Seventy Times Seven, or Why Religious Communities Need to Get Smarter About Mental Health, Right Freaking Now.

We are all humans. All humans make mistakes. Mistakes can (and should, in my opinion) be forgiven.

That being said, this does not give us license to keep on making these mistakes.

There is part of a line in the Penitential Rite in the Catholic Church liturgy, which is stated communally at the very beginning of each and every Mass:

“All: I confess to almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do…”

(Two minute explanation of Christian soteriology: GO!)

This is very significant for an understanding of sin–not only is one responsible for the sin one commits, but also the good that one does not do. On one hand, it’s kind of a bad deal–there is absolutely no way that humans can live up to this. There is always something more that we could be doing, and there is always something sinful that we could be avoiding. This is the definition of “unattainable standard”. On the other hand, though, that’s what (in the context of Catholicism and, more broadly, Christianity) makes the salvific power of Christ all the more necessary and profound: despite the fact that we always fail to meet the standard set for us, God, through the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, forgives us our shortcomings and allows us to come into the fullness of his love.

(*Whew*)

Not only do we have all this to contend with, Jesus also encouraged us to emulate this radical forgiveness, saying for us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” times. Now, this does not mean that people only get 490 chances and that’s it; the idea behind this is that we are supposed to forgive each other, period, just as God does for us.

However, 1) it’s hard, 2) we aren’t the best at it, and 3) as stated before, this isn’t a free pass for whatever behavior you want–it all goes back to the sin-salvation circle. We have the responsibility to do better, for ourselves and our community.

Now, here comes the part where I’m going to venture into some uneasy territory (because sin isn’t complicated enough): mental health.

Mental health, mental health, mental health, mental health.

Those two little words that I repeated cause more uneasiness and discomfort than any other phrase I know of. I won’t go into reasons why that may be–that’s not important. The point is that mental health is increasingly becoming a factor in many peoples’ lives, and there are little, if any, community resources available to them, especially on the level of religious communities.  In fact, some may go so far as to say that mental health is actively ignored in these communities.

That is not to say that people aren’t trying to bring mental health to the foreground: from Relevant Magazine attempting to start the conversation in numerous articles to the media attention surrounding the suicides of Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, and Joel Hunter’s son, Isaac, there are calls from many fronts to really bring mental health into the church’s consciousness.  (And that’s just from the Christian side of things–there are numerous studies happening regarding the management of mental health conditions from the perspective of numerous traditions.)  In addition, there have been numerous biographical journalism pieces calling for an end to mental health stigmas more generally, like this powerful piece.

So, why is there still such a relative silence regarding this from religious communities?  I honestly don’t know, but I could venture a couple guesses: fear of stigma (as previously discussed), lack of theological resources allowing people with mental health conditions to flourish as they are, and generally not knowing how to talk about mental health conditions.

I’ve already touched on mental health stigmas earlier, so I won’t reiterate myself, but the last two factors warrant more discussion.  Both feed off of one another–if we don’t know how to talk about mental health conditions and the people who live with them, we can’t come up with theological resources that allow them to thrive, and if we don’t have theological resources that allow them to thrive, we can’t figure out how to productively talk about them.  It’s a vicious circle, and if it is not addressed, we are going to be stuck in our current situation forever.

This begs two questions: 1) How do we even begin to address this vicious circle? and 2) Why should we even care?  Obviously, there are no perfect answers here, but if I could make a recommendation, I would recommend  that theologians and pastoral caretakers take their cue from the activists themselves, and begin to read about why some language is helpful and some is harmful with regard to mental health.  This piece from the TED blog is a great place to start.  From there, theologians can begin to apply the language and the reasoning behind it theologically, according to the tradition they are working in.  (I mean, that’s why we have theologians, right?)

And now, the million-dollar question: why should we care?  It goes back to the discussion of sin above.  People engage with religion because they believe it on some level, and feel that it adds to their quality of life.  Without acknowledging, and in some cases even demonizing, those with mental health conditions, we are drastically reducing their quality of life and not giving them a real reason why religion is something worth engaging with. This is not to say that we should not encourage them to seek appropriate treatment in the hope that they could someday overcome their conditions. However, by setting up a standard of living one’s life in which folks with mental health conditions do not fit, we are denying them their very existence as one with the status of a believer.  That is wrong, and that is what I would call a sin.  And, like any sin, we need forgiveness from those we’ve sinned against, in addition to solving the problem.

To any who have felt stigmatized or oppressed by their religious community for their mental health condition: please, let me say that I am truly sorry.  I, for one, promise to do my best to do what I can to rectify this.  I am very much a sinner here.  It is my hope that you find it in your heart to forgive me, and to forgive us all, seventy times seven times, or until we finally get this right.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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One thought on “Seventy Times Seven, or Why Religious Communities Need to Get Smarter About Mental Health, Right Freaking Now.

  1. A powerful piece, Dorie. Thank you for articulating a deep hurt in our communities and the ways that the Church has contributed to that hurt. But much like the Psalms, your lamentation ends with hope, and I appreciate the perspective that you bring to this conversation.

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