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, Iâm told, came across more âworryingly bleakâ than âwinningly chipper in the face of adversityâ. That wasnât really the intention at all. But hey, Iâm mentally ill â 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. Letâs call it getting into the Advent spirit. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and deathâs dark shadows put to flight and all that.
So hereâs a few more-or-less spiritual things â alongside a good deal of other stuff too â Iâve learnt or am learning.
The first is that, however well-meant, interpreting clinical depression in the theologised language of âthe dark night of the soulâ or âthe desertâ isnât actually very helpful. Iâm not saying that it never is. But for me, St John of the Crossâs account of âwhen this purgative contemplation oppresses a manâ 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.
Thatâs not to say that Iâve 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 âlukewarmâ 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 Itâs 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 âwork of mercyâ.
As Iâve started to feel more normal â a decidedly relative term when applied to theologians, I grant you â Iâve become ever more grateful that Our Lord himself, like the prodigalâs father, comes to meet us in the Sacraments: âthrough which all true justice either begins, or being begun is increased, or being lost is repairedâ (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 thereâs a âcountry priest, startled one wintry evening by a strange penitent banging on his doorâ 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 â 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 donât complain of âdistractednessâ. People nodding along to their fellow parishionersâ (undoubtedly worthy) Sunday bidding prayers, meanwhile, often do.
The same thing, Iâve discovered, doesnât 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, Iâm 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 â one truly spoken de profundis â was a direct quotation from a single by Pink.
And it has worked, so far. Thanks be to God â and, indeed, to many of you.