Jesus and depression

A few months back, a friend pointed me to an article in Christian Century called Barely Enough: Manna in the Wilderness of Depression by Frederick Niedner, a teacher at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana (see it here) .

It’s a good article, and it’s actually one of the reasons I’m blogging about Depression.

Niedner begins, “Sometimes I wish one of the Gospels told a story in which Jesus slumps in the shade of a tree and can’t make himself face another crowd or meet one more supplicant’s plea for help.”

He then suggests that we would have “a cherished resource” which would allow us, at appropriate times, to “say to family members, friends and colleagues who have fallen victim to the dark force we call depression, ‘See, God knows your deep despair.  Even in this hell, you are not alone.’”

With all due respect to the good Doctor, I suggest that such material is there, and is readily available for those who struggle with Depression and those who care for them.

One example:

The Pharisees came and began to argue with , asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him.  And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign?  Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’  And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.  (Mark 8:11-13, emphasis added)

Seems to me that this is exactly what Niedner asks for!  Jesus simply can’t deal with one more challenge, one more request, one more attack, one more ANYthing!  He crawls into the boat, and hides for a while.

Those of us who struggle with Depression know exactly how this feels.

The Good News for us is that Jesus seems to know how this feels, too.

No, I’m not suggesting that Jesus suffered from the condition we call Depression!  The Gospels do not provide biography (psychological or otherwise) which would allow us to make that kind of diagnosis.

The Gospel writers do, however, proclaim a theology which insists that Jesus shared in all of human suffering.  I am simply suggesting that this includes some of the suffering that comes with the illness we call Depression.

One more quote from one of the New Testament writers, which says essentially the same thing: We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are…. (Hebrews 8:15, emphasis added)

Bottom line – Jesus gets Depression.  He gets the pain, the isolation, the self-doubt.  As Dr. Niedner says, God knows our deep despair.  Even in this hell, we are not alone.

The hunger for significance is a hunger that eats your soul. Today, we do not realize how dangerous it can be when we lose our identity, we fall prey to the injunction, “thou shall not covet.” Jesus fulfilled that for us when his whole identity was stripped from him. We underestimate the taunts, “if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” and “He who trust in the Lord, let God rescue him”.

His trust and his Father’ word were all he had. His significance was not in what He did, but who He was in His Father’s eyes. On the cross, he lost both. On the cross, Jesus suffered in the lost of his identity as he struggles with the words “Why have you forsaken me?” Yet in his struggle He kept his faith in His Father. The Savior was victorious. He said “From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows…future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness declaring to a people yet unborn:”

He then ends by saying “It is finished”. Jesus conquered this hollowness on the cross. His faith overcame. This is the faith that brings us our identity. The faith of Christ. We are called to have this faith. The faith that believes that our Father loves us even when we have no reason to believe in Him anymore. The good news here is that Jesus as us had this faith. We are saved by His faith not ours.

We enter into this faith by way of the mustard seed, it is his faith that is a mustard tree. For those who say “my life counts for nothing”, may you realize this, they said that about Jesus too.

Here is a cure for depression and the suicidal… Don’t think of dying. Reckon yourself dead to Christ. The death has happened. Live a life which is Christ’s.

Psalm 22

For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.” A psalm of David.

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.

16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.

25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
Reprinted from Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach with permission of Pauline Books and Media.

St. John Vianney, the famous Cure of the tiny French village of Ars, is most popularly known as the holy and humble priest who spent sixteen to eighteen hours a day hearing confessions and giving advice to long processions of people. He practiced extraordinary penances and fasts for the conversion of sinners and was subject to diabolic persecution all his priestly life. It is said that the devil revealed once that if there were but three priests in the world like the Cure of Ars, the devil would lose his kingdom.

What is less known is the overwhelming depression that weighed upon John Vianney’s soul without relief his entire life. Though he was the most sought-after man in all of France, he seemed incapable of seeing the immense amount of good he was doing. Despite the tens of thousands of pilgrims who traveled to Ars each year in the hope of receiving the sacraments or a word of advice from him, he believed himself useless. The priest who had reawakened the faith of a village and set all France aflame through his preaching and holiness felt God so far from him that he was afraid he had no more faith. He believed himself to have no intelligence or gift of discernment. It is as if God drew a veil over his eyes so that he could see nothing of what God was doing through him for others. The Cure feared he was ruining everything and had become an obstacle in God’s way.

The root of John Vianney’s severe depression was his fear of doing badly at every turn, and the thousands who traveled to Ars increased his terror. It never occurred to him that he might have a special grace. Instead, he feared that the long line of penitents to his village church were a sign that he was a hypocrite. He feared facing the judgment with the responsibility for all these people on his conscience. There was not a moment when he felt that God was satisfied with him. A great and profound sadness possessed his soul so powerfully that he eventually could not even imagine relief.

Whenever the tempests of depression seemed to have enough power to drown him in the vision of his own miseries, the Cure would bow his head, throw himself before God like “a dog at the feet of his master,” and allow the storm to pass without changing his resolve to love and serve God if he could. Yet he kept this pain so private that except for a few confidantes, most people saw only tranquility and gentleness in his bearing.

Jesus Is in the Darkness with YouYou may discover that the shadows and tempests of depression alter the way you look at God and the way you believe God looks at you. When you pray you may be unable to sit still or to keep your mind focused for more than a few moments. Everything may appear to be a huge gaping hole of silence, all so useless. God may seem to be mocking your attempts to pray. I know people who have gone three, five, ten years without “praying,” though they were faithful to setting time aside for prayer regardless of its seeming uselessness. In the haunting darkness where all communication had gone silent, they found loneliness, boredom, frustration, anger. Were they praying? Yes.

“Praying the Rosary remained a great help to me during my worse times of depression,” Joseph, an employee of a large chain of bookstores, said. “I acquired books that had various mysteries of the Rosary, Eucharistic mysteries, Marian mysteries, Passion mysteries, Holy Spirit mysteries …. It gave me a lot of variety, and that helped me to keep focused on prayer and remain somewhat calm. It instilled some peace and quiet in my heart.”

Recognizing agony in a void that is filled only with darkness and absence calls a depressed person to be present to the Now, even if the Now is darkness. There is a God in that void, the God of Jesus. To be present to this God, to know that Jesus is in the darkness with you and for you as prayer, even were no words or act of love to pass through your heart. God’s abiding love is deep within, never forsaking you in darkness. You are alone in the void with the Son of God-both of you keeping silent. Suffering with you is Jesus, the abandoned Son on the cross. When it is impossible to hold on to a thought or to pray, Jesus is praying and contemplating within the one who is suffering from depression. Day by day, moment by moment, groping in the darkness, you are not alone. Jesus is struggling with you. He is there feeling it all. Nothing goes unnoticed by him or his Father. Through Jesus’ Spirit who is in you, you can hope for peace.

Ideas for Praying When DepressedSt. Gregory Nazianzus wrote these words during a time when he found anxiety and depression crowding out any space for prayer in his soul:

The breath of life, O Lord, seems spent. My body is tense, my mind filled with anxiety, yet I have no zest, no energy. I am helpless to allay my fears. I am incapable of relaxing my limbs. Dark thoughts constantly invade my head ….Lord, raise up my soul, revive my body.

If this is happening to you, try these forms of prayer and contemplative love:

1. Try to find a quiet place. Put on some soothing music. Keep it soft and gentle. Take a few deep breaths, holding each one for a few seconds and then slowly exhaling. Relax. Feel the chair you’re sitting on, your feet on the floor. Smell the scents in the room. Imagine Jesus coming toward you with a smile on his face. Tell him how you are feeling right now-anxious, uncomfortable, fidgety, distracted, wanting to focus. Tell him what things are like for you today. Open your heart to him. Feel his presence very close to you. Let his love into your heart. Thank him for this gift.

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