“A catholic taste,” she said

and I nodded,
not knowing at all what she meant, for I
was not, nor have ever been, Catholic.
How then, I wondered, was my reading taste catholic?
The word, at the time, meant Mary and popes,
not expansive, far-reaching, inclusive. Now I
give my old teacher’s words new meaning:
yes, catholic in reading, in writing, because 
bodies matter, and ritual
and beauty are core;
catholic because
bread and wine, and brokenness,
sacrament, liturgy,
should inhabit the fibre of the Christian page.
Faith is not, should never be, prose.
So Mauriac and Merton, Marion and Nouwen
shall show me the way to paint Christ
in rich praise.

Thirty-Two Blessings

image

Gratitude begets gratitude, just as love begets love.
(Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved)

That I am begotten by love,
Sustained

That my heart beats
And my feet move

That the air is rich
For me to breathe

That love is patient,
That love is kind

That I can know
What goodness is

That I have companions
Beside my walk

That song is true
(Only hear the birds!)

That the world is full
Of light, of play

That colour
Amazes

That I have climbed
Mountains and trees

That my eyes receive
The signals of life

That yellow flowers I cannot name
Line my road, my way

That I can talk for hours
To God

That I am small
And He is not

That language is beauty
And also meaning

That I have never suffered
As I should

That again the sun has chosen
To rise

That I must never
Truly fear

That I have been given
Home and name

That I belong
Where I am found

That sun and rain
Are common gifts

(That roads are built
That we may walk

And we may sit
In neighbourhood)

That even sparrows have a home
(How much more I, a child of grace?)

That I am held
In arms like His

That hope is stored
Where none can harm

That life is hid,
Yet lived today

That I can look up to a sky
And think – Sublime!

That all this glory
Is yours and mine

That in these thirty-two years of grace
It is not I but Him –

For this and more,
Much thanks.

From Ashes 11: The Poor in Spirit and the Fainting Minister

Poverty in spirit is the porch of the temple of blessedness…Till we are emptied of self we cannot be filled with God. Stripping must be worked upon us before we can be clothed with the righteousness which is from Heaven.

(C.H. Spurgeon, “The First Beatitude”)


I remember a dream I had once, when I was not yet diagnosed with depression. In my dream, I was altogether unable to relate to those around me. Everything I said sounded rude, offensive, ungracious, and everyone assumed I was simply being unkind. Yet I knew that my words only came out of my inability to feel anything beyond deep sadness. And so I retreated to bed. My bed, I recall, was in a room full of people, and a friend – now a minister – was standing by my bedside, telling others that I needed to sleep. “He has depression,” he was saying to them. “He needs to rest.” The sensation that I felt in that dream was one, strangely, of safety. Someone else understood, even when others around me didn’t – even, perhaps, when I didn’t myself.

This desire to sleep, and sleep, until the trouble is passed, is a common experience of depression. Though I was never so depressed that I could not get up in the morning, though I managed, most of the time, to go to work and fulfil my duties, there were days when I carried there with me such a deep, abiding languor that, though I was there in body, in spirit I was somewhere altogether different. I often thought of the sleepers in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and of Lord Rhoop, beleaguered by the trauma of nightmares turned to reality, who was allowed to sleep among them until his soul was healed. That, I felt, was what I needed most. I later saw this emotional state perfectly, tangibly, evoked in Lars von Trier’s film, Melancholia, probably the most powerful depiction of depression I have ever seen. Yet Melancholia, though it creates and expresses palpable empathy for the broken, can do nothing to heal them. The answer to such brokenness and anguish seemed altogether evasive.

When talking with another friend, now also a minister, about my struggle to feel alive in my faith when everything else in me felt dead, he suggested that I look to figures in the faith who knew the same struggles as me. Perhaps, he suggested, I should read Spurgeon. I had heard of Spurgeon, and recalled his words about divine election being of a particular comfort to me while working in Malaysia, so I began to seek out what I could find of his work and of biographical writings on him. Yet what I found was not the comfort I expected. At a time when I most wanted to hide until it was all over, I read in Spurgeon’s life of a man who continually pushed himself in his work for the Gospel, whose response to depression seemed to be the opposite of what he most wanted to do; he did not sleep, he laboured. Was this what was expected of me? What about my dream of sleeping, and sleeping, until the world was a safe place again for me to enter?

A closer look at Spurgeon’s life shows the truth to be more complex than this. Yet the question remains: how do we handle the deep darkness of the soul productively, in a way that enables healing, when what we most want is to hide until it is over? The first answer is that the Bible promises refuge for the truly broken, expressed perfectly in the opening to Psalm 57:

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,

                  for in you I take refuge.

I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings

                  until the disaster has passed…

Yet David spoke these words when he was fleeing for his life from Saul. The darkness of the soul is much like this, but less tangible. Nor is the “distress” something which always passes; unlike a physical foe which can come and go, the foe of depression can remain far longer, for the very reason that it is not tangible and not so easily defeated or exposed. Spurgeon himself writes:

Causeless depression is not to be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discoursings. As well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet, all- beclouding hopelessness.

The Psalms, however, always manage to move from this “causeless depression” to a place of hope – with the exception, of course, of Psalm 88. The psalmist may often begin “in the midst of lions”, yet he seldom stays there. Often, he does what Martyn Lloyd-Jones would call “preaching to oneself”. He would ask himself: “Why so downcast, O my soul?”, as though it were not needful, however powerful the source of dread may be.

As my depression slowly came into the light and I began receiving treatment, this idea of preaching to myself became a source of great comfort to me. I also began to see certain activities – working, praying, reading the Bible, going to church; serving others – as a kind of soul-physiotherapy. Just as a patient whose body has been broken by injury or stroke needs to begin exercising her muscles slowly, in agonisingly small steps, until they can handle the rigours of walking, lifting, talking and carrying, so my soul needed to be opened, in infinitesimally small stages, until it too could walk, run and praise. I began to see in figures like Spurgeon not an insensitivity to the pains of depression but rather an awareness of the fact that hiding in bed may comfort but does not heal, that only the Gospel can heal, and that only the life lived under the Gospel is truly life.

In a startling account of ministry now highly influential in Christian thinking, Spurgeon once spoke to his ministry students about a phenomenon which he called “the minister’s fainting fits”. In this lecture, Spurgeon presents depression as the norm, not the aberration, among ministers. Granted, such depression may not always be clinical, and Spurgeon – though he did not have the medical vocabulary that we have now to talk about such things – makes no such claim. Yet experience tells us that his statement is true: the levels of clinical depression amongst full-time ministers and missionaries appear far higher than in other vocational sectors among those in the church. Beginning with this solid conviction, based both on personal experience and observation, Spurgeon moves on to ask the question why this is so, offering a number of highly informative answers along the way.

First, he notes, burdens of the body and soul weigh down all believers at some point in their lives. Just as the benefits of common grace reach out to all humans, so do the troubles of this fallen world. Christians are not spared their realities, and so ministers can expect to encounter the very same burdens as others. Indeed, for Spurgeon, experiencing depression oneself is altogether necessary to be able to reach out to the “poor in spirit” among your flock. “Good men”, he writes, “are promised tribulation in this world, and ministers may expect a larger share than others, that they may learn sympathy with the Lord’s suffering people, and so may be fitting shepherds of an ailing flock”. Indeed, the ability to sympathise with an “ailing flock” seems, to Spurgeon, to be a prerequisite for ministry the way that God ordained it to take place:

Disembodied spirits might have been sent to proclaim the word, but they could not have entered the feelings of those who, being in this body, do groan, being burdened; angels might have been ordained evangelists, but their celestial attributes would have disqualified them from having compassion on the ignorant; men of marble might have been fashioned, but their impassive natures would have been a sarcasm upon our feebleness, and a mockery of our wants. Men, and men subject to human passions, the all-wise God has chosen to be his vessels of grace; hence these tears, hence these perplexities and castings down.

It is curious, perhaps, that Spurgeon does not refer here to the very fact that God Himself chose not to despise the brokenness of human flesh, but was anguished to the point of sweating blood, making Him the Great High Priest who can sympathise with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). Yet, even without this strong Biblical justification, Spurgeon makes his point with almost irrefutable eloquence, and he is not alone among Christian writers in expressing the significance of personal brokenness in developing empathy. Had he lived in the same century as the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, he may have found an unexpected affinity with the sentiment Nouwen expresses in his seminal work The Wounded Healer:

Who can save a child from a burning house without taking the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a voice of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in their own heart and even losing their precious peace of mind? In short, ‘Who can take away suffering without entering it?’ It is an illusion to think that a person can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.

Spurgeon, like Nouwen, argues that experience of suffering is both necessary in order for ministers to empathise with those for whom they care and a consequence of dealing with human brokenness. Indeed, he paints a vivid picture of the struggles that the minister’s life entails: the intensity of the work, the lack of rest, the weariness of deep, persistent study, the struggles of consistently carrying the burdens of others. “Let no man who looks for ease of mind and seeks the quietude of life enter the ministry”, he warns; “if he does so, he will flee from it in disgust.” Yet he goes further to argue that depression provides a necessary antidote to more dangerous human weaknesses, noting the significance of depression in humbling great men and women of faith in the past, to keep them from what St. Paul described as “becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness” of their encounters with God (2 Corinthians 12:7). Spurgeon evokes the language of Paul’s account in 2 Corinthians when describing the life of Martin Luther as an example: “His great spirit was often in the seventh heaven of exultation, and as frequently on the borders of despair.” The same, he notes, is seen in the life of Elijah, whose ecstatic victory over the prophets of Baal was followed by one of the Bible’s most stark accounts of depression: “For him no notes of self-complacent music, no strutting like a conqueror in robes of triumph; he flees from Jezebel, and feeling the revulsion of his intense excitement, he prays that he may die”.

Spurgeon explains the need for this to happen by saying that “poor human nature cannot bear such strains as heavenly triumphs bring to it; there must come a reaction.” The heights of spiritual triumph need to be offset by despair at our own inadequacy so that we are saved from a greater danger: the dangers of besetting pride:

Men cannot bear unalloyed happiness; even good men are not yet fit to have “their brows with laurel and with myrtle bound,” without enduring secret humiliation to keep them in their proper place. Whirled from off our feet by a revival, carried aloft by popularity, exalted by success in soulwinning, we should be as the chaff which the wind driveth away, were it not that the gracious discipline of mercy breaks the ships of our vainglory with a strong east wind, and casts us shipwrecked, naked and forlorn, upon the Rock of Ages.

Spurgeon is famous for his highly florid metaphors, and this passage is no exception. At times, he tends perhaps towards the purple in his prose, yet the image here is quite an extraordinary one, whereby the rock upon which the ship is wrecked is not a danger at all but a source of salvation: the Rock of Ages. Depression, in Spurgeon’s view, is not always a curse; indeed, often it can even be a means of grace.

Speaking elsewhere of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, Spurgeon notes how Jesus, in “describing the saved”, begins with poverty of spirit in order to provide a “ladder” by which “feeble climbers” can hope to ascend. “Had the Savior said, ‘Blessed are the rich in Divine Grace’,” he notes, “he would have spoken a great Truth of God, but very few of us could have derived consolation from there.” Yet, in beginning with poverty of spirit, all may identify themselves in Christ’s blessing and from there ascend to grace. Indeed, Spurgeon argues that the first beatitude is even more central to our experience of grace in that it

is essential to the succeeding characters. It underlies each one of them and is the soil in which alone they can be produced. No man ever mourns before God until he is poor in spirit! Neither does he become meek towards others till he has humble views of himself. Hungering and thirsting after righteousness are not possible to those who have high views of their own excellence – and mercy to those who offend is also a Grace, difficult for those who are unconscious of their own spiritual need.

How, we might ask, can a minister hope to lead others to an understanding of grace which they themselves have never acquired? And how can they acquire it until they know themselves to be poor in spirit? Depression, Spurgeon seems to argue, is one of God’s primary means of bringing us face-to-face with our own poverty of spirit without Him.

Thus, “the lesson of wisdom” found from depression, Spurgeon notes, is to “be not dismayed by soul-trouble.” Indeed, it seems possible even to consider it an unexpected blessing. The economy of God’s grace is full of strange reversals like this, and the Beatitudes are based on them. Spurgeon writes:

If it be inquired why the Valley of the Shadow of Death must so often be traversed by the servants of King Jesus, the answer is not hard to find. All this is promotive of the Lord’s mode of working which is summed up in these words – ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord’”.

To confirm this, one has only to think of God’s unexpected ways of dealing with people all through scripture: deliberately choosing Gideon, seemingly the least likely warrior, and assembling for him an army of even less likely warriors, to overthrow Midian; choosing the younger usurper Jacob over the hunter Esau, rejected Leah over beloved Rachel, “the griefs of Hannah” over “the boastings of Penninah”; breaking Paul that he might better trust in the sufficiency of God’s grace. This grace has always used the unexpected and the painful, and has used them to work remarkable wonders in ways that show us that He can “do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

John Piper, a great admirer of Spurgeon, expresses a similar sentiment when writing a reflection on his experiences of cancer, provocatively entitled, Don’t Waste Your Cancer. According to Piper, “we waste our cancer if we do not believe it is designed for us by God” and “if we believe it is a curse and not a gift”. The greatest use of cancer, Piper argues, is “to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ”. Sometimes cancer, he contends, is the best way for us to do this: a “golden opportunity to show that [Christ] is worth more than life”.

The same, I believe, could be said of depression. I have often thought of writing a book called Don’t Waste Your Depression, yet have not done so, both out of a reluctance to bring law-suits upon myself and an uncertainty that I have the wisdom necessary to write it properly. If, however, I ever write it, I suspect it will be most meaningful if it tells stories like the life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who accepted his depression as a painful yet wonderful way of God working His grace in him. Far from wasting his depression, Spurgeon used it as a way of learning humility before God, and from this starting-point of humility, to move on to deeper understandings of grace than health could ever afford.

My frustration with Spurgeon initially stemmed from his prolific work, which challenged my desire simply to hide from the world until I felt healed. Yet I was also frustrated by the fact that he seemed to write about far more than depression, and wrote in an exhortative style that I struggled with; surely, I thought, knowing depression himself he would recognise the ways in which depression clouds our every other perception of God? Not at all. For Spurgeon, depression should never be the final word on a life; nor was it for him ever the defining feature of a ministry. Instead, it brought him to an altogether essential understanding of his poverty of spirit: the sense of brokenness and mourning over self and pride without which no minister or believer can ever hope to rise from the ashes and praise. May we learn to mourn and praise like him.

References

Nouwen, H. (1979). The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York: Image Books.

Piper, J. (2011). Don’t Waste Your Cancer. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

Spurgeon, C.H. (1909). The First Beatitude: A Sermon Published on Thursday August 5th, 1909. Accessed online, 25th July, 2014. http://spurgeongems.org/vols55-57/chs3156.pdf

Spurgeon, C.H. (n.d.). The Minister’s Fainting Fits. In Lectures to My Students, Vol.1. Accessed online, 24th July, 2014. http://www.onthewing.org/user/Spur_Lectures1.pdf

From Ashes Part 3: Mental “Health” in the Valley of Weeping

Entombment of Christ, 1672, in Saint-Martin Church in Arc-en-Barrois (Haute-Marne, France) Wikimedia Commons
Entombment of Christ, 1672, in Saint-Martin Church in Arc-en-Barrois (Haute-Marne, France)
Wikimedia Commons

I shame at mine unworthyness,

yet fain would be at one with thee.

Thou art a joy in heaviness,

a succour in necessity.

(John Dowland, Tears of Lamentacions of a Sorrowfull Soul)

So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.”

(Ruth 1:19-20)


 

To understand what it is to be ill, we also need to understand what it is to be well. As I am writing these words, I am struggling with the early signs of a virus. I know that I am not well because I know how my body should feel. The pain in my throat tells me that something is amiss; it should not be there. The same rule applies to mental illness; if we know how our minds should “feel”, then we can recognise also what is abnormal.

But is it so simple? Sometimes our bodies’ responses of pain and distress are signs of health, not of illness. If I were to feel a sudden, inexplicable pain in my chest, I might fear that I was ill. If, however, the pain corresponded to an injury – an object hitting me in the chest, for instance – I would not fear illness. Instead, the pain would be a normal physical response. Far from showing that my body was unwell, it would show that my body was working very well indeed; it would be doing exactly what it should do at that moment.

Much psychology over the last century and a half has sought to establish what “normal” is for the human mind and thus to understand divergences from this norm. Sometimes this is a problematic process. Freud, for instance, famously developed his theories primarily based on highly unusual cases, meaning that he was not able to gain a clear picture of what “normal” actually was. Yet, that aside, Freud’s concept of “normal” – and those of figures who came after him – was premised on some interesting and problematic assumptions. One key assumption seems to be that guilt is a neurosis, perpetuated by religion, and that the healthy human mind should be free from such guilt. This is a concept which Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenges in Ethics when he writes of guilt as a healthy response to a relationship with God:

Genuine acknowledgment of guilt does not grow from experiences of dissolution and decay but, for us who have encountered Christ, only by looking at the form Christ has taken.

Rather than pathological or neurotic, guilt for Bonhoeffer is an appropriate response to the true and pure knowledge of God. Likewise, many of our responses of sadness or guilt over our lives may stem from an awareness that things could and should be other than they are.

Guilt and grief pervade the human experience, not only for those who suffer from these emotions in extreme forms. We may assume that extreme feelings of guilt or grief, if not accompanied by some “reasonable cause”, are pathological. Yet it is worth asking if those who do not feel intense guilt or grief are in fact the ones who are not entirely healthy. For some, the everyday pain of life is an intense source of grief, and the on-going disappointments of life with self, others and circumstance can cause a degree of pain which, though not based on clear, concrete causes, is nonetheless palpable and reasonable.

We may assume that extreme feelings of guilt or grief, if not accompanied by some “reasonable cause”, are pathological. Yet it is worth asking if those who do not feel intense guilt or grief are in fact the ones who are not entirely healthy.

Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia explores this idea powerfully. The main character, Justine, struggles with feelings of deep depression which make no sense to those around her. They argue that she should just “try to be happy”. When, by the end of the film, the entire fabric of life on earth is under serious threat, Justine seems the most stable and secure among them; having encountered and confronted the emptiness of life, she is able to deal with what everyone else has previously hidden from. Von Trier’s film operates from an almost nihilistic viewpoint whereby meaning is dictated by the “fact” that “we are alone” in this universe, a view which many – including me – would struggle with. Yet what he presents compellingly in the film is that sometimes the emptiness perceived by those with depression is not entirely a symptom of an illness but a fact from which others hide.

Death, for instance, is a reality which hangs over every human life. Then there are all the ways in which we enter life with expectations and hopes which may never be met, both in life and in ourselves. We repeatedly do not live up to the expectations we have of ourselves, and the disappointments we can suffer at the hands of others are equally great. Additionally, there are the numerous sources of anguish and distress in the world around us. We surely cannot confront the realities of famine, disease and oppression throughout the world, of which the majority of us are knowingly or unknowingly culpable, without feeling both guilty and grieved.

Yet this is a truth from which many in the world today hide. Christians so often hide from it because we expect better of life after finding Christ. We expect ourselves to be good, and we expect life to conform to divine will. Admitting otherwise is often painful and requires a more solid, God-centred faith than we are entirely ready for. In some Christian circles, lamentation seems to demonstrate a lack of faith. In most circles, it simply isn’t done. For those who do not hold to religious belief, it is equally hard. Acknowledging the deep pain of reality without an answer or a reason behind it is no easier than recognising that life does not always conform clearly to that answer or reason.

If so many in the world today suffer from depression, a possible explanation could be that we simply do not give space in life for meaningful acts of grief, mourning and repentance, thus causing grief to fester. In his beautiful series of meditations on the Eucharist – noting that the word “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving” – Henri Nouwen speaks of the importance of first “mourning our losses”. Without doing so, he writes, we are inclined towards resentment – perhaps in a quiet form, of which we are not readily aware, yet sometimes in more overt forms which manifest themselves in intense anger towards ourselves or others. That, or our resentment reappears in the forms of bitterness or disillusionment. The answer to this problem begins both with an acknowledgment of loss and of the fact that we are in some ways culpable for this loss, the cry for mercy with which the Lord’s Supper begins:

This cry for mercy is possible only when we are willing to confess that somehow, somewhere, we ourselves have something to do with our losses. Crying for mercy is a recognition that blaming God, the world, or others for our losses does not do full justice to the truth of who we are. At the moment we are willing to take responsibility, even for the pain we didn’t cause directly; blaming is converted into an acknowledgement of our own role in human brokenness.

Perhaps this culpability is part of the reason why we do not confront grief: because it might lead to guilt, and we are even more afraid of that than of grief itself. Yet guilt that is justified is not pathological or dangerous, not when there is a clear solution to that guilt: the mercy of an all-loving God.

The reality that life disappoints and hurts is unavoidable, yet it is similarly not the whole story; this is precisely why we can lament. We can recognise that life is imperfect, mourn this fact, and through faith in God participate in the possibility of a different reality. If we grieve the fact that this reality takes a long time in coming, we are of the same mind and heart as all creation, which according to the apostle Paul “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). Like Naomi of the Old Testament, we can mourn that life has become bitter for us, yet it is does not need to end there. To mourn means ultimately to avoid bitterness or resentment in ourselves, because we acknowledge pain openly, before God. Yet the key is to also mourn our own guilt and culpability with the tragedy. If we recognise before God that we are part of the problem, we can be enabled by His grace to be part of the solution.

Grief and guilt can become pathological, it is true. They can become such overwhelming emotions that they themselves create new and unnecessary pains and disappointments. Yet they originate in a rational place, and part of the reason why we struggle so much with how to deal with pathological and neurotic feelings is arguably our reluctance to deal with them in their more reasonable and justifiable manifestations. When we walk with God’s people through the valley of weeping, when we recognise our own unworthiness before a holy God, we should mourn. To be mentally healthy in such a place may well involve such mourning.

The good news, of course, is that it does not finish there, but this is a truth that we cannot fully or sympathetically celebrate until we too have walked through the valley of weeping ourselves.

References

Bonhoeffer, D. 2005. Ethics. Ed. Wayne Whitson Floyd Jr. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Nouwen, H. 1994. With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life. New York: Orbis Books.