Mystics, Mental Health & Lessons to Learn


Whilst watching a documentary on Schizophrenia the other day, the words of the psychiatrist, neurologist and founder of the third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, Viktor Frankl came to mind. Frankl once famously said of Joan of Arc in his book ‘Will to Meaning’:

“There is no doubt that from the psychiatric point of view, the saint would have had to be diagnosed as a case of schizophrenia; and as long as we confine ourselves to the psychiatric frame of reference, Joan of Arc is ‘nothing but’ a schizophrenic. What she is beyond a schizophrenic is not perceptible within the psychiatric dimension. As soon as we follow her into the noological (spiritual) dimension and observe her theological and historical importance, it turns out that Joan of Arc is more than a schizophrenic. The fact of her being a schizophrenic in the dimension of psychiatry does not in the least detract from her significance in other dimensions.”

Frankl’s observation is an important one.  In some circles, it is common to refer to mystics as suffering from a mental disorder thereby detracting from their worth as a pointer to the divine.  Moreover, such sweeping statements forget that although there is some overlap between mysticism and mental health, they function in different domains.

Frankl’s warning that it is a mistake to over-identify individuals with one aspect of ‘the self’ has implications not just for mystics, but for us all.  Writing off those who live with mental illness as being incapable of an authentic mystical experience, or negating any such experience as solely an expression of their illness, is a mistake.  Moreover, Drazenovich & Kourie1 make the point in their article ‘Mysticism and mental health: A critical dialogue’ that:

“Contemporary research in mysticism illustrates that mystical experience is an integral aspect of the human person and the recovery of the mystical tradition will fill a much-needed void in society. A society that denies the mystical, and lacks a prophetic religion that insists on the primary role of the mystical within the psyche, will fall into various forms of pathological pseudo-mysticism. Indeed, in our contemporary era, we have seen the ascendancy of various forms of pseudo-mysticism such as nationalism, militarism, fascism, technology, consumerism, fundamentalism, new ageism, asceticism, and psychologism.”

Thanks to Viktor Frankl’s prompting, there is much that we need to reflect upon when it comes to the mystical expression of our human self, and how this interacts with our mental health and wellbeing.  A world where people like Joan of Arc are relegated to being ‘nothing but’ a schizophrenic misses the totality of their contribution and how they have enriched our understanding of the mystical.

1Drazenovich, G. & Kourie, C., 2010, ‘Mysticism and mental health: A critical dialogue’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies66(2), Art. #845, 8 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v66i2.845

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