I like stories. Whether it’s a program on EWTN, or a homily, or an article, I like the saga of how some Catholic figure dealt with a challenge. It could be a story about converting the barbarians, or some primitive people, or of a modern man being thrown into prison while facing a seemingly impossible situation. Regardless, I will remember the details of the story long after some abstract lecture on vice or virtue is concluded.
Often, I reflect on the quote from Pope Paul VI, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers.” So, when two enthusiastic women from my church told me about a Lenten Retreat in a nearby parish hosted by a priest who had suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts, I was hooked. Having suffered with mild depression most of my life, particularly during the winter, I could instantly relate. I attended my first retreat, expecting to be inspired. I was certainly not disappointed.
I was the first to arrive at Holy Family Church in Queens, New York. It’s one of those old churches that look like an ark inside; great exposed dark-brown wooden beams overhead. In the front of the church was the magnificent dark-brown wooden cross draped in a deep purple cloth placed there during Lent; a surly crown of thorns at the top. Four cacti were at the base symbolizing Our Lord’s forty days in the desert. In the distance, the golden Tabernacle shined. And there, leaning against the podium, was a curious wooden staff.
The next to arrive were a blind couple carrying their white canes. As they proceeded into the meeting room, I began to realize how important this retreat was for people. While standing in the vestibule, I met a man who told me he had suffered severe depression his whole life and that no medication had ever helped him. I shared that I too suffered from mild depression and could appreciate his journey. I offered to pray for him and we then exchanged phone numbers. As the fifty souls attending this retreat began to take their seats, I noticed the diversity of the group; individuals, couples, families, a nun wearing a long black veil.
After seeing and hearing Father John Powers talk for only a few minutes, my friends and I couldn’t believe our eyes. How could such a warm effervescent man ever be depressed and suicidal?
But for this Passionist Priest, who has spent thirty-seven years giving lectures and retreats all over the United States and in a number of foreign countries, along with TV and radio, his life’s journey has been quite contrary to his image. He told the story of how in his early days as a priest he would be giving a talk on TV, while thinking of how he was going to kill himself.
Father John then revealed: “Courage is a three-letter word: YES. Yes to who you are. Yes to your flaws. Yes to ask for help.”
When Father John realized he couldn’t journey alone and needed help, he went to his priest superior seeking his help. Father John was then hospitalized. He still occasionally sees a psychiatrist for medication, a therapist and, of course, a spiritual director.
Father John told us, “Mental illness is a disease and it’s not your fault. At first, I suffered with depression. Then I learned to live with it. Now I realize it lives with me. It’s not who I am.”
As part of his self-care, Father John also goes to AL Anon, the twelve-step program for family and friends of alcoholics, to deal with the leftover pain of his mother’s alcoholism, even though she eventually became sober. The damage from that experience is life long. He and the brothers at the Immaculate Heart Monastery in Jamaica, Queens, where he resides, also started a Depression Anonymous group. Although, the group has since closed.
As a youth, he was traumatized by the loss of his much beloved infant brother to cancer. Of this he says, “Loss is the flaw of love. What we love [on earth] can be lost.” Concerning our pain to such losses he says, “Our anger is as high as our denial of hurt is deep. Lent is when we touch into our sorrows to be lifted up.”
Throughout his struggles in life, Father John’s Catholic faith has helped him immensely. He challenged those of us present at the retreat in saying,
“We should get into the Scripture stories, into the spaces between the words. Become a character in the story and see what it says to you.”
He then picked up the staff that was leaning against the podium. (He calls the stick his “Story Staff”.) He showed us how to immerse ourselves into Scripture by taking on a character in several of the Bible stories; the Prodigal Son and a shepherd who sees both the birth and the Passion of Jesus. He challenged us to see what they saw, and to hear and feel with they experienced.
He then shared something that echoed much of what Pope Paul VI said about witnessing. Yet, Father John was quoting Joseph Campbell; “Preachers err by trying to talk people into belief. Better they reveal the radiance of their own discoveries.”
“The soul is made up of stories,” Father John said, “story of you/us living, learning, loving, laughing, losing, longing, and letting go into God so that we can do it all, all over again.”
In closing, Father John summed up his talk, and highlighted our purpose in this life by saying, “As Christians our job is to give life. We are to be hope bearers, heralds of hope, to give them life. Be more hopeful, more compassionate.”
When the Retreat ended, it began to rain. As my friends and I walked to the bus stop, we were giddy with joy, walking in that rain like children; talking and joking about what we had witnessed – for we had “touched into our sorrows and were lifted up” by a bearer of God’s hope. We felt weightless.
For as Father John said in explaining how he copes with life’s challenges; “Laughter sustains me. If we can laugh at it we can live with it.”
Visit his website and maybe he can talk at your parish or get his books and CD’s.