Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian

“Touched with Fire” or Burned at the Stake

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Joan of Arc at Prayer Sir John Everett Millais

Joan of Arc at Prayer,Sir John Everett Millais

I believe in reincarnation. At least professionally I do. Career wise I have been reborn three times. My first incarnation was in the education field as a Montessori schoolteacher. My second incarnation was in the business world as a Systems Development Manager. And my third is an ecclesiastical calling as a parish priest. Three times seems to be a charm or maybe just good karma. I am now into my 21st year as a parish priest.

For those of you who may not know, the priestly vocation is one of the last generalist professions around. We are according to the Book of Common Prayer supposed to “share in the renewal of the world as pastor, priest and teacher.” Pretty heady stuff on a cosmic level. But down here on earth, we get to work with people of all ages and at every stage of the faith. We get to celebrate life’s greatest joys and to be present at life’s greatest sorrows. And we change hats. We change hats a lot. Pastor, priest and teacher are just three of them. There is also administrator, supervisor, coach, cheerleader, truth teller, tear dryer, master of ceremonies, volunteer coordinator, choreographer, confessor, bartender, party planner, mediator, crisis counselor, shepherd, building manager, parking lot attendant, babysitter, coffee maker, janitor, plumber, secretary, editor, publisher, facilitator, fundraiser, community organizer, preacher, chaplain, wedding coordinator, funeral director and bandleader. Give me a little more time and I can think of some more.

Bandleader is really the best metaphor for what a parish priest does. The priest doesn’t make the music, the parishioners do. But the priest makes damn sure the music gets made. And to be a good bandleader — with God’s help — you sometimes have to do a little bit  or a lot of all of the above.

On a day to day basis, this calling can be hellacious. But I can also honestly tell you it is never boring. Sundays come round and round but no two days are ever alike. And I get bored very easily.

So twenty-three years ago, as a Systems Development Manager, I called my staff into a meeting to announce my departure. But before I tell you about the meeting, let me tell you a little bit about my second profession. I worked for Freddie Mac in the IT department, back when IT meant mainframes and COBOL and Fortran and JCL (and no, I will not explain these terms, you can Google them). My team of a dozen programmers supported the financial systems of this Secondary Mortgage Giant. General Ledger. Budget. Payroll. And I was their bandleader — Joani who didn’t even balance her own checkbook.

So I called a meeting of my dozen disciples.  All of them nerdy, techie wizards. I told them how  gratified I was to have been their manager. I applauded all their hard work and thanked them for all they had taught me. But it was time for me to go. I would be leaving at the end of summer to start seminary in the fall. Most of my staff, knowing of my churchy involvement, congratulated me and wished me well. But Julie, the newest member of my staff was silent. Perplexed she paused for a moment. And then she asked me this question.

“Joani, do you hear voices?” A bit taken aback, I too paused and then I answered her. “No, Julie, I don’t hear voices. Do you?”

Now my namesake of course is Joan of Arc. In fact, a WWI poster of Joan of Arc hangs on the wall above my bed. Mounted on a white stallion, banner furling, sword drawn, Joan is beautifully decked out in shining armor. The poster boasts “Joan of Arc saved her country, so can you.” Well, Uncle Sam, eat your heart out. Who better to lead the charge than the Maid of Orleans. The Maid of Orleans who heard voices.

Joan heard voices — the voices of angels, the voices of saints, the voice of God. At least that is what she proclaimed. And these voices led her at the tender age of 17 to leave her tiny village. So Joan followed the voices all the way to the court of the defeated Dauphin. And there in King Charles’ court she proclaimed herself a soldier and the savior of his kingdom. The voices gave her the balls to demand an army and the king was so desperate he agreed. Led by voices, saintly and angelic, Joan did win a glorious battle or two. The glory quickly faded. Captured by the English, Joan was abandoned on the battlefield and crowned a heretic.  And we all know what happens to heretics. Burned at the stake.

Now the truth be told all of us hear voices. We all have voices in our heads prodding, reminding, encouraging, calming, chastising, urging — lots of voices clamoring for our attention. And it’s a spiritual matter, discerning these voices. Which ones should we pay attention to? Which ones are on our side? Which ones are making any sense? Discerning voices is something all of us do just about all of the time.

The only problem is when the voices seem not your own. Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices — St Margaret and St Catherine and the Archangel Michael. She said this is not me talking, I take my orders straight from God. And in the Middle Ages only crazy people heard voices. In the Middle Ages only the possessed heard voices. Crazy, possessed heretics were burned in the Middle Ages. So it was a very long time, centuries in fact, before a reluctant church placed a halo on Joan’s head. In fact,  Joan was added to “Holy Women, Holy Men” just six short years ago. It’s dangerous to tell people you hear voices.

But now twenty-three years on, I need to change my answer to Julie’s question from a “no” to a a qualified “yes”. Yes, I have heard voices not my own. Tuned into the universe, riding wave after wave of manic bliss I have been convinced that God has important things to tell me. There is no booming voice from heaven. It’s more like God and I are on the same page. Lit up inside — as if by fireflies –my fingers fly like lightning on my keyboard. The Creator of the Cosmos inspires my every word.

One summer I wrote twelve sermons in ten days. Brilliant. Profound. Quotable. Publishable. For twelve Saturdays, I pulled them out one at a time before climbing into the pulpit each Sunday. Some of them were damn good indeed. Some of them not so much.

The bipolar brain does not walk in straight lines. The bipolar brain at its manic best zigzags and spirals. This brain is like a blender on max combining the most unusual things in the most unusual ways. “Touched with fire” bipolar folks have quite a history of being marvelously creative. Kay Redfied Jamison’s fabulous book “Touched with Fire”  is a veritable who’s who of poets, sculptors, writers, painters, musicians, composers — all of a manic-depressive temperament. Where would all the art galleries and concert halls be if all this madness had been medicated away?

Emptier maybe but on second thought maybe not. Leave that blender on too long and the bipolar brain breaks. It splinters into a bazillion little pieces. Concentration shatters. You’re no longer sure just whose voices you’re hearing in your head. And whoever they are, they all seem to be clamoring for your attention. So instead of great art pouring out of your brain, out comes the ravings of a lunatic.

So yes, Julie, I have heard voices. Sometimes the voices are my own. Sometimes not. Sometimes maybe the voices of saints and angels. Sometimes maybe — I dare say — even the voice of God. The wisdom of course is learning to discern the difference.

This gift of discernment is by definition pharmaceutical and therapeutic. It is a gift best practiced at the psychiatrist office and on the therapist’s couch. It’s a gift best practiced with friends and family. It’s a gift best practiced each morning when you face yourself in the mirror. It’s a spiritual gift, given by the grace of God.

And for this gift, I am deeply grateful each and every day.

So friends, do you hear voices?

Pax vobiscum,

Joani

Author: celticjlp

Episcopal priest, 23 years. 14 years, balanced and bipolar. "Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity" at Emmanuel on High, Alexandria, VA. Bibliomaniac desk jockey and docent at Library of Congress. Washington DC born and bred. Half marathoner and avid pedestrian. Friend to many and mother of four. Blogger, Storyteller & Mental Health Evangelist.

6 thoughts on ““Touched with Fire” or Burned at the Stake

  1. Another brilliant post Joani, thanks so much for sharing it. In answer to your question, do I hear voices? Yep. And man was I relieved when I first heard God’s call to the priesthood …. that as I looked around to see if anyone else had just heard what I had heard it became clear to me that no one else had heard the still, quiet voice of The Call. My Call. What a relief. That meant I could go on with my life as I had planned it. Until I couldn’t. As we all know, God is The Hound of Heaven and God’ll let us think we can run, but eventually, The Call catches up with you, and forces you – me – to respond. Thank you for saying Yes to this call Joani, for your priesthood is a blessing to us all.

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    • Blessings to you, my brother. Indeed what would the world be like without those who hear and respond to the voice of God, the God of love. And isn’t it just crazy amazing that SHE called both you and me into this line of work:)

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  2. Reblogged this on Paddling for PEACE..

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  3. So well written. Yes, I hear voices. I have bipolar II, and have rarely gone into full blown mania. Most of what I experience is depression – stints of being okay (all the while being horribly anxious for the shoe to drop) – and then hypomania. My depressed brain tells me everything is a lie, the Bible is a lie, the church is lying about Jesus dying for our sins, Jesus didn’t resurrect, at the end of the day – no body cares, there is no God and there is no point to life. Oh yeah and why don’t you kill yourself.

    My anxious brain ruminates on all the possible things that could go wrong because of things that have gone wrong in the past. Re-living traumas. Visualizing them to the point where it’s like being there again. A bit PTSD.

    My hypomania brain gets paranoid and hears the voices of destruction. Why are people asking me if I want to hang out? Do they know what I’m up to? Why did they ask how I’m doing? Why AREN’T people reaching out to me? Do they not like me? Why is everyone having such a great life but me? What’s wrong with me? My hypomania brain rants and raves about 1,000 miles an hour – I can’t stop talking but I’m not feeling free and energetic – I’m feeling frantic and crazy and destructive. I say things I normally wouldn’t. I start planning all the things I should do and maybe even start doing these things. If I start an art project, I will hook onto it and won’t eat or sleep until it’s done. But like a match, I burn out quick.

    But then there are the voices of the angels and the Holy telling me to be still, to go out on the river and meet God in the stillness of the dawn. The voices that tell me to walk outside at night and look up at the stars and know I am not alone. The voices that tell me I am loved and no, it’s not fair I deal with this crap, wave after wave, and have been unsuccessful to the point of near death in finding medications that work and won’t destroy my body. So I hang on to the hope of what Richard Rohr speaks of Resurrection being “woundedness transformed”… and that this is a process of transformation and that I do experience resurrection over and over. Every wave I learn how to cope differently. Every failure, so long as I don’t lose hope and give up, gives me another opportunity to try again.

    Thank you for writing about your experience. Thank you for being open about your illness. I had a pastor commit suicide several years ago, and it opened my eyes to how hard it is to be a priest and lead a church, and even more difficult when you’re dealing with health issues – especially mental health – because people who’ve never experienced it, never heard the voices, don’t get it and they’re very ready with their torches to destroy everything God has called you into.

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    • Dear Friend, this path we walk together is both blessing and curse and there us a blessed intensity to both the ups and downs if we recognize it and claim it as a beloved child of God. Thank you, thank you for poignant witness. May I quote the quote below in a sermon?

      But then there are the voices of the angels and the Holy telling me to be still, to go out on the river and meet God is in the stillness of the dawn. The voices that tell me to walk outside at night and look up at the stars and know I am not alone. The voices that tell me I am loved and no, it’s not fair I deal with this crap, wave after wave, and have been unsuccessful to the point of near death in finding medications that work and won’t destroy my body. So I hang on to the hope of what Richard Rohr speaks of Resurrection being “woundedness transformed”… and that this is a process of transformation and that I do experience resurrection over and over.”

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      • Thank you – I am moved to tears that you would want to include that in a sermon. Yes, of course! Please feel free to edit my typo – “and meet God in the…”

        Reading this again made me tear up because I don’t even think that was ME typing that this morning – I feel like that was the Spirit typing those words reminding me that it’s hard but it’s like resurrection over and over… even when I have a hard time believing it’s real. It is wonderful to know other companions walking this journey and witness how it shapes our faith and lives.

        Thank you for the encouragement today.

        Peace & Blessings

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