Madness, Religion, and the Public Square


In the early 1990’s I ran a small landscaping business as a way to supplement my paltry salary as a Waldorf teacher. Coming home from a long day of planting arborvitae one steaming July evening, I stopped at a party store to get a cold drink and a slice of pizza. Outside of the store, I saw a man, he must have been in his seventies or eighties, standing on a step and gesticulating with gusto as he preached about the End Times and Western culture’s fall into moral chaos. I assumed he was the grandfather of the family who owned the store. I also assumed he was insane.

A lot of people also assumed the English poet Christopher Smart (1722 – 1771) was insane one day in May of 1756 when he “routed all the company” after erupting into prayer and praising God in St. James’s Park. The inner light, Smart confessed, compelled him to what was thought by many to be an indecorous public effusion of faith. He had committed himself to “praying without ceasing” (an injunction of 1 Thessalonians 5:17), and for his pains he was committed to an asylum. John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, and the founder of the Society of Friends, George Fox, met with much the same response.

In the late Middle Ages, people moved to this degree of spontaneous praise were not usually treated as insane. St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, preached to birds and chose the life of a beggar in Christ’s service. Rather than being sequestered in a madhouse, he drew followers. When he said that Christ spoke to him, no one doubted it.

Visions, public preaching, and being “filled with the Holy Spirit” became unfit for public consumption, it seems, sometime in the seventeenth century, as Cartesian and Baconian “rationality” and “scientific method” rose to prominence and public displays of religious inspiration were disparaged as “enthusiasm.” That has been the norm for the public square ever since.

Some of the opposition I’ve seen against Mitt Romney, believe it or not, smacks of this same prejudice. It hasn’t been directed at his politics, but at his religion. “After the election, Mitt can go off to planet Kolub with Joey Smith,” one person I know recently remarked. This person is a devout atheist and, I would suspect, thinks of himself as thoroughly rational (he is). But his position’s DNA stems from the seventeenth century.

What would happen if people broke out into spontaneous prayer in a public forum, say on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange or in any shopping mall? I work at a Catholic college. If I let myself be moved by Spirit in such a way, I think even I might find myself in a position not unlike Christopher Smart’s. At the very least, it might make tenure review a little awkward.

But, now that I think of it, maybe this wasn’t just a phenomenon particularly a product of the seventeenth century. In the first century, indeed, a group of men likewise found themselves filled by the Spirit. They, likewise, took to the streets to unfold their hearts to the people. They likewise were thought to be mad, or at least to have had “too much new wine.” And they, likewise, were imprisoned, even killed, on account of their convictions.

Once I had a conversation with a priest about madness, mysticism, and religion. We were talking about Joan of Arc. I asked him if perhaps she was mad, since I couldn’t understand how God could encourage someone to take up the sword. His answer was simple: “Well, Mike, she might have been. But what makes you think God doesn’t talk to crazy people?”

Maybe I was wrong about the old guy in front of the party store.

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