AS part of my journey to re-frame and to try to make some sort of sense of my sisters suicide, I came across Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It is one of our era’s most ubiquitous images and is also probably one of the least understood. Most people think the person in the painting is screaming – but really the image in the painting, the genderless, hairless image is actually the scream itself. Munch was painting the scream of nature that he felt and heard in his own spirit. Biographers have pointed out that not far from where this painting is set in Oslo Norway was an insane asylum in which Munch’s manic depressive sister Laura Catherine was incarcerated. Edvard himself was known to have suffered from panic attacks and anxiety.
The Scream was part of a series of paintings done by Munch entitled “The Frieze of Life.” The works in the series, produced in oil, lithograph and woodcutting all depict emotions; Despair, anxiety and The Scream and were all different versions of these same works.
Our emotions are inextricably caught up in our mental wellbeing and these artworks by Munch explore the interrelations of pain, emotion and mental health (even if Munch wouldn’t have said so himself). Much was creating an artistic representation of mental dysfunction that at many levels can be interpreted and drawn out in theological ways.
In the background of The Scream are some buildings off to the right – the tallest of these buildings is the Oslo Cathedral. I’m using this location of the Cathedral in the painting – as an entry to this works theological story. The church, as in life in general quite often, is in the background of this painting – almost unrecognisable as playing any meaningful part in the action. Yet, there it is, almost faded out, blurring into its surrounds, but still being asked to show itself to those who feel life’s pains most ferociously.
My sister was a very spiritual person, she at one time took on the outward appearance of a Muslim when she married a Muslim man; she had a beautiful Quran among her possessions. She also was an avid reader of self-help and spiritual types of books. She engaged in conversations with me about God. I know that she went at least once to a local Catholic Church and that she had many meetings and some time in prayer with a minister from Newtown Mission, Pastor Brian. She asked for Pastor Brian to conduct her memorial. Among her possessions, filed away so she wouldn’t lose it, was the business card of a local Anglican minister, Father Dave, the boxing priest. She had obviously been on a search for answers and for some kind of connection to God for a very long time. I believe she knew God and that she knew she was loved by him, however for her the church had not provided the answers she was looking for.
At the heart of all mental illness (I’m looking past the biological causes and referring to the theological context here) I believe is the cry that Jesus himself uttered on the cross…”Why Have You Forsaken Me”. Having been in a dark place from which I felt there may be no way out, I have experienced that sense of utter despondency that, as in my sisters case, often leads to suicide. In one sense we could view Christ’s death as Divine Suicide, as he willingly took part in actions that he knew would lead to his ultimate death.
Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions; “…Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee” The church needs to come out of the background for people suffering mental anguish – we need to not blend into the background with all the other help that is no help at all – our difference is Jesus…and that is all the difference that is required, for it is only in Jesus that we can ultimately find peace and the assurance to join with Paul in saying “”Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”