I never get much time to write, much less blog, but I keep trying to write as it is indeed my first love. This week, I was invited by my friend and fellow editor Brett Colasacco of Sightings asked me to write a response to the canonization of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I focused on her experience of the dark night of the soul. You can read it here or click the image below.
Those who suffer from their own dark nights of the soul often feel as if they are doing something wrong—as if their faith were somehow weak because of these interior struggles. Mother Teresa, like her patrons St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, is an example to the countless souls who pursue a spiritual life of charity but are frustrated by feelings of doubt, loneliness, and depression. They now have a contemporary champion, someone who shows the way to a faithful selflessness, who could work for the good of others despite, or because of, her own struggles.
…on his show discussing mental health, showing charity, and the strange effects of altitude sickness. While my connection kept getting lost, I really enjoyed this conversation and hope that it helps some folks.
You can give ‘er a listen at this link.
And if you’re not tired of my voice, yet, I have a new season of the Catholic Exchange Podcast coming up and you can listen to my latest interview with Dr. Kevin Vost over CE, or on iTunes, Sticher, and Google Play.
So, it’s a dirty secret of mine that I’m what some call a “radical Catholic,” by which those bloggers mean that I think a lot about economics, family, society, and the general human condition. I don’t write about all aspects because, well, I’m not an economist or a sociologist and I respect the great deal of time that goes into those disciplines before you can something that isn’t patently stupid.
Anyway, part of that interest is examining what it would be like for us to start making a local economy and growing food. I explore that in the latest podcast, that is with Ken and Cari Donaldson of Ghost Fawn Homestead.
I’ve been to the homestead a few times and Clan Donaldson has been the most of Christian hosts. And, yes, their six kids are very entertaining and love having strangers around. As a single guy, I love this touch of home. In many ways, I’ve come to call it my home in Connecticut’s quiet corner. There are animals, fields of barley, and six kids eager to show everything. I’m not sure that this situation is the ideal economic model, but for the family it seems perfect.
“Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man…You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time…Let us rejoice in this grace…For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us to make his only Son become the Son of Man, so that a son of man might in his turn becom God? As if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.”
Advent is rough. It is taking place when the nights are getting longer, when the weather gets awful, and when New England enters its most awful phase in terms of weather. Yet, it’s my favorite time of the year, speaking liturgically. I never thought much of Christmas growing up, in fact I hated it for a time. Now, it is a time that I look forward to, and that is no small part due to the symbolism of Advent and my growing reliance on the Doctrine of the Incarnation.
From Shadow to Light
It makes sense to have a period in the winter where we think about our coming from darkness into light. As I mentioned, these long nights can really get to a man. How great it is, during the darkest time of the year, that we have a celebration that celebrates with merriment and a light that shineth in darkness.
For a good overview, Dom Prosper Guéranger has a pretty good overview on the history of Advent in the Roman Rite. In The Liturgical Year, Dom Prosper notes that Advent as a time for preparation can be found going back early in the Church and was often treated as a “little Lent.” Fourth Century France had already established a time of fasting and almsgiving, all to prepare our hearts to receive Christ as a child at Christmas. The West has relaxed many of its customs since at least the fourteenth century, but we still use this time as period of penance and also to recall the world before the Incarnation. Dom Prosper notes:
“The holy Church, therefore during Advent, awaits in tears and with ardour the arrival of her Jesus in His first coming…These longings for the Messias expressed by the Church are not a mere commemoration of the desires of the ancient Jewish people…From all eternity, the prayers of the ancient Jewish people and the prayers of the Christian Church ascend together to the prescient hearing of God; and it was after receving and granting them, that He sent, in the appointed time, that blessed Dew upon the earth, which made it bud forth the Saviour.”
(The Liturgical Year: Advent, p. 29)
So, yes, Advent is a period of awaiting, and we wait like those before Christ were waiting and it’s also symbolic of or waiting for the return of Christ in Glory. Or, as Fr. Nnamdi Moneme, OMV put it in his first Sermon of Advent:
The waiting of Advent is more than just waiting for Christ’s return in glory. We wait for Christ’s glorious return by making use of the graces of the redemption, graces that He gained for us in His first coming in flesh to this world, to renew and to fulfill the promises that we made to Him on the day of our Baptism. Advent is a time of thinking and reflection on how faithful God has been to us, faithfully renewing and fulfilling His promises to us in good or in bad times
So, in this time when the nights get overly long and lead me to some strange contemplation, I found that it’s a good time to consider all of life and what it means.
The Incarnation Gives Us Meaning
This all is hard for me to put into words. I’m not saying that the Incarnation is the perfect meditation to ward off all dark thoughts. I can’t make that claim. But, with my own mind, which is often shouting with the dark thoughts, the Incarnation is that point of belief in me that has kept me going.
I mentioned in a previous post that I once had one of my most intense let’s not talks on Christmas Eve. Those talks will be familiar to many of you who have had to deal with mental anguish as they are those moments when you can only say, “Let’s not end my life today, even though living is painful.” That night is a painful one to recall, as you can imagine. What kept me going? Well, for whatever weird reason, it’s been the idea that God became man so, as Augustine and Athanasius said, so that we might become God—that is, that we share in an eternal unity with God that is accomplished by this even we call the Incarnation.
I posted that quotation from Augustine at the beginning because it illustrates a point that has saved my life: there is no bloody reason for why God would create us, come down to us, and for Him to take on our flesh. Or, as Terry Eagleton summed it up, God did this for “the hell of it.” If we ask what merited this great gift, if we ask what we did to merit it, we’d find no answer except for grace.
The Incarnation is weird, scandalous even. We say that God did not come to appear as a ruler; He did not come into the body of an Adonis and fight a great war. God came down as an infant and was birthed in a cave by a Virgin with a fugitive carpenter for a foster father. How often do we look at a Nativity Set this time of year and reflect on just how strange it is.
My dear reader, I don’t expect much of this to make sense. I’ve studied it for years, and it still strikes me dumb. However, this central even is the great joy of Christianity. Jesus took on our nature in order to redeem it and I know of no greater thought that has given me comfort these last eleven years, even as my depression would abandon all other hope. I still take my medication and see a counselor, but when I say that the love of Christ has saved my life, that is not a mere hyperbole. When I had those let’s not talks, it was knowing that Christ took on our nature and our pains, and that it was for no other reason than for love, that kept me alive that night and the following morning.
Again, I know this is not a universal comfort. I would never say to an atheist that this is the reason to convert, but I would gladly say that it’s why I remain a son of the Church. As we continue in this season of Advent, I pray you all will take the time to reflect on the weirdness of the Incarnation. Let it scandalize you, even. But, please, whatever you do, do not treat it as just another doctrine you memorized or just another belief. This is the time to come out of our darkness and that may mean even the darkness of our own minds, as it is often for me. However, at the end of all dark paths is this promise of Christ. He is among us, He has been born, and He shall never depart.
I now leave you with my favorite reading for Christmas, from G.K Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man:
A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded…
There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end. All this popular and fraternal element in the story has been rightly attached by tradition to the episode of the Shepherds; the hinds who found themselves talking face to face with the princes of heaven. But there is another aspect of the popular element as represented by the shepherds which has not perhaps been so fully developed; and which is more directly relevant here.
Men of the people, like the shepherds, men of the popular tradition, had everywhere been the makers of the mythologies. It was they who had felt most directly, with least check or chill from philosophy or the corrupt cults of civilization, the need we have already considered; the images that were adventures of the imagination; the mythology that was a sort of search the tempting and tantalizing hints of something half human in nature; the dumb significance of seasons and special places. They had best understood that the soul of a landscape is a story and the soul of a story is a personality. But rationalism had already begun to rot away these really irrational though imaginative treasures of the peasant; even as systematic slavery had eaten the peasant out of house and home. Upon all such peasantries everywhere there was descending a dusk and twilight of disappointment, in the hour when these few men discovered what they sought. Everywhere else Arcadia was fading from the forest. Pan was dead and the shepherds were scattered like sheep. And though no man knew it, the hour was near which was to end and to fulfill all things; and though no man heard it, there was one far-off cry in an unknown tongue upon the heaving wilderness of the mountains. The shepherds had found their Shepherd.
image: Sarowen via Flickr
My latest article is over at Catholic Exchange where I talk about the St. Joseph Novena. This is my most Catholic article to date and thus may not appeal to all of you, but you are welcome to read it (of course). I have a strong devotion to the Husband of Mary and he is certainly one of the types I try to conform myself to, and probably fail to live up to. But, hey, anything good is worth making a poor attempt at. If you are the prayerful type, I can’t recommend the St. Joseph novena enough to you. I’m not going to bs you and call it magical, but it’s a great way to contemplate St. Joseph and Christ in just a few minutes. Enjoy.
O Saint Joseph, whose protection is so great, so strong, so prompt before the throne of God, I place in you all my interests and desires.
O Saint Joseph, assist me by your powerful intercession and obtain for me from your Divine Son all spiritual blessings through Jesus Christ, Our Lord; so that having engaged here below your heavenly power, I may offer my thanksgiving and homage to the most loving of Fathers.
O Saint Joseph, I never weary contemplating you and Jesus asleep in your arms; I dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. Press Him in my name and kiss His fine head for me, and ask Him to return the Kiss when I draw my dying breath. Amen
O Saint Joseph, hear my prayers and obtain my petitions. O Saint Joseph, pray for me. (Mention your intention)
For you partake of that last offered cup,
Or disappear into the potter’s ground.
When the man comes around.
-Johnny Cash, The Man Comes Around
Yesterday would have been Johnny Cash’s 83rd birthday. In years past, when I was thin enough to fit into it (thanks food binges and booze!) I would wear my black suit on that day and find a bar to toast the man. This was especially effective at the Waterloo in Louisville, CO which is a giant memorial to The Man in Black.
To say the least, the man has had a rather large impact on my life. Of course, I heard him in childhood due to my dad’s love of all things music. That passion for his music grew and became something of my own during my high school punk/rock phase where I was seeking anyone that could exhibit the raw emotions and the spare lyrics that I found in The Sex Pistols and Dillinger Escape Plan. Of course, as someone who grew up Evangelical but always struggled with doubt, he was many times a reminder of the “beauty, ever ancient and ever new” that I was always seeking but not finding.
Thanks to a Cash marathon for his birthday, as well as a Twitter conversation with Dawn Eden, I have decided to call this A Johnny Cash Lent. Stay with me, this will make sense if a bit.
Since our last Easter, which marked my tenth anniversary as a confirmed Catholic, a lot has happened. I grew in my job as an editor, published two well-received articles on depression, and lost a friend and mentor. Despite that a lot was going well in my life, I had to face some challenges within my own soul and confront some uncomfortable demons. I entered the Church with confidence and exuberance, but by my tenth anniversary I found many of my prayers were a rant at God while also trying to remember to praise Him. In prior years, I drowned these thoughts and voices in booze, sensuality, and everything that goes with it. This year, I found writing, prayer, and contemplation was far healthier but also quite a bit more difficult. If I’ve learned anything in my 30’s it’s that the slow death of self-medication is far easier than trying to wrestle with your own demons in the hope that life is worth living.
While my life, compared to Johnny Cash and many others, has been incredibly easy, his music has meant a lot to me. In his lyrics I found an Old Testament man strumming the steel strings of a guitar, singing once about how “God’s Gonna Cut you Down” while also begging “Lead me Father, with the staff of life/Give me the strength for a song” and it was all from the same man who knew well both the disappointment of his own life as well as what Graham Greene called “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
Cash grew up listening to and signing the songs from his mother’s hymnal. In fact, one of the reasons why he left Sun Records was because of Sam Phillips reluctance to let him record Gospel. He was publicly a Christian who wrote moving words about Jesus and his own struggle to grow closer to Him. When asked about his faith Cash would say, “The gospel of Christ must always be an open door with a welcome sign for all.” However, he was also not shy about the complications of faith and life. In one interview he said:
“I confess right up front that I’m the biggest sinner of them all. But my faith in God has always been a solid rock that I’ve stood on, no matter where I was or what I was doing. I was a bad boy at times, but God was always there for me, and I knew that. I guess maybe I took advantage of that.”
In Johnny Cash one can find faith, but it was complicated. Even in his infamous amphetamine habit, he saw that he was trying to escape something. “I used them to escape and they worked pretty well when I was younger,” he admitted in the same interview. “But they devastated me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That third one, spiritually, is the one that hurts so much—separation from God.” Even in his benders, he knew that he couldn’t escape and only in Christ was he to find that solid rock he’d been searching for. Though he was not even looking for God, he saw that God was still looking for him, “There was no line of communication. But that came back. He came back. And I came back.”
As I said, Cash’s faith was complicated. However, isn’t it always? Aren’t we all a lot like the young Augustine, praying daily make me chaste, Lord, but not yet! As Christians, especially confirmed Catholic with the Sacraments, we know that Grace is always there and available to us and that God hears our cries, but how often have taken advantage of that time we think we have?
If I could go back eleven years ago and talk to my younger self I’d give a lot of advice; “See a therapist, don’t stop taking your medication, and try to go for a walk once-in-a-while.” However, I think I’d more likely tell my young, idiot self, the wisdom of The Man in Black, “It takes a real man to live for God—a lot more man than to live for the devil.”
Lent is a time where we join Christ in the desert and ultimately prepare ourselves to remember his death and resurrection. We also take this time to remember our own sins and where we have fallen short. It can be hard, dangerous and exhausting. Like Christ, we’ll be tempted and many of us will fall like we have oh so many times before. That is the real challenge of Lent: to come face-to-face with yourself and to be able to turn that face to light of Christ. To live for God is going to take real courage, but grace is sufficient to give us the strength to stand when life exhausts every ounce of energy we had.
This Lent, let’s be more like Johnny Cash! Let’s admit our faults and our shortcomings but do it with the confidence that they are not what defines us. Rather, let those challenges give us a tender heart to stand up for the weak and displaced and be a symbol of God’s mercy. Let this Lent be the time where you’re not shy about your faith but also willing to meet everyone where they are and offer the love and friendship this world so terribly needs.
As Good Friday approaches you may don black and I hope you can sing, along with Johnny, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
Nota Bene: Of course nobody can write a post about Cash without mentioning “Hurt.” I appreciate an old artist who is aware of his mortality and especially enjoyed the “Hurt” music video because he strikes me as doing what I imagine every writer wants to do: write his own ending, and make it sound like the Book of Ecclesiastes
I am happily writing this blog in a coffee shop in snowy Boulder, Colorado while my family hangs out and is slowly winding down their evening. This is the second year in a row that I am able to be home for Christmas and I am all too aware of how fortunate I am to talk to my parents face-to-face while my nephews play with the Yodeling Pickle that I got them (why, yes, the Lichens family shares a weird sense of humour).
For a good three years I was unable to go home for anything as I had no money and little in the way of vacation time. As a single guy, this was a difficult thing to bear especially as more and more of my friends were growing their own family and I was feeling more and more alienated from the seasonal cheer I was supposed to exhibit. The very last one, 2012, my untreated depression started to make me afraid of crowds to a point that I missed the Christmas Eve mass and was sure not going to go the following morning. In fact, that Christmas I had one of my most intense let’s not talks. These talks are familiar to many who suffer mental anguish wherein you start to run out of reasons to take your own life and then must decide let’s not end our life, even though living hurts. I don’t tell you this for sympathy, my dear reader, but to tell you that I do know the pain of being alone and single at Christmas. If you are also suffering the pains of the mind, you know also how the darkness of winter can so easily overcome the glittering lights of the Christmas octave.
There are, no doubt, some of you who are reading this who have no family to go home to even if you have the funds to travel. While there are others who, either through divorce or other tragedies, are having an empty place at Christmas that was once filled with some semblance of family. No matter what, it’s a painful place to be and I know it far too well. However, I am not here to remind you of something that is far too familiar as much as to offer some things that have helped me and to also offer those who are more fortunate a glimpse of what your neighbor may be enduring.
At this time of the year, I often contemplate the Christ child in the cave with a tired, weary, and perhaps even frightened Joseph and Mary looking over him. How often we’ve passed by a Nativity set or seen the Christmas pageant without even thinking of the strangeness of the Lord of the universe, the Word of God who was in the beginning of the world, sleeping in a place that was previously used to house and feed livestock. Those very hands that would cure the blind and be nailed to a cross were now too small to touch the creatures of the earth that once laid in that cave. Christ would say, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head,” but that was even true at the very beginning of His earthly life. The Holy Family was in the most humble of circumstances and yet this was what the angels would call attention to and what the prophets had promised.
Joseph had taken on the heavy burden of looking after Mary and this new child and he would later have to flee to Egypt; a land his ancestors fought so hard to escape had now become a refuge for him. We don’t know a lot about St. Joseph and we understand that he was not necessarily a man renowned for his heroism in his own life but that was not going to stop him now and his bravery and sense of duty would allow for the world to receive the One who would redeem all of us.
Then there is Mary, the woman that many have called the Joy of all Who Sorrow. This Lady was now the Mother of God and was to now carry the burden of raising this child and to ultimately see his painful and humiliating death.
I bring up this image because the Incarnation is that singular thing that has kept me a Christian through all the loneliness and hardship. The God who could have been born a ruler or a hero had instead such a great love for us that he took on our lowly nature in order to redeem it. I wonder if any of us were to have stumbled onto a homeless God living in a cave with animals if we’d be able to even comprehend what was in front of us. Would we be offended that the Lord of all Creation would not have thought to even provide a house for he and his parents? Or would we be disgusted at the idea that all our hope rested in this manger that barely qualified as a shelter?
The love that Jesus had for us was not one that wanted to merely rule over us as some cosmic despot but was instead one that wanted to experience our most frustrating and humbling times to show us that holiness was possible no matter where life left us. This God did not undergo His birth, life, death, and resurrection just to leave you alone but is indeed with you in your loneliness, despite how distant He may seem.
If you are able, try to contemplate a Nativity scene or an ikon and think of that very first Christmas that seemed all but jolly and festive. Think of the ways you might be like Joseph to a family, helping them with their burdens while they can also ease your own loneliness. This is difficult in our modern society, but it is not impossible.
While I have had to be away from family for Christmas, there was one family that acted as a domestic Church and welcomed the stranger that was me. They always made sure I had a place to eat, drink, and celebrate the season. They were a small part of God’s grace, making sure that I didn’t merely exist in the shadows. This is a task many families are afraid of undertaking for fear that their home may be too chaotic for the childless. For me, and many singles, this was never an issue for the many noises of children and adults at Christmas are better than the silence of a small apartment. So, welcome who you can and be willing to accept the welcome of others.
As a single person you are also able to help in ways that a family cannot. There is a part of all of us that desires to be wanted, to be needed, and you’d be surprised how well-received your own offers for assistance and help can be. Can you cook a meal for a low-income family and bring them some small items for the octave of Christmas and the New Year? Or, if you are suffering from a lack of funds, see what charities around you need an extra set of hands? If that’s not possible, then go to Mass and ask for an opportunity to help your parish and your neighbors and God will surely find you one. In my own life, showing kindness has meant all the difference when I have those let’s not talks.
If you have a family, try to find those who would spend the holidays alone and let them know that they have a place at your table. Don’t worry that the house is not clean enough or that your children may be chaotic messes. Merely letting people know that they are wanted is the greatest of all gifts and it can seem small to you but can make a world of difference for your single friends. If you give it enough time they will not be that single man or woman from work or church but will be a friend and perhaps a small but not insignificant part of your house.
To you my single friends and my readers who are right there with me, I wish you a blessed and happy Christmas! Christ is born and lives among us and He shall not depart. For all of you who continue to read my work, you are a great and joyful part of my life and I thank God that you are on that other side of the screen.
Katrina Fernandez and I have something in common in that she’s been blogging about as long as I have. Only she’s, you know, way more successful than I am. However, her and I get to share the experience of reading our younger selves and thus shaking our heads at our own youthful folly. Ms Fernandez recalls that she wrote, “As a single woman in the Catholic Church I am quite contented.” A few years later, she wonders how she could say that.
I never weighed in on “the single vocation” but I was still very optimistic about life would look like in my 30’s. You can read my posts of vocations, grad-school, and quitting and realize very quickly that few things happened as planned. I still think I’d be happy in a religious order, but the twin demons of debt and depression make most vocations directors flee. At the same time, I am still not sure I’m called to marriage but have dived into Catholic dating. You, my dear reader, can decide if that’s a bad idea or the worst idea, but I’ve learned that vocations are rarely realized in pure contemplation and so I’ll try it unless a talking donkey or a fiery bush tells me different. However, I used to be optimistic about the single vocation and spoke highly of it. That dummy 24-year-old Mikey needed to be slapped and reminded that he saw joys in being single because all his friends were single and his college dorm provided a temporarily stable environment.
Now, being single and away from family has a very special kind of loneliness. While I can say my young self was idiotic because of lack of experience, that’s not really an excuse that other members of the Church can use. A lot of single people feel plainly ignored in their parish, and as a single, childless man you may even be treated with suspicion. As David Mills noted in his recent article, “The neglect of single people is a problem that needs a more systematic answer directed by our pastors.” Some do try to tackle it and are given the great answer, “SHUT UP!” Case in point, my friend Kevin O’Brien who has written quite a bit on Catholic Dating and, though he struck a nerve, the comboxes and facebook congresses were full of that saccharine sentimentality that nothing was really wrong and people needed to stop complaining.
With Kevin’s blogs, I was targeted because I had a load of quotable moments with Kevin about the perils of trying to be faithfully Catholic while dating, including a few commentators assuming that I made it all up. Now, some of these folks I know IRL and they are normally good, charitable people but cannot bear to hear that the reality of the situation is different than what they have assumed. For them, there is no vocations crisis and no amount of empirical data or anecdotal information will change their minds. Or, for the strange anon combox warriors, any thinking or oferring a solution that isn’t straight from the 1950’s is immediately treated as evil or (worst) Protestant. Believe me, it’s bizarre.
So, what’s the answer?
I’m not sure. I’m an editor and amatuer theologian and would be a lousy matchmaker, so this is where I admit that I can only point out the problem. But our first step is to acknowledge the challenge. We have a record number of people in the US living alone than ever before and I don’t see that trend reversing. Instead of merely mentioning a single vocation, it’s probably time to define that and figure out how best to live it while we also combat the vocational crisis of marriage and religious life. If we want there to be ample numbers of priests and nuns serving the Church, as well as folks falling in love and having children, we need to start by realizing that there is an issue and then figure out what we can do.
In our own lives, you’ll find that my paucity of solutions is similar to what I offer on the mental health issues of those around us: learn to be a good friend and a good neighbour. I often wonder if the reason why Christ called us to love our neighbour is because this simple act can actually change the world. I’ve seen it in my own life.
For the better part of a decade, I have been away from my family for the holidays. However, I never spent them alone. One family here in New Hampshire has always made a point to invite me over and to make sure I feel welcome. Given my own sense of depression, this has probably kept me within the realm of the sane. Would it be difficult for us all to open our lives to one or two people so that they didn’t have to feel so alienated? Actually, scratch that, it is very, very hard, but love certainly demands a lot.
For my fellow single Catholics, as we enter this season of Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas I hope you’ll keep going to Mass. Carry on as best you can and keep trying to be friends to others in your own life. Few things will fulfill you as much as being an answer to someone else’s prayers. Oh, and let’s grab a drink on these snowy nights and see how much we can complain and laugh.
So many have been shocked by the news of Robin Williams and what appears to be his self-inflicted death. For years, he was to me a poster-child for depression. Laughter became his shield, as it has for many who suffer from mental anguish, but he still had an inner haunting that does not release its grip too easily. I know in my own struggles with depression, comedy was exactly what I used before discovering the toxic cocktail of food, porn, and booze (really, just don’t do it). A little secret of mine is that my first real writing gig was a weekly satirical column in the Eugene Comic News and I got to meet a lot of comedic writers through that. All of them struggled with some form of mental anguish.
So it is that many wonder how man who so funny, so full of life, and with so much adoration, could be so depressed. When I hear people asking that, I swing between having no answer to wanting to hit my head against a book case. It was asked again when Mother Teresa was “outed” as having dealt with some heavy dark nights of the soul. No one could figure out how a holy woman could feel God’s presence, act in great charity, and yet feel the pains of depression.
There there’s my personal life. One of the most jovial friends I ever had killed himself after his wife left him several years ago and just a week ago another close friend attempted to take his own life. I’ve recently been public about my own struggles with MDD and how many times I stared down that abyss where death seemed like it would be the only relief. At one point, medication and a lot of counselling is the only thing that made me turn away from it, along with some deep religious experiences that I can only call miraculous. Yet, you’d never guess from meeting me in person.
The Depressed Look Nothing Like That
Sure, I went through a phase of listening to a lot of punk and metal, but I generally don’t wear all black. The average depressed person is not wearing black eye-liner and writing emo lyrics for a crappy band. They are, in my experience, folks who can be quite charming and even seem to be always happy. This would, to some minds, seem to point to an overall good mood. In private, though, it’s a living hell.
My particular form of mental illness is defined by an over-all low mood. Most days I can function normally, but there are those days when getting out of bed seems like the hardest thing in the world to do. The worst days I’ve had to check myself into a hospital because all I could think about was ways I’d like to die. That part is hard to explain to people who have never been there. It’s not so much a desire to no longer exist, but a wish that whatever this is that is clouding my judgement would just be gone.
The worst of it, though, is the loneliness. The feeling that even God has abandoned you to your sufferings and that relief is not coming.
I’m much better now than I was even five years ago, but trust me that those feelings rarely go away. Even though I have a job I love, good friends, and a loving family, I am always having to worry about the day that the bark of the black dog will be too loud to endure.
That’s the point of depression and all other forms of mental illness: it clouds the mind and impairs judgement, you are literally unable to think straight and sometimes reality looks like a hazy dream. My mother once described it as seeing the world through a thick blanket. You can’t reason with it, you can’t negotiate with it, and even if you understand that your thought process is not normal or healthy, it’s easier to make out with a grizzly bear than to try to keep your mind from repeating that inner dialogue.
I don’t expect this to make sense, because it barely makes sense to me and I have to live with it every day. Throw in the fact that I, like many depressed people, keep a persona bon vivant, it becomes alienating when my mood reaches a low where I can’t even stand my own company. We want so badly to have some companionship, but we’re so afraid of our own minds that we’d shiver at exposing other people to our inner darkness.
That, above all else, is why I write. I don’t like writing on this subject. It takes just about every once of energy I have to write about depression without dropping the F-bomb every other clause. But, if one person can understand that they’re not alone than I can hope that my mild discomfort can help them.
The world though, especially most Catholic media, is lousy at offering the help we need. In the months since I started writing openly about depression and faith I’ve received the kind of cheap email messages that drive people crazy; things like, “have you tried avoiding gluten or taking Omega-6 oils,” (because, holy crikey, I just needed Dr. Oz, M.Div all along) or “maybe you should pray more” (because depressed people don’t pray, ever). Depression is hard to understand, I get that, but we could be better at explaining it and helping the many who endure it find some form of healing or at least enough grace to go on. Depression does not sell conferences or books, but we need to see how many people it touches and do what we can. Lives are on the line.
Arise from the Darkness!
I wanted to point out that depression touches many lives, whether we know it or not. Even my worst days I can fake being happy for a few hours before I collapse in exhaustion. If someone is depressed, you may never know it unless they feel comfortable enough to let their guard down. Then, it’s up to you to do what you can to be a friend, mother, spouse, or whatever part you play in their lives.
Unlike many illnesses, it does not always show outwardly. The person in your life suffering mental anguish is probably barely aware of it himself. Dig, though, and it’s there. Like all conditions of the Fall, we cannot let it fester in darkness but there needs to a light to shine the truth and to give hope to those who feel like all hope has abandoned them.
Depression doesn’t give a damn about your status, vocation, race, or financial situation. Yet, neither does Christ. If we want the mentally afflicted to find the peace that surpasses all understanding, we need first to open the doors and to let it in, and that is what Christian charity ought to do.
If someone in your life is suffering such mental anguish, I can tell you from experience what works and doesn’t work. Don’t try to cure them unless you are a doctor or a real wonder-worker, and for heaven’s sake do not try to tell them, “But how can you be depressed!” Instead, let them know that they do have a friend, who is willing to carry a lot of their pains if necessary, and be okay if silence is their only response. Then, pray for help and that grace will be sufficient to get them through, but be aware that you probably are called to be an instrument of that grace. It means some work, but love demands it.
As well, if you are reading this and have been exhausted by your own black dog, know that it is not all there is. I’ve found some peace, but it doesn’t mean my burden is gone. Seek help, go for a walk, do whatever you can to come back tomorrow with the determination that you shall live. Also, know that God did not take on our nature and defeat death just to leave you alone. Seems cheap, I know, but sometimes that is the only assurance I have and it is no small thing.
To end, here’s a little poem by one man that few knew struggled with depression, Mr. GK Chesterton:
THIS much, O heaven—if I should brood or rave,
Pity me not; but let the world be fed,
Yea, in my madness if I strike me dead,
Heed you the grass that grows upon my grave.
If I dare snarl between this sun and sod,
Whimper and clamour, give me grace to own,
In sun and rain and fruit in season shown,
The shining silence of the scorn of God.
Thank God the stars are set beyond my power,
If I must travail in a night of wrath,
Thank God my tears will never vex a moth,
Nor any curse of mine cut down a flower.
Men say the sun was darkened: yet I had
Thought it beat brightly, even on—Calvary:
And He that hung upon the Torturing Tree
Heard all the crickets singing, and was glad.
My latest for Catholic Exchange is a sort of goodbye and remembrance of Stratford Caldecott. Keep he and his family in your prayers.
Goodbye, Stratford, thank you for all the great conversations and good words of wisdom. Thank you for being a reflection of the love of Christ for so many throughout the world. Thank you for all the lessons, especially the lesson that Christ really wants to reveal Himself to us and that all we have to do is to open ourselves up to Him. Thank you for showing us that God really has united Himself with us to make all things new. Let us never forget.