Mental Illness in Light of the Theophany Icon

A n icon hangs inside the door of my study, positioned above the light switch so that my eye hits upon it whenever I leave the room. The writer of the icon (for icons are said to be written not painted) took as his subject the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River: John the Baptist stands on the west bank of the river, his hand transfixing a cruciform halo and resting upon Jesus’s head. Jesus is naked to the waist, having just emerged from the water. The Spirit in the form of a dove descends from above, a flash of blue rending a golden sky.

Here, the icon diverges from a straight retelling of the biblical story. On the eastern bank, four angels each hold up a fold of their robes, as if to receive something from (or offer something to) Jesus. Amidst the fish swimming at the Lord's feet is something strange: a small human-like figure holding a grand scepter and wearing a crown, riding upon what appears to be a tiny sea-monster.

As a Protestant, I have little practice in reading icons, and this one, called the Theophany Icon by the Orthodox, was given to me by an Orthodox friend without further explanation. There was much about iconography I did not know. For example, I had never heard that the traditional Greek abbreviation IC XC is often rendered “IC XC NIKA,” which means “Jesus Christ conquers,” an expression written just above Jesus’s head. As for the crowned figure and his otherworldly mount, one common reading says that it represents either the Jordan River itself or the sea, which was fleeing from the feet of Jesus, just revealed as the Son of God. In other versions of the icon, it is replaced by two figures riding large fish or two pitiable figures trapped in the underworld. In some modern versions, a small whirlpool replaces them.

For years I thought very little about the tiny sea-monster and his rider. Then one day—perhaps because I was reading the Psalms or Job, perhaps for some other reason—it occurred to me that the strange beast might be read as Leviathan. Leviathan is the mythic sea monster that many ancient Israelites thought YHWH defeated when the world was made, a creature which appears in Psalms, Isaiah, Amos, and most famously in Job 40-41. Many other peoples had such monsters involved in their creation myths. The Enuma Elisha, for example, describes Marduk fashioning the world out of the body of the serpent goddess Tiamat.

I wondered then if the writer juxtaposed Leviathan and Jesus’s baptism in order to connect the new creation, effected in us by the Spirit, with the first creation. This turned out to be a revisionist reading, but, all the same, I continued to find it compelling for several reasons. For example, water, which evoked the idea of chaos for many ancient people, is involved in both. The earth was “formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Gen 1:2) before YHWH began the work of creation. Perhaps Leviathan is implicated somehow or other in that formlessness and darkness. But then YHWH creates, he speaks his word and brings order, and that order he declares good. Leviathan, as the Theophany icon suggests, is securely under foot.

Something similar can be said about baptism. We are unmade in the water, we rise a new creation. In Genesis, God is shown to be sovereign over the world in bringing order, while in Revelation 21:1 there is no longer any sea because, through Christ, God has finally made all things new. Chaos, even the chaos of death itself, is overcome. He began this recreation by remaking his people by the Spirit, and that people came about through the election of his Son, upon whom the Spirit descended that day at the Jordan. In the words of Canticle Four of Compline of Theophany, At Thine appearing in the body, the earth was sanctified, the waters blessed, the heaven enlightened, and mankind was set loose from the bitter tyranny of the enemy.

One might assume that I puzzled over this icon for so long because it reminds me that God in Christ is sovereign over the world and that the pains and pandemonium of the day will also be taken up into God’s purposes for the good of God’s people and for the good of the world. And that is true. That is why I hang it there. But I also have another, related reason.

A former roommate gave me this icon one day without explanation. For the purposes of this essay I will call this roommate Lawrence. Lawrence is a probably a schizophrenic, or perhaps bipolar, or both. I do not know if he has ever received a definitive diagnosis. He also had a drug problem, which is very common among those experiencing mental illness. Lawrence nearly died at least twice during the time we lived together. He lost his job, lost a relationship, and I witnessed him in physical altercations with police officers on two different occasions. He spent a few months in a psychiatric hospital to no avail. He alienated nearly everyone who tried to help him. He barged into the classroom of his favorite college professor, one of the only non-family members who stuck with him as he degenerated, and terrified his students.

After he got out of the hospital, I lost track of Lawrence for a couple of years. I heard he was in New Mexico, Texas, Florida. Then one day he approached my wife and me at a restaurant. His teeth were ghost-thin and discolored, and he clearly had not showered for some time.

“Joel,” Lawrence said, his eyes violently crossed. “It’s so, so good to see you.”

“Lawrence,” I said. “How are you?” Lawrence turned to my wife.

“Did you know this guy’s my best friend?” he said with a quiver in his voice. “This guy’s my best friend.” That night was several years ago. I have not seen Lawrence since.

I think of Lawrence when he posts on Facebook, or when I drive by the old house we lived in together. Sometimes I think of Lawrence when my eyes linger over the icon as I leave my study, and I wonder how God’s lordship over the world applies to him.

Lawrence gave me his Theophany icon just after New Year’s 2012. I suppose it must have been on January 6 (Epiphany in the West and the Feast of Theophany in the East), but, as a good Protestant, I did not make the connection then. The previous summer, Lawrence had a terrible psychotic episode, but by that point he seemed more or less himself again. As far as I knew, he was taking his medication, going to work, and paying his bills, even if his behavior was erratic at times. Sometimes we smoked pipes on the front step in the evening. We discussed theology and we talked about women.

But soon Lawrence began staying up all night, and it became clear that he was missing work. One morning I went into his room and shook him for several minutes, yelling that he would be late. He was breathing—snoring like a machine—but I could not wake him. His behavior became increasingly erratic, and the chaos in the house grew by the week. One night he woke me up at 4:30AM by turning on all the lights in the house and shouting “Why do we sleep?” When I got up to see what was wrong, he was placidly folding his laundry in his room. He looked at me very seriously and asked if I was Satan. I imprudently replied in the affirmative.

Then one sunny day Lawrence flipped his SUV three times in a single car accident on a Florida highway. He was on drugs again. Back home, though still dealing with bruised ribs and other injuries, it took Lawrence only weeks to get himself arrested. Lawrence’s parents drove down again and again, finally forcing him to move home with them. And then one day, probably two months after he had given me the icon, I got a call that Lawrence had been admitted to the psychiatric unit at the local hospital.  

The rooms in the psych unit were white, which, of course, is what I had expected. A doctor led me in to a large, spare waiting room. The wall adjacent to the hallway was glass; there was nowhere for anyone to hide. After a few minutes they brought Lawrence in. He was calm and dressed in clean clothes, but he looked as if he had not slept in days.

            “Lawrence . . . ,” I said, “Are you doing okay?”

Lawrence responded with jokes: bad jokes, incomprehensible jokes, dirty jokes. He grew happy, almost giddy. He was stable, which was good. But he was most certainly not the Lawrence I had known before.

I realized as we talked that night that it was not just Lawrence’s body that was broken, but his very self. There is no cure for schizophrenia. Short of a miracle, that self will remain more or less as it is, shattered, not merely unable to choose the good, but often unable to recognize it. What else is a self, after all, but that collection of memories, dispositions, and relationships which we call ours? What else can one say when those personal histories are lost, those habits distorted, those close bonds with other people severed?

To borrow a line from George Herbert, Lawrence was not just “a brittle, crazy glass,” but a mirror destroyed, one that no longer seemed to reflect the reign of Christ at all. If Lawrence’s life today resembles what it did several years ago, his hope in Christ, when it is there at all, shows up in manic flights of the imagination—frightening, disconnected thoughts about the beginning or end of the world.  

What is the Church to say about those like Lawrence? What are we to tell ourselves about the sum of his life? That Jesus exorcised demons from those that today we might identity as mentally ill leaves many of us in confusion. The first readers of the Gospels understood that in the routing of Satan’s forces the kingdom of God had come, and we still confess that the Gospel writers were testifying about one who embodied a new way of living in the world. Yet, when we or a loved one are struggling with mental illness, we call a psychotherapist and take the best medication our insurance will cover. Most of us do not call up an exorcist.

A Foucaultian approach might lead us into dialogue with Lawrence, a dialogue that by its nature transgresses the given categories of our society simply because it allows Lawrence to speak and be heard. Perhaps we only need listen more attentively. Maybe the church needs to accept again the category of the holy fool as depicted in Laurus, Eugene Vodolazkin's novel of late Medieval Russia. Perhaps we should tell ourselves that there is more to Lawrence’s life than we know, more that God will do through him than we could guess, and begin, however falteringly, to expect this “more.”

Expecting more sounds fine in theory, but when your friend or family member’s unrelenting paranoia or impulsive, dangerous behavior turn life into a tangle of frayed nerves and repeated iterations of the same grueling test of wills—then “more” is too much. The traumas experienced by families such as Lawrence's make our question about the sum of the life of the severely mentally ill both painful and unavoidable.  

If this “more” arises from a this-worldly faith—a determined, even pious optimism held in the teeth of the facts or a dogged conviction of hidden capacities or wisdom possessed by the ill friend or family member—the day will come when all optimism and conviction have corroded, leaving behind a patina of bitterness. “What good have we done him?” friends and family will ask, and find they have no answer.  

The only decisive answer to the problem of severe mental illness is, I have come to believe, not an answer exactly. Instead, it is what the New Testament writers meant when they used the word “hope.” Of course, the first Christians’ hope was also a future hope, and they too lived with the conviction of the present meaningfulness of their lives. Yet, they did so because of what they believed God had done in Jesus Christ, not because of their beliefs about the severely mentally ill or anyone else’s particular sufferings.

Theirs, one might say, was a vertical theology, not primarily a horizonal one. It was an apocalyptic and eschatologically-oriented theology, rather than one concerned solely with human flourishing in the here and now. It was God who gave them new life in baptism and with the gift of the Spirit, and it was God who had brought their forbears out of slavery in Egypt and then exile in Babylon. The future for people broken in every conceivable way, was, for those first Christians, that God “would give life to our mortal bodies” (Rom 8:11) and “wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev 21:4), not that each of us would receive a tidy explanation for why we suffered and move on with our careers. On that bright day, I suspect, such explanations and opportunities will not even pique our interest.

As Rowan Williams wrote when discussing the Pantocrator icon, only “face to face with Jesus, there and only there, do we find who we are.” This is as true of me as it is of Lawrence. We are all brittle, crazy glasses that will only be fully restored at the restoration of all things. Only on that day will I perfectly reflect the light of Christ. Only then will I be who I was made to be. Yet, this is also particularly true of Lawrence and those who struggle with mental illness.

No matter what has happened to us, no matter what terrors we endured in this life, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead will also raise us up (Rom 8:11). There will come a day when Lawrence too will perfectly reflect the reign of Christ in the world, and from that vantage point we will finally see that Christ had been Lord in Lawrence’s life all along. Lawrence was always safe in Christ’s hands.  

In this light, I have come to see Lawrence’s gift of the Theophany icon differently. Lawrence may or may not realize he gave the icon away, let alone why or to whom. But the gift is all the better for that. When I reach for the light switch in my study nowadays, I no longer think only of the tragedy of Lawrence’s life or wonder what he is doing right now. Instead, it often occurs to me that God is still a God who creates out of nothing and who, even in the world today, is bringing order out of chaos. In Jesus Christ God defeats all of our Leviathans—Lawrence’s and mine.

Featured Image: Anonymous, Theophany Icon, date unknown; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Joel Looper

Joel Looper has a PhD in Divinity from the University of Aberdeen. He writes about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 

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