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Coping with depression in a Christian way

DEPRESSION
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A few words of advice to get through it without losing faith. 

Depression is an illness, and being Christian does not mean you will never suffer from it. Faith saves, but it does not cure; not always, in any case. Faith is not medicine, much less a panacea or a magic potion. However it does offer, for those who are willing to accept it, the possibility of experiencing your suffering in a different way and identifying a path to hope, which is so important because depression undermines hope. Here we present advice for making it through those difficult times from Fr. Jean-François Catalan, a psychologist and Jesuit.

Is it normal to question your faith and even give it up when you are suffering from depression?

Many great saints went through thick shadows, those “dark nights”, as St. John of the Cross called them. They too suffered despair, sadness, weariness of life, sometimes to the point of desperation. St. Alphonsus of Ligouri spent his life in darkness while he comforted souls (“I suffer hell,” he would say), like the Curé of Ars. For St. Teresa of the Infant Jesus, “a wall separated her from Heaven.” She no longer knew if God or Heaven existed. Nevertheless, she lived that passage through love. Their times of darkness did not keep them from getting through it with an act of faith. And they were sanctified for that very faith. 

When you are depressed, you can still abandon yourself to God. At that moment, the sense of illness changes; a crack opens up in the wall, even though the suffering and solitude do not disappear. It is the result of a continual fight. It is also a grace we are granted. There are two movements. On the one hand, you do what you can, even if it seems minimal and inefficient, but you do it — taking your medication, seeing a doctor or therapist, trying to renew friendships—which can sometimes be very difficult, because friends may have gone away, or those close to us are disheartened. On the other hand, you can count on the grace of God to help keep you from despair.  

You have cited the saints, but what about ordinary people?

Yes, the example of the saints may seem very distant from our own experience. We often live in a darkness darker than night. But, like the saints, our experiences show us that every Christian life is, in one way or another, a fight: a fight against despair, against the different ways we withdraw into ourselves, our selfishness, our desperation. This is a fight we have every day, and affects everyone. 

Each one of us has our own personal struggle to face against the forces of destruction that are opposed to authentic life, whether they are from natural causes (disease, infection, virus, cancer, etc.), psychological causes (any type of neurotic process, personal conflict, frustrations, etc.), or spiritual. Keep in mind that being in a depressed state may have physical or psychological causes, but it may also be of a spiritual nature. In the human soul there is temptation, there is resistance, there is sin. We cannot remain silent before the action of Satan, the Adversary, who tries to “make us stumble along the way” to keep us from getting closer to God. He can take advantage of our state of distress, affliction, depression. His aim is discouragement and despair. 

Can depression be a sin?

Absolutely not; it’s an illness. You can live through your illness as a walk with humility. When you are at the bottom of the abyss, and have lost your points of reference, and are painfully experiencing that there is nowhere to turn, you realize that you are not all-powerful and that you cannot save yourself. Yet, even at the darkest moment of suffering, you are still free: free to live your depression from a state of humility or from indignation. All spiritual life supposes a conversion, but this conversion, at least at the beginning, is nothing more than a conversion of perspective, in which we shift our perspective and look to God, we return to Him. This turnaround is the result of a choice and of a fight. The depressed person is not exempt from this.

Can this illness be a path to holiness?

Certainly. We mentioned above the examples of several saints. There are also all those hidden sufferers who will never be canonized but who have lived their illness in sanctity. The words of Fr. Louis Beirnaert, a religious psychoanalyst, are very appropriate here: “In a miserable and mistreated life, the hidden presence of theological virtues (Faith, Hope, Charity) become evident. We know some neurotics who’ve lost their power of reasoning or have become obsessive, but whose simple faith, that sustains the divine hand that they cannot see in the darkness of night, shines as strongly as the magnanimity of Vincent de Paul!” This can be applied, of course, to anyone who is depressed. 

Is this what Christ went through in Gethsemane?

In a certain sense, yes. Jesus intensely felt the despair, anguish, abandonment, and sadness in his whole being: “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death”(Matthew 26:38). These are emotions that every depressed person feels. He even begged his Father to “let this cup pass from me”(Matthew 26:39). This was a terrible fight, and terrible anguish for him! Until the moment of “conversion”, when acceptance was recovered: “yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). 

His feeling of abandonment culminated at the moment he said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But the Son still says “My God …” This is the last paradox of the Passion: Jesus has faith in his Father at the very moment it seems his Father has abandoned him. An act of pure Faith, cried out in the darkness of night! Sometimes this is how we need to live. With His grace. Pleading “Lord come help us!”

Interview done by Luc Adrian

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