No Man Is an Island

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John Donne

Psychiatry only aims at making a sick person healthy and mature. Under Pope Francis, the church has acted with far less suspicion toward the role psychology plays in the spiritual life.

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Francis himself has spoken openly about undergoing psychotherapeutic treatment during his tenure as Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina. Still, even as the church under Francis builds toward a new understanding of mental illness, its ancient habit of holding the two traditions of asceticism and psychology in competition persists, preventing us from making full use of both. No person is an island, as Merton famously taught. And neither, it should be said, is the church. In an age of anxiety, the church should not pretend to be able to adequately address issues of mental illness on its own.

This does not mean that spirituality or asceticism cannot play a role in the creation of a healthy person or a healthy society.


They can, and should. Nevertheless, asceticism often requires a corrective force to bring things back into balance. Merton understood that psychology could play this role, offering support to the solitary ascetic. The American church would do well to understand that the psychological needs of its members often goes beyond what it has historically offered—solitary prayer, confession, penance, and the rest. The church should instead embrace the insights of psychology, knowing that any other response to the growing mental health crisis may leave seekers without the tools to continue living a spiritually robust life.

Such a shift would send a much more compassionate message to American Catholics, relieving them of the burden of solving their inner problems alone. Nick Scrimenti is a freelance writer and a master's student at Harvard Divinity School. Please email comments to letters commonwealmagazine. No Man Is an Island. By Nick Scrimenti. Share Share Twitter Print.

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The American church should understand that the psychological needs of its members often goes beyond what it has historically offered. Related Spirituality. Vatican II. Pope Francis. By Nicole-Ann Lobo.

No Man Is an Island

By Cole Stangler. By Daniel Philpott. Must Reads. Of course there have been incidents on the islands, even serious ones that hit the national news in Ireland. But in general the presence of the police is only needed here to check the closing times of the three pubs. When incidents occur, the people usually manage to deal with these themselves.

This must have been the way things worked in small isolated communities all over the world. One calm evening we sat down at the bay and watched some fishermen cleaning the fish they had caught earlier on. The cut-off fish heads drew many hungry seagulls near, squealing, circling the air, flying away with their catch.

Even if the fishermen were doing this every evening, they were clearly enjoying it, taking their time and helping each other with the cleaning. Without hesitation they gave some of their cleaned fish away to islanders who were passing by. Watching the Inisheer fishermen, I realized again how outdated this view really is. Their lives might be hard enough at times, but as a far as I could see, the fish were the only creatures here with short lives!

People in small communities like this one — living in a remote place, surrounded by the powerful elements of the ocean — are generally friendly and willing to help each other. The closer to nature we come, the friendlier we get. The good-natured, generous attitude of the fishermen brings an even more telling experience to mind.

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Some years ago we went camping for a few nights on the coast in County Sligo. Nearby was a small community with just a few houses, and one of those houses had been turned into a tiny shop.

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It was open only a few hours in the afternoon, and consisted merely of a large counter and a few shelves with products. It was run by a woman. We ordered some messages for our dinner, and when we asked for milk, the woman looked at us in distress: unfortunately she had no milk. Yet she asked us to wait a minute. She rushed out of the shop, obviously trusting us completely, and came back with an opened carton of milk. She had got the milk in her own house and offered us some! When we wanted to pay for it, she refused to take our money. In this remote place apparently it was normal practice to help people in need, even strangers who were just passing by.

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I experienced a similar empathy and generosity on Inisheer.