Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Social Justice Sunday
Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 62 (63): 2-6,8-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27
30 August 2020
Today is Social Justice Sunday. Our bishops have issued a statement entitled To Live Life to the Full: Mental Health in Australia Today. If you’re like me, you are grateful to enjoy good mental health, are apprehensive about spending too much time considering the possibility of mental ill-health, and feel ill-equipped to relate respectfully and fruitfully with people suffering acute mental illness.
Even before the COVID pandemic and the ill-effects of a second lockdown, we were living in a society with over 3,000 suicides a year. A third of all the young Australians who die aged between 15 and 24 do so as the result of suicide, and 90% of them are experiencing ill health. A couple of generations ago, all Australian governments set out on a course of ‘deinstitutionalisation’ for those suffering acute mental illness. We reduced the number of acute psychiatric beds in our hospitals from 30,000 to 6,000 The theory was that people were to be cared for in the community. Experts like Patrick McGorry have been telling us that many people have fallen through the cracks, failing to receive the treatment and support they need. About 40% of those discharged from prison suffer some form of mental illness. Aborigines, asylum seekers, the poor, and people living in rural and remote communities suffer mental illness at disproportionate rates. Calling us to live life to the full, our bishops urge each of us to take three practical steps:
- Reject stigmatisation of those with mental illness
- Work for the transformation of social determinants of mental ill-health
- Call for policies and service provision that meet the needs of the poorest, most marginalised and recognise in them the face of Christ Jesus.
At a loss at how to put flesh on these bones, I consulted an experienced psychiatrist. I asked, ‘What can a lay person like me do to support people with mental illness?’ Answer: ‘Once someone is mentally ill, there’s not much you will be able to do. The emphasis must be on prevention first up.’ On one level, it’s very simple. Your mental well-being is more likely to be assured if you have a roof over your head, if you’re warm enough, if you have food in your belly, if you have someone to talk to, and if you are spared domestic violence or abuse. Better still if you’ve got gainful employment and good education. In a time of pandemic, your physical and mental well-being will be enhanced if you have a regular routine, regular exercise, healthy food, hobbies, and mindfulness exercises or meditation. And don’t keep looking at the 24/7 COVID news reports which are sure to make you lose perspective. The determinants of mental illness are biological, psychological, social, and cultural.
We need to look not only to individual well-being but also to the health of relationships and the strength of community support. Especially during the second wave of COVID and during lockdown, helpers will start to fray at the edges. The helpers need help. Everyone can do better if more of us reach out to others. Everyone should do their bit, going out of their way to help others, if only to ask others how they’re travelling. Keep calm; reach out; and appreciate that everyone is doing it tough. This bit of professional advice resonated for me with Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in today’s gospel: ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.’
No matter how well we do addressing the social determinants of health, ensuring social equity and equal opportunity, there will still be people amongst us who suffer acute mental illness. What does it mean for us to recognise in them the face of Christ Jesus? One way into seeking an answer to this question is to hear from individuals suffering acute mental illness who are able to communicate eloquently to us and with faith in Christ Jesus. Let’s consider two fine Australian poets, Francis Webb and Les Murray. Their faith in Jesus was strong. Webb suffered chronic paranoid schizophrenia and Murray was a long time depressive.
Francis Webb’s mother died when he was two years old. Six months later, his father, a pianist and director of the North Sydney Academy of Music, was admitted to Callan Park Hospital in Sydney with a diagnosis of ‘acute melancholia’. His father lived another 18 years in institutional care. Francis Webb had only one memory of visiting his father in all those years. According to Webb’s biographer, ‘Their mother, they were told, had gone to heaven where she was the biggest and brightest star in the sky. Daddy had become very lost without her and couldn’t play his music any more and this made it worse for him. So he had gone searching for the brightest star and he himself was now the wandering star.’ Like his father, Francis ended up in Callan Park. A psychiatrist, Craig Powell, got to know him when he was being held in a locked ward, called Ward Two. For a long time, Powell was the only person permitted to take Webb outside the hospital. Webb also spent time in England where he was also hospitalised. In England, a young doctor was permitted to bring Webb to his home for the occasional visit. On one visit just before Christmas, the young doctor and his wife were unpacking their bags and asked Francis to nurse their newborn baby. Francis then wrote this poem entitled ‘Five Days Old’ which Francis told Powell was his finest poem and the one he most wanted to be remembered for. Here it is:
Christmas is in the air.
You are given into my hands
Out of quietest, loneliest lands.
My trembling is all my prayer.
To blown straw was given
All the fullness of Heaven.
The tiny, not the immense,
Will teach our groping eyes.
So the absorbed skies
Bleed stars of innocence.
So cloud-voice in war and trouble
Is at last Christ in the stable.
Now wonderingly engrossed
In your fearless delicacies,
I am launched upon sacred seas,
Humbly and utterly lost
In the mystery of creation,
Bells, bells of ocean.
Too pure for my tongue to praise,
That sober, exquisite yawn
Or the gradual generous dawn
At an eyelid, maker of days:
To shrive my thought for perfection
I must breathe old tempests of action.
For the snowflake and face of love,
Windfall and word of truth,
Honour close to death.
O eternal truthfulness, Dove,
Tell me what I hold-
Myrrh? Frankincense, Gold?
If this is man, then the danger
And fear are as lights of the inn,
Faint and remote as sin
Out here by the manger.
In the sleeping, weeping weather
We shall all kneel down together.
Much later during a period of self-hatred, Francis told Powell, ‘When I was holding that baby the main thought I had was dashing its brains out against the wall. What I wrote in the poem is how I should have felt. Is there any forgiveness for a man who could mock God and Art like that?’. The psychiatrist Powell writing in The Australia New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry opined: ‘[T]he poem does not seek to deny destructiveness, the “cloud-voice in war and trouble”, but rather sets against it his faith in the Paschal mystery: no person is to be harmed because each has infinite value as a dwelling place for the risen Christ.’ How blessed was Francis Webb to nurse that baby. How blessed to have been befriended by those doctors in England and Sydney who believed in him. How blessed we all are to share the fruits of Webb’s suffering. He once remarked, ‘All my life has been chaos and horror, but I have tried to create order and beauty in my poems.’ And he did.
Like Webb, Les Murray suffered greatly at the life and death of his parents. After one major bout of depression, he published a book entitled Killing the Black Dog, the Black Dog being Winston Churchill’s name for his depression. Murray wrote:
‘Apart from Xanax, no other drugs worked for me at all. Not Tofranil, not lithium, not Prozac, none of them. What did help were work, family, routine and talks with other sufferers. If God helped, and I imagine He did, He didn’t tell me about it – or perhaps I simply couldn’t hear Him if He did. It may be wiser not to hear the Divine when you are crazy: you may do extreme things and get it a bad name. I did attend Mass steadily throughout, under my wife’s good influence. If I seem reluctant to attribute much help to God, it’s because despair is of the very grain of depression. You feel beneath help, beneath the reach even of Godhead. A lot of seemingly irreligious people feel this way, too low down for faith.’
Here’s his poem Panic Attack which he wrote during this time:
The body had a nightmare.
Awake. No need of the movie.
No need of light, to keep hips
and shoulders rotating in bed
on the gimbals of wet eyes.
Pounding heart, chest pains
– should it be the right arm hurting?
The brain was a void
or a blasted-out chamber
– shreds of speech in there,
shatters of lust and prayer.
No one can face their heart
or turn their back on it.
Bowel stumbled to bowl,
emptied, and emptied again
till the gut was a train
crawling in its own tunnel,
slowly dragging the nightmare
down with it, below heart level.
You would not have died
the fear had been too great
but: to miss the ambulance moment –
Relax. In time, your hourglass
will be reversed again.
Murray says, ‘Family helped in a thousand ways, many of them better not described except under large headings like Mothering or Setting Straight or Advising Against Rashness. Don’t make a scene: the poor waitress isn’t to blame.’
Seeking to live life to the full in these challenging times, let’s not stigmatise those who are sick like Webb and Murray even if, unlike Webb and Murray, they are never able to communicate to us the chaos and horror they carry within, nor the order and beauty within their reach.
Let’s recognise in them the face of Christ even when the shatters of lust and prayer are all they have to show.
Our bishops remind us: Jesus himself was called a madman at times (Mk 3:21; Jn 10:19) and like all of us, he suffered psychological distress (Lk 22:44; Mt 26:37; Mk 14:33; Jn 12:27). ‘In the sleeping, weeping weather/We shall all kneel down together.’ If someone close is suffering mental illness, there may be a place for some variant on ‘Mothering or Setting Straight or Advising Against Rashness’.
As Paul says to the Romans in today’s second reading, ‘Think of God’s mercy, my brothers and sisters, and worship him, I beg you, in a way worthy of thinking beings, by offering your living bodies as a holy sacrifice, truly pleasing to God.’
CatholicCare Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains provides counselling services which are available for individuals, couples, single parents, families, those experiencing grief and loss, seeking financial counselling or a way to reach out and support through volunteering.
To make an inquiry or a referral:
- call (02) 8843 2500 (Mon-Thu 8.30am-8pm, Fri 8.30am-5pm, Sat 9am-1pm)
- email – firstname.lastname@example.org
- visit their website – org.au
Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, has recorded a message to the Diocese of Parramatta for Social Justice Sunday, which can be viewed here.
The 2020 Social Justice Statement is available at https://socialjustice.catholic.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Social-Justice-Statement-2020-WEB.pdf
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).