Like the Greek myths and legends, the Old Testament seems full of dysfunctional families and appalling parenting. Starting, of course, with the first family, that of Adam and Eve.
You might have heard of Cain and Abel. But what about Noah, who curses one of his sons? Abraham tries to kill one, and abandons the other in the wilderness. Lot sleeps with both his daughters. Isaac grossly favours one son, Esau, over the other, Jacob. So does Jacob, driving his children to try to kill one another. David and his son go to war.
These are not attractive polaroids for the family album.
Yet there is a difference, and it is a disturbing one. The Greek myths and Greek gods are amoral in principle. One might expect Biblical patriarchs, on the other hand, to be models of righteousness. These, after all, are supposedly the men chosen by God for their moral fibre. Noah was the only man worth saving from the deluge.
So does the Bible endorse child abuse? Is child abuse righteous?
Surely not. For there are many other sins that can also be counted against the patriarchs. And not trivial ones. Moses was a murderer. Abraham’s marriage to Sarah was incestuous (Genesis 20:1-11). Everyone had concubines. Everyone had bonded servants—some would say “slaves.” Solomon put his brother to death, for no decent reason. David killed Uriah to take his wife.
Surely the Bible does not endorse any of this. It is simply honestly reporting things as they were. No sugar coatings.
The proper lesson to take away is surely that everyone is flawed. The upright man is not the one who never sins; he is the one who at least acknowledges God’s ultimate authority. If he sins, he at least understands this as a failure, an error, a flaw, not something he is entitled to do. When a prophet scolds him and points this out, he feels bad about it. He does not have the prophet beheaded. Anything more than this is probably unrealistic, dealing with actual human beings.
If there is to be hero worship of the patriarchs here, it is not sanctioned by the Bible. One is to worship only Yahweh, remember?
When Elijah, hiding out in fear for his life, experiences depression, the Bible reports:
“He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’” (1 Kings 19).
|Elijah in the wilderness.|
This suggests a certain lack of awe for ancestors. None were all that admirable. None were purely worthy of emulation. They actually all deserved to die; and we deserve to die if we are no better.
In their defense, this was a rougher, less civilized time, a tribal time, with fewer restraints on human self-will. In a simple tribal culture, the head of each family and tribe is more or less a law unto himself. Absolute power does funny things to people.
If the Bible is an accurate account—and it has no reason to exaggerate the patriarchs’ transgressions—the next lesson to learn is that child abuse is a natural part of family life. Most parents, with nothing to stop them, will treat their kids as chattels, and will abuse. They will play favourites. They will sacrifice the child’s interests to their own. We see it, after all, in animals: most critters will, with little provocation, eat their young. Maternal or paternal instinct only gets you so far; it is not something that can be relied on.
The pressing issue of the time when the Old Testament was written was actual child sacrifice, of a brutal sort: burning children alive. Except among the Hebrews, Moloch, in his various versions, was lord of the land.
The prophets were solidly in opposition to the clear and present temptation he represented. But that moral fight was probably about as much as they could manage in the climate of opinion. Even Abraham perhaps had to go through the motions of sacrificing his child, or nobody, including him, was going to take his newfangled God seriously.
Ezekiel cites it as a common saying, a proverb, among the Hebrews, that “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2). Jeremiah cites the same truism (31:29). Job seems to refer to a similar aphorism: “You say, 'God stores away a man's iniquity for his sons.'” (Job 21:19). Repeatedly, God himself, Yahweh God, is quoted as saying “the sins of the father are visited upon the son”:
“He punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Numbers 14:18). “He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7; Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5: 9-10).
This is obviously unfair. Our conscience tells us so, and the ancient Hebrews had the same innate conscience we do.
So is God unjust?
Surely the Bible did not want to believe so. It was simply, again, reporting the obvious truth of the world: some children suffer for the sins of their parents, suffer brutality, loss, and permanent harm from their upbringing, through no fault of theirs; while other children benefit unjustly from their parents’ generosity or hard effort. It is the problem of evil: there is evil in the world. Necessarily, if there is evil in the world, God has permitted it. One may ask why, but this a given.
If the Bible is simply describing the obvious reality, that children suffer when their parents are bad, surely what it is referring to primarily is child abuse. That, at least would be the most extreme and obvious example of the saying.
The Bible does not accept this as just. Ezekiel, for example, after citing the proverb, goes on to prophecy a better time:
“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18: 3-4).Jeremiah says, of the coming time,
“In those days people will no longer say,
‘The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’
Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31: 29-30).
This is also what God demands by the Mosaic law: the child must not be punished for the sin of the father. And Proverbs writes: “Discipline your son while there is hope, and do not desire his death.” (19:18). Apparently, then, a familiar temptation.
The prophet Malachi makes a similar prediction of a time to come:
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction” (Malachi 4:5-6).
This is a fallen world: kids with bad parents suffer through no fault of their own. That is the point, and it is to be lamented. Is that not the essential idea of original sin?
The New Testament assumes the same dynamic:
“And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man who was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, ‘Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 9: 1-2).
The Bible does not clearly and straightforwardly show that child abuse leads to mental illness. But that is largely because it has a different conception than we moderns do of what mental illness is.
|Saul in his depression|
In the Bible, mental illness is caused by the action of evil spirits. It is demonic possession. The clearest example is that of Saul in the Old Testament, who pretty plainly suffered from what the DSM would call depression:
“Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. Saul’s attendants said to him, ‘See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.’” (1 Samuel 16: 14-6).
“ … Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him” (1 Samuel 16:23).In the New Testament, Jesus comes upon two men whom we would today surely call schizophrenic or manic, living in a graveyard:
“When He got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him, and he had his dwelling among the tombs. And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain; because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him. Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones. Seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him; and shouting with a loud voice, he said, ‘What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God, do not torment me!’ For He had been saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’” (Mark 5: 2-8).
|The Gadarene demoniacs|
The Pharisees at one point say of Jesus himself, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?” (John 10:20)
This evil spirit idea may sound alien to modern ears, weaned on Freudian psychoanalysis. But it is an obvious and almost a self-evident interpretation. Even some of the terminology of psychiatry (“obsession” is really a lower-grade version of “possession”: being besieged by some outside force) implies the activity of evil spirits.
Consider the facts: you hear an internal voice telling you that you are worthless, and you ought to go jump off a bridge. Surely it is forced and an unnecessary complication to call the invisible speaker anything but an evil spirit: an independent consciousness or will acting upon you. It takes a mental contortion worthy of a circus side show to suppose or say instead that it is a part of yourself of which you are “unconscious,” otherwise unaware, a part of your will that has an independent will that works against your own.
How much sense does that make? Isn’t it clearer to simply see it as an independent entity? Only a doctrinaire materialism, surely, would deny this.
Very well; so please accept for a moment that mental illness is the action of evil spirits.
Modern Catholic authorities usually make a distinction here between garden variety mental illnesses and demonic possession. But this looks like an attempted modus vivendi with modern psychiatry. In the Bible, there is no clear concept of any “mental illness” apart from demonic possession; unless, say, you want to include anger as a mental illness.
But then what makes one person subject to the actions of evil spirits, and not another? Is their action simply random?
The Bible assumes not. Nothing is random in a world governed by God.
So the evil spirits may come to test us, or to open up to us our need for God. Job experienced this.
“Amid disquieting dreams in the night, when deep sleep falls on people, fear and trembling seized me and made all my bones shake. A spirit glided past my face, and the hair on my body stood on end. It stopped, but I could not tell what it was. A form stood before my eyes, and I heard a hushed voice: ‘Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can even a strong man be more pure than his Maker?’” (Job 4: 13-7).
|Job being scourged by the devil.|
Jesus experienced this too, being tempted in the desert.
In the case of Saul, however, the spirits are sent as a punishment for sin.
If they can come as a punishment for sin, again, as we have seen, said sin need not be on the part of the sufferer: it may be a sin of the parents. This may, for that matter, be the usual case.
In other words, mental illness is or can be caused by child abuse: the Dymphna Complex.
The New Testament seems to confront the issue of mental illness, of demonic possession, face on, almost as its dominant theme. The first miracle recorded of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the first act by which he announces himself and his mission to the world, is the casting out of a demon; the healing of a mentally ill man.
“They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!’
‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee” (Mark 1: 21-7).
|The possessed man in the Capernaum synagogue.|
“That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons” (Mark 1:32-4).
This is clearly the new dispensation that Ezekiel foretold.
Luke more or less says so, and isolates the issue of child abuse:
“And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).Next, we note the Beatitudes. They are Jesus’s description of his intended audience, those for whom he has come and for whom he will shed his blood.
They read almost like a standard diagnosis of depression.
“Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.
He said: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth...” (Matthew 5).
Beatitudes 1, 2, 3, 4 are right on target: symptoms of depression, and specifically depression caused by abuse, include “low self-esteem,” that is, meekness and poverty of spirit, and a pervasive sadness. As we have seen in the literature, in the hero legends, and Oedipus Rex, and Hamlet, depressives also hunger and thirst after righteousness, after justice. They are, like Hamlet, especially disturbed by hypocrisy, by attempts to manipulate, and by double-dealing; they are, in other words, “pure of heart.” The word translated as “peacemakers” may refer to anxiety: the depressed crave peace and quiet. Soon after in the same speech, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus indeed gives specific advice on how to handle anxiety (“Consider the lilies of the field...”; Matthew 6:25-34).
And as to being persecuted, and spoken against, surely here Jesus is giving the Dymphna diagnosis for where these other symptoms come from: from being abused; and emotional abuse is the worst sort.
Jesus, it is often said, is primarily a healer; that is the essence of his ministry. People come to him for healing. Some of their ailments are physical; but most often his sphere of operations seems to be psychiatry: the healing of the psyche. Even some of the physical ailments sound like things Freud said were commonly symptoms of “hysteria”: blindness, paralysis, uncontrolled bleeding.
|Charcot displays a hysterical patient.|
Jesus himself describes this casting out of demons (read: healing depression and mental illness) as his signature, the core proof that he is who he says he is:
“But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12: 28).According to St. Paul, this remains the core of the Christian mission:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).Clement of Alexandria sees exorcism, as much as the forgiveness of sins, as the point of Christian baptism:
“I would have you know for certain, that everyone who has at any time worshipped idols, and has adored those whom the pagans call gods, or has eaten of the things sacrificed to them, is not without an unclean spirit; for he has become a guest of demons, and has been partaker with that demon of which he has formed the image in his mind, either through fear or love. And by these means he is not free from an unclean spirit, and therefore needs the purification of baptism, that the unclean spirit may go out of him, which has made its abode in the inmost affects of his soul” (Clement, Recognitions, Book 2 Chap. 71).
|Saint Clement of Alexandria|
A formal exorcism remains part of the Catholic baptismal rite today.
This ability to cast out demons—to cure depression and mental illnesses—may account for the rapid success of Christianity, a despised and persecuted foreign sect, in conquering the Roman Empire. It seems more recently to account for the rapid spread of Christianity among the native peoples of the Americas, and in Africa. In A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity, Francis Young writes,
“Exorcism was a defining feature of early Christianity. Peter Brown described exorcism, without exaggeration, as ‘possibly the most highly rated activity of the early Christian church’. Whilst exorcism was not unique to Christianity, it found an unprecedented flowering in the new faith” (Young, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, p. 28).
It may not be coincidental, then, that Jesus also makes a special point of warning against harming children.
“He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!’” (Matthew 18: 2-7).
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:10-14).
This passage is commonly read as referring to parenting that causes children to sin; and the “lost sheep” of the passage are taken to be sinners.
|"Suffer the little children come to me..."|
But this interpretation is not theologically tenable. Note that the passage makes the point that these are “little” children. Children below the age of seven or so, below the age of reason, cannot sin. Their consciences are not sufficiently developed to make this possible. Moreover, nobody can ever make another sin: for something to be sinful, it must be done with consciousness, understanding, and intent. To the extent, therefore, that a parent ever “causes” a child to sin, that sin is always simply the parent’s, and not the child’s.
Accordingly, Jesus must here actually be referring to child abuse: to a more literal “stumbling,” to a more literal child abandonment, and to a more literal and physical “perishing.” Granting that such abuse, and perhaps the worst sort of such abuse, is teaching the child falsehoods, “gaslighting,” modeling and advocating a false morality. But as we have seen, that is a usual and even an inevitable part of child abuse. It is almost always required to shield the actions and intent of the parent. Polonius has a forked tongue.
There are, of course, other themes in the New Testament; but this theme of casting out demons seems to be central. In Luke, Jesus announces his mission in the synagogue as
“good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:33).That sounds a good deal broader than just the issue of mental illness.
But immediately after this, he casts out a demon, as if to illustrate by this what he means.
And Jesus’s sermon on not mistreating children seems to mesh with another element of the New Testament which might otherwise seem strikingly odd.
The Old Testament includes, as one of the Ten Commandments, “Honour your father and your mother.”
Yet Jesus, it must be noticed by anyone who actually reads the Bible, has little patience for “family values.” Besides not forming a family himself, he sends out his disciples with this instruction:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10: 34-7).
He tells a prospective disciple not to bury his father:
“Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’” (Matthew 8: 21-2).
When his own mother, Mary, asks him for something, he answers “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” (John 2: 4). When he is told that she and his brothers have come to see him, but cannot make it through the crowds, he answers “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). As an adolescent, he disowns his parents in the Temple (Luke 2: 48-9).
Family values indeed.
|The calling of St. James and St. John|
When he calls James and John to be his apostles, they are out in a boat with their father Zebedee:
“When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him” (Mark 1: 19-20).Is this not odd? They maroon their aged father at a word. Is it not making a point?
What then, you may ask, about the Old Testament commandment to “Honour your father and your mother?”
St. Paul parses it carefully:
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise—‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’ Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6: 1-4).The phrasing suggests that the commandment requires an explanation. You are to honour your parents as repayment of a debt: they looked after you when you were young, so you look after them when they are elderly, and then you have a right to expect your own children to look after you when you are elderly in turn, “so that your days may be long in the land.” This is a social contract. It follows that without a tit, there is no tat: the parents have a responsibility, not to exasperate their children. If they do not do their part, the contract is broken, and the child is released from the obligation. Note too that Paul adds the phrase “parents in the Lord.” Not everyone who is a biological parent, then, qualifies. Only those who act in the Lord.
To clarify, the New Testament is not saying families are evil. Neither is it, in condemning scribes and Pharisees, saying that writing and education are evil. All are good and necessary. Yet there is also and always a great danger that an educated elite, or a parent, will abuse the abundant power each gives them. The danger is comparable in either case. And this should always be taken into account.
In sum, both the New Testament itself, and Jesus speaking in the New Testament, represent their teaching as being there expressly or primarily for the mentally ill and for the depressed.
This, to be clear, is apparently a quality it shares with the other great world religions. Both Judaism and Islam have similar reputations in earlier times of being effective at casting out demons. The Buddha makes the same point in the first of the Four Noble Truths that Jesus does in the Beatitudes, that his teaching is for those who mourn: who experience life (correctly) as “dukkha,” “ill-being.”
It was the key proof of the superiority of the ethical monotheisms and universal religions to paganism; this ability to overcome mental illness.
How does this work? Not, surely, by convincing parents to truly love their children. Certainly the New Testament makes exactly this call; love, it says, is the answer. But this still leaves the sins of the father with at least some sons. It may have reduced the incidence of mental illness for the last few hundred generations, but it can hardly account for a sudden cure of an existing possession, as described in the Bible itself.
Jesus gives a hint of an explanation in this passage:
“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation” (Matthew 12: 43-5).In other words, demonic possession requires a soul that has somehow been “emptied.” It must, to prevent possession, be “filled” with something else.
There are obvious possibilities here. It can be filled, for example, as we have seen with our heroes, with a drive for the good, the true, and the beautiful—for the Logos, in Christian terms. It can be filled, many Christians would say, with the personal presence of Jesus. It can be filled with faith, hope, and charity, or knowledge of truth, or meaning—and then the demon must stay away.
This could indeed be nearly instantaneous: a sudden insight as to the meaning of it all, like the instant when one solves a puzzle. A revelation on the road; the moment of dawn on a mountaintop; an insight while sitting under a tree.
|Saul gets the picture|
Again, there is a need to clarify. There is no doubt some danger here that some might conclude that people are mentally ill or depressed because they are lacking in faith. If they had more faith, surely, they would not be mentally ill.
This would be true in cases when the evil spirit came of their own fault. But the Bible is insistent that the sins of the father are visited on the son. In that case, it would not be the son (or, of course, daughter) who “lacked” faith. It is rather that they have a greater capacity and a greater need and craving for faith, or meaning, or righteousness, than others, due to their upbringing.
It almost sounds like a cure.
What might Robert Burton have to say to that?
Old Democritus Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, for all that he is trying to make out that the world and its every idea are folly, is surprisingly weak in dismissing this religious option. Of which, of course, he had to be aware.
“A gentleman in Limousin,” he reports at the end of one chapter, “saith Anthony Verdeur, was persuaded he had but one leg, affrighted by a wild boar, that by chance struck him on the leg; he could not be satisfied his leg was sound (in all other things well) until two Franciscans by chance coming that way, fully removed him from the conceit. Sed abunde fabularum audivimus,—enough of story-telling.”
Burton here ends the chapter (Subsection III: Particular Symptoms from the influence of Stars, parts of the Body, and Humours).
If this report is true, it is a compelling example of a religious cure. But Burton can only dismiss it by calling it “story telling”--at the same time conceding that such reports are “abundant.” But the fact that he offers no further rebuttal is itself telling.
|St. Francis Borgia performing an exorcism|
Further along, he reports,
“The papists on the one side stiffly maintain how many melancholy, mad, demoniacal persons are daily cured at St. Anthony’s Church in Padua, at St. Vitus’ in Germany, by our Lady of Loretto in Italy, our Lady of Sichem in the Low Countries: … twenty-five thousand in a day come thither; ... our eyes and ears are full of her cures, and who can relate them all? … Read but ... Coster and Gretser's Tract de Cruce, Laur. Arcturus Fanteus de Invoc. Sanct. Bellarmine, Delriodis. mag. tom. 3. l. 6. quaest. 2. sect. 3. Greg. Tolosanus tom. 2. lib. 8. cap. 24. Syntax. Strozius Cicogna lib. 4. cap. 9. Tyreus, Hieronymus Mengus, [a fine example of Burton’s painstaking scholarship here] and you shall find infinite examples of cures done in this kind, by holy waters, relics, crosses, exorcisms, amulets, images, consecrated beads, &c. Barradius the Jesuit boldly gives it out, that Christ’s countenance, and the Virgin Mary’s, would cure melancholy, if one had looked steadfastly on them. P. Morales the Spaniard in his book de pulch. Jes. et Mar. confirms the same out of Carthusianus, and I know not whom, that it was a common proverb in those days, for such as were troubled in mind to say, eamus ad videndum filium Mariae, let us see the son of Mary, as they now do post to St. Anthony’s in Padua, or to St. Hilary’s at Poitiers in France. In a closet of that church, there is at this day St. Hilary’s bed to be seen, to which they bring all the madmen in the country, and after some prayers and other ceremonies, they lay them down there to sleep, and so they recover. It is an ordinary thing in those parts, to send all their madmen to St. Hilary’s cradle.”
But Burton is writing in England in the heat of the Protestant Reformation. He does not have the option of pilgrimage to Dymphna’s shrine. Indeed, as a matter of personal security, he is probably obliged to scoff at all such reports, or face trial for heresy. Burton’s Protestant response is to point out that there were similar pagan shrines to various gods and goddesses who supposedly healed diseases. Beyond that, “for their catalogue of examples, we make no other answer, but that they are false fictions, or diabolical illusions, counterfeit miracles.”
Possible, of course; but not evidence nor argument, just an assertion of opinion. It could hardly he a weaker response. There is, as he himself relates, a prodigious amount of evidence otherwise. As the title of his chapter suggests (“Memb. III. Whether it be lawful to seek to Saints for Aid in this Disease”), Burton’s legally obligatory Protestant faith simply requires him to say this.
This, on the other hand, the religious option, is an obvious possible content for Burton’s image of solitude, which he seems to advocate. When one retires to the wilderness, what is one going to think about? Game of Thrones?
Perhaps “get thee to a nunnery” is the best advice.