With few prayerful thoughts to call my own, I have relied on the piety of others
As regular readers may remember, I have been suffering with depression since the summer. My last blog on the topic, I’m told, came across more “worryingly bleak" than “winningly chipper in the face of adversity". That wasn’t really the intention at all. But hey, I’m mentally ill – so what do I know?
As I start to emerge, slowly and falteringly, from it all, now seems like a good time for a hopefully more hopeful update. Let’s call it getting into the Advent spirit. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight and all that.
So here’s a few more-or-less spiritual things – alongside a good deal of other stuff too – I’ve learnt or am learning.
The first is that, however well-meant, interpreting clinical depression in the theologised language of “the dark night of the soul" or “the desert" isn’t actually very helpful. I’m not saying that it never is. But for me, St John of the Cross’s account of “when this purgative contemplation oppresses a man" has much too romantic an air to feel like a helpful interpretation of spending five months eating a lot, an awful lot, of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.
That’s not to say that I’ve gleaned nothing significant from my illness. Far from it. Mental illness has been a hard lesson in humility. However steadfast a disciple I might like to be, I know that I am only ever a tiny amount of serotonin away from being too “lukewarm" even to pray, for weeks on end.
With few prayerful thoughts to call my own, I have been forced to rely on the piety of others. I am lucky enough to have many willing intercessors, adding their prayers, rosaries, Mass intentions in aid of my recovery. Simply knowing that has been a genuine consolation. Truly, at times it has felt like the opening scene of It’s a Wonderful Life. It has also brought home to me, in vividly relatable terms, the communion of the saints, and the ancient practice of praying for the living and dead as a supremelypractical “work of mercy".
As I’ve started to feel more normal – a decidedly relative term when applied to theologians, I grant you – I’ve become ever more grateful that Our Lord himself, like the prodigal’s father, comes to meet us in the Sacraments: “through which all true justice either begins, or being begun is increased, or being lost is repaired" (Trent).
There have, Deo gratias, been mercifully few moments of true drama over the past few months. But should my life story ever get made into a Hollywood biopic, then there’s a “country priest, startled one wintry evening by a strange penitent banging on his door" role with Best Supporting Actor written all over it.
Finally, to return to the subject of prayer, the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe warns somewhere about kidding ourselves when praying – i.e., asking for the things we think we ought to want, rather than what we really do. After all, people praying on sinking ships probably don’t complain of “distractedness". People nodding along to their fellow parishioners’ (undoubtedly worthy) Sunday bidding prayers, meanwhile, often do.
The same thing, I’ve discovered, doesn’t just apply to the content of prayers. It is also true of their form. I can appreciate a good Latin prayer as much as the next EF-frequenter. But when it really comes down to it, I’m afraid to say, my deepest instincts are rather less refined. I can honestly admit that the most heartfelt, tear-soaked prayer I have ever uttered – one truly spoken de profundis – was a direct quotation from a single by Pink.
And it has worked, so far. Thanks be to God – and, indeed, to many of you.
by Stephen Bullivant