People were saying ‘He has gone out of his mind.’

Fr Alec
Sunday, June 7, 2015 - 9:30am

I was somewhat touched a little while ago when an elderly clergyman approached me at an Army function with a beaming face, and greeted me saying ‘Good morning, brother.’ It was a simple enough thing to say, but it carried with it a powerful resonance. It seemed to me to say

‘I do not know you. I have never met you. Yet you are my brother. We are children of the same heavenly father. We share one bread and one cup, and we are bound together as family in Christ.

As the day wore on, and I came to see him pottering about introducing himself in the same way to other people, it became clear that he stood within the rich Anglican tradition of clerical eccentricity, and this was just one of the mannerisms which baffled and yet endeared him to people, and it seemed to me that eccentricity, indeed madness, is at the heart of what it is to be a Christian.

Reading through our gospel today, in which Jesus is accused of madness, I was reminded of the work of the poet Christopher Smart. He was seized by what was described at the time as a religious mania, and confined to an asylum. In his best known work, Rejoice in the Lamb, later set to music by Benjamin Britten, he quotes the verse from Mark as he laments his fate:

‘For I am under the same accusation
With my Saviour,
For they said,
He is besides himself.
For the officers of the peace
Are at variance with me,
And the watchman smites me
With his staff.
For the silly fellow, silly fellow,
Is against me,
And belongeth neither to me
Nor to my family.
For I am in twelve hardships,
But he that was born of a virgin
Shall deliver me out of all,
Shall deliver me out of all.


Smart’s friend, Samuel Johnson said of him:

"...I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it."

His flaw then was to flout the conventions and proprieties of his age. To be consumed by religious ardour to the extent that the expectations of those around him meant little to him. It may be, for all I know, that he was indeed suffering from some psychological complaint, but this is rather beside the point. Within his rather rambling and repetitive verses there is a profound sense of the close and awesome familiarity of God. In his reaching for truth, his nonsense was more eloquent than sense.

Of course, he stands within a long line of Holy Fools. The Eastern Church has long cherished its yurodivy, whose acetic lives and outlandish behaviour belie a powerful piety and spiritual insight. Wandering about in rags, they are renowned for their ravings, and profane outbursts, which, however shocking they may be, carry within them a kernel of sacred truth. Like a jester in the court of a mediaeval king, the Holy Fool is allowed a measure of license. He may speak truth to power, and his words find their way under the radar because they come from one who is emphatically without the kind of authority which is recognised by the world.

Sanity, I think, describes a state of having come to terms with the world. But if this coming to terms has involved compromise, has involved doing violence to a Truth that we discover within ourselves, then it is a poor deal. Better to lose the whole world than to lose our selves, our souls, our lives.

And thus we return to Christ. At odds with the scribes from Jerusalem because he seemed to have no authority for his teaching, no authority for his casting out demons, but himself. And yet the madness of Jesus seems infinitely preferable to the sanity of the world. It is inherently compelling. Counter-intuitive, yet somehow inevitable and true. Truly to see Christ is to see creation as it was in the mind of God- fresh and new and uncorrupted. To glimpse the Kingdom of Heaven, where the perverse priorities of our own age are turned upon their head. As Paul said:

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor 1.21)

In a similar vein, Johnson said of his friend:

"although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question."

As followers of Christ we are called to live in a way that stands against many of the norms which are expected by the society around us. We are called to forgive those who wrong us, to love those who hurt us and not to seek for vengeance. We are called  to count our material wealth as nothing and give it up for the sake of the poor. We are called to give special honour to those whom the world rejects as worthless and place our trust our trust in a God we cannot see.

It is tempting always for us as Christians to pull our punches. To dilute our message into something we think more palatable to onlookers from outside. But the gospel, the great message of love , knows no compromise. There is no sleight of hand in the way of the cross. It’s true attractiveness stems from this very fact.

The crowds were pressing around Jesus not because he told them what they wanted to hear, but because he showed them something new.

May God bless us, and grant that we may never become so sane that we come to forget the Truth. Amen.