Insanae et vanae curae

Insanae et vanae curae invadunt mentes nostras,
saepe furore replent corda, privata spe.
Quid prodest, O mortalis, conari pro mundanis,
si coelos negligas?
Sunt fausta tibi cuncta, si Deus est pro te.

Frantic and futile anxieties invade our minds; they often
fill our hearts with madness, depriving them of hope.
What is the use, O mortal man, of striving after earthly things,
if you neglect heaven?
All things turn out well for you, if God is on your side.

I have known about this piece of Haydn from the chorus Svanisce in un momento
from the Oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia for many years. This piece is an amazing exercise of harmonic dissonance and suspense in an intense piece of classical counterpoint. I have selected the version sung by the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge.

Frantic and futile anxieties invade our minds. They did at the end of the eighteenth century and continue to do so now. I am no exception as one of millions of human beings living in the face of death (we all have to die of something) and adversity through the accidents of life or our own decisions.

They often fill our hearts with madness, depriving them of hope. Over the years, I have learned a few elements of modern psychology and mental illnesses. Some illnesses are caused by diseases to the brain or neurological malformations. This is highly specialised modern medicine of which I know nothing except some books I have read on autism. Probably the most common mental illness is depression. It may be partly due to chemical imbalances in the brain that can be treated with drugs. For me, it is largely due to our attitude in life and our capacity to understand the mechanics of depression. One of the best approaches I have come across is the Clinical Depression Learning Path. Insofar as I endorse this advice to anyone suffering from this malaise, I am bound to say that people should follow the prescriptions of a qualified doctor or psychiatrist. That said, we have the choice of doctors depending on whether they have a spirit-soul-body concept of man or simply the idea of a “biological machine”. We also have the choice of distinguishing the medical profession from psychologists, psychotherapists, priests, spiritual directors, wise men and women in general. Only doctors can diagnose and prescribe medication, but everything else is within the reach of non-doctors. One example is this site. One major characteristic of this illness is that it makes us go round and round with repeating thoughts and obsessions. The more we get obsessed with negative thoughts, the more they fill us with bitterness, resentment and – in the extreme – thoughts of self-harm and suicide. The person who wrote this text in the eighteenth century was extraordinarily advanced in his knowledge of psychology. Remember that these were the days of Bedlam and the most obscurantist and inhuman ways of treating people suffering from depression, schizophrenia, other forms of psychosis, autism, catatonia and various ailments causing delusions. Here we have a sign of empathy for those who suffer.

I spent six months as a working guest at the Abbey of Triors in 1996-7, and the experience was truly a catharsis for me. The idea was that of my old superior as a condition for my being reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church as a cleric. I will not go into the conduct of this cleric after my time with the monks. One thing I learned was the capital importance of silence, not just the absence of noise but a real Ungrund within our souls. This is something I try to put into practice when entering my chapel and putting on vestments to say Mass. The frantic and futile anxieties must be left outside, symbolised by taking off our shoes, so that we can enter the sacred space. Please listen to this amazing talk by Alan Watts – What Happens If You Stop Talking To Yourself.

This seems to be the major condition of Zen meditation as well as monastic Christian meditation. We learn to shut the hell up – and then enter God’s presence, our own presence. We can control that machine of our repeated words and thoughts. The amazing thing is that many things attributed to mental illness can be controlled by the will so that the mind can be cleared for positive things and peaceful thoughts. I am convinced that depression is mostly caused by this interminable chatter in our minds and our inability to shut up. Certainly, the psychiatrist’s pills can be helpful – temporarily, only for the time that is really necessary. If we can stop or limit these thoughts, then we can avoid going mad!

What is the use, O mortal man, of striving after earthly things, if you neglect heaven? Heaven is within us. It is the ultimate Romantia of all our desires and hopes. The present pandemic puts us face to face with death if we are elderly and suffer from illnesses that most people over a certain age suffer from. Covid-19 can “take advantage” of these ailments and bring our life to an early conclusion. We no longer have those “borrowed” months or years. Sometimes, rarely, the disease gets young people in their twenties and thirties. It can happen. Forgetting about the inevitability of death will not abolish it. We are mortal, but we have hope of what we Christians call heaven. Heaven is that domain of consciousness that is not subject to the illusion of matter. It is spirit, beyond our super-ego and limited experience. Some have speculated. Others have had altered-consciousness experiences and have received knowledge. Most of us hope for something we cannot understand, the Mystery. Earthly things are an illusion created by energy and nothingness, whether they are things money can buy, or our hopes of excelling ourselves.

All things turn out well for you, if God is on your side. God is always there beyond us and within us to bring peace and beatitude. If God is “on our side”, that notion implies that we face an enemy. The devil and evil spirits are real. So are our unredeemed spirits until we side with God, beauty, goodness and truth. Our life is a spiritual combat as we fight these obsessive and diseased thoughts that drive us to the hell of insanity. Insanity is truly an image of hell. Many will never escape – Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate, said Dante Alighieri. Some can escape though hope in God and firmness to conquer their addictions and obsessions. Trust me, I am not being simplistic.

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