The Devil is in the Diagnosis

The nurse asked me to bring a Bible to the psychiatric ward. It was the summer of my seminary training as a hospital chaplain in Honolulu at Queens Medical Center. I was the on-call chaplain that night.

Through a long maze of dimly lit and deserted hospital corridors, I reached what seemed to be a forgotten place, fallen off of the earth: the psychiatric ward.

As I entered the psych ward rec room, Bible in hand, the tv buzzing, fluorescent lights glowing, I saw the nurse standing next to a tall and thin balding man. Without words the patient turned towards me and then fell to the floor, his lanky body prostrate at my feet, face down.

I crouched down beside him and awkwardly whispered, “You don’t have to do that.” I wasn’t even a real minister yet. I felt like an imposter.

Even for a psych ward, this behavior was bizarre as most patients were so heavily medicated, they could hardly manage a shuffle.

Yet the spectacle was just a blip in the evening routine. He got up at the nurse’s urging. We went over and sat in a corner of the loud rec room. His eyes lit up as I handed him the Bible.
He wanted to sit quietly and read it.

This experience stays with me, even now, over a decade later. Why did the man in the psych ward exhibit such a response upon my arrival?

I think that it had to do more with God and less with me. I think it had to do with the book I held and it’s story of healing. I think it had to do with him and the demons inside.

Or not. It could simply be that his mind was broken by a brain disease and that nothing he did made any sense.

I’ve heard preachers say that people in the psych ward are demon possessed. The preachers explain that the struggle is between good and evil, the soul and Satan, heaven and hell. The cure is to cast out the demon through prayer, through exorcism, through a heavenly intervention.

I don’t know about all that. Such religious extremism discounts scientifically based evidence of both the biological causes and successful medical treatments of mental health diseases. I’m pretty sure it’s not all the devil’s doing. The devil is not in the diagnosis.

Yet, there is something about prayer and the quiet consolation of scripture that brings inner healing of a tortured mind and spirit.

And that man in the psych ward knew that the Bible I brought him would help him sleep better that night, put to rest the demons inside.

He wasn’t prostrating before me like a lowly servant before a queen, but he was humbling himself before God’s book and the healing found between its pages.

And though it may be crazy, I think he was justified in his expression of thanks. At times, I wish I had his courage and abandon. What keeps me from kneeling, from bowing down, from prostrating myself before God’s love?

I once heard a devote Muslim say that his prayer posture, bowing down with his forehead touching the ground several times a day, is a sign of humility. It expresses the belief that God is everything and we are nothing. This way of praying with the body reminds him of his dependence on God.

That summer night in the psych ward I went with a Bible to minister to a crazy man. And it was the crazy man who showed a young seminarian what it looks like to have faith in God.

One thought on “The Devil is in the Diagnosis

  1. There is nothing as sublime as bowing or prostrating before the sacredness of God! I was a Protestant who converted to Orthodox Christianity and one of the many reasons was because I was finally able to express physically what I was feeling emotionally/spiritually . May we all be as “crazy” in our love for God as that man was in that moment!

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