Hymns and Mental Illness

Bitter water made sweet.
Bitter water made sweet.

My mum (mom) if you’re reading in the States :-) suffers from a psychiatric illness.

There are times when she finds it helpful to listen to hymns, the ‘old fashioned’ or ‘traditional’ kind; the kind she was brought up listening to and singing. Some of the hymns she listens to are I Need Thee Ever Hour, Onward Christian Soldiers, The King Of Love My Shepherd Is, I Know Whom I Have Believed, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go and Love Divine All Loves Excelling. I think it helps her mind, provides succour and a measure of peace to flow through often troubled thoughts. For mum, the act of listening to hymns is akin to inviting God to turn the harsh landscape (or seascape) of turbulent and dangerous tides, into calming waters from which peace flows. I have often thought that hymns for mum have a similar effect to the wood God provides at the waters of Marah in Exodus 15: 23-25:

When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter…Then Moses cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.

After being subjected to bitter water, how sweet and purifying must this cleansed water have tasted? When mum asks for the hymns to be played, I think it’s the same as Moses crying to God and God giving him the wood to dissipate the bitterness from the water, to transform its taste and recover clarity and calm the storm.

I confess that, although I’m happy to listen to more modern expressions of musical worship, I prefer the ‘older’ ones as well. I was brought up listening to and singing them and they remain fixed in my memory to this day where I find more modern praise songs harder to remember. It’s not that I don’t value contemporary Christian ‘worship’ music, but older hymns simply ‘click’ more with me.

Frequently being in the same room as my mum, if she listens to these hymns then I listen to them as well. In fact I have learned to know when mum is struggling because she will specifically say to me “Could you put the hymns on please?” I confess though that although I love hymns, listening to the same ones over and over again ad infinitum gets a little wearing at times. It’s like being in church and the minister chooses the same hymn or song every week, it sometimes loses its appeal and what was once inspiring loses its fervour through repetition. Mum doesn’t seem to have that problem. Listening to her hymns, even over and over again, genuinely seems to be like an oasis in a desert to her, or maybe not a desert, maybe more of an oasis in a ‘troubled zone’ in her mind.

Psalms of Scotland
Psalms of Scotland

I remember I had, I think I still have it, a cd of the Scottish Philharmonic Singers singing the Psalms of Scotland. I have it on my iPod now. Modern it can’t be described as (although it expresses eternal truths, when I listen to it I picture the Psalmist as he wrote them thousands of year ago) but it is one of the most edifying and cleansing pieces of music I have ever heard. There is an organ I think but that’s it as far as instruments are concerned and sometimes that’s so far in the background that all you can hear are the voices of the choir. All of it is spirit enhancing and some of it is breathtakingly beautiful. You could close your eyes (as I sometimes do) and imagine you were watching a heavenly sunrise with the Psalms as the background music, or the foreground soundtrack as you open your eyes for your first glimpse of heaven’s landscape   All this redemptive imagery through the ‘simple’ act of human voices lifting their praises to the heavens and the One who dwells there through the medium of singing thoughts and stories penned by God’s servant from the Psalms so many many years ago.

These sounds and words conjure images which can calm my own mind like few other things can.

Such hymns and Psalms have a cleansing effect on my mum’s mind like nothing else I know of, other than prayer of course. Then again, many of these pieces of spiritual worship are prayers in their own right. Mum takes medication of course, but there are times when her ‘medication of choice’ is simply listening to Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and this seems to make all the difference to her.

If I was to summarise the whole process and effect in one word, it would be grace.

Thanks for reading.

Be nice, be contrary, but don't be rude :-)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s