My life as ministry
by Nancy Lee Head
Serving dinner to homeless women at Sarah House took on the same, awesome dimension for me that I would imagine serving the Lord's Supper to a congregation would be for an ordained minister. And washing the lice off of Ernestine's back with healing waters, in God's name, reminded me of God's grace just as I would imagine baptizing a child would for an ordained pastor.
Reinterpreting these two sacraments of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) became very important to me when I was rejected as a candidate for the ordained ministry by that same denomination in 1978 because I had been diagnosed with schizophrenia some 18 years before.
The gift of faith enabled me to transcend what for me was a major tragedy and to paint for myself a broader and deeper understanding of the Church and its rituals. The invisible church became more real to me, in many ways, than the visible church and because of this "faith fact" my life was enriched.
My faith has given me a framework for coming to grips, through the years, with this devastating disease and made me able to interpret my life as ministry even though I could not be a professional clergyperson. It has also helped me to realize that God does indeed say to us, as to the Apostle Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." (Corinthians 12:10)
God can use our vulnerabilities to bring healing to others with whom we share our faith stories.
My prayers during the seasons of stress as I was struggling with schizophrenia first in the early 1960's were simple and stark:
"God, I am so scared."
"God, I know you did not create me to end like this."
"God, please keep me from getting bitter during this difficult time. Please help me to learn from this awful experience and if I live through it, help me to be softer and more vulnerable to others who have suffered and are suffering in similar situations."
Often I felt too guilty and evil to think that God would hear my prayer. Also, it was so hard to read even the Bible because my mind seemed short-circuited, as though there was a lot of static in it that kept clear messages from getting either in or out.
However, there were some passages that I read over and over and in which I found deep comfort. Some examples:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol (hell), you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night," even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. (Psalm 139:1-18)
Surely he (which I interpreted as Jesus) has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases. (Isaiah 53:4a)
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
What I mean to share with you in this article are a few hints of how my faith helped me learn to live with schizophrenia and its effects, because I think praying might be useful in assisting others. At the same time, I need to say that I am not sure that I know how to stay in the better place in which I find myself right now. That is one concern that keeps us humble. We never know what we are going to be like tomorrow or if that insidious unreality and confusion will again creep into our brains and confound our lives once more. I do not ever dwell on that concern, but I do affirm within myself often that the Creator, Sustainer God of Love who has brought me safe thus far and who is within me and around me today is already there in our tomorrows, whatever they hold, and that is enough to know!
I would like to explain how I feel mental illness has helped my spirituality, just as I have explained how faith has helped my mental illness. This is all a “wonderment" to me because I am not a scientist and have not read anything in this field. However, it occurs to me that some of the symptoms of schizophrenia, for example, when carried to their extreme or when experienced in their extreme, are just that: symptoms of a brain disorder. But when these feelings are under control of the person experiencing them, I wonder if they perhaps enhance one's spirituality.
Let me give you an example. One of the difficulties that folks with schizophrenia often experience is that of personal boundaries; that is, where I as a person begin and end and where the rest of the world begins and ends. When this phenomenon is experienced in the extreme, it causes me to be afraid to go outside on a lovely May day because, since my body temperature and temperature outside are the same, I might disappear or lose my sense of self.
Or, when someone across the room drops a glass of water, I jump and say, "I'm sorry," because I think I have done it and am responsible. It is as though I am both across the room and here in my seat at the same time — no natural boundaries.
That is the "bad" part. The "good" part is that, because I have a "thin membrane" as opposed to a "hard shell" around my person or personality, I feel unusually connected with other people, and this can be a positive and enhance my relationships with others. This can also be "tricky" because sometimes I over-identify with people, be they in real life or novels or movies, and tend to feel more responsible for them and their personal situations than I should.
It has been a learning experience for me, as I have struggled to "manage" my illness, to use the above phenomenon creatively and caringly and not to allow it to paralyze or panic me as it has in the past when it has become too extreme. I have learned as well that I have to have a place and time where, as the writer, May Sarton stated, "I come back into myself," after periods of being available on a deep level to the many human beings I encounter along life's pilgrimage. By that I mean, I find ways — through silence or music or meditation — to remain centered in God, the Ground of my Being.
Another benefit of the connectedness phenomenon which I first experienced in a healthy way some 20 years ago and which has strengthened me mightily when I remember to use it, is a connection with the Church universal or invisible, as it were. In this scenario, I see the whole Church Universal and Church Triumphant as one body — the Body of Christ, with its variety of parts. And while I am, because of my job and volunteer endeavors, say, part of the "hands and feet" of that Body, when I get tired, I can call upon the "heart and backbone" of that Body to strengthen me.
And what do I mean by that? I see the "heart and backbone" of Christ's Body as those priests, nuns and laypeople all over the world, who feel themselves called to the vocation of prayer on behalf of the rest of us. This is very real to me, and I feel concretely connected to them. In fact, when I am very tired and need more energy to complete my tasks, I literally "lean back" wherever I am and allow myself to be open to the Loving Energy which is generated by those prayers and which, by God's Grace and Holy Spirit, is available to a simple, needy person like myself.
As it surges through my sagging body and spirit, I thank God for this avenue of support and, re-energized, I pick up and move on. At the same time, it makes me wonder what other avenues of spiritual support are available to me about which I am not aware because of my own inability to see or hear them.
This experience also alleviates my isolation and connects me with the whole Church in ways that are very healing for me who has experienced this brain disorder as a very isolating illness.
To paraphrase a famous gospel hymn, "Through many dangers, fears and snares, I have already come … 'tis grace has brought me safe thus far…and grace will lead me … (whatever the future journey holds)…grace will lead me Home…"
In fact, it is an open secret that from time to time on that journey, because of that same remarkable grace, we experience a foretaste or hint of Home that gives us the courage and the hope to continue! Thanks be to God!
Nancy Lee Head was the recipient of the John Park Lee Award in 2001. This award is given by the Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association at the PHEWA Biennial Social Justice Conference. This article appeared on the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Web site FaithNet.