Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Understanding Faith and Depression: The Ashes This Year Were Perfect (Staying Open to Grace Is Enough)

I was so moved by this essay on faith and depression composed by an anonymous Beyond Blue reader. I hope you find as much hope in it as I did.
There is a dark smudge on my forehead. I am acutely aware of it. It feels kinda slimy. And people notice. This year, I’m not sure I want them to.
There are plenty of years I’ve wanted people to notice the ashes on my forehead, for all the wrong reasons. ” Look,” I wanted to say, “I’m pious, I’m observant, and I take my faith seriously.” So much for praying in a closet. I’ve never been particularly uncomfortable declaring or discussing my faith. Working in the church, it simply comes with the territory. Those conversations can often be difficult…”what kind of Christian are you?” but those discussions are usually discussions I can handle, that push me to think and to delve more deeply into faith.
In the last three years, that has changed. Most psychiatrists would probably tell you that I’ve suffered from some form of clinical depression and anxiety for a very long time. They’re probably right. But it’s only in the last three or four years that the disorder has struck a blow so hard that I can’t even articulate my thoughts about faith. A glance at my journals will tell you that my spiritual burn-out began during a very difficult work experience. But what is happening now is something much, much deeper than that.


In the past three years, I’ve avoided church more times than I can count. I can’t find a place where I feel comfortable. I squirm through most services. I’ve put away most of my cross necklaces and I avoid religious discussions when I know I’m feeling the impacts of my mood disorder. Of course, I can sing the language of faith. I can fool a lot of people. I know exactly what I’d say if I was an outsider, observing my dilemma. “Doubt,” I’d tell me “is a part of faith.” “I don’t have any good answers…” I’d tell me. “What I do know is that God is present in everything, including our suffering.” That might be true. In fact, I’m sure it’s true. That’s why I’d say it.
But what I’m experiencing is deeper than doubt. It’s a living death, terror, and sheer exhaustion rolled into one. “I’m tired…” I attempt to tell people, “so…tired.” “Of course you’re tired,” well meaning friends respond, “you’re in law school and you don’t get enough sleep.” But that’s not it, I want to scream…I’m tired of life. Living is exhausting for me. But I’ve stopped trying to explain. It requires too much energy. Energy I just don’t have.
So does thinking about God. Somewhere I lost my conception of what God is. I don’t doubt that God exists. I’ve always known God exists, as much as I know I exist. It’s just what is. I know Something is there. But in my current state of depression, I don’t have any connection to that Thing. All I can feel is numb. All I can hear is the terror raging in my head. It hasn’t always been this way. At various points in my depression; most of my life, I’ve been able to participate in my faith. Not now.
I know I’m sick (in theory). I know that the depression makes it harder for me to process thoughts. It’s physical. The days I spend prying myself out of bed, rushing to school even though I can barely stand remind me of that. The hours I spend trying to form a sentence on a page when my cognitions have slowed, remind me of that. And the times I cannot sit still through an entire class, because of the anxiety that rages through my body and mind remind me of that. If I was my own pastor, I’d tell myself that I was ill, that this illness was a sign of my brokenness, and my humanity, but that the love of God transcends that even when I can’t feel it. But I’m not my own pastor. And all I hear is the static of my own brain torturing me.
Paul Tillich refers to God as the “ground of our being” and talks about the “God beyond God.” I know what he means. The God beyond God is a phrase that I just understand…it means that God is out there, and that God is what really exists when you strip away all the symbols and stories you attach to make meaning out of your daily life. The God beyond God is the God that Jesus cried out to on the cross I think.
But I’m not going to find the love of God, not going to find faith, not going to find anything by avoidance. I’m a bit of a pluralist (or really, maybe I’m an outright Universalist). God, to me, can be found a lot of places. And when you can’t think of the notion of Divinity at all…the whole Jesus story is completely beyond my grasp. The story is nice and powerful, but the reality of it lacks when you’re not sure there’s anything out there anywhere. It lacks meaning when you just want to shut out the world and sleep.
Faith is not going to fix my depression. But I’m not going to find God under the covers either. Maybe I’ll find Her in yoga class. But I think I’m most likely to find Him in the traditions, the symbols, and the words I grew up around. I have to make space for grace. For now, I’m incapable of doing this with others…other than to sit in a church. And prayer, aside from a rote, repeated phrase is also impossible. But the rote, repeated phrase calms my anxious brain. The candles at the Thursday student services lull my soul. And today, as I listened to my friend deliver the Ash Wednesday homily, I felt for a moment, only a moment a glimmer of hope There was a break in the lethargy of my brain, a connection to the Something.
Having ashes on my forehead made me feel hypocritical this year. Being unable or unwilling to answer inquiries about my faith, or even to laugh at childhood stores about Lent, made the isolation I feel from my faith even more acute. And yet, this year might be the least hypocritical I have ever been about Ash Weds. Because the Ashes on your forehead don’t represent a pious, observant Christian. They represent a broken, shattered, and sinful human being in need of God’s love and restoration. The ashes this year were perfect. They were a symbol of repentence, a symbol of a period of fasting, discipline, and listening that I am going to observe. Ash Wednesday this year was about the moment I felt that gentle touch on my forehead, reminding me of my humanity and mortality, my connection to others. This year, more than any other, my prayers were not shouted on the street corners. I couldn’t explain the ashes on my forehead, but I didn’t need to. Being present was enough this year, staying open to grace was enough this year, embracing the hope that at the end of 40 days in the wilderness there is the radical hope of Easter is more than enough. I’m not there yet. But I pray that someday I will be.
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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Anne

    Therese, Very well said. You voice how I feel. I’m a life long Catholic who fell away and has recently returned. I find the rituals and the church comforting. I’m able to relax for a few minutes. I firmly believe in God but struggle none the less. Keep the faith my friend. Enjoy the sunshine.

  • http://faith Cindy

    Thank you,Therese,for the post about Ash Wednesday. I, too, have been barely surviving and trying so hard to hang on to the the bit of faith I have left. Numb is the perfect word to describe it. I keep moving forward, though, as it is all I can do.
    Thank you so very much again. Peace.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Barbara Bowman

    Wow, Therese! You need a hug…and more. You’ve got so much going on now. Somehow, I missed that you are in law school – that is tough under the best circumstances – never mind the emotions you are handling. I’ve never felt quite as you do, but I went through years when all I could do was go to Mass on Sunday. My mind would be elsewhere, and I’d just go through the motions. But the thing is, I felt that if I bailed out of church, then what?

    For me, having the ritual attendance at Mass, helped keep me on an even keel till I could reach shore.

    I really ache for you. You know God. God’s been a good friend of yours – not a mere acquaintance. Your intellect knows that, even if your emotions are doubting all over the place. I found that when I was wrestling with my emotions in other areas, and wanted to cut myself off from them, unfortunately, I also cut myself off from God. It think that is because God really wanted to heal my emotions and will, but when I locked those up, I locked God up too.
    Maybe that is how it is for you…or maybe not. If I were your pastor, I’d tell you to relax. You’d probably fight it, but in the end, giving yourself a break, would leave some space for God in the midst of your turmoil.

    You are a strong woman, Therese. But more than that, you are a woman of strong faith — even now. Let yourself go, and let God love on you. I love you, and will include you in my Lent, which is usually pretty half-hearted, but I’ve made up my mind to throw myself into it. I’ll throw myself, and bring you along.

    Much love.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mara

    Wonderful essay. It really touched my heart

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment RP

    Beautiful post and very timely. Thanks for finding this post and sharing. The Anonymous writer sure spoke to my heart.

  • http://FaithandDepression Amanda

    The anonymous reader’s essay resonates loudly.

    I went through law school. The depression didn’t hit until after many years of work in the profession. Now, during my recovery, 6 or more years out of “practice,” I have experienced lately the barren place which used to be my faith.

    “I don’t know what I believe anymore,” is a phrase I have used a lot.

    People who “practice the Secret” or manifest their destiny – isn’t that a modern newfangled way of saying that they are praying to Someone or Something out there? I can’t get past the parallels there. But lately I have been trying to manifest. And think positively, imagining the happy, strong me. I’m happy to report that it’s working.

    It’s taken me a long time to get to this level ground, and I don’t take it for granted. I wonder if I will return to find comfort in the rituals and traditions of Catholic mass. But I don’t think about it very much. Or feel bad about not going.

    I have a sense of the cosmic God beyond God. The explanation of “the Force” in The Science of Star Wars by Jeanne Cavalos gives scientific credence to the concept. So the logical part of my brain, my being that says “that Jesus story is bunk,” can fall back to say, “yeah, but it’s a human way to explain the inexplicable” – that “subtle, intangible, inexplicable” thing that Einstein wrestled with.

    Like the author, after the rituals and traditions fell away, I still have a sense of Something larger than this. I wish her success in defeating her depression. It’s endemic to the profession she’s chosen, which itself, may be Godless.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Christina W

    Once again, thank you……this essay speaks to everything I have been feeling but unable to articulate.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Stephanie

    Thank you for such a beautiful and honest rendering of the dark night that you find yourself in. Just before reading your post, I was just beginning my day at work, and normally, I offer myself to Jesus, and ask Him to hold me close to His heart, ad to make me into the person that He created me to be. I too have lost all feelings of devotion and faith….I feel that I am going through the motions. After my pittle prayer of surrdnder, I open a beautiful book named HE AND I, by Gabrielle Bossis, which is a diary she kept of all the things she heard Jesus telling her in prayer over the course of many years. This one book has helped to preserve me and console me in so many ways. In fact, it is said that many psychiatrists recommend this book to their patients. I can see why. Having been now in a dark night which has lasted for about six years, this book has been my friend and companion. Most of all its words help me to hold onto the truth that I am loved by Him, no matter how I feel, or how weak I feel that I am. The particular passage that I opened up to this morning, is just what you and I need to know:

    July 29: “My child, can’t you understand that the trials I send you are all made to measure, exactly fitted to your power to bear, favors that draw you nearer to your Beloved. Thank Me for a little trial as though it were a flower placed with new tenderness on your heart by your Fiance. Doesn’t He find you more beautiful when you suffer with gentle patience united with His patience?”

    I thought it would help you to know that many of us whose hearts do truly love God and are united to Him, find no proof of this reality within our feelings. Mother Theresa of Calcutta suffered like this for 50 years, so we can find a real friend in her amidst this struggle. I can tell, just by reading your post that you are one of His dear ones. And that He is not far from you! It is when we feel that he is farthest away, that we are right in His shadow. He is near!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Razz2

    Thank you for sharing with us this wonderful and inspiring essay from one of your readers. I find that if I can hang onto just one small comfort … be it through “ritual” , prayer, connections with others…. then that dark of my soul gets some light and I know that this is where God is. For now that is enough.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment spareparts

    God bless him. God bless you, Therese. And thank you.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mary Anne


    U have NO idea how much reading this post was like reading my own mail. The feelings u are experiencing ALOT of people are having right now. At the risk of thinking I have finally flipped my apple cart there is something I want you to look up and read about. It is called DNA regeneration. It is being caused by the Solar flares that have been occurring and alot of people feel just like us. Not just the mental/emotional feelings but physical pain. When I happened on the info it FIT with exactly what I have been going through. The Earth as we know it is going through change. We are ENERGY, the planets, Moon and Sun are too. Of course when they change we do too.
    Do not feel guilty about your questioning “God” why do u think after being brought up in a “Christian” church being raised to believe in Jesus and the Bible all my life that I started looking to other belief systems? I cling to my Native American heritage now. I am not religious I prefer to call myself spiritual. U have no idea how much your post resonated with me, thank you again for being so open and honest and sharing it! I love you and will be sending healing energies and prayers to Great Spirit your way. Hang in there, forget the man made traditions, the man made doctrines and denominations. As long as you know there is a GOD and can hang onto him/her/it you will be ok. NONE of us know, have evidence of who is really in charge…that is what faith and free will is all about! hugs, M.A.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment steve

    Easily the best Lenten meditation I ever have read. Thank you so much for putting this one up.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Cindy

    Thank you so much, anonymous reader, for these wonderful words! They shouted to me! Thank you!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Cindy

    The words also whispered to me…

  • Wild Optimist

    Thank you for sharing this- and thank you for writing it. I am in a similar season and reading between every line, I kept thinking “she knows,” and “she is so right.”

    Praying you both have a grace-filled Lent.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Belinda

    Wow! I don’t know how long that I have felt this way, it’s been lots of years. I have never been able to express it like this. This post is great! I will keep it to read again and again!

  • Gail

    Paul Tillich refers to God as the “ground of our being” and talks about the “God beyond God.” I know what he means. The God beyond God is a phrase that I just understand…it means that God is out there, and that God is what really exists when you strip away all the symbols and stories you attach to make meaning out of your daily life. The God beyond God is the God that Jesus cried out to on the cross I think.

    Never heard the phrase, the God beyond God. But yes, that who I’m searching for right now.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sean

    Thanks so much for theses words. The honesty, reality and humanity of them touched my heart. Several paragraphs could have been written about me without any of the words being changed. I will read this again and again. Thank you.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Bev Y

    This is to Anne,
    I can’t believe my eyes. Every word you wrote was exactly like my life. This is my day after day, too.
    I reach out to others, but they just don’t know what is looming in my mind and heart.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Bev Y

    Oh no, my mistake. I was writing to Cindy, not Anne.
    Cindy, welcome to my world. Most of the time it is, “Stop The World, I Want To Get Off.”
    And then I take another breath.

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