Reader Writes, March 2017
He crossed the lake to the other side, perhaps seeking rest away from the Jews, but as soon as he landed in that wilderness place, a naked madman ran towards him roaring like Prospero's Caliban. A prisoner to self harm, tormented by demons, dangerous with unnatural strength, the man whom no one could chain or restrain, threw himself at the feet of God. “What do you want with me, Jesus Son of the Most High?” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!” We know what happens next; a whole legion of evil spirits came out of this dear and tormented man and settled in a huge herd of pigs that ran into the sea and drowned.
Theologians and psychiatrists must have been arguing for ever over a modern diagnosis. For sure the gliding serpent, Satan, is still at large. You can't un-believe him from the universe. The world is still fallen and groaning, though beautiful in its time beyond words and tears. The gospels are full of stories of deliverances, children set free from torment, prisoners released, parents and children reunited in sound minds. And today we are still afflicted by a plague of psychiatric illness. Certainly we know far more than we ever did about mental illness, depression, addictive behaviours. And equally, sadly, the modern world appears to create more casualties than ever before from its unrelenting pressures. What can we say about this?
One of my favourite Gospel stories is when Jesus tells us how much we are valued. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of our Father.” Of course! The carpenter from Nazareth would know all about the argumentative sparrows in a small town full of mules and donkeys and livestock. But there is more! “Even the curly hairs on your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” There we have it. We are valued by God, and if God values us, we should value ourselves. And more, if God values us, we should especially value each other.
Lepers and vagrants and outcasts are usually without names. It's easier to deal with the 'other' if it is unknown. That was why prisoners and internees were numbered by their jailers. It is easier to face the unwanted if they remain alien. But God embraces the outcast. When faced with the tormented demoniac raving among the tombs on the shore of the lake, Jesus asks simply, investing him with dignity, “What is your name?” The sky could have fallen in; did anyone think he needed a name? Into the great silence, balanced between worlds of darkness and light, the naked damaged madman replied “My name is Legion”. With a thunder of hooves he was delivered from his torment. They found him later, clothed, and in a sound mind. And it terrified them.
We are afflicted, plagued even, by anxiety-driven illness. We owe it to those we love and those we live beside to make life a place worth living, a road worth travelling, because we do it together, sharing burdens, knowing each other's names. May the Great Cartographer of the human heart map out sure ways for each of us.