Darkness is My Only Companion [Book Review]

darkness companion coverImagine a book that NT Wright recommended to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who enjoyed it so much he not only wrote the Foreword, but credits it with renewing his faith.

I could probably stop there and it would be enough to tell you that you should pick up the new 2nd edition of Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Revised and Expanded Edition, Brazos, 2015) as soon as possible.

But, in case you are unconvinced, let me give some of my own accolades, just in case you don’t want to take NT Wright, Justin Welby, or Stanley Hauerwas at their word (Hauerwas has a highly complimentary blurb on the back cover).

Every Christian should read Darkness is My Only Companion.  Here’s why.

Christians, by and large, have difficultly approaching mental illness, and this comes to the fore in a variety of contexts: in caring for friends and family who suffer with it, in attempting to talk about mental illness without blaming God or personal sin, and in coping with personally (because it has been so mishandled by the church, in part).  The societal stigma that keeps the mentally ill shut in on themselves, ashamed and afraid to seek help, is little better (and perhaps sometimes worse) in the Christian community.

Greene-McCreight brings a fascinating perspective, both personal and theological, to bear on the subject.  As the author notes, this book is difficult to categorize. It has elements of personal reflection and memoir, theological exploration, medical and psychological data and devotional piety.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts I’ve name, though. Quite simply, this is a remarkable book that deserves a wide reading in the church, particularly by anyone in a care-giving role.  Christians who are or have suffered from mental illness would likely benefit from the author’s own honesty in sharing her story of living with bi-polar disorder and wrestling with big questions.

She does not shy away from those questions we are often too afraid to ask (or answer too glibly), such as:

  • What is the role of spirituality in coping with mental illness?
  • How does sin relate to mental illness? Is acedia related to depression?
  • How should a mentally ill person read Scripture?
  • How can the church and other caregivers best show support to those suffering mental illness?
  • What is it like to receive treatment (medication, psychotherapy, “electro-shock,” etc.?
  • How does St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul” relate to mental illness?

Kathryn Greene-McCreight wrote this book because what she sought out was not available; thus the importance of this work – it is simply unique, and its power is bound up in the need of the author for a resource to help her journey with mental illness as a disciple of Jesus. “Yet while therapists and counselors, psychiatrists and medications abound,” she notes, “I found no one to help me make sense of my pain with regard to my life before the triune God.” (5)

Both the author’s personal piety (she is an Episcopal chaplain by vocation) and deep well of knowledge (she holds a PhD from Yale) are present on every page.  She peppers her stories of struggle and heartache with petitions from the Book of Common Prayer, and transitions from SSRI’s and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to praying with the saints with a deft hand.  Greene-McCreight writes many things that need to be repeated in our pulpits and small groups, such as this simple but profound statement: “Mental illness is not an indication of the weakness of one’s faith.” (117)  As a pastor, I am glad to have this book to recommend, and I will be doing so frequently.

We need to hear this word from a sister in Christ who has walked this lonesome valley and invites us to tarry on with her; we need her wisdom, her depth, and her faithful tenacity in the face of illness.  I continue to be struck by this:

…sick people are not necessarily weak. I am ashamed to admit i did not already know this. Sick people are afflicted. They need the help of the Christian community, not our rejection. Mentally ill people can shock us. The stigma of mental illness can turn us off. But it should be the Christian community of all places where those who suffer are welcomed and supported, prayed for and comforted. (162)

As best as I can tell, churches tend to avoid the uncomfortable topic of mental illness. I am guilty of this.  But I believe I am better equipped to address these hard issues and help reduce some of the stigma in the community I serve after reading Darkness is My Only Companion.  More than anything, Greene-McCreight has convinced me we can and must do better.

I know it is normal to offer some critique as part of a review, even if only for the sake of custom or to appear impartial.  But I have nothing to offer on this score, and I do not wish to make something up for the sake of appearances.  As a pastor, and as a friend and companion to those with mental illness, I am grateful for this book.  I will echo Archbishop Welby, who concludes his Foreword to this new edition by giving thinks “above all to the God who unexpectedly has renewed me in his perfect love and grace” through this profound and unique work.

In the words of St. Augustine: tolle, lege.  Take and read.

P.S. I have not read the previous printing, but I was interested to read the afterword that is new to this edition, in which the author relates some of her own more recent experience with mental illness, discusses new treatments that are emerging, and responds to some of the chief critiques she’s received since the original publication in 2006.

Special thanks to Brazos for providing a review copy of this book.

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