After almost 2 months of not writing, I realize the cognitive dissonance I live in when it comes to writing. I regularly vocalize something like this: “I am usually doing my best spiritually and emotionally when I am writing and reflecting regularly on what I feel like the Lord is speaking to me.” Then I don’t write and end up confused or uncertain of what to do or who to be.
So to get back into it, I’m going to throw out a few definitions:
Catharsis- the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.
Neurosis- a relatively mild mental illness, not caused by organic disease, involving symptoms of stress (depression, anxiety, obsessive behavior, hypochondria) but not a radical loss of touch with reality.
Why these words? I feel like humans or maybe just I have a tendency to settle for the first while I make room for the other. I’ll explain but I’d like to offer a story in Scripture.
In 1 Samuel 24, King Saul is taking a leak in a cave near some sheep pens. Actually he had to have been pooping. If the men were far back in the cave and they had time to talk about the plan to kill Saul, I think one is less alert and more comfortable popping squat.
So Saul is pooping in a cave and David creeps up and cuts a piece of Saul’s robe off, and David, because he has a sensitive conscience feels guilty. He then sternly lets all of the men around him know that they should have never entertained the thought of attacking the king. So David lets Saul re-leave, after his (Saul’s) relieving to the readers relief, though David would have to relive this event in a similar way later. See what I did there. We are all impressed, but I digress.
David then calls out of the cave. Saul turns around. David bows to the ground. Then David gives a plea to Saul and tries to prove to Saul that he has no intention of harming him, by showing him mercy in the cave and providing the cloth he cut, as evidence.
Saul responds with recognition and weeps asking David to keep an oath in regards to Saul’s family when David becomes king. An oath is made. Catharsis. The oath is later kept but in a few chapters, Saul is trying to kill David again. Neurosis
David is on the run a while. Saul is hung up on killing David, to preserve his kingship.
I have a confession. Sometimes I approach Scripture in search of catharsis and sometimes my prayer or lack of focussed prayer turns into neurosis. Both are not particularly helpful.
I was struck by some of these thoughts while reading Letters to a Young Pastor by Eugene and Eric Peterson. In one particular letter, Eugene critiques Kierkegaard’s biblical interpretation in Fear and Trembling as too neurotic, as Kierkegaard reflects on his broken engagement comparing his own circumstances to God testing Abraham with Isaac at Moriah.
I literally read that last week and had the thought, “Yeah, Kierkegaard feels unwell and mentally off even in his writings which is probably why he never could fit into a pastoral vocation.” Then, the Sunday sermon at church was about Abraham and Isaac, and I began to do the exact same thing with my own circumstances, not giving a second thought to Kierkegaard’s error.
It is amazing that man so radical, who had so much to say and critique in 42 years of living could have so much passion for the Church and disdain for the institution. He who seemingly died from his own exhaustive criticism, could have potentially avoided it all, had he let himself be loved or let himself be given over to a love that would have made him more tender. Instead, neurosis with Jesus.
Catharsis with a little Jesus risks shallowness. Neurosis with a little Jesus might mean depth but risks isolation. There is a middle, a homeostasis, a peace, that allows us to be accessible in our dealing with others while holding the tension of acknowledging present, even consistent suffering whilst remaining hopeful, expectant of good.
By the time David is being hunted down again I think he resists catharsis and returns to his enemies the Philistines for some type of refuge. It’s a strange place to be, going to a town of people who you were once at war with, who you received fame for killing their best warrior only to make your home with them.
Jesus to the cross.
Lose your life to find it.
These actions, behaviors, thoughts occupy the space between catharsis and neurosis and sometimes feel like they are dangerously close to dipping into one of the two. I don’t know how to tell when we have dipped in, I just know who keeps us in the midst.