On Insanity

By Marilyn MacArthur - Concord, New Hampshire, USA - 18 August 2014



One day when I was twenty-three, after a normal childhood and some good and bad college experiences, I realized that I was God Himself.  


I do not remember how long I held that belief.  A few days or a few weeks passed.  Time itself became a circular puzzle.  I was elated with knowledge and power, but then confused as to how to channel it all.  Demanding and needy people, unknown to me, with muffled but urgent pleas, clamored and cried to me for relief.  With both remorse and frustration, I came to understand that I was not hearing or helping the quieter, desperate people too meek to shout over the din.


As the noise of those begging for help split my soul, and my heartbreak over failing them crescendoed, a burning light blinded my mind’s eye.  Guilt and shame over my inadequacy as God soon crushed my spirit. 


I was working as a schoolteacher at the time.  Before class began one Wednesday, another teacher found me hiding under my desk.  She gently pulled me out.  The principal of the school drove me to a psychiatric ward where they injected me with Haldol.


I spent many years checking in and out of the psychiatric unit of UMASS Memorial Medical Center, where a compassionate and competent doctor accompanied by various interns continually adjusted and reconsidered my medications.  Thereafter, I spent several years in a mind-numbing fog, yo-yoing between manias, hypomanias, mixed episodes, and the black cave of depression.  

During this period, my parents and siblings helped me survive.  So did my friends and some government assistance.


I came to feel human again and able to live on my own.  I returned to teaching and earned a master’s degree in education.  


My experiences when I believed I was God had been brain-chemistry induced.  My psychiatric treatment proposed to me that if I took my meds, ate and slept properly, and learned to express emotions in healthy ways, I would be safe from a recurrence of all such delusions.  


But my ordeal of being and failing to be God had greatly unsettled me.  I became frightened of The One who was knowledgeable and powerful enough to pull off being the Lord of All.


I had grown up Catholic, devout and faithful, regularly lectoring and happily serving at Mass.  But after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, therapists convinced me that I was unhealthily obsessed with religion.  All things in moderation, even God.  I believed fervently in a God who loved me, but was afraid to attend church.  What if participating in Mass jump-started a manic episode?  I lugged this fear with me through many years of stability and rationality.


Seventeen years after my first manic episodes, my mother died.  I began to slip weekly into a pew for Mass.  Occasionally, my long-time fear would wash over my newfound spiritual hope and security, pulling me into a tidal wave of anxiety.  Did my care for holy water, saints and statues, the tabernacle and the crucifix mean I was descending again into the depths of religious obsession?  How many masses could I attend, conversations with priests could I have, rosaries could I recite, before the dreaded mania and delusions set in?


Despite these anxieties, whenever I walked into a Catholic church, the crucifix instantly confronted my weary psyche.  My heart would pick up its pace.  A still and silent spot in my soul would awaken with joy.  My skin would even tingle and get goose-bumpy.  The sight of Jesus hanging on the cross, front and center, would make me ache with desire and sigh with relief. 


Roughly 54 percent of the world’s population believe in the existence of one God, one who loves and cares for each of us.  Thirty-one percent profess faith that Jesus is the Messiah, died for our sins, and will come again.  Because so many others believe the same things I do, I do not shudder with fear when I think of them.  So many people cannot all be insane.


Many Christians participate in a “re-enactment” of the Last Supper, seeing it as a symbol of God’s sacrifice and Jesus’ love for us.  As Catholics, however, we do not think of the Eucharistic distribution of bread and wine as symbolic.  We not only believe that Christ made a sacrifice for us at one point in time, but we hold fast to the belief that God offers us this same sacrifice, anew, each and every time the Mass is celebrated.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, the bread and wine offered by the priest becomes Christ’s body and blood, sacrificed for our sake.  We do not grasp this mystery with our heads, but, by the grace of faith, we simply know it to be true in our hearts.


A flat, cardboardy piece of factory-produced “manna” and a cup of wine become Christ’s body and blood?  Really?  I don’t taste flesh or blood.  Is the Catholic Eucharist reality?  Am I sane to believe in the Real Presence?  In the Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation?


When I came back to the Church after almost two decades of “real-world” living, I met a priest for confession.  I poured out to him the distrust, anxiety, and terror I felt over the fervor and intensity of my belief and love.  “All religion is mania, but, it needs to be rooted in prayer,” he replied, slowing his speech and softening his eyes.  His big hands gestured a gentle invitation to come in from the cold of self-imposed isolation.
My friends of other Christian faith traditions do not believe that Christ becomes flesh and blood in the Eucharist.  They say it is a harmless but crazy idea.  It is ironic to me, then, that my sanity—which some would question because of my belief in transubstantiation—is also kept safe because of this very belief.  If my faith needs to be rooted in prayer to save it from mania, and as a Catholic I believe that the Eucharist is the highest form of prayer, my faith and sanity are best grounded in the Eucharist that enables Christ to really dwell within me.  And it is He who protects and guides me, and draws me away from a self that can collapse inward and crack under its own weight.


If  “we are what we eat,” then when we ingest the body and blood of Christ we take Him into ourselves.  His glory, power and knowledge flow in our very veins.  If Christ is the Son of God but also dwells within us, and if we are fueled by His life within us, we can truly be said to become divine through our sacramental incorporation into His mystical Body.  I have learned that the Church actually calls this the process of “divinization,” or theosis.  And that Saint Athanasius once put it this way: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.”


Seventeen years ago, I believed I was God and I was so wrong.  Today, I know I am becoming divine as well as becoming more human because the God-Man Jesus Christ dwells within me, and I with Him. 


I have experienced moments—and I yearn to experience more of them—when my heart soars, my soul pulsates, and my body even aches when I see Christ, my companion, on the cross.  I long to receive the Son in my outstretched hands, and to feel my Savior sitting next to me.  When I receive the Eucharist, I know I am, along with so many others, loved with an abundance and generosity of divine love beyond all human imagining.


My love for God who sacrificed His only Son, my longing for Jesus who comes again and again to me at Mass, and my attentiveness to the movements Holy Spirit who is ever present with me, surely seem irrational in the eyes of those satisfied with “the real world.”  But if what I believe about Christ and His Real Presence in the Eucharist marks me as among the “crazy,” mine is an insanity I accept and cherish.