There is One who sticks closer than a brother

What does Christian faith look like in the midst of emotional collapse? I don’t mean how it looks to friends and co-workers from the outside. The question I’m asking is what Christian faith looks (or feels) like on the inside for someone who wrestles with a turbulent psychology due to mental illness. What’s it like (for more and more of us today) to believe and yet be emotionally or psychologically broken?

J. D. Salinger has (unfairly, in my opinion) gotten a bad reputation among Christians for his provocative novel, The Catcher in the Rye. But one of his lesser-known novels, Franny and Zooey, beautifully addresses this very question of living with both faith and mental health.

Structurally, the book is very simple (though it has a fascinating history as it was published as two short stories in the New Yorker magazine two years apart). In the first part, Franny travels by train to visit her boyfriend. Their date doesn’t go very well because Franny isn’t feeling very well mentally and her mental condition causes physical symptoms. In fact, this first part ends with Franny fainting in a restaurant and her boyfriend leaving her.

In the second part of the book, Franny has returned home to recuperate on the couch with her cat. We are quickly introduced to her brother, Zooey, smoking in the bathtub and carrying on an explosive argument with their mother. After dressing, Franny and Zooey discuss how her date went, how Franny feels in her heart and mind, and what her faith means to her in the midst of her emotional struggles. Salinger’s book could easily carry the subtitle, “Where is God When I Hurt?”

In a way, Salinger could be seen as riffing a Jesus-esque parable where the “bad guy” in everyone’s eyes turns out to be the one who is most spiritually perceptive. On the one hand, you have the older brother, Zooey, wise in his own eyes and too cool for traditional faith. On the other hand, you have the younger sister, Franny, who is spiritually earnest but emotionally fragile. Zooey is characterized by cigarettes and worldliness. Franny clutches her beloved religious novel and seeks to be devoted to prayer. But in the end, it is the crass, unbelieving Zooey who has the words that lead Franny to renewed life and faith from deep within her emotional pain.

Prayer, throughout, propels the story forward. Franny’s boyfriend notices that she always carries around a little book, The Journey of a Pilgrim, an anonymous tale of a Russian monk who travels across Russia reciting the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”). While Franny tries to describe the book to him, he clearly isn’t interested. He’s more concerned about their weekend timetable than some religious text about a weirdly simple prayer. In the end, after Franny faints during their lunch, her boyfriend leaves her while she recites the Jesus Prayer, clutching her beloved book.

In the second part, the Jesus Prayer occupies much of Franny and Zooey’s conversation. Like her boyfriend, her brother doesn’t understand how such a simple little prayer can make any difference. But Franny knows that her practice of the Jesus Prayer has made a difference in her life, she just doesn’t know how to put it into words. But she can feel the difference it makes, even in the midst of her emotional meltdown. Prayer, she is trying to relate to her unbelieving brother, makes life and faith bearable when you’re broken.

It is at this point that the perceptive Christian reader might have a clue about what Salinger is trying to do. He’s shedding light on something that Kathryn Greene-McCreight has done in her excellent resource for Christians struggling with mental illness in their own lives or the lives of their friends or family (Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness): it is the liturgies of the Christian life which sustain life and faith through the darkest of times.

For Franny and many others who live with emotional and psychological challenges, it is the rhythm of disciplined prayer, meditation and Scripture reading which buoy up life with God in a broken world, especially when the brokenness is within our very selves. Even the simple repetition of the Jesus Prayer is a reminder that there is One stronger than mental illness. As we sometimes sing, there is a redeemer. In fact, there is One who sticks closer than a brother.

  • Mike is the Christian Reformed campus minister at Western University in London, Ont., where he is also a professor of theology and culture. He is the author of Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper (2019). Mike adapted this reflection, published by Kuyper December 13, 1899, for our cultural context.

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