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.