St Augustine on Mental Health

Mental Health and the Doctor of the Church

Mental Health and Wellbeing is a subject that has been close to the heart of Christians since the first teaching of the Lord to ‘love one another, as I have loved you’ (John 15:12, where our care of each other is given as the sign by which we may be known in this world.

Yet much like today, the Early Church found itself surrounded on all sides by conflicting views on morality, embedded in an economic system that kept millions in bondage and struggling to define what it meant to be ‘in the world, but not of the world.’ 

Christians were accused of cannibalism, rebellion and of angering the gods, labelled as evil despite endeavouring to live a moral life according to the precepts laid down by Christ and the Apostles – where our thoughts, feelings and actions are an inseparable testimony to the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives: reborn in Him; free from the yoke of sin yet still creations of flesh; subject to the same passions and desires of the heart – yet longing to overcome them in faith, to become more like Christ.

Their emotional responses to the sin in the world around them were almost incomprehensible to the pagan majority of the day – there was something decidedly ‘wrong’ with Christians.

Even in those early centuries, the Doctors of the Faith were already addressing the emotional fallout within the Church of being ‘in the world,’ working to combat Stoicism which rejected the value of human emotion, and exhorting the faithful to take their example for true ‘wellbeing’ from God.

St Augustine, writing at the beginning of the Fifth Century, was convinced that by keeping God’s commandments central to our lives and embracing the redemptive, restorative love that He offers, our psychological/emotional wellbeing is nourished. That is to say, as we align ourselves with His will, we gradually begin to adopt His desires and motivations, and become to embrace the purpose for our existence – a genuine relationship with God that is full of thought and emotion.

Among ourselves, according to the sacred Scriptures and sound doctrine, the citizens of the holy city of God, who live according to God in the pilgrimage of this life, both fear and desire, and grieve and rejoice. And because their love is rightly placed, all these affections of theirs are right. They fear eternal punishment, they desire eternal life; they grieve because they themselves groan within themselves, waiting for the adoption, the redemption of their body; they rejoice in hope, because there “shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.” In like manner they fear to sin, they desire to persevere; they grieve in sin, they rejoice in good works. They fear to sin, because they hear that “because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” They desire to persevere, because they hear that it is written, “He that endureth to the end shall be saved.” They grieve for sin, hearing that “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” They rejoice in good works, because they hear that “the Lord loveth a cheerful giver.” In like manner, according as they are strong or weak, they fear or desire to be tempted, grieve or rejoice in temptation. They fear to be tempted, because they hear the injunction, “If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” They desire to be tempted, because they hear one of the heroes of the city of God saying, “Examine me, O Lord, and tempt me: try my reins and my heart.” They grieve in temptations, because they see Peter weeping; they rejoice in temptations, because they hear James saying, “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.”

And not only on their own account do they experience these emotions, but also on account of those whose deliverance they desire and whose perdition they fear, and whose loss or salvation affects them with grief or with joy.

St Augustine goes on to give a wonderful example from the life of the Apostle Paul:

…very joyfully do we with the eyes of faith behold him (Paul) rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that weep; though hampered by fighting without and fears within; desiring to depart and to be with Christ; longing to see the Romans, that he might have some fruit among them as among other Gentiles; being jealous over the Corinthians, and fearing in that jealousy lest their minds should be corrupted from the chastity that is in Christ; having great heaviness and continual sorrow of heart for the Israelites, because they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God; and expressing not only his sorrow, but bitter lamentation over some who had formally sinned and had not repented of their uncleanness and fornications.

He goes on to explain that even Jesus embraced the full range of human emotion, moved on behalf of His Father and the plight of those he had come to save:

“Wherefore even the Lord Himself, when He condescended to lead a human life in the form of a slave, had no sin whatever, and yet exercised these emotions where He judged they should be exercised. For as there was in Him a true human body and a true human. soul, so was there also a true human emotion. When, therefore, we read in the Gospel that the hardheartedness of the Jews moved Him to sorrowful indignation, that He said, “I am glad for your sakes, to the intent ye may believe,” that when about to raise Lazarus He even shed tears, that He earnestly desired to eat the passover with His disciples, that as His passion drew near His soul was sorrowful, these emotions are certainly not falsely ascribed to Him. But as He became man when it pleased Him, so, in the grace of His definite purpose, when it pleased Him, He experienced those emotions in His human soul.

We too are called to have (to embrace and to represent) the same emotional response towards each other as that which was modelled by God. We are called to be like Him, and to reject this aspect of God’s nature, of this call to feel intensely about his offer of Salvation – both for ourselves and for others – St Augustine even describes as a sin.

But so long as we wear the infirmity of this life, we are rather worse men than better if we have none of these emotions at all. For the apostle vituperated and abominated some who, as he said, were “without natural affection.” The sacred Psalmist also found fault with those of whom he said, “I looked for some to lament with me, and there was none.” For to be quite free from pain while we are in this place of misery is only purchased, as one of this world’s literati perceived and remarked, at the price of blunted sensibilities both of mind and body.

And therefore that which the Greeks call apaqeia, a freedom from those emotions which are contrary to reason and disturb the mind, is obviously a good and most desirable quality, but it is not one which is attainable in this life. For the words of the apostle are the confession, not of the common herd, but of the eminently pious, just, and holy men: “If we say we have: no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” When there shall be no sin in a man, then there shall be this apaqeia. At present it is enough if we live without crime; and he who thinks he lives without sin puts aside not sin, but pardon.

Apathy, where the mind is the subject of no emotion, in which no fear terrifies nor any pain annoys, is an insensibility that can be considered worse than all vices. It may, indeed, reasonably be maintained that the perfect blessedness we hope for shall be free from all sting of fear or sadness; but who that is not quite lost to truth would say that neither love nor joy shall be experienced there? We must in this life renounce such a state if we would live according to God’s will, but may hope to enjoy it in that blessedness which is promised as our eternal condition.

For under the name of “clean fear” David signifies that will by which we shall necessarily shrink from sin, and guard against it, not with the anxiety of weakness, which fears that we may strongly sin, but with the tranquillity of perfect love.

But in the blessed life eternal there will be love and joy, not only right, but also assured; but fear and grief there will be none. Whence it already appears in some sort what manner of persons the citizens of the city of God must be in this their pilgrimage, who live after the spirit, not after the flesh, that is to say, according to God, not according to man, and what manner of persons they shall be also in that immortality whither they are journeying. And the city or society of the wicked, who live not according to God, but according to man, and who accept the doctrines of men or devils in the worship of a false and contempt of the true divinity, is shaken with those wicked emotions as by diseases and disturbances. And if some, with a vanity monstrous in proportion to its rarity, have become enamored of themselves because they can be stimulated and excited by no emotion, moved or bent by no affection, such persons rather lose all humanity than obtain true tranquility. For a thing is not necessarily right because it is inflexible, nor healthy because it is insensible.