One of the things I do for work is to schedule ‘on this day in history’ tweets vaguely relating to our broad subject area. We’ve currently got an exhibition on about the artist J.M.W. Turner, and so I’ve been researching events in his life I could include. And I found that on 27 December 1800, Turner’s mother Mary was admitted to the Bethlem Hospital for the insane, aka Bedlam.
I couldn’t help being struck by the coincidence that a mother called Mary was going to a place called Bethlehem at Christmas time. Yet of course, the coincidence was deeply and darkly ironic. This Bethlehem was not a place of hope and light and new life, but of despair and darkness and death. Its popular name Bedlam has become synonymous with madness and chaos.
And this Mary was not the mother of God; she was certainly the mother of a great artist – but also of a daughter whose untimely death (aged four) is thought to have triggered her mother’s descent into depression and perceived ‘madness’.
It’s a tragic tale, apparently with no redeeming ray of hope. It’s thought that Mary Turner ultimately died in Bethlem hospital only a few years later. Of course her son would go on to become perhaps the greatest landscape painter of the 19th century, but she would never know that.
In a further ironic twist, descriptions of the infamous Bethlem hospital from an earlier period of its history report that inmates were treated like animals, sleeping on ‘beds of straw’ (though admittedly this was over 100 years before Mary Turner was admitted). Again, I can’t help hearing the echoes of that other Bethlehem: ‘See him lying on a bed of straw’, as the Calypso carol puts it.
The nightmare before Christmas
I might have passed over this had it not been for my own experience of mental health difficulties at Christmas time. I know some will think I shouldn’t share this online, but I do so cautiously in the hope that it will help others and do something to remove the stigma of these conditions.
Exactly twenty years ago this Christmas, and for various reasons I’m not going to go into here, I plunged into a nightmare of OCD, paranoia and extreme anxiety from which I would not begin to emerge for 2-3 months. And in an odd twist, on that very same day – just before the disorder fully kicked in – I also turned my life over to Christ, asked him into my onrushing darkness. So for me the deepest dark and the brightest light came simultaneously.
And I know that I’m not alone in having experienced deep despair, darkness or desolation over the Christmas season. Perhaps precisely because it is supposed to be the season of goodwill and festivity, when we are meant to feel full of joy and excitement, it is instead for so many a time of sadness and anger and loss and despair. It’s a time when our broken reality is held up against the glittering happy ideal, and seen to be terribly wanting.
So is the link between Bethlehem and Bedlam – and also between Mary the mother of God and Mary the ‘mad’ mother of Turner – nothing more than a tragic and ironic coincidence? Perhaps. But I think there may be a deeper connection. For there is a darker side to the Christmas story which I think we need to remember, not to be morbid but because that darkness is a necessary corollary to the coming of the light.
The darkness of Bethlehem
For of course, the original Bethlehem was not solely or primarily a place of light and joy.
For Mary there was quite probably the social and family shame of her pregnancy outside of wedlock. She may well have been ostracised and isolated (though not apparently by her cousin Elizabeth). Perhaps when the gospel account records that ‘there was no room in the inn’, it really means that there was no place for Mary in the family guesthouse, for she and her shame-bearing child were not welcome. Though she was not yet quite the literal refugee she would become after Herod’s purge, she was already in some ways in social exile at the time when she most needed support from friends and family.
And then there were of course the terrible pains of childbirth, with no help from anaesthetics and quite probably with no midwife or proper medical attention.
There were the troubling prophecies of personal sorrow and loss mixed in with the light and joy and hope of Jesus’ birth. In the temple, Anna told Mary that her son would be ‘a sign that would be spoken against’, and that ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too’. And there was the Magi’s strange gift of Myrrh, introducing the jarring whiff of death into the place of birth.
Finally there was the terror of the flight for their lives into long-term exile in a foreign land, to avoid Herod’s terrible killing spree.
The angel’s warning spared Mary and her family from the massacre. But others in Bethlehem were not so fortunate or favoured. Herod’s soldiers swept through the town like a bloody tide, in an ironic echo of the slaughter of Egypt’s firstborn in Exodus. So one of the first direct consequences of the saviour’s birth was the pointless murder of dozens of innocent children, tragic collateral in a despot’s desperate attempt to maintain his petty position.
And you only need to type ‘Christmas massacre’ into Google to see that the season of peace and goodwill has witnessed more than its share of bloodshed over the centuries. I’m reminded of poet Gordon Bailey’s piece of ironic wordplay: ‘Christmas/sacred or Christ/massacred – where do you draw the line?’
Light and darkness
Now Christmas is about the light of heaven coming into the darkness of the world. But at first it’s a tiny light, as small and weak as a newborn infant, and it seems that any strong gust can extinguish it. The light of Christmas is not a blazing Sun that swallows up the darkness of night, but a candle flame that shows up the magnitude of the surrounding darkness. The people that walk in darkness will see a great light, but at its first rising it may just be the faintest glimmer of a distant star in a storm-dark sky.
We know the darkness, we creatures of this old Earth. We have seen it in the world and if we’re honest we’ve seen it in ourselves. We have felt the inexorable gravitational pull of Entropy, of the encircling chaos that we can only keep at bay by constant vigilance. We have perhaps sensed at times the power of what Frederick Buechner calls ‘the hungering dark’. We may even have felt (though we won’t usually admit it) the tug of madness, of the inner chaos of mental confusion and disintegration and darkness.
Despised and rejected
And perhaps this is the worst kind of darkness; not that which comes at us from outside, but that which seeps up from within and threatens to devour our very selves. It’s the kind that took Turner’s mother to Bethlem hospital, that sad human refuse-heap of the outcast and rejected, of the unwanted and misunderstood. It’s the kind that I knew 20 years ago.
As I can testify, Turner’s mother, and many of Bedlam’s other inmates, may well not have been ‘mad’ at all. They may have been merely deeply depressed and unable to cope, or suffering from any of the multiple forms of neurosis and disorder that can for a time seize the mind of any of us, given the right set of circumstances. Yet these people were so often cast aside and left to rot. Like Mary the mother of the shame-bringing and shame-bearing Christ, they were ostracised, shunned, ‘despised and rejected of men’.
And of course Jesus too – the sanest person ever to have walked the Earth – was accused of being a madman, even demon-possessed. For when true light comes, it is not universally wanted or welcomed; it shows up all the flaws we’ve been hiding in our feeble lights. It’s not even universally noticed or recognised. Perhaps those who have truly walked in deepest darkness can fully see and welcome the real light. Perhaps only those who have truly known despair can really understand the full meaning and value of hope.
‘The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it… the True Light has come into the world, but the world did not recognise it…’
At Christmas and in the Incarnation, the Light of the World enters fully into our darkness, our chaos, our asylums and hells and prisons of the mind. As I can testify, the darkness itself does not always instantly go away; at first, it may even appear to get stronger. But light has come nonetheless, and hope has begun. Darkness, death and despair remain, but they will not now get the last word.