Sense and Madness

I’ve been dipping into Emily Dickinson while ill in bed the last few days. My parents gave me a little book of a few of her poems when I was about 10 or 11 years old, and I’ve been reading her ever since. No matter what I am feeling, she births it in words and makes it fly.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of current political news and following news makers on Twitter and in their blogs. I’ve been despairing of the directions taken by governments and popular movements alike here in Israel, elsewhere in the Middle East, in Europe and in North America… everywhere I look.


This morning I fell on this poem by Dickinson, first published in 1890:

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane – 
Demur – and you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

Under many regimes this can be understood, unfortunately, quite literally. But even taking it outside of the political context, it is current and cutting.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, anchorites and anchoresses (such as Julian of Norwich may have been) would enter a “cell”, a sort of one-room habitation often attached to a church, never to leave it again, devoting their lives to prayer and to seeking the face of their Lord. They were considered holy people and often gained reputations for great wisdom. Such behavior today, outside of any institutional structure, would be tolerated as “marginal” at best, more probably condemned as dangerously disturbed and in need of psycho-medical intervention.

Yet, there are people today who choose to limit their physical horizons in favor of spiritual “travel”. Cloistered (or, more properly, “enclosed”) nuns come to mind, along with the so-called “new hermits”. These hermits, some of them priests and nuns and some of them lay men and women, choose a radical limitation of involvement in daily life in favor of a deeper investment in spiritual life. Some of them live in remote rural settings, some in urban flats, some on the grounds of monasteries, and some are itinerant. Their common characteristic is radically choosing the unseen over the seen and living their lives accordingly.

Much madness or divinest sense?

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