We recently had the chance to talk with Rev. Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD, about her book, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness.
Kathryn Greene-McCreight (PhD., Yale University) is Priest Associate at The Episcopal Church at Yale. Her previous books include Ad Litteram: How Augustine, Calvin, and Barth Read the Plain Sense of Genesis 1–3 and Feminist Reconstructions of Christian Doctrine: A Narrative Analysis and Appraisal. She also serves on the board of the Elm City Chapter of NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) and on the Patient and Advisory Council of Yale Psychiatric Hospital.
1. What makes this book different from any other narrative of mental illness? You’ve written theological books before—how does this one differ from your other work?
A colleague once referred to the book as a memoir, but I corrected her. It is not a memoir. If it fits a genre, I might say it is a theodicy, but that doesn’t work either. Modern philosophical theodicy dwells on the level of theory. There is nothing wrong per se with theories about God’s relation to human suffering—unless you are in the midst of suffering, in which case theories are the last thing you need. Don’t try to give a theory to someone in the death throes of stage four cancer or to someone at the window ledge ready to jump.
Darkness asks questions about God’s relation to human suffering but from within a specific life, the life of a Christian trying to live faithfully with and in spite of a mental illness. The larger framework is not philosophical. The framework in which the questions are asked and lived out is orthodox Christian confession and practice.
I suppose I would say that, more properly, the book is a lament; it is a prayer; it is a testimony. It is an offering for the upbuilding of the Church in love of God and love of neighbor, especially in love of those neighbors who happen to live with mental illnesses.
2. Why did you title your book Darkness Is My Only Companion?
The phrase “Darkness is my only companion” is from the final verse of Psalm 88 in the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (BCP) psalter. Because I pray the psalms from the Book of Common Prayer, I memorized the verse as it is translated there: “My friend and neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion.” When I prayed, it rang out to me. As hard as this may be for others to understand, it even reassured me. I could feel completely alone and in pain and in darkness, but that was okay. My complete despair was not a sign of my lack of faith. If the psalmist could cry out in such misery, then I felt it was okay for me to say it too.
But here is where things get muddy. You can blame the negativity of my title on the odd translation of the 1979 revision of the 1928 prayerbook’s psalter. The 1979 BCP modernized Coverdale’s long-cherished translation of the psalter, which had laid the foundation for the classical tradition of English psalmody from the sixteenth century onward. Here is Coverdale’s translation: “My lovers and friends hast thou put away from me, and hid mine acquaintance out of my sight.” Coverdale’s translation is closer, it seems to me, to the Hebrew, Septuagint, and Vulgate than is the 1979 BCP. In fact, I don’t quite see how or why the translators came to render the verse as they did. Here it is in the RSV: “Thou hast caused lover and friend to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” The NRSV is not much different. “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” The other English translations I checked do not understand darkness itself to be the psalmist’s companion.
If I were to have written it now, I think I would have entitled it using the first part of John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness.” Or maybe Psalm 27:1, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” I would choose these not so much because they are more uplifting than “Darkness is my only companion,” but because I don’t like the 1979 BCP translation of Psalm 88:19! But this didn’t occur to me at the time.