Michael Pfundner explores several Biblical examples of accompanying someone through mental ill health.
Journeying through the dark night of the soul
He was one of those rare, multi-talented individuals, with a knack for hypnotic virtuosity on the lyre. Yet there was one gig – or private recital, rather – at which someone threw, not rotten tomatoes, but a spear. Missing twice. The inept javelinist was Israel’s first ever king, Saul; the mesmeric musician was David, who ended up succeeding him to the throne.
David had been tasked to play his lyre whenever the king was grappling with his inner demons. Scripture records that ‘David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.’ (1 Samuel 16.23 NRSVA). Sadly, once David had shot to fame after slaying gargantuan warrior Goliath, even his celestial lyr(e)icism could no longer soothe a ruler who had begun to sniff potential competition. King Saul’s paranoia evolved into a death wish for David – the one who had been at his side whenever all was dark and all seemed lost.
The biblical story offers a drastic example of what accompanying someone through mental ill health can be like: the complexity and combined force of psychological and spiritual factors, the impossible task of helping someone who merely wants to be comforted, and the real chance of the patient turning on the therapist. Accompanying someone in their turmoil and pain is no walk in the park.
King Saul, on the other hand, could have done with a sage the stature of Fr. Henri Nouwen, who warned against two extremes: ‘being completely absorbed in your pain and being distracted by so many things that you stay far away from the wound you want to heal.’ Saul failed on both counts. He focused on his turmoil rather than his duties. And he sought distraction in music, rather than healing in God. The rest is history. Lessons can be learnt for our own lives.
Another biblical classic of spiritual counselling gone awry is the story of Job and his friends. They get off to a good start, by simply grieving with Job, who has just lost family members, health and livelihood. But before long they go into solution mode, telling Job this and that, rather than retaining their posture of silent empathy and support. They’re unable to learn the lesson that encapsulates the Book of Job: that God and suffering are equally mysterious and that, therefore, there’s no quick fix for a broken heart.
Turn to the New Testament, and the life and teachings of Jesus become a blueprint for accompanying others in their pain; one that became a leitmotif for the Church and permeates, not just the Gospels, but the entire New Testament. St. Paul sums it up: ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6.2).
Jesus’s example of empathy with people who were suffering went beyond his public healing and teaching ministry. Scripture tells us how, on Good Friday, he took upon himself, not just our guilt but our pain. He even descended into the depths of hell, as St. Peter, the Epistle to the Ephesians and the Catechism affirm. The writer of Hebrews concludes: ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are’ (Hebrews 4.15).
So, what might all of this mean in practice?
First of all, Scripture admonishes us to weep with those who weep. Look around you, and you’ll soon find someone you can both pray for and accompany in their grief. We are given positive examples, like Jesus, and negative ones, like Job’s inept comforters. And we are told that therapeutic success is by no means guaranteed, as David learnt the hard way.
Above all, the Bible acknowledges that there is no quick remedy for the problem of pain. Genesis points to human sin, Job to divine sovereignty, Ecclesiastes to our inability to understand, and Jesus cries ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Ultimately, though, it would seem that being healed from our hurts is secondary to the danger of the fog of grief effacing the image of Christ in our hearts. Faith, then, is the challenge of keeping one’s eyes fixed on the one who suffered for us then and suffers with us now, till the day God wipes away our tears and makes all things new. For the time-being, walking together in faith will at times involve accompanying someone through what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul.
Michael Pfundner is a member of Bible Society’s Publishing Department, a regular contributor to Bible Society’s print and online output, and is on ‘The Bible in Transmission’ Board.
Image: The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix, Vincent van Gogh, 1890, Source: WikiArt