My first experience working in Mental Health was in 1978-1979 when I was pursuing Clinical Pastoral Education ( CPE ) . CPE has been a long-time regarded period of study and experience designed to help ministers with their pastoral counseling skills.
My CPE training was at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Or. Yes, it was the hospital featured in Ken Kesey’s novel and subsequent movie “ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest “.
I would ride a State of Oregon shuttle bus from Portland for the one-hour drive to the hospital campus in Salem. Every Monday morning, I would enter the administration building and I would walk up the curved staircase: where Randall McMurphy ( Jack Nicholson ) is dragged down the stairs in a strait jacket early in the movie. It was a kick to think that I was in the same place as Jack Nicholson.
During my extended unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE ), I was assigned to a ward of patients who were suffering from Paranoid Schizophrenia and then described Manic Depression, now known as Bi-Polar Disorder.
One of the patients I worked with, as a Student Chaplain, was Marvin. He was a long-time resident at the hospital who suffered from Schizophrenia. The treatment team saw him as someone who would not be able to live outside the hospital. Due to the chronic nature of his medical condition, He was seen as someone who would always be dependent upon the hospital.
Yet, when I met with Marvin individually he always insisted to me that he wanted to live independently on his own. I remember that I would tell the unit team Marvin’s wishes, but they would dismiss them as being unrealistic.
I can’t believe that I had the audacity to do this, as a then 25-year-old Chaplain Intern; but I actually went and met individually with the hospital superintendent Dr. Dean Brooks arguing that Marvin needed to be supported in his decision to live independently.
Dean Brooks agreed, and so Marvin was allowed to be discharged and he moved into his apartment in Salem, Or. I went and visited him once at his apartment and found that he had adjusted well to living by himself. The hospital staff was amazed. They couldn’t understand how he was able to do this. He was able to do this miraculously and live well for nine months until he decompensated and finally had to be re-admitted to the hospital.
I remember that I felt sad that Marvin had to return to the hospital, but yet I felt proud and grateful that I was able to help him to experience some freedom and confidence that he could live on his own.
The story that we have from Luke’s Gospel ( Luke 13: 10-17) reveals a woman who was determined to be seen and heard. This woman had suffered a condition that left her disabled. Given the extreme patriarchy of first century Hellenistic Judaism, it would have been understandable if this woman chose to be indivisible.
But this woman was determined to be visible and assertive. Jesus sees her, and he calls her forward and says to her:
“ Woman, you are set free from your infirmity! “
Then he puts his hands on her and immediately she straightens up and was able to praise God.
Instead of being happy that the woman was healed, we read that the synagogue leader was upset:
“ There are six days for work, so come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath. “
In the movie “ 55 Steps “, Eleanor Riese played by Helena Bonham Carter and Collette Hughes played by Hilary Swank, portray a powerful bond between an opinionated mental patient and her hard-working, driven lawyer.
This is a true story. Eleanor Riese is a long-time patient at a psychiatric hospital in San Francisco, Ca. It’s 1985 and the hospital that she in in is not that much different from the Oregon State Hospital. We see her lonely and despondent, especially when she is in seclusion.
The issue here is whether Eleanor should be able to exercise her right not to take medication. During this time, patients were involuntarily given their medication. It’s hard to believe that this was happening in San Francisco even in 1985.
Enter Collette Hughes, former psychiatric nurse and now attorney, who helps Eleanor and serves as an advocate for her regarding her own self-determination.
Eleanor lives in an apartment in San Francisco and has 55 steps to climb to her residence, hence the title of the movie.
Collette Hughes realizes that her client is being forced to take medication against her will. Her client is not given the opportunity to get information regarding the side-effects of the medication allowing her to make an informed choice and consent. Collette is able to pursue a lot of legal research and finally files a legal case that goes to the California State Supreme Court that finally ruled to overturn the practice of involuntarily prescribing medication to patients without their approval.
The movie is about the courageous, tireless work that Collette Hughes provides on behalf of her client Eleanor Riese. But equally important is what Eleanor is able to give Collette, as she would say to Collette:
“ Don’t you know that I am right “
Jesus points out to the synagogue leader the irony that many would do activities on the Sabbath and yet the ruling religious establishment were not happy that Jesus would heal someone with this condition on the Sabbath.
So, how do we become healers of those who are dis-spirited ?
First, I think there needs to be a commitment to relieving the suffering of others as opposed to blindly worshipping religious dogma. There also needs to be the acknowledgement of our own suffering, as clergy, congregants, people of faith. We are all in this human enterprise together.
Jesus knew that his healing action would not be received well by the religious authorities. Yet, he was committed to interacting with this woman in a kind and humane fashion. Theologian Martin Buber would call this an “ I-Thou “ relationship. This is vastly different from an “ I-It “ relationship where the divinity of the other person is not recognized, instead people are marginalized and discounted. We see examples of this with the current tensions regarding immigration, with poor people, the disabled, those who are concerned regarding reproductive rights, those who are rejected because of their sexual orientation, or ethnicity and religion.
Second, being a healer puts the spotlight on you by those who are invested in continuing and perpetuating the suffering. Luke writes:
“ When Jesus said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with the wonderful things he was doing. “
My friend and now unfortunately, deceased fellow United Church of Christ minister Jim Rinne used to say:
“ What we are offering is not popular. “
Of course, he was right, the counter-cultural mandate of the Gospel manifested in the words of the prophet Micah:
“ Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God “
will never be embraced by a society that is quick to judge and damn the other.
Third, being a healer points to the affirmation that God desires wholeness and health for all of us and for all creation, without any impartiality. The Kingdom of God comes and continues to reveal, transform, and to make all things new, even you and me, even when we think that we don’t need the assistance and the healing is needed more by someone worse off than us.
This was the gift that Eleanor gave Collette, that healing is for all.
May we remember this and strive to live in faith, trusting in the grace of God to see us through now and always in Christ’s name.