On Removing Our ‘Stones of Madness’

Judith Valente
4 min readDec 10, 2023
A man in denim shirt and slacks and ball cap places his hand on a towering pile of stones in a wooded area.
We carry personal and collective metaphoric “stones of madness.” Extracting them, one spiriutality writer says, takes a “renovation of the heart.”

Every once in a while, I encounter a metaphor that seems so apt for life in our times that it stays with me for weeks, even months. That was the case when a friend named Michael Kroth, who teaches at the University of Idaho, wrote a fascinating piece for his Profound Living blog after seeing Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting “The Extraction of the Stone of Madness” at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

The painting shows a pseudo-doctor wearing an inverted funnel on his head, extracting what looks like a flower from the head of a patient (a flower perhaps growing out of a stone?). A clergyman and a woman balancing a closed book on her head look on. Though in past centuries, madness was believed by some to arise from a stone lodged in the brain, Bosch’s painting mocks that quackery along with human foolishness and gullibility.

Some words at the bottom of the painting, apparently in the voice of the patient, read: “Master, cut the stone out quickly.”

If only the site of our human foibles and emotional traumas could be easily located within the body and surgically removed!

At the end of each year, I think about what I need to change about myself. What can I do differently to live more compassionately, more joyfully, more meaningfully? Bosch’s painting prompts me to wonder what are the metaphoric “stones of madness” stationed inside of me. How can I remove them?

My husband and I rarely argue about any topic. We share the same politics, spiritual values and concerns about our world. There is one topic, though, in which we might as well be standing on opposite poles. We make the same arguments hoping to change the other’s mind — and surprise! — it doesn’t happen. We both need to accept that others might harbor a different perspective — wrong as it might seem — and leave them to it in the interest of keeping peace and relationships intact.

As the Serenity Prayer says, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

In his Profound Living blog, my friend Michael Kroth cites several of our society’s collective “stones of madness.” One, he says, is waiting to reverse the causes of climate change. As we dither, “the odds against human survival become less and less,” Michael points out.

The continued production of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction is another form of madness.

Additionally, “Whenever a democracy like the United States retreats from civility, integrity, compromise, the rule of law and deep respect for the tenets of democracy, such as the peaceful transition of power … Whenever threats of violence, taunts, name-calling and dehumanization of others such as calling citizens of our country ‘vermin’ occur without universal condemnation,” those too are stones of madness, Michael points out.

I would add to that list the killing of thousands and displacement of millions taking place in Gaza, Ukraine and other conflict-ridden parts of the world, as though more death and destruction will solve anything.

I’m sure you can come up with your own list of “stones.”

Hieronymus Bosch painting from the 16 century shows a pseudo-physician with an inverted funnel on his head extracting a flower from the head of a patient as a clergyman and a woman with a closed book on her head look on.
Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, “The Extraction of the Stone of Madness” mocks quackery as well as human foolishness and gullibilty, but is a valid metaphor for the foibles that plague us. (Photo courtesy of the Prado Museum).

What then can be done? Michael cites an insightful passage in spirituality writer Dallas Willard’s book, “Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ.” Willard writes, “The greatest need you and I have — the greatest need of collective humanity — is renovation of our heart.”

Willard adds, “Our life, and how we find the world now and in the future is, almost totally, a simple choice of what we have become in the depths of our being — in our spirit, will or heart.”

Willard’s words echo those of Thomas Merton in his famous essay “The Root of War Is Fear.” Merton urges us to address “the appetites and disorder” in our own souls. “If you love peace,” he says, “then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed — but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

In other words, change is first and foremost an inside job.

We are now in the second week of Advent, a time for reflection and introspection, a time to put saw, hammer and chisel to a “renovation of the heart.” What are the “stones of madness” we have been carrying, personally and collectively as a society? How can we extract them?

How can we use this sacred season to identify and address the “disorders” in our own soul?

Head shot of University of Idaho education professor Michael Kroth at his desk.
Michael Kroth is a professor in the Adult/Organizational Learning and Leadership program at the University of Idaho/Boise and author of the Profound Living blog.

Read Michael Kroth’s Profound Living blog at https://www.profoundliving.live/

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Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.