Be Joyful Or Else

Thoughts on mental illness, faith, and emotionally-based youth ministry programs.

A Birmingham-based writer and acquaintance of mine had a piece about mental illness and faith published in the Washington Post today. It’s very good, and I’d recommend anyone in any kind of pastoral ministry read it:

The Scripture for this morning was John 16:16-24. The pastor read the verses aloud and said a short prayer. As soon as he began talking through his main points, I braced myself for the disappointment I knew was coming. I suspected he wouldn’t take this opportunity to discuss things such as depression and anxiety in the Christian life.

I was right.

Although much of what he said was good and biblical, he didn’t mention mental illness. Instead, he said if you aren’t experiencing joy, you should examine your life and repent of any sin that might be blocking it.

I don’t want to hijack Charlotte’s excellent piece for my own purposes – but, well, old habits are hard to break. My tangent is to observe how this attitude reflects the dangers of superficial religious practice in which definitions of things like “joy” and “peace” have been untethered from hundreds of years of tradition – which means, basically, “human experience” – and come to mean not much more than what the culture-of-the-moment says they mean.

For indeed, traditional, historic Christian spirituality may not have understood the nature of mental illness the way we do today, but it did embody an understanding of the complexities of the human person, accept a mystery of how our particular personalities interact with the transcendent, and provide understanding pathways of how to navigate that.

It also points out to me, once again, why emotion-based religious events are so terrible. Usually I say something like “inadequate” or “flawed” when I talk about this, but I think I’ll just move on and say that gatherings in which individuals are manipulated into a certain emotional state by music, environment, rhetorical tricks, guilt and even personal witness are terrible.  Defining “great worship today” by the tears shed or emotions felt by the hundreds swaying along to your music makes me think, Fascist! 

Back to Charlotte’s point. This is an important one, and I think her treatment is balanced and fair. It’s not, she says, that every word spoken should revolve around the reality of mental illness, but neither should it be ignored, especially when speaking of the practice of spirituality.

Therese Borchard has been writing about the issue of spirituality and depression for many years.

I know someone who read this book – A Catholic Guide to Depression –   and found it very helpful.

****

This brings another, somewhat related point to mind.

I was talking to someone who knew a younger teen who was experiencing some faith questions. In fact, this young person had reluctantly determined that he must be an agnostic. Why? Because he didn’t and couldn’t seem to feel anything. 

When I heard this, my heart cracked a little and then I experienced a moment of clarity, in which my sometimes inchoate skepticism about youth ministry all pulled together and made sense.

I thought about all of the youth ministry programs that I see and am somewhat familiar with, that my kids are invited to participate in. They’re all emotionally-based. One one level, they’re about the emotion of enjoyment and fun, based on the assumption that this is necessary in order to just get them in the door. Moving to another level, they tend to emphasize other emotions – joy, remorse, connectedness, excitement –  from retreats to Adoration events that feature praise music and personal witness.

What if you’re a kid who searches for evidence of truth mostly through your head and not through your emotions? 

Adults can look at all of this with some perspective. We can separate the emotion from the core of faith. We can understand that for a lot of us, that emotionally-based stage – the affective stage  – is important and maybe even necessary. It was for me, when I was a senior in high school, and was deeply moved and felt an individual, very emotional encounter with Christ at a class retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House in Atlanta. But that was one moment, and perspective taught me that there was more to faith. The holistic nature of Catholic spirituality taught me that this type of intensity was rare, and didn’t define faith – my faith.

But teens?

Most of them probably don’t understand this. I’d say that the vast majority don’t. They just haven’t lived long enough. And so picture a kid whose personality and character is not oriented towards truth-seeking via emotion. Perhaps this stuff even makes them feel uncomfortable. They’re in all of these youth ministry events in which they’re constantly preached at about feelings of joy and happiness as the definition of faith, in which other kids are crying because Jesus is so real to them…

…and they’re not feeling it. They’re not crying. It’s not intense for them.

Does that mean I maybe don’t have faith? At all?

*****

(What helps? Correctly defining faith, to begin with. Start here.)

[This post originally appeared on the "Charlotte Was Both” blog and is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.] 


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About Amy Welborn 8 Articles
Amy Welborn is a writer currently living in Birmingham, Alabama. She is the author of over twenty books on spirituality, saints and history., including the recently released Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Their History and Meaning. Her website is www.amywelborn.com.