Do You See What I See?
Biblia Luna # 27
Welcome to Issue #27 of Biblia Luna, the weekly newsletter about the intersection of mental illness and faith.
Crazy Lectionary: Transfiguration Sunday
Sunday, February 19, 2023 is Transfiguration Sunday, the final Sunday in the season after Epiphany. Lent will begin three days later, on Ash Wednesday. I hope to have a special edition of Biblia Luna out later this week to cover the readings for Ash Wednesday.
The readings assigned for Transfiguration Sunday are Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; and Matthew 17:1-9.
I’m going to look at the story from Matthew, the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, from Peter’s point of view. Or, more precisely, from the point of view of someone who hears Peter talk about it.
Imagine Peter telling you about this story:
Okay. So, James and John and Jesus and I, you know, me and the three J’s, we go up to the top of a mountain, and while we’re up there the most amazing thing happens. Jesus changed. His clothing was bright white, and his face was shining like the sun. And then there were other people there. It was Moses and Elijah.
Hold on, you say. How do you know they were Moses and Elijah? It’s not like we know what they looked like.
I don’t know. But it was them. I know it was them. Anyway, they were talking to Jesus, and then I had an incredible idea. I told them, Let me build some dwellings here. I knew I could do it.
Wait, you say. You were going to build dwellings right there? Did you have wood and tools with you?
No. but I could go and get them. No problem. I could have been back there in ten minutes, five minutes. I could have had those things built before they could blink. I could have done it. But I didn’t have the chance – then this cloud came and we heard God’s voice, and then it was all over. And we came down the mountain.
Hmm, you say. John and James haven’t said anything about this, Peter.
Well, that’s because Jesus told us not to talk about it.”
And you might have been justified in wondering if Peter had been taking his meds lately. Because what Peter describes sounds something like a manic episode that someone with bipolar disorder might have. Bipolar disorder (which was once called manic depression) is a condition where someone has episodes of mania, and episodes of depression. The depressive episodes look a lot like someone with major depression – sadness, lethargy, feelings of worthlessness, inability to find joy, all that fun stuff. The manic episodes, on the other hand, are times when the person is overflowing with energy, and may not be able to sleep at all. The brain seems to be spinning in overdrive, and the person may develop and try to fulfill amazingly ambitious plans. Someone in a manic episode may feel on top of the world and unstoppable, and able to accomplish anything. They may think they can build houses on top of a mountain with wood they don’t have.
And sometimes manic episodes also include psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and hearing voices. A person in a manic episode might believe that Moses and Elijah are there, and that a voice spoke to them through a cloud.
Now, I am not saying that the Transfiguration is a fabrication that Peter invented in the throes of mental illness. Not at all. I’m saying this because I think that what is described here could be seen by an outsider as a rather convincing sign of mental illness, and perhaps this story is one to keep in mind when dealing with parishioners and others who tell stories that sound pretty strange. Instead of just writing that person off as somebody who’s “nuts,” it’s quite possible that he or she has some form of mental illness, perhaps bipolar, perhaps schizophrenia, and there may be a way to help.
I’ve experienced people coming in off the street to my office and tell me stories like this, and I’ve never really known how to offer help to them. Without any existing relationship, there’s not much you can do. If you challenge their story, what’s likely to happen is either they’ll reframe the story so it still works, or they’ll get angry with you. But if it is someone you have a relationship with, you can gently challenge them and ask if these kinds of things always seem to happen. You can check in with them regularly. If it’s bipolar, there will be times when they are not in the midst of psychotic thinking, and those might be your chance to encourage them to get help. Perhaps you could even talk to a family member of the person, if you are familiar with them.
I suppose it’s possible that an experience like the Transfiguration could happen again today. But if someone describes glowing people, a voice from a cloud, and a distinct belief that they can build something faster than humanly possible, I think it’s also worth considering if you can help find them the help they need.
What would you like me to write about?
A while back, I asked this question, and the response led me to write a series called “How Can I Help?” I was very grateful for that question, and I hope my responses have been helpful. So — I’m asking again. Is there any direction you’d like me to go in future issues of Biblia Luna? Any particular topic or theme you’d like to see some attention paid to? Want me to share some of my self-indulgent and lousy poems from my college days? (That last one is more of a threat than an offer…)
Physical Health and Mental Health
I’ve been having some lower back and leg problems lately, and I have finally, after several months, seen my doctor about them. I’ll be starting some physical therapy this week, and I’m hoping it will help. The interesting thing is that my mental and physical health have suffered together in these months, in what you might call a vicious circle.
The pain in my back and legs has made my depression worse, at least in part because I haven’t been able to get the level of exercise I usually do.
And at the same time, the depression has made it harder for me to reach out to get the help I need — it led me to procrastinate and convince myself I didn’t deserve it.
Mental and physical health are intertwined in fascinating ways. If you want to read more about my recent troubles, you can check out my blog post on “Backs and Burdens”.
Mental health…is not a destination, but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going. — Noam Shpancer, Ph.D.