breakdowns.

Like Bryant, I found the period after hospitalizations infinitely worse than the period before. But a combination of psychotropic medications, a calm highly structured life, and the physical presence of family and friends gradually brought healing. Similar to Bryant, the liturgy of the Divine Service with its Rhythm of Word and Sacrament was central to my recovery. Christ visited through the liturgical Word, which also provided an unchanging roadmap to Christ when my thoughts were too fast or scrambled. Today churches too often concern themselves with developing seeker-friendly and safe services. The mentally ill, those living with personality disorders, and the neurodivergent seldom factor into these considerations. While liturgies may differ, Bryant’s portrayal of the impact of “Ordinary Worship” should be essential reading for priests, ministers, and other church leaders.

A Quiet Mind to Suffer With shows that, in some ways, the mentally ill have a spiritual advantage. Those living with severe mental illness know all too well that everything could be or has been taken from us—and what we do have is certainly nothing worthy of God. Only Christ’s Mercy, delivered through the Word, can give the quiet understanding that creates the intention of worshiping through the Wilderness on the way to the promised Amen. We do nothing. The Word does everything. This realization shatters the self but is also sublime.

Indeed, the shattering Word of Mercy is not painless. Bryant rightly notes that Mercy strikes and burns when it saves us by destroying our self-reliance and pride. Here readers surely remember Eustace Scrubb in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Poor Eustace transformed into a dragon who tried to save himself by scratching off his own sinful scales. Only Aslan could painfully tear away the dragon skin to renew the boy underneath. The purgatorial experience was horribly painful but also strangely satisfying.

The reason for this pain remains mysterious. In the end, Bryant presents the utter failure of theodicies, those vain attempts to give answers to “Why suffering?” All theodicy must fail because “we cannot answer Suffering, and especially not our own Suffering. … And yet Suffering demands an answer.” But Suffering will receive no answer this side of glory. Instead it receives a Word. Mercy. Christ. Christ who suffered, died, rose again, and will come to judge the quick and the dead. We receive God Himself who takes all our pain and in return bestows the forgiveness of sins and the sure hope of eternal life when all manner of things will be well. God does not explain why we have been cast into Affliction with the Siren. Instead, He sits down in Affliction with us, takes the Siren into His own Body, and returns it to us sanctified.

Bethany Kilcrease

Bethany Kilcrease is professor of history at Aquinas College. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her loving husband, two energetic daughters, and indulgent cat.