"Lord, have pity on my son, who is a lunatic and suffers severely; often he falls into fire, and often into water."
Insanity, madness, crazy, lunacy: it goes by many names. It ranges from anxiety and depression, which are to mental illness like the common cold, to schizophrenia and worse. It may be a genetic disease for many people, inherited by birth. Or it may be caused by poor life style choices, bad company and lousy attitudes. It may appear early in life; or, like dementia, very late.
It may be an "illness" though the word implies something temporary and treatable. It may be a disability, permanent, incurable but not progressive. It has a spiritual dimension which frustrates psychiatrists and psychologists. It has a medical dimension which frustrates religious healers. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Mental "dis-ease" has accompanied the human race for as long as we can remember, from prehistoric times. Every culture creates its own ways of dealing with it; none, altogether successful. Cultures which are given to simplistic ideologies without religious or spiritual disciplines, such as ours, can be especially cruel to those who suffer mental illness. The Soviet Union locked them up in institutions; we put them in prisons or leave them homeless on the street. A society that idolizes personal freedom insists they are responsible for their own behavior even when they're not. Because we cannot imagine an economic or health care system based on sacrificial love, we assure ourselves, "There's nothing we can do for them."
Often, as in today's gospel account, the care of those whose brains or minds will not let them conform to common standards falls back on the family. As Robert Frost wrote, "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Parents, children, siblings, spouses, and even nieces, nephews and cousins inherit the care of our mentally ill.
And they suffer the same helplessness as in today's gospel. They find little help in the institutions we have erected, "I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him." And so they must plead with the powerful, "Have pity on my loved one."
Today's gospel offers a cryptic kind of hope, if we can figure out what it means:
Then the disciples approached Jesus in private and said,
"Why could we not drive it out?"
He said to them, "Because of your little faith.
Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you will say to this mountain,
'Move from here to there,' and it will move.
Nothing will be impossible for you."
Faith is the offer we make to a helpless world. We cannot cure all disease, we cannot solve the social problems of poverty, racism, corruption and illiteracy; we cannot design a foolproof, thief-proof economy. We can't even prevent natural disasters.
We can offer faith, a narrow opening to the Garden of Eden. The gospel assures us there will always be suffering. Jesus' crucifixion blesses suffering; it doesn't abolish it. Mental illness won't vanish for those individuals, families or churches who "just believe." But faith opens a way for us to bear the responsibility together. No one should be left to cope with this intractable problem alone; no caregiver should be isolated. A burden shared is halved; a pleasure shared is doubled.
I met a woman who had two sons with Downs Syndrome. She insisted, "There is nothing wrong with my sons! There is a problem with a society that cannot receive my sons." Perhaps the same formula applies to mental illness. There is nothing wrong with the insane except that we will not honor, accommodate and assist them to find a place in our world.
The life of faith is a journey with the Lord as companion and counselor. We cannot imagine what help he'll offer or what solutions he'll reveal. Answers must appear in their own time, after much discussion; and to those whose minds are open to thoughts other than their own. The "genius" who solves the problems, I suspect, will not be a talented individual but the group who works out a better approach.
And no answer is ever final, just as the Way of the Lord is endless. That is the beauty of it. We should not seek a "final solution" to the problem of mental illness. Rather, we must open our hearts to one another, regardless of all shortcomings; and offer everyone the security, welcome and belonging of home.