Tag Archives: suffering

Reader E.V. sends along an interview with Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, author of The Catholic Guide to Depression. I haven’t read the book yet, but this is the second time it’s been recommended to me, and the interview is full of gems of good sense.

On overspiritualizing the problem:

I think most therapists have had the experience of Christian patients who prematurely ‘spiritualized’ what were actually more psychologically or biologically rooted problems. Perhaps this was done with the encouragement of a priest or spiritual director who was not adequately informed about the nature and causes of mental illnesses like depression.

That was me as a teen and twenty-something: so convinced of the high-falutin spiritual nature of my depression that the thought of a cure seemed tantamount to a rejection of the Cross itself. A word of caution in there, too: a priest can be as holy a man as you like, but that doesn’t mean he always knows what he is talking about.

On distinguishing depression from the “dark night” experienced by some of the saints:

With the dark night of the spirit there is an acute awareness of one’s own unworthiness before God, of one’s personal defects and moral imperfections, and of the great abyss between oneself and God. However, a person in this state does not experience morbid thoughts of excessive guilt, self-loathing, feelings of utter worthlessness, or suicidal thoughts – all of which are commonly experienced during a depressive episode.

That’s an important distinction. Being deeply aware of your own unworthiness is one thing; being obsessed with your own imperfections is another. I’ve experienced the latter any number of times, but the former is something that I’ve only glimpsed, and that in my best moments. The difference between them is as clear as the difference between breathing mountain air and trying to breathe water.

Kheriaty doesn’t consider depression totall outside the realm of the spiritual, either, though:

We must also be convinced that whatever we suffer in life — whether from depression or any other affliction — is something that is allowed by God. Suffering is a mystery, and Christianity’s answer to suffering is mysterious — because the answer is Jesus Christ on the cross. Our faith does not promise a life without suffering; quite the contrary. We should not expect that prayer, or Scripture reading, or the sacraments, will magically cure all mental disorders or alleviate all suffering. What Christian faith offers us is the hope and the strength to endure whatever crosses God allows in our life. As psychiatrist Victor Frankl put it, those who have a why to live can bear with almost any how. Frankl knew something about suffering, having been a prisoner in Auschwitz.

And some positive recommendations, with a caveat:

…prayer, religious faith, participation in a religious community, and other spiritual practices like cultivating gratitude and other virtues can reduce the risk of depression and help in recovery. This does not mean that religious faith inoculates a person against depression, nor does it mean that depression is due to a lack of faith. But it does suggest that faith may have an important role in a person’s healing.

The whole interview is very down-to-earth and very human, but with something luminous and wholesome behind it. Read the whole thing here.

Note: Occasionally, as below, I lift a post from an email to a reader. I never do this without the reader’s explicit permission. Thank you for writing, B., and for being willing to share this.

Dear B.,

I know what you mean about depression. I think we always expect suffering to be different from the way it actually is, whether that suffering is interior (like depression) or exterior (like betrayal, or physical disease, or somebody’s death). When we’re inside it, it’s no longer obvious that it’s a Trial, or a Test, or a Purging, or whatever: it’s just something that hurts, and all of our usual defenses seem to be gone.

There was a point during one of my darkest times — a time when I went through an intense 9-month depression — when I had what I think is a very important realization: that if God is allowing me to pass through something, then I don’t have to understand it in order for his purpose to be accomplished by it.

To be clearer: I used to feel like I always had to be looking for the “meaning” behind my depression, or looking really hard to see what “lesson” God was trying to teach me through it. And I felt like, if I didn’t find that “lesson”, then the depression would be wasted and I wouldn’t learn anything.

But I don’t think that’s how it works. If I was capable of understanding what the lesson was trying to teach me, then I wouldn’t need the lesson at all. And if God allowed me to go through the pain, but didn’t allow me to see what I was supposed to be getting out of it, it’s because he knew that the pain itself would be a kind of teacher for me.

The crucial thing in all of this is to maintain contact with God in whatever ways you can. This means being faithful to daily prayer, weekly Mass, and confession as often as you can (within reason). This way, we keep the lines open, even if we don’t understand why, and even if we no longer feel that we’re “doing it right” or “getting something out of it” or any of that stuff. The important thing is to stay the course. My spiritual director has frequently told me that some of the time, or maybe most of the time, the only thing God asks of us is that we keep showing up — even when our heart isn’t in it.

Peace & prayers,
Joey

I’m reading Eve Tushnet’s bit in the October First Things — a response to Douglas Farrow’s “Thirteen Theses On Marriage.” (You can find the theses, and the whole set of responses, here.)

Eve’s stuff is always worth reading. The theses themselves are pretty dry, albeit maybe only in the sense that Aquinas is dry: they succinctly distill a whole worldview, and so they don’t admit of much poetry. Eve characterizes them as having a “certain antiseptic sting,” and the same is true (maybe by necessity) of many of the responses. Not Eve’s, though. Her reaction is first of all a human one.

Here the bit that made me leap for tumblr:

For me, as a lesbian Catholic with no discernible call to monastic life, the absence within the Christian churches of a deep understanding of the human need for vocation is glaringly obvious. Too many gay Christians grow up learning that there’s simply a blank space where God’s vision for their future should be. There’s a list of do-nots and a free-floating sense of shameful disorder, but no image of a path in life on which God might call and lead them. But this void in our culture damages everyone.

Yes indeed. But then there was this:

In this world, no one is called to a life of sacrifice; they either choose the life they want and claim it, or long for it and never find it.

My first instinct was to disagree: everyone is called to a life of sacrifice, right? Marriage, the religious life, and any other legitimate vocation all involve sacrifice.

But then I saw that wasn’t what she meant. Her writing elsewhere consistently points to the necessity of serving others through self-denial. So maybe she meant something like this: that nobody is called to a life of mere privation; that is to say, a life defined by not having those things that, given your nature and the deepest desires of your heart, you hope to have.

A year or two ago, I would have disagreed with that, too, because I was very caught up in the notion that it was my job to suffer, to be deprived, and to offer that deprivation up for the good of anyone I could think of. That’s not how I think anymore. Now my M.O. has more to do with St. Irenaeus’ “The glory of God is man fully alive.”1

What do you think? Is there any such thing as a “victim soul”? Is there anybody who’s just plain made to suffer?

Or is suffering just an unavoidable, but still essential, part of the Christian (or any) life — to be endured and accepted and offered up and even welcomed, but never positively sought?

1 That smacks of being misquoted and/or misattributed, but I don’t know for sure. Still, regardless of whether St. I. or somebody else said it, it seems true.

…goes to Simcha Fisher’s post this morning on choice and suffering. Excerpt:

She has had her face pushed against the wall of horror which is mortality. She does not like the choices presented to her: either suffer this way, or suffer that way. What is her answer? “There ought to be another choice.” Choice after choice after choice. The modern person confronts pain and slices it thinner and thinner, hoping to put an end to it. This does not work. It simply makes the pain, like a knife, sharper.

Read the whole thing here.

Some people think Christians are in love with suffering. Not true: it’s just that we don’t see it as something to be categorically avoided.

My heart hurts right now. It just does, and none of your business why, dear readers, although you’d understand it well enough. I know myself well enough to know that it’ll pass, and probably soon. There’s a kind of hurt that says You’re doing this wrong, and there’s another kind that says This has got to stop, but there’s a third that just is, the way a fact just is.

It’s the third kind that you can’t avoid, and shouldn’t. Léon Bloy says: “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering, in order that they may have existence.” Pain enters like a knife to cut away the dead parts.

Reality is the knife. You could almost define reality as The thing that we don’t desire, or anyway as The thing which is independent our desires. That’s what makes it worth desiring, because it is Not Us, Not Me. It’s the Other.

Do you remember that dreadfully sentimental movie from the ’90s, What Dreams May Come? Its vision of heaven is a place where we get what we want: the externalization of all our desires. My mother said that sounded a lot more like Hell: nothing but you and what you want, forever. No alarms, and no surprises. C. S. Lewis says something similar:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

I don’t mean to be melodramatic, Jesus — you’ve put up with a lot of that in our time together — but fiat voluntas tua, and I’m going to bed.

“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“Can’t I?”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes. I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”1

One of my favorite things about being a Christian is the fact that there’s no such thing as “too good to be true.” The phrase is a contradiction: being Christian means knowing that the good and the true are the same. The truer a thing is, the more good it is, and vice versa.

I know the Brideshead quotation sounds like pure naïveté. In one sense it is. Anybody who lives in the world knows that true things, facts, are very often not good and not beautiful. You just have to read the news. Forget that, you just have to walk down the street: every time I walk out of the Y, the same junkies are sitting on the curb, too drugged out even to know how miserable they are.2

Forget even walking down the street, you just have to grow up in the 21st century, in your own family. I don’t care how wonderful your family is; whenever you get any group of people together there will be bitterness, misunderstanding, and even cruelty. That’s not what people are at heart, but it’s what sin does to the world.

Christianity doesn’t deny any of those things. On the contrary, I don’t know of any system of thought that takes suffering more seriously: even after Jesus rose from the dead in glory, there were still nail wounds in his hands.

Christianity doesn’t even say, “Yes, the world’s dreadful but if you just wait long enough you’ll die and then you’ll get to be happy!” To be Christian isn’t to ignore suffering or to wait for it to be over, but to “accept and use suffering as Christ did: that is, as a creative, redemptive act.”3 To make suffering the tool of love.

Christianity says this: the best things are also the truest things, and the most beautiful. Beautiful things are beautiful because they are true. That’s what beauty is: it is what truth does to us. We are built to be drawn to truth, to love it like a mole loves dirt, like meat loves salt.4

Being a Christian means never having to decide between what’s true and what you love. It’s just that figuring out what you love, and what love is, takes time, and learning how to strip away everything else.

1 From Brideshead Revisited.
2 Okay, so I’m trying to make the place I live sound a little more badass than it is. Mainly it’s just Main Street that’s like that.
3 Archbishop Chaput’s Render Unto Caesar, p. 47.
4 I forget whether the meat-and-salt thing is from King Lear or Cap-o’-Rushes, maybe both. But about that: I was at the beach recently with my older sister. Her kids found these strange little crab-things that live just under the surface, where the waves meet the beach. When you dig them up, they burrow back into the sand so quickly it’s like they’re moving through melted butter. My sister said, It’s like that story about the Zen disciple who wanted to see God: that’s how they must feel, they want to get into that sand so bad. I have a cool sister.