The Church can use another patron saint of mental illness. The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so there’s no better time to think about fitting heavenly prayer partners for those of us who battle major depression, severe anxiety, bipolar disorder or any other mental illness.
I propose St. John of God.
I mean nothing against St. Dymphna, who is the patroness of those who suffer with mental and nervous disorders. Her story is powerful and sad.
A devout young Irish woman in the 7th century, Dymphna lost her mother when she was 14 and her father clearly suffered from severe mental illness. He decided to marry his daughter; Dymphna fled to another country with two servants and a saintly priest. The father found them, killed the priest and again demanded marriage to Dymphna. When she again refused, he killed her.
A profound tale involving mental illness, to say the least. But as someone who has suffered in a less-violent and, well, more normal way from major depression and severe anxieity, I can’t really find a common ground with St. Dymphna. Same with St. Benedict Joseph Labre and St. Christina the Astonishing, both of whom were affected by mental illnesses.
I’m looking for a saint whose experience was closer to mine and the 430 million others worldwide who have some sort of mental illness. I’m looking for a saint who not only maintained their faith through the ordeal but experienced a level of recovery. I’m looking for a spiritual companion who lived the darkness but can provide hope.
St. John of God meets all those criteria, albeit within the realities of 15th-century society, which are so different than today.
Born in Portugal in 1495, he disappeared from his home at the age of 8, possibly the result of a kidnapping. Eventually, he found himself without a place to call home and living in Spain as an orphan. He later became a shepherd for a farmer who took him in, and then a soldier. Uncertain what God had planned for him, the young man also worked as a book distributor and a wanderer, getting by however possible.
In his early 40s, known still by his given name of Cidade, he was deemed to have had an acute mental breakdown — it is not certain if he did in fact have a mental illness or if a newfound spiritual awakening led him to somehow misplaced fervor, or if some combination of both factors were at work in him. In any case, he was committed to Royal Hospital in Grenada, Spain, where he received the treatment used at that time on mentally ill patients: segregation from other patients and subsequently being chained, flogged and starved.
Whatever the status of his own mental condition was, he was treated severely with the misunderstandings of his day, and witnessed first-hand many fellow patients who likely had serious mental illnesses.
John of Avila, his spiritual director, visited John of God and advised him to serve others, especially the poor, as the means of his devotion. That brought John of God a measure of peace and hope, and he soon left the hospital to begin a life of service. Eventually, he founded an order of religious called the Brothers Hospitallers of St. John of God, which still thrives and is dedicated to the care of the poor, sick and those suffering from mental illness.
Here are seven impressive thoughts from St. John of God, whose followers continue to assist in the care of those suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and a variety of other mental illnesses in 53 countries:
- “When you feel depressed, have recourse to the Passion of Jesus Christ, our Lord, and his precious wounds, and you will feel great consolation. Examine his whole life. Why was he tired out if not to give us example? By day he preached, by night he prayed. … He alone is happy who, despising everything, loves Jesus Christ alone, and gives all for the all who is Jesus Christ.”
- “Any misfortune of yours affects me, too, and I rejoice over all your blessings.”
- “Seeing so many poor people suffering, and they, my brothers and sisters, with so many needs, both of body and soul, since I cannot help them, I am very sad.”
- “Fortitude tells us to be strong and constant in the service of God, showing a cheerful face in trials, tribulations, weariness and sickness, as in prosperity and joy, and to be thankful to Jesus Christ for the one and the other.”
- “Thank our Lord, Jesus Christ, for all that He does for us and gives us, as you are accustomed to do. If sometimes He sends us labors and hardships, that is for our profit and further merit.”
- “Hope in Jesus Christ alone, who, for the trials and hardships we put up with for the love of Him in this poor life, will give us eternal glory, through the merits of His sacred Passion, and because of his great mercy.”
- “Reflect, my child, what you have cost our Lord, and see how much He has suffered for you, for He wishes not the death of a sinner. Consider that He eternally rewards.”
What depression taught me about being a burden — and helping others bear theirs