The Land of the Gerasenes

Whenever I find myself in a confusing pastoral situation, I ask myself a question that has, sadly, become something of a punch line: “What would Jesus do?”

Yes, I know the phrase has been almost drained of meaning thanks to overuse, but it still has great value for those who minister in Jesus’ name. And once I ask that question, an answer usually presents itself. Be kind. Be merciful. Be forgiving. Listen carefully. Above all, love.


But lately I’ve been wondering if that question can cover all the bases in ministry—or in life. Specifically, I’ve been wondering: What is the best way to deal with emotionally unstable people?

Everyone in ministry will run into this challenge at some point. How do you minister to people who are not simply bothersome, not simply annoying, but seriously unstable? How, in a church setting, can you treat them both compassionately and wisely? In the past few weeks, I’ve been talking with members of the clergy and with lay ministers looking for answers.

Even though I don’t work in a parish full time, I face this challenge regularly. Recently (I’m changing some details) a person who had been posting on my public Facebook page requested my e-mail address so that he could ask me for some personal advice. Now what’s a priest to do? I don’t want to be uncharitable or shirk my priestly duties, so I agreed. Soon I was deluged with e-mails describing his problems in detail. Each time, I tried to respond as well as I could. His e-mails soon became angry—mainly about the world in general. When I didn’t respond within a few hours, they got even angrier. Finally, a few weeks ago, I received one that used the “F-word” several times. I had to ask him not to contact me any more. Then I received on Facebook, Twitter and by e-mail more “F-bombs” from the same person.

Years ago, in a parish book club that met monthly, I was frustrated when one of our meetings was hijacked by someone who was not simply rude or obstreperous, but clearly mentally disturbed. I struggled between wanting to be charitable and also trying to maintain a space for the other parishioners, who were looking forward to the evening. Finally I asked the person to let others speak. She glowered at me throughout the meeting, and then on her way out used the “F-word.”

Lately I’ve been thinking, “What would Jesus do?” I had to smile at the answer. He would heal them! The story that came to mind is the account of the Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20). Jesus and the disciples have just crossed the Sea of Galilee in their boat and a notorious “demoniac” (a man possessed by an “unclean” spirit) accosts Jesus. He screams, “What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” After a brief back-and-forth, Jesus heals the man, and he is later found to be “in his right mind.” Many times I wish I could do that.

Conversations with Catholic pastoral ministers have proved illuminating. Some said they strive to be as kind as they can until the person becomes disruptive or violent. Then they must set limits. Others told me that sometimes people just need a little attention and loving care, and simply listening to them—as Jesus did—may defuse the situation.

I don’t know the answer to this serious pastoral question. I think that it begins with charity, but it should also include prudence and a concern for others in the parish or in the ministerial setting—including oneself.

People who are unstable but not violent are easier to minister to. Of course, even these people may present a challenge, particularly since, in my experience, they tend to return over and over. Some people I spoke with shared with me a few examples of a more jocular approach. One priest said that when an unstable woman said to him, accusingly, after Mass, “Jesus told me in prayer that you’re not holding the host high enough at the elevation,” my friend said, “What time did he say that?” “At 9 this morning,” she replied. “Well,” said my friend calmly, “That’s okay. At 9:30 Jesus told me I was holding it at just the right height.”

My favorite response came from a priest who was accosted by a wild-eyed man who said that he had a message from the devil to give him.

“Oh,” he said gently, “messages from the devil are handled at the parish down the street. Would you like their address?”

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Traci Guynup
5 years 5 months ago
Dear Father Martin: As someone with a mood disorder, I have had a LOT of problems with my anger. I also had a lot at which to be righteously angry. For a biblical solution to your verbally abusive individual, the story of David and Shimei is quite poignant. Since it was only verbal abuse, you escaped them throwing stones and "showering with dirt." I know of priests that have been killed by mentally disturbed men; so I am not saying to put yourself at risk. One of the lessons that I have learned lately is that God gives me opportunities for suffering. I can accept the suffering, or I can be vengeful. Our Lady of the Holy Cross is very helpful for me in this situation. If it were me, and I was watching MY child be flogged, and crucified?? I would have picked up a sword from the soldiers and started whacking away. But that's not what she did. She stood by Him. I have spent many hours in prayer in front of Station 12 of the Cross. Some of these people that are VERY angry have been sexually abused. They have never learned how to manage their anger. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is three big words for mindfulness, is effective in helping these individuals. DBT can be expensive. But teaching these people the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises?? That would be a loving response. Personally, as someone with mental illness, if you told me to go down the street, that would piss me off. I did not ask for my disease. It is much harder to get appropriate treatment for mental illness than it is to go to the dentist. It is more expensive to seek treatment. Psychiatrists do not have a "cure." Lobotomies don't work. If someone has a toothache, people can empathize. If someone has been abused as a child, do you really understand the amount of pain that person is suffering on a daily basis? If you saw a wounded animal, would you leave it beside the road if it growled at you? If a wounded bird pecked at you, would you kill it? There is a lovely illumination from the Isabella Breviary. we can then follow the command of Jesus in Matthew 5:44: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” God love you.
Dionys Murphy
5 years 5 months ago
Dear Fr. Martin, First a little background. I currently serve as a Catholic lay hospital Chaplain. My father was of the Society of Jesus for more than 20 years before he left the Order to pursue social work, teaching and later start a family. I am Catholic, born, raised, confirmed, et cetera with an additional 25 years of Zen Buddhist mindfulness practice. My cultural background is primarily Irish/Italian raised in NYC. I served my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) residency at a state mental health facility (lockdown, primarily people who've plead guilty except for insanity or people who aren't 'competent' to stand trial yet) so I have a good deal of experience with people who are emotionally (and mentally) unstable. I agree that Jesus would heal those who suffer from mental illness, or even offer healing in some form to those who are simply emotionally unstable, or emotionally overwrought. Because people in those states of mind are indeed suffering and the pain is easily equal to that of purely physical pain and suffering. What has always 'worked' for me in meeting these people, and continues to work in a clinical hospital setting where those we minister to run the whole spectrum of people you're likely to encounter, is to deeply listen. It is an art that is often forgotten, though present in ministry and pastoral care. Not only listen deeply, but to reflect back what you have heard so that those you are listening to, people who are likely angry because they aren't often listened to (because they are angry -- do you see the cycle?)feel heard. To be truly, deeply heard and to know that you are truly and deeply heard is in and of itself a healing thing for many who are not heard. Many with emotional or mental instability are ignored, or when they're spoken with they are either evaluated and ignored or asked to silence themselves. Reflective listening and being able to go deeper, even if what they are saying isn't based in reality (the key, of course, is to stick with the feelings behind what they're saying as they're real), is incredibly healing -- and has de-escalated more mental health patients than shaking a stick at them ever has. Charity, love, compassion, understanding and a willingness to listen deeply along with the ability to be genuine, honest and touch upon those places, wounds and hurts that society tells us to "not go to" are all important parts of the equation. As is being able to set proper limits and boundaries when anger transforms to abuse of self or other. Many with mental health concerns have difficulties with boundaries in one form or another. And most will push those boundaries until you set a strong, but kind, boundary with them. If people are returning to you (or others) over and over, there is a reason. And most often it's not pathology, but because they do not felt they were heard or that their concerns/hurts/wounds were not heard, healed or dealt with. When someone returns to us over and over again and it's not pathology, I think it becomes our job to listen even more deeply and find the threads of hurt and suffering that are underneath what they are explicitly telling us. To delve into that deep, dark water is scary -- but that is what offers the sense of healing and being heard that often leads to more healing. I think humor can be helpful, but one has to be incredibly skillful in that humor. It has to be the wise fool type of humor that re-frames a problem in a light that allows the one you are meeting with to come away with a perspective they hadn't thought of. Too often, humor is used to cover the minister's own discomfort in dealing with a situation rather than as a tool for showing one the great, humorous, joyful spirit of God in a situation. DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) or MBT (Mindfulness Based Therapy) has been show to be effective. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius would work for some, but is beyond the ability of many dealing with mental health concerns or who have anger/impulsiveness concerns. Most often what I encounter in those who are "difficult" or "challenging" or "complex" are people who have been deeply wounded at some point of their life. And then ignored after that. Utterly unresolved loss and accompanying grief of some sort. Sometimes when they're told to stuff that down, they stuff it so far that they lose conscious memory of it. So drawing that out can also often be a healing grace. The way that you speak about the "F-word" seems to indicate a particular dislike of the word, or the circumstance that brought about the word. Words are clues. When someone drops the 'F-bomb', sometimes it is certainly for reaction, but often times it is expressive of an incredible hurt that they're trying to give voice to. Imagine if they could give a proper voice to that hurt. Imagine how healing that would be. Rather than be reactive to the word yourself, imagine if you reflected back the 'f-bomb' along with how they were feeling about something they were hurt over. I have had to do that in a number of circumstances, and it was incredibly healing for those people to be really heard without censorship or reactivity. Those are some of my thoughts regarding what you've asked about. I'm more than happy to share more or correspond regarding this or any other subject. Regards, Dionys Murphy, M.Div.
Andrew Di Liddo
5 years 5 months ago
Father Martin: I'm sorry that you experienced the misuse of social media. This column ,plus the comments, are full of a lot things for me to think about. Firstly, I come from a family with mental illness and the comments above really resonate with me. Your witness in the media is so important for the Catholic faith in the United States right now, IMHO. (all media, books, magazines, TV, other). I cannot add too much to what has already been said here other than a recent experience in my own family. Regarding the "F" Mother has been in a nursing home for over 5 years and has some dementia and a lot of instability. Also, she suffers severe hearing loss so she shouts. Its so embarrasing for our family when we visit with her in the nursing home in public areas, dining areas, TV lounges, visiting parlors, etc. and she gets upset and starts up. Usually, we just have to wheel her back to her room while she lets off a string of F bombs en route. Many other patients and visitors of patients have witnessed this. Two weeks ago Mom was unresponsive and Dad got a phone call asking if we wanted to resuscitate her, take her to a hospital. Naturally, my Dad said YES and she was treated for a minor heart attack at a nearby hospital. She bounced back quickly and in this new environment with new faces and new routine, the F Bombs were a flying. My youngest sister called me relative to Mom as she has been integral to my Mom's care. During the discussion, my youngest sister started to related some stories to me about some of her experiences coordinating Mom's care. My sister suffers from lupus herself and is not well or feeling OK some days. As she related to me some stories I was not aware of, I sensed that her anger was rising and her language became increasingly peppered with F Bombs. This was the first time we had spoken in about a year because we had had a falling out whilst caring for my younger brother suffering from cancer. As I have grown spiritually I find the F bomb more offensive than I used to before my conversion. I especially did not like it coming from my "baby" sister, 10 years younger than I. I prayed while listening to her and, thankfully, fell into the advice you gave in your column: listen and love. It would have been so easy for me as big "religious" brother to lecture my sister about her language but I just listened. As I listened, it became quite clear to me that my sister had a very good reason to be angry. On a previous hospital admission, my Mom was admitted to a hospital that was seriously under staffed. My sister was in the room with my Mom and a nurse and the nurse was trying to insert a nasogastric tube in order to provide nutrition for Mom. With a dementia patient that is hard of hearing, this is quite difficult as they become violent and have to be restrained in order to do the insertion. The nurse explained to my sister that my sister, who is not a nurse, would have to do the insertion herself because there was no one available to assist. My sister donned rubber gloves and proceeded to try to insert the tube through Mom's nose while the nurse restrained Mom. Her attempts were unsuccessful and Mom's thrashing about only served to inflict more pain on Mom than was necessary. My sister ripped the rubber gloves off her hands and in a string of F bombs told the nurse to get some help up to my Mom's room now! I cannot believe my sister agreed in the first place to perform this clinical task at my Mom's bedside without any training at all. My prayer was answered because I listened to my sister, asked some questions about certain details, let her vent, and now, the channels of communication are re-opened between us. I have had some subsequent phone calls with her about other matters and we are re-building our relationship after not talking to one another for over a year. Expressing anger in our society is no easy task these days with so many angry people around. Allowing people to give voice and learn how to manage anger and APPROPRIATELY express it is something maybe we can help each other do.....At these times of family stress, I've learned from you to be gentle with family members.... As others touch our lives, so do we touch theirs, be gentle, even if they are not God bless you for what you do. Andrew John Di Liddo Jr.
Joseph OFFER
5 years 5 months ago
Fr. Martin, I can't begin to list all the wonderful things you've lead me to in your Facebook posts. Thank you very much for them. Your post about the Gerasenes made me thing about Manuel. I wish I could heal him. Several weeks ago, he came to church at the end of the Bible study I lead on Mondays. He had been released from jail three days before, and he needed to get to the Probation Department to get a GPS bracelet attached to his leg. There was no way for him to get to his appointment on time with public transportation, so I gave him a ride. On the way, he asked for my phone number. I cringed because I didn't want to get involved, but I didn't want to refuse him. I gave him my cell phone number, since I only use my cell phone when I'm driving (hey - with a Bluetooth speakerphone). Manuel knows that I'm driving on Mondays after Bible study, so that's when he calls me. He caught me once when I was driving where he needed to go, so I was able to pick him up five minutes after he called. The next time he called, I was in heavy traffic, and I wasn't able to give him the attention he needed. I find myself hoping that I didn't offend him, and hoping that he calls again when I can talk to him. It's a risk to open yourself to people who need you - but I think that's what we're called to do. Fr. Martin, keep posting on Facebook. Those posts do marvelous good for me - and I'm sure they inspire many people to do what's right. -Joe Offer-
Sara Damewood
5 years 5 months ago
Fr. Jim, I do agree with the last comment (which is not appearing, for some reason, now that I've signed in)... but it was something about being careful how you use humor, it could be hurtful to someone to tell them to go to the church down the street. At the same time, I think that humor is your most valuable tool in dealing with emotionally unstable people. it's disarming, let's them know you trust them enough to joke with them and helps them to lighten up. I know it helps me lighten up when I joke with an emotionally distressed person, so I can be more effective with them. You have a great sense of humor. What a blessing to all who know you! That brings me to my next suggestion, which is to highlight strengths. People feel crappy about themselves when they're out of control of their emotions, especially if they've just used the F bomb. (By the way, until I read your writing defending the profanity in "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," I thought the F Bomb meant flatulence. I guess I've been too sheltered.) Anyway, even the most disabled. ornery people can have the most charming qualities. If you can find them and simply smile when you notice them, I think you'd be surprised at how people recognize when they're being loved... not just Agape love... but appreciation & even affection. Finally, I think boundaries are important, and people learn from them. If you're able to set limits without completely ending contact with people, that can be (I think) particularly healing. They'll learn what the limits are and try to improve their behavior. However, there are times when you need to completely sever communication with someone, and they can learn from that, too. God bless you, Fr. Jim. You have the "smell of your sheep!"
Carlos Del Sol
5 years 5 months ago
Cast not your pearls before swine. Evil would love nothing more than for you to waste precious hours on manipulative people starving for attention, while the truly poor in spirit grasp for their last straws of hope.
5 years 5 months ago
Dear Fr. Martin, I feel badly that you were verbally abused as you ministered in charity to a mentally afflicted person. Augustine said that while charity is good it must never be practiced contrary to sound judgement, that is, always prudently. You acted prudently by discontinuing electronic outreach to that tortured soul, liberating him to the spiritual unction of the "Balm of Gilead" to prayer, sometimes the only effective ministerial embrace possible. Many decades ago one of your Jesuit brothers, Fr. Daniel A. Lord wrote a pamphlet titled, "Man Says If I Were God!" in which he mused as to how people would "do it" if they were Deity. Two thousand years ago Incarnationally the Second Person similarly asked, "God Says If I were Man." You paid perfect attention to what God "discovered" namely some human conditions are imponderable and must be turned over entirely to the Father, just as Jesus did in his most confusing moments! Bruce Snowden
James Muraski
5 years 5 months ago
There but by the grace of God...Go I. Feeling sorry for myself ........ for no important reason. God bless all of you in your Ministry and openness to God's most needy. You are in my prayers. Our family has been blessed with mental health and God's grace. You are God's precious helpers.


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