Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lunatics in Heaven

One of my favorite Saints is a little known woman named Christina the Astonishing. She was a mystic schizophrenic who flew up into the rafters during her own funeral, then ran around hiding in bizarre places in order to escape from the smell of human sin. She tends to get dismissed as a madwoman.

I like her because she broadens the definition of a Saint. The purpose of canonization is not to present the faithful with a small group of uniformly pious, bland, safe personalities in order that we may all become cookie-cutter images of saccharine devotion. There are madmen and women singing the perpetual Holy Holy Holy before the throne of God. It would be totally unrealistic, not to mention unfair, if there weren’t. The canonization of a crazy person doesn’t suggest that in order to become holy, we ought to be crazy – and I don’t think that anyone reading St. Christina’s life is likely to be inspired to climb into ovens to escape the stink of human corruption. It’s clear that the woman is totally insane; what she offers is not an image of piety that the ordinary, sane Catholic can imitate, but an image of sanctity that expands and demolishes our prejudices.

There is a widespread tendency for Catholics, and all Christians really, to believe that sanctity and sanity are somehow co-extensive. You can have any sort of physical ailment in the world and still be a Saint – it is simply considered a legitimate cross. Mental illness is a different matter. Amongst the ultra-conservative, it is liable to be seen as a manifestation of demonic possession, or at least interference, whilst the liberal are more likely to take a kindly, but ultimately condescending view of persons with mental illness, as poor, suffering souls who ought to be treated with compassion and led up the ladder to the higher levels of self-integration and fulfillment.

The truth is, a lot of Saints suffered mentally as well as physically. Some were crippled with anxieties. Others were plagued with a guilt that was more pathological than theological. Some suffered from severe sexual hang-ups. Some were obviously obsessive compulsive. But so what? Heaven is not the in-club for the high-fliers on Maslow’s pyramid. It’s a place where the crippled, the lame, the leprous, the crucified, the tormented and the mad are lifted up, their sufferings redeemed, and their earthly trials transformed into a sublime and inconceivable beauty.

St. Christina the Astonishing, pray for us.


  1. I have always found Christina facinating too. She is most unusual and you rarely hear about her. As I understood it --she died, but was given a choice to remain on earth and suffer for sinners--which she accepted. Ran barefoot in the winter, slept outside, jumped into icy rivers, and ovens on and on. I don't know how much is true, but it made an interesting story. I don't think they have her titled as a saint--not sure.

  2. There is a tradition in Eastern Christianity of the "holy fool".

    Honestly, though, I don't see how Christina could be truly called a madwoman. She had a different set of priorities in her life than I do, but that's my loss, not hers. No doubt the holy angels would seem, among other things, quite mad to us as we judged them by worldly standards.

  3. This is good. My wife and I are both devotees of St. Dymphna, who holds a certain pride of place as patroness of those suffering from mental disorders. But I've always been a little conscious of the fact the she herself did not suffer from such a disorder, rather, she suffered as result of her father's mental disorder. In any event, the more intercessors the better.

  4. There is no insanity in Heaven. Insanity is impaired contact with reality. God is the Ultimate Reality, and in Heaven the Blessed enjoy a clear, distinct, and unimpaired vision of that Reality. Certainly insane persons can achieve salvation; and in Heaven their illness will be totally cured, along with every other deformity and imperfection.

    "It is true that some speak lightly and loosely of insanity as in itself attractive. But a moment's thought will show that if disease is beautiful, it is generally some one else's disease. ... A man who thinks he is a bit of glass is to himself as dull as a bit of glass. It is the homogeneity of his mind which makes him dull, and which makes him mad. It is only because we see the irony of his idea that we think him even amusing.... This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life."

    --G. K. Chesterton (Orthodoxy, Chap. 2)

  5. Thank you, Melinda, for reminding us that not all christians need be cookie-cutter images. And that, in fact, it is through our differences that we accomplish true unity in Christ.

  6. I, too, believe there are no lunatics in heaven. I also don't necessarily think that was the point the author was making, even though the title indicates that.

    Some believe that everyone who turns away from God is insane. Insanity is a disorder, presumably from the fall. St. Christina (July 24), with whom I am very familiar and love dearly, may have been looked upon as insane because of her curious and odd actions. Perhaps God grants sainthood to those like Christina partially to speak to us in our erthly state, giving a stamp of dignity to all who love and accept His precepts.

    I like to think that when we reach heaven, we will be fully ordered, as the Church teaches, and all will be perfect, and in union with God. We cannot know in our earthly state exactly what that means, or even what our future resurrected bodies will look like in their heavenly bodily state. This is all so exciting when you think about it.

    The author's final point is that heaven is for everyone who lovingly turns to God, and will be "transformed into a sublime and inconceivable beauty." They will no longer be considered earthly "insane." And in fact, all earthly disorders will be made perfect, as our Heavenly Father is perfect.

  7. I think the problem here is twofold:

    1. I’m not saying that mentally ill people will continue to be mentally ill in heaven. Obviously, the lame shall walk, the blind shall see, and so forth. I do think, however, that the blind will see in Heaven differently from those who always had sight: the experience of being blind on Earth will modify and colour the heavenly experience, perhaps even sharpen it in ways that we won’t understand until we see it in the communion of Saints. The blindness will be gone, but the fact that they were blind will continue to be relevant because it shaped their identity. The same, I think, is true of those who suffer with the earthly cross of mental illness: they will be sane in heaven, but I think that their sanity will have a particular and unique tenor that will be deeply influenced by the effect that mental illness has on forming the personality.

    2. You’re assuming the classic philosophical definition of insanity as some sort of disorder of the reason. This is a nice theory that allows philosophers to more or less sidestep the entire question of madness, but it’s simplistic and doesn’t actually gel very well with actual madness as it generally manifests in the world. Most of the people I have known to suffer from mental illness are suffering more from a disorder of the emotions, or from a massive experiential shift in which the data that they’re receiving from the outside world is radically different from the data that other people receive. Some are processing profound past hurts by living out a series of archetypal trials that make no sense to the outside world, but that are internally consistent, and perhaps even the most reasonable method of dealing with deep trauma. Others, I think, are suffering neurological problems that are being mistaken for psychological difficulties, in the same way that autism was for many years. Many act in ways that are exceedingly rational, given the information that they are being fed by the body. What theological significance does this have? How will it be reconciled in the Body of Christ? God knows. I happily admit that I don’t.

    1. Could you please tell me where I could find more (and definitely credible) information on this saint? I'm having a lot of trouble finding any and knowing which information is reliable.

  8. Ms Selmys, thanks for the clarification. You make some interesting points.

  9. Great thought provoking post!

    I really quite agree with the observations here. Someone mentioned a quote by G.K. Chesterton from Orthodoxy. I think the quote still quite relevant. Chesterton was in no way trying to stigmatize the mentally ill, rather he was trying to draw a correlation to the sort of reason which a mentally ill person has and the sort of reason often employed by materialists. Chestertons entire point was that the "madman" is perhaps perfectly reasonable and logical and as mrs. Selmy's clarifies: they often act rational given their experiential data or emotional state: extreme fear, hearing voices, etc. The crux of Chestertons point was that such laser beam intensity of focus on a particular idea or view, distorts and diminishes a healthy way of thinking and simply being human. A materialist is so focused on his materialistic worldview and in a way his world becomes so much smaller and full of less possibility, mystery, etc. In the same way a "madman" focuses so much on some particular delusion: "I am an egg" that their world becomes so much smaller and meaningless and that a "saner" individual can see all around the madness of their singular locus and worldview. Chesterton was trying to uphold the idea of being open to many ways of experiencing and seeing the world both natural and supernatural.

    Moreover, I think most mental illness a defect of the brain. I think it most likely that this shall fall away after death and shall be renewed at the resurrection. But I agree that it does play a part in the unique formation and burden of an individual. C.S. Lewis once remarked that "there would be surprises" when the last judgment is all said and done. I quite agree. There is an element of mystery here and each of us being so different is called to praise and reflect God in a way only we can. That is pretty awesome.


  10. Never know thy mortal words, never follow'm. I speak the Word. If you don't agree? Always the left side when we croak, girl. While homosexuality is a mortal sin (Deut 22), you never know Upstairs. I think we must be pure as the Ugandan snow in 1777 while on earth for our finite existence, then who knows. I don't think you do HeeHee God blessa youse -Fr. Sarducci, ol SNL --- Lookit 'MySoulAccomplishment', miss gorgeous, and meet me Upstairs to kiss thy feets. Be at peace.


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