The miracle of St Fillan – Catholic Herald

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Who is the patron saint of mental illness? We hear much today about the need to help the mentally ill, dejected and depressed. But for those who would rather pray than pay for help, to which saint should those troubled souls appeal for their intercession for cure and recovery? 

It may seem like a question easily solved by consultation with the Oxford Dictionary of Saints. But when I consulted my copy, given to me by my parents at Moor Park school on 9 June 1979, on my confirmation, I realised that saints are chronicled by name and not by their special cause of veneration (many have several). 

Yet thanks to a recent series of strange coincidences – or divine providence – worthy of a Graham Greene novel, involving my 65-year-old archaeologist uncle, Jonathan, I have established that a leading contender to be the patron saint of mental health is St Fillan. 

This operation of divine grace took place over a few months this summer in various locations: a mental hospital garden in Sheffield, a hidden Holy Pool in the West Highlands and mowing the lawns at our ancient family home in Shropshire. Jonathan’s long journey of seriously poor mental health – including various suicide attempts – has led to an almost miraculous form of recovery. It would not have happened, he says, were it not for the intervention of St Fillan. 

Fillan was an early-8th-century abbot of Irish heritage who brought Christianity from Iona and founded a monastic settlement at Auchtertyre. According to early Scottish martyrology, he became a monk at Wexford and a “solitary” recluse in Fife before retiring as a hermit. He was buried at Strathfillan. His bell and staff are in the National Museum of Scotland. 

Before describing how my Stonyhurst-educated Catholic uncle ended up turning to St Fillan for help – a saint he had never heard of until July – I need to describe his 20-year descent and mental spiral into blackouts, depression and a range of other mental and physical heath issues. 

For the entire duration of lockdown in 2020, he had incarcerated himself as a “prisoner” in his one-bedroom flat in Sheffield. He did not leave the flat – piled with books, medications and old newspapers – once in over 14 months, other than to empty his bins. “I did my bin emptying in the middle of the night,” he told me, “as another resident was threatening violence. I was entirely isolated from the rest of the world. All my medications were delivered outside my door. A volunteer, a very nice chap called Leslie, delivered my food, and that was my existence.”

Because he was in the “extremely vulnerable” group of mental-health patients, Jonathan had been advised by his three consultants, and his GP, that from 18 March 2020 he was “to stay inside and avoid all human contact”. He was “terrified” of contracting Covid-19 due to his fragile health. 

The catalyst to his suicide attempt was an alleged assault by a resident in the same building. According to my uncle, who reported the incident to the police, he was “attacked” on Easter Saturday in 2019. “He was holding me in a headlock about to beat the death out of me. He said: ‘You keep complaining about the noise I’m making, I’m going to kill you with my bare hands.’ He said: ‘I’ve done this before and I’ll do it again.’” 

For two years, there had been a “campaign of harassment, intimidation and threats”, a form of “psychological warfare”, which took the form of “loud banging noises”, as well as keeping a noisy fan on for ten days. This resulted in Jonathan having sleep deprivation and blackouts due to his rare form of myalgic encephalomyelitis – known as ME in the neurological world. 

His psychiatric history included treatment by neurologist Dr Rebecca Murray-Leslie. She went back into his childhood, where he had been bullied by other boys at school and also abused by a former Benedictine monk when he was a small boy at St Mary’s Hall prep school before going to Stonyhurst.

“I had told no one, absolutely no one, and she said: ‘This is highly significant but you have to talk about it.’” The second trauma was the sudden and traumatic death of both his parents in 2010 with just four months between them, losing his “family home”, followed by the sudden death from cancer of his brother Mark, a leading international art restorer. Jonathan never had the chance to say goodbye to his brother as he was in hospital himself. 

The final straw before his third suicide attempt was when the fellow resident climbed out of the back window of his flat, directly below Jonathan’s, and swung out as if on an assault course. 

“I could see him with his terrifying features, banging against the window, saying: ‘I’m gonna get you.’” After ten days without sleep, he took an overdose and ended up in a Sheffield hospital A&E. He was then taken for assessment to the Decisions Unit at the Longley Centre within the Northern General Hospital, Sheffield. 

He was in this hospital for mental health treatment for four weeks, until he was finally deemed fit for discharge. A contributing factor had been time spent in the mental hospital’s garden, talking to other patients, and praying for spiritual and mental recovery. This seemed to raise his spirits, although he didn’t know which saint to pray to. 

When he was asked where he would like to go, he said, “South Shropshire”, where he had been happy as a young archaeologist working at the Roman town of Wroxeter, as well as doing field research in the ploughed fields around us at Upton Cressett, leading to the discovery of a Romano-British site (now a scheduled monument). 

When the hospital doctors contacted my father, who is Jonathan’s half-brother – my father’s mother had remarried after her first husband, Capt Paul Cash MC, had been killed in the war – we offered him a few weeks’ convalescence in a cottage at our family home in Shropshire. He arrived on Friday 13 June.

For the first few days, he hardly left the cottage. But it wasn’t long before he was wearing a yellow Airtex T-shirt and raking grass in the churchyard. Soon he was upgraded to mower-in-chief. “I was so overjoyed to be with my family again and being outside that it started my mental health recovery. I was helping guide tours. I was relearning to be a human being again and having social and family contact.” 

He also began praying and visited the Norman church in the grounds almost as soon as he arrived. “After I had unpacked my things, I went down to St Michael’s and knelt in the pews and said some prayers for my recovery and gratitude and thanks to my family for rescuing me. But I still didn’t know who the patron saint of mental health was to pray to. At the time, and I still pray to him, I prayed to St Jude, the patron saint of those who are failing or in difficulties.”

But it wasn’t until I went on a walking pilgrimage with my wife along the West Highland Way, a week after Jonathan had arrived, that he learned about St Fillan. On the second day, we walked past the ruins of St Fillan’s Priory in Argyll. Just a few old stones and Celtic graves remains of the small Augustinian Priory founded in 1318 by Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. 

He believed that it was St Fillan’s “intercession” that brought victory in 1314 against the English at Bannockburn. St Fillan was also the saint of the mentally ill. 

I learned this from a plaque at a place near to St Fillan’s Priory known as Holy Pool, where we stopped off. It was a serene July day and the mysterious pool could have been a location shoot for Excalibur. The pool is divided in two by a rock formation that extents to the field above. It was an ancient healing pool with St Fillan’s first chapel reportedly being built on the north bank and the waters being given “miraculous” healing powers. The plaque stated: “These powers were thought to be particularly useful in the treatment of mental disorders.”

When I got back home, I pulled out my dictionary of saints and looked up St Fillan. Sure enough, his entry stated that “the mentally ill used to be dipped into the pool and then left all night, tied up, in a corner of Fillan’s chapel. If they were found loose, they were considered cured.” The practise continued until the 19th century. 

When I showed the entry to Jonathan, along with a photo of myself crouched on all fours dipping my hands into the Holy Pool, something was triggered in him. He began reading up on Fillan and praying to him, while helping out – like a Benedictine monk – with manual labour in the garden and guiding tourists as if they were pilgrims. “I carried out daily physical duties as a way of asking St Fillan to keep me on the road of mental health recovery.” 

Now, Jonathan is hoping to move to a new flat, close to family in the Bridgnorth area. 

“An important part of mental health recovery is to understand the beautiful world that Almighty God has created,” Jonathan told me. “St Fillan has helped to give me peace. I only wish I’d known about his existence years before.”  

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