Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Which Came First? Religion or Depression

There’s a cartoon with a chicken and an egg in bed together. The chicken is smoking a cigarette with a very satisfied expression on his face, and the egg is restless and disgruntled. The caption above the egg says, “Well, I guess that answers the question.”

That’s how I think of the relationship between depression and religion.

I can’t say which came first in my life because they were both there from the start. And you need only read through a few of the lives of the saints or walk the exhibition aisles at the Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit to see that holy people aren’t all that happy much of the time. In fact, Beliefnet approached me to write Beyond Blue two years ago because they learned that so many of their readers suffer from depression. I’m not making this up or exaggerating. Reported in the “American Journal of Psychiatry,” researchers today are using high definition brain scans to document a biological underpinning for religiosity and spirituality related to the neurotransmitter serotonin.


Saint Augustine once wrote, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

Therein those words, I believe, lies the reason depressives are more spiritual: we are more aware of that human restlessness or inner void than our happy counterparts (those blessed with functional wiring), or maybe we are more restless AND more aware of our unease. And we want to fill that void and settle the restlessness ASAP because it feels about as good as cow droppings on our heads.

According to St. John of the Cross–the Spanish mystic who experienced something far worse than cow pies when he was harshly imprisoned in Toledo–the purpose of the dark night is all for love: to become better lovers of God and one another. Furthermore, the dark night takes us from isolation to creativity, from withdrawal to contribution.


“Obscurity and attachment, followed by God-given clarity, liberation of love, and deepening of faith, are consistent hallmarks of the dark night of the soul,” writes Gerald May in his fascinating book The Dark Night of the Soul. “Often this liberation results in a remarkable release of creative activity in the world.”

I can’t deny that my depression has taught me to love more deeply, impassioning my faith one profanity at a time. If I weren’t always so restless, I might be tempted to sleep in on Sundays more often, to care less about helping others caught in the Black Hole, to listen to music during my run instead of pray a novena. I wouldn’t think to thank the big guy for a day without tears, to bless him for 24 consecutive PMS-free (hormonally balanced) hours, and to appreciate the beauty of our neighbor’s vibrant rose bushes on the way to David’s school.


I compare the dark night of the soul and the struggle to break out of the Black Hole to the way a writer-mom, Linda Eyre from Salt Lake City, described motherhood:

We start … as rather ordinary-looking clay pots with varied shapes and curves–and march directly into the refiner’s fire. . .. Every experience that helps us to be a little more compassionate, a little more patient, a little more understanding, is a burst of fire that refines us and leaves us a little more purified. The more we filter, strain, and purge through the experience of our lives, the more refined we become.

Now as to which one–depression or religion–is smoking the cigarette with a very satisfied expression? I don’t know. I guess that depends on my mood at the moment.

To read more Beyond Blue, go to, and to get to Group Beyond Blue, a support group at Beliefnet Community, click here.

  • Mica

    Thanks, T. For me, the answer to this question is a bit complicated. I was religious, caught up in organized religion, and then began to question what was being taught. When I began to question, I became troubled over the answers (or even more, the lack thereof)… which led in part to my depression. As part of my healing, a part not really addressed in therapy, I began to come into my spiritual self — separate from my organized religious upbringing — as a huge piece to my self-treatment. Now I feel more complete than ever in the spiritual realm because I’ve reached my own understanding of it. I’m like a walking posterboard for the second saying of the Gospel of Thomas.

  • marilyn

    i think haveing suffered from depression my whole life i now realize that God is the only one that can bring you out of the dark into the light.i never was religous but once i made that conection it seems i see and feel life in a differant way.i mthink we appricate life in a way that most people take for granted.

  • Your Name

    i think for me i have always been more sensitive but since being diagnosed with bipolar i was always a little scattered.but since haveing found that spiritual place in my life i have a better appriciation of life and haith that there is light at the end of the darkness.

  • paul L

    Your humor makes me laugh. In fact it kills me. Just wanted to say I appreciate it and your thought provoking, helpful blog. It really resonates with me. Thanks.

  • Karen N.

    Darn, Therese–that esplains it! I’m always the egg! Keep up the great work.

  • Anita_aka_Nit

    Hi Therese, I’m new to this group today and have to say That I’m happy to have read this blog first. I really like the way you incorporate humor into such a “serious” subject. I’m looking forward to learning and sharing with this group. Thanks again – it was great! Nit

  • RandyK37922

    Have been off the site for a few months during a move and job change. In catching up, I see that your blog is as insightful and wonderful forever. Fantastic article. Note the new e-mail address.

  • dee m.

    this is the first time i have stumbled upon this blog. i found it quite interesting and helpful. i have suffered from depression and anxiety disorder for many years now & i, too have discovered a deeper spirituality within myself. in retrospect, i believe it was always there, i just never tapped into it as often as i do now. hope to discuss things further at a future date.

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