Depression in Lent, an Unsought Penance

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My Lent so far has consisted of an unrelenting depression that has been getting worse for months.

My mounting anxieties and a sense of hopelessness have contributed to difficulty in Lenten prayer. I have tried different forms of prayer and nothing seems to rouse me from my sadness. The only answer I have found is continually to resort  to offering myself and my sufferings to Jesus without holding anything back. “I am broken”, I keep telling Him. “Heal me, if it is your will.”

I feel pain at an emotional level. At the supernatural level, I trust that this pain is being healed by Jesus in ways I cannot yet fathom.

My doctor has adjusted my medication several times. A few days ago, the latest change improved my outlook a little.

I’d like to think that my prayer would be more intense and focused, if God just took away my suffering. I tell Him I just need some relief for a while and that I will be faithful regardless of my condition. I want to feel joy and hope again. But I suspect I need this suffering and depression so that my sinfulness and self-indulgence can be achingly burned away. I recognize an anger and a sense of inferiority in my depression, which requires me to give this to God, as well. Emptying myself to God allows me the freedom to let go of some of this anger. God knows far better than me what will come from my pain, and that it will have some benefit for me and perhaps for my family and others.

As a permanent deacon, I am blessed that I can preach. In preparing my homily for the First Sunday of Lent, I found the Holy Spirit in the Gospel also driving me out into the desert where I encountered Jesus in His suffering. Jesus let me see that I belonged in the desert at this point with Him so that I can face my sinfulness and depression with Him and then give myself entirely to Him.

As I preached that First Sunday of Lent, I briefly found some respite. I have noticed this pattern lately in my preaching: I feel sad before and after preaching, but during my preaching, I feel a joy and urgency which is forceful and driven by the Spirit.

This first Sunday of Lent, I experienced a connection to God in my preaching where I was able to enter into the consoling arms of Jesus. I could then authentically and joyfully urge those at Mass also to go into the desert to find themselves and Jesus more deeply. When I shared this Gospel message, I experienced a relief with His taking on my sin and pain. I could see that He was withstanding the wiles and viciousness of Satan as He took my temptations of pride and vanity and forgave me and exposed me to the simplicity of His burning love.

I noted how empty and desolate the desert otherwise was. In the desert, we are unable to hide behind the lies and deceits of a culture of materialism and self-interest. In the bright and intense light of the desert, we see ourselves as we really are. We are given the choice of running out of the desert and leaving Jesus behind, or staying with Jesus and trusting in His mercy, healing and goodness.

I must stay with Jesus, even if I feel worthless. Things only make sense when I am with Him.

The Holy Spirit keeps driving me towards Jesus and the desert. I am tired and fatigued by the effort of being obedient to the Trinity. Where are the spiritual consolations that had been part of my life for many years?

My spiritual director says to let my grief and sadness “plough through me”. I like this image of suffering opening me up, like the newly ploughed farmland, to the seed of eternal life, which can only enter me if I am broken open like newly ploughed land.

Healing is never finished, he advised. Pain can be lessened through a trusting relationship with God and increasing spiritual maturity. Then, he noted, I have to learn how to live with the remaining pain and suffering, while always looking forward with hope towards the Resurrection.

“Self-introspection is not always productive at this certain point in your spiritual life,” my director told me.

“Don’t hang onto the pain. Don’t blame yourself for it”, he advised.

I have to see God’s love in everything, every setback and suffering, as well as in future consolations, should they come.

I cannot make sense of this emotional state in which I find myself. I cannot will it away.

Is it a “dark night of the senses”? That occurs in our spiritual life when God purifies us of our attachments to the world. It is the beginning of the second step of three steps spiritual growth, according to spiritual writers. The first step is a purification from deadly and sinful habits. The third step is the onerous sounding “dark night of the soul”, a state of union with God.

This dark night of the senses can only occur after we break habits of sin and acquire habits of virtue.

My sufferings seem to have some elements of the state of the dark night of the senses, perhaps at the very beginning level. Melancholy, anxiety and depression are often associated with this state of spiritual life, except that these feelings should result in a purer desire for God. My desires have been somewhat purified, but I am still resistant to total surrender to God’s will.

I have always desired to be closer to God, even when I began more deeply to experience suffering. But I have never experienced such suffering at this new level before.

I’ll keep trusting in God, trying to pray and surrender myself to God’s will.

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3 thoughts on “Depression in Lent, an Unsought Penance”

  1. I don’t like suffering. It is too passive for me. Pain is OK – well, not OK, but understandable: something needs fixing, But the “S” word is rejected.

    I used to substitute “struggling” for suffering – it allowed me to think more actively rather than passively.

    But I like your S-word too:
    “I must stay with Jesus, even if I feel worthless. Things only make sense when I am with Him.”
    “Stay with Jesus”. OK, it’s three words, but it has Jesus in it.

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