Some weeks ago the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Vancouver humbly admitted he suffers from clinical depression. He then explained he would, in obedience to his doctor, take a leave from his duties to receive required treatment.
Years ago I went through a similar experience and certainly drugs and talk therapy, long walks, plenty of time in silent prayer with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament helped get through that seemingly endless, scary, grief filled, pitch dark swamp. Lately, being under extreme stress, I have had weeks of profound interior darkness and unavailed sadness.
When faced with suffering there are two extreme positions to be avoided, in particular by the baptized but also by the ordained: seeking a cure through only ‘spiritual means’ or seeking a cure only through ‘medical’ means.
Here the example in each instance of the Archbishop is so important for he is seeking God’s saving grace through the right order of prayer and medicine as the Lord Himself tells us in Sirach 38:1-15: “..the doctor eases pain…the druggist prepares his medicines….God’s creative work continues…” - and – “….when you are ill, delay not, but pray to God, who will heal you.”
This promise of the Lord to heal us if we come to Him in prayer follows His direction to us to avail ourselves of doctors and medicines.
This is the example of the Archbishop.
Perhaps no Psalm better describes the extreme darkness, pain, sadness, solitude of those who struggle with depression in any of its forms, than Psalm 69 which has such powerful cries as: “…I have sunk into the mire of the deep….I am weary with crying out….I looked for compassion, but there was none, for comforters, but found none….”
Yet even though line after line of this Psalm is filled with anguish at the same time over and over again the distressed and anguished soul continues to pray to God for help, continues to choose to make statements of faith such as: “…the Lord hears the poor, does not spurn those in bondage…”
Most rational human beings would rather suffer some nice, clean, visible, almost logical, physical injury, something that everyone can see as: yeah- that’s the source of the pain!, than endure the invisible crushing pain of depression.
Un-afflicted people seem more afraid of “mental” illness than even of cancer.
Thus very quickly the depressed person, not unlike the grieving person whose parent, spouse, child has just died, notices they are being avoided, that no one wants to hear how you ‘feel’, as if your being close will inevitably pull them into the dark swamp itself.
Given that the evil one preys on the weak when enduring depression it is extremely important to be on our guard against spiritually poisoned thinking, for it will feel as if God Himself has fled from us and the evil one will hiss-whisper that lie.
That we might not be alone even in the “mire of the deep” Jesus, true God and true man, entered the mire for us and indeed willingly is there with us.
Monsignor Romano Guardini, in his classic work “The Lord”, drawing on the accounts in the Holy Gospels of the Agony in the Garden reminds us: “..God permitted His Son to taste the human agony of rejection and plunge towards the abyss.”
Pope John Paul reminds us that: “Down through the centuries and generations is has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace……..It is He Himself who acts at the heart of human sufferings through His Spirit of truth, through the consoling Spirit. It is He who transforms, in a certain sense, the very substance of the spiritual life, indicating for the person who suffers a place close to Himself……..For suffering cannot be transformed and changed by grace from the outside, but from within. And Christ through His own salvific suffering is very much present in every human suffering, and can act from within that suffering by the powers of His Spirit of truth, His consoling Spirit. “ [see on the Vatican site, www.vatican.va Salvifici Doloris, available in English, by Pope John Paul II].
Do I feel in less mired in the swamp of sadness, darkness, depression, anxiety, aloneness, the absence of God having just articulated the above truth?
To pretend otherwise would be a lie.
Sometimes we think, or hope, that by saying yes to suffering, to the cross, it’s the magical formula which will get God to say, okay no more pain or sorrow for you!
Actually, no matter what we feel, the only true yes to the Father, the real united with Christ prayer, the actual strengthening by the Holy Spirit is when we make these words of Jesus our own by a free will act even when our emotions are screaming in agony, indeed perhaps in that very moment we are closest to Jesus:
“Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but Yours be done.” [Lk.22:42]