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.
“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
Thomas L. McDonald always impresses me. He is a bright and sharp writer who has a way to cut through some of the less helpful things out there and get to the heart of what it is to be a Catholic whose mind often features “Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” pits and mountains. In a way, he captures both the darkness and the strange, hidden graces that comes with being a man of depression and faith.
His latest musings on depression are especially interesting. In “The Cold Reboot of the Soul,” he begins by explaining what depression is not and delves into one the better short explanations I’ve ever read,
Depression isn’t sadness. It’s not even in the same emotional class. Depression is like a vice on your brain. It can sometimes squeeze so tightly that the sufferer hallucinates. It’s like mental suffocation. And it comes on for no reason, even in the midst of happiness.
He does mention that drugs help, which is indeed my experience. I am, after years of avoiding them, back on medication and the difference is something impressive. Not everyone has positive experiences of medication, and I certainly had a rather negative reaction to one form of medication and swore off of them for years. However, like all forms of therapy, just one form is not a cure but should act as a full mosaic in treatment. Like exercise, proper diet, seeing a therapist regularly, and finding fulfilling hobbies, medication is a long-haul process that will not bring relief overnight. Rather, it corrects one particular short-coming in the body to give the mind a floor for how deep the depression can sink. But it does still sink. Oh boy, does it ever!
I have written on this subject quite a bit, I still feel uncomfortable telling people about this in person. Most folks, in their tender hearts, want to help and fix it and, well, this is a lifetime condition. There is no “fixing” it and thus they either feel like I’m not even trying or they assume I have abandoned hope because their usual treatments for sadness (which, remember is distinct from depression) are not necessarily going to work on me. It’s not their fault, but often times I will tell people about my periods of absolute melancholy where my mind seems to refuse to listen to my demands to open up to the light and then I end up having to comfort them. Believe me, it’s even worse when I confess to the bark of the black dog telling me to end it all. I can still remember having to give one friend a hug and assuring them I had no real plans, but that was a lie. However, the guilt of it, even if it’s nothing either party did wrong, is sometimes one more stress I don’t need.
So, I respect Tom, Dawn Eden, and host of other great writers who are willing to be honest about their afflictions of the mind and to, ultimately, provide hope to all of us. There is hope that we are not alone. And in our little fellowship, we find hope that the God who raised the dead and brought light to the world can illuminate us enough to keep going.
Tom offers one particular idea that I think is exploring. In thinking upon his depression and all the problems it brings, he suggests there might be a better way to think about depression, which I quote at length:
As Christians, we need to think differently. Perhaps that pit is not despair, which after all is a sin. Perhaps it’s not even a pit. Perhaps it’s an invitation, a blank slate, a clean white sheet of paper.
When a computer starts to malfunction, what do you do?
You turn it off.
When you power it all the way down and then restart it, it’s called a cold reboot. A cold reboot interrupts the power and clears the memory leaks that may be causing a system to run poorly. Most everyday computer problems can be solved by simply restarting the system a couple of times.
Perhaps depression functions like a cold reboot of the soul. What does depression feel like? Paradoxically, it’s both a weight and an emptiness. Paradox is sometimes a cue that we’re dealing with the transcendent.
For a Christian, every weight is a cross.
For a Christian, every emptiness is a desert.
The cross is our participation in the divine work of Christ. The desert is the place where we empty ourselves so we may be filled with the Spirit.
In America, where the prosperity gospel vexes us all, we sometimes think that ill fortune and things like mental illness can’t be part of our Christian life. They are though, because Christ did not rise from the dead to make us rich, content suburbanites. He came that the dead may live again and that we may find Easter joy even on Good Friday. God has entered the world and united Himself to it so deeply, that we can think of it as a merging. Not only that, but we find in Him our total reason for being, but we must be willing to participate in both Good Friday and Easter.
Depression is not a curse, though it often feels that way. It is a cross and a desert that is, in many ways, a way of participating in the life of Christ. It will feel heavy, burdensome, and no doubt our prayers will be for this cross to pass us up, just for a little while. Still, it can be an invitation to delve deeply into uniting ourselves with our Christ. As Ven Francis Libermann once wrote,“I never cross a bridge without the thought of throwing myself over the parapet, to put an end to these afflictions. But the sight of my Jesus sustains me and gives me patience.”
This, then, is a Cross that calls us to a fuller participation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this makes it easier. However, if Tom is right, then at least it gives us a purpose and a meaning to our pain. I can say this from experience: There is no pain like that which is suffered without a reason. While I anticipate I will learn and grow from my depression all my life, perhaps there is also a way to turn it towards the light.
All of you, my friends and comrades in these afflictions of the mind, will remain in our prayers. Please leave me a comment to tell me your thoughts or use the “About Me” header above to contact me.