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Improving Your Mental Health by Engaging with Art

From the Pastor's Desk: Rev. C. Kevin Gillespie, SJ.

In the past week, as I pondered some of the ways to best respond to the coronavirus crisis, I have turned to reading the recommendations of mental health professionals. Some that resonated the most with me were:

  • Develop a daily routine and schedule

  • Exercise

  • Connect with others via social media and telephone

  • Recognize and express the grief from losses of companionship, work, and the suspension of your usual sense of control and personal power

As you may have noticed, our parish website is offering many suggestions for parishioners to consider, to connect and overall to cope.

In addition, I would like to offer some suggestions that I used when I taught a class titled Suffering and Spirituality in my former life as a professor of Pastoral Counseling at Loyola University of Maryland. Throughout the length of the 12-week semester, my students and I explored a variety of topics related to finding meaning and coping creatively in the face of suffering.

We first explored the meaning of suffering through Old Testament and New Testament texts and books such as When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner and C.S. Lewis’s classic, A Grief Observed. After a few weeks, we moved on to explore philosophical and theodicy texts about the nature of evil and the question of God’s existence and presence.

Then, we turned to explore responses to suffering by means of various art forms: cinema, music (classical and contemporary), paintings, poetry, and prose (fiction and nonfiction). In this portion of the class, we relied heavily upon what could be accessed through the internet, especially YouTube. Besides my own selections, I invited the students to make their own and they readily responded offering dozens of websites.

In addition to writing reflections on the readings and sharing them in groups, the students were required to keep a personal journal. As a result, they became existentially engaged with the themes and appropriated the course’s intended insight—namely, that throughout human history at times of personal and collective suffering, people have looked not only to religion but also to the arts to find hope and resilience.

Experts estimate that the coronavirus crisis in its perilous manifestations will probably be with us for at least 12 weeks, the length of a college semester. And so I imagine that in the face of this crisis, if I were to teach the class now—in addition to Scripture passages and the books mentioned above—I would offer the following selections from various forms of art:

  • Cinema: Several of the movies suggested from our parish’s Top 25 Movie Moments of Grace.

  • Music (Classical): Barber’s Adagio for Strings; Handel’s Messiah; Mozart’s Requiem

  • Music (Religious): Music composed in the Holocaust; Great Catholic Music website

  • Music (Contemporary): Running on Empty by Jackson Brown; Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles

  • Paintings: Works of Caravaggio, Marc Chagall, Fra Angelico, Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, Henry Ossawa Tanner

  • Poetry: Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver; The Stream & The Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes by Denise Levertov

  • Prose (Fable): The Overstory by Richard Powers

  • Fiction: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky; A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

  • Autobiography: The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

  • Biography: Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church by Austen Iverreigh; Grant by Ron Chernow

  • Meditative: A Woman Wrapped in Silence by John Lynch

Perhaps you have suggestions of your own you would like to share?

Also, I am considering doing a 12-week podcast for parishioners on the topics I covered in the course on Suffering and Spirituality. Please let me know if you would be interested in participating.

Friends, as we journey through this crisis, I hope that my suggestions and those on our website will help parishioners to individually and collectively cope with hope. In this historical period, may we learn together and find consoling insights through the suffering and spirituality that we are sharing with our fellow human beings.


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