All those who die in the faith of Christ are considered saints, but among the many faithful believers are some who are seen as being particularly close to God, who lived particularly holy lives. These men and women are seen as good examples for us to follow, as especially worthy of honour and, in some traditions, faithful people ask for their prayers, particularly in areas of which that Saint is the patron. There are more than 10,000 Saints within Catholicism, from all the ages of the Church, and from all walks of life.
If they lived today, some of those Saints might well be called ‘mentally ill’, rather than ‘holy’, but in this post, I’d like to take a look at a Saint who was judged by his peers to be mentally unwell, confined in a mental hospital – and yet still made it out the other end to be proclaimed a Saint by the Church. His name is St John of God.
On 8th March 1495 a boy named João Duarte Cidade was born in Portugal. At the age of 8 he disappeared from his home, for slightly unclear reasons. One story is that he was so impressed by a visiting priest’s talk of adventure that he ran away with him, never to see his parents again. He ended up homeless in Oropesa, Spain, where he was taken in by a local farmer, Francisco Mayoral. He worked as a shepherd, and his benefactor saw John as a potential husband for his daughter – which John was less than keen on. At the age of 22, John joined a troop of passing foot-soldiers, setting off to fight in France. He was forced to leave his troop after a failed episode of guard duty. While he was supposedly guarding a large amount of loot, things were stolen, and naturally John was suspected of the theft. He was sentenced to death, but reprieved by an officer, and left the army to return to the farm at Oropesa.
John evidently liked a more exciting life than tending sheep, for just four years later he joined another troop, this time going to fight the Turks in Hungary. He was to stay with this troop for eighteen years. At the end of that time he found himself near his birthplace in Portugal, and decided to find his family. He couldn’t remember his parents’ names, but was able to find an uncle, through whom he found out that his parents had died. He had no reason to stay in Portugal, and so returned to Spain.
John was a soldier like any other, keen on drinking and gambling, but not particularly on religion. By the time he left the army, however, his interest in his faith had rekindled, and he had been on pilgrimage, and had resumed his prayer life. Working as a shepherd once more, this time near Seville, John developed a burning desire to go to Africa and free enslaved Christians there, and perhaps die a martyr’s death in the attempt. At once he set out for the Portuguese colony of Ceuta, on the northern shore of Morocco. On the way there, he befriended a Portuguese knight and his family, who were being exiled to the colony. When they arrived, the knight and his family first had their money stolen, and then became ill, and John nursed them, and found work in order to provide for them. A priest in the colony advised John to return to Spain, which he did, after seeing the knightly family receive pardons.
When he arrived back in Spain, John spent some time wandering, hoping to see what God wanted from him, and then settled into selling religious literature in Granada. He had a vision of the Infant Jesus around this time, who both advised the move to Granada, and gave him the name by which he would become known – John of God.
It was on St Sebastian’s Day, 20th March, 1537 that John experienced a powerful conversion. He was listening to a sermon by the mystic and teacher John of Ávila when he was overwhelmed by his sins. He tore out his hair, beat his body and ripped his clothes, begging for mercy and repenting of his sins. Naturally, the people around him thought he had lost his reason, and he was taken to the nearby hospital and committed to the wing for the mentally ill. There, he underwent the then-standard treatments for lunacy – being chained up, flogged, and starved.
John of Ávila came to visit him, advising him to tend to the needs of others rather than embracing personal hardships, and had him transferred to a general wing of the hospital. There, John of God helped care for the other patients before leaving the hospital to work among the poor.
John begged around the streets of Granada to get together the money to rent and furnish a house in which to nurse the poor and sick. At first, he had no help, and nursed patients during the day, begging for the money he needed at night. He was known to carry patients into the house on his shoulders if need be, and his house was open to all – beggars, criminals, vagabonds – anyone.
John experienced suspicion and stigma about his work – his time in the mental hospital was known – but, with time, others came to help him in his hospital. Priests and doctors offered their services, wealthy benefactors helped to fund it, and angels paid visits. The local bishop, Sebastian Ramirez, Bishop of Tui, asked to meet John, and asked him his name. John replied that once upon a time a child he had helped in a country lane had called him John of God. “Then John of God shall be your name always,” the bishop answered. The bishop gave John a habit to wear, to show he was acting with ecclesiastical approval. That habit became that of the Order that grew up around him – the Brothers Hospitallers of St John of God.
John of God caught pneumonia trying to save a boy who had fallen in the river. He died on 8th March 1550, and was found dead, kneeling before a Crucifix, his head on the feet of Christ. He was canonised (proclaimed a Saint) in 1690, and his Order (the Hospitaller Order of the Brothers of Saint John of God) now operates across 40 countries, caring for people with mental and physical illnesses.
The Saint in the Asylum
John of God’s story is an interesting one. He seems to have been a man of impulse from childhood onwards – running away with a priest, joining passing army troops, rushing off to Africa – a man who felt a keen emotional response to things, and who then followed through with that enthusiasm. His emotional response to John of Ávila’s sermon was obviously much more acute than anyone was expecting, leading to his being, effectively, “sectioned”.
Was John mentally ill? It’s hard to say, though I think it’s significant that those around him and who knew him observed such a sudden change in his behaviour that they had him committed, yet we can see from other aspects of his life that he was evidently an impulsive man. What I do find interesting is that after his time in hospital, John was able to settle down, cease wandering, and spend the rest of his life in one endeavour – the healthcare of others.
One of the things I found from my illness is that it awakened me to the sufferings of others. I spent three weeks in a mental hospital, some years ago, and found that I left that place with a greater empathy for other people, and a heart for those who are mentally ill, or different to others. Perhaps something similar happened to John while he was in hospital, whether or not he deserved to be in there. His priorities were somewhat different when he came out – focussed outwards, not inwards, which is certainly something I found.
Another interesting part of his biography is that John experienced stigma as a result of his diagnosis. He had been in a mental hospital – he was a lunatic – and therefore experienced difficulties afterwards, even though he was quite sane. I’m sure lots of us have been there! Perhaps it behoves us – ill or well – to look at that feature of his biography and work harder to eradicate the stigma of being mentally ill, in the church, and outside it.
The main thing I take from the story of John of God is that here is a man who was certainly seen as “mad”, and who experienced the unpleasant treatment (medical and social) that comes from that – and yet who established something enduring. His gift to the world is an Order who seek out and look after the sick, and he himself is considered a Saint – someone worthy of veneration and emulation. Hope for all of us, perhaps!