Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

What Comes First? Religion or Depression

There’s a cartoon picturing 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 egg finally looks over to the chicken and says, “Well, I guess that answers that question.”

That’s how I think of the relationship between religion and depression: like the chicken and the egg debacle.

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.

How is it that we depressives tend to be more spiritual? Or is it that the more religion you get in your life, the more depressed?

Beliefnet approached me to write Beyond Blue five years ago because they learned that so many of their readers suffer from depression. Articles about depression and anxiety were among their most popular.


I believe depressives are more spiritual because we are more aware of that human restlessness or inner void than our happy counterparts, 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.

So we pray. And we inhale frozen Kit Kat bars. Because both are like sucking on a pacifier to satiate the inner longing TEMPORARILY (prayer the preferred method, of course). Until our Prozac poops out (and our brain’s wiring and chemistry changes), and we need another kind of cocktail. At which time some of us head to daily Mass or join religious congregations, and others go to the hospital, and some (like me) do everything and anything as long as it’s not Vinyasa yoga (it hurts).


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.”

Consider for a moment the three Teresas (not including me) who experienced dark nights of the soul: Teresa of Avila emerged from hers and became the founder of the Discalced Carmelites, a prolific author, and the first woman Doctor of the Church; St. Therese of Lisieux is so popular, dubbed the “greatest saint of modern times” by Pope Pius X, largely due to her articulation of her crisis of faith in the pages of her autobiography, “The Story of a Soul.” And now, with the publication of some of Mother Teresa’s personal writings, we are learning about the modern saint’s personal agony that fueled her mission and incredible contribution to goodness, hope, and love on earth.


I keep pondering Archbishop Perier of Calcutta’s response to Mother Teresa concerning her darkness:

This is willed by God in order to attach us to Him alone, an antidote to our external activities, and also, like any temptation, a way of keeping us humble . . . to feel that we are nothing, that we can do nothing. . . . My only wish and desire, the one thing I humbly crave to have is the grace to love God, to love Him alone. Beyond that I ask for nothing more.

I’m not sure I agree with him. Because if I did, I wouldn’t have sought treatment in the 58,094 ways I did. I believe God wants me to be as healthy, happy, and productive as possible, and that he’s on the side of recovery, not illness. However, I can’t deny that my depression has been a refiner’s fire, impassioning my faith one profanity at a time. I can’t help compare it to the way a writer-mom, Linda Eyre from Salt Lake City, described motherhood:


We start our mothering careers as rather ordinary-looking clay pots with varied shapes and curves—and march directly into the refiner’s fire. The fire, however, is not a onetime process but an ongoing one. 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.

If I weren’t always so restless, I might be tempted to sleep in on Sundays more often, 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. I’d be less aware of the rose gardens I walk by to get to the kids’ school (but also less hyper about the bees on the buds). I’m pretty sure that I’d be less spiritual and less inclined to gorge on dessert.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment therese

    thank you

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jan

    thank you for this. I prayed to find something I could read today. I want to kill myself. I have two kids and I want it to be over with because I just want to get it done so I can stop worrying about when it will happen or how. Thanks for having something out there today.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Shamrock

    Jan…sorry I am only getting to read your comment today. Hope after your read Theresa’s blog on the dark night of the soul your day became an upward swing. But on days like the one you had yesterday and I too often experience, I practice living in the moment (as Brother Lawrence so beautifully writes about in his book by the same title)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment veronica

    The bad days are so bad, but it is necessary to accomplish. I pray for hope each and every day. Hope. Open my eyes in the morning and sigh sometimes and say I am not in heaven…..oh well, get up, get going, take the day. So much responsibility and I am at the age when it should not be so much. Work hard, get more hours, take care of the grandchildren, pray for my daughter’s sobriety. Keep my home. Keep the family willing to be strong together. So much some days, and I feel at times my prayers are not heard, but I believe, I believe. Never give up, even if it is a “slow hope” day. Feeling so alone and lost and moving around and no one knows…..God Bless.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Pam

    I accepted god into my life at 12. That’s also interestingly enough, I started having symptoms of add and bipolar. Lying, manic swings,sexual,racing thoughts, depression, which brought in guilt,shame, and isolation. Drugs, sex helped to numb the pain. Prayer to ask for forgiveness. Now at 48 on several meds, I’m happier and more at peace, willing to praise and serve god for the first time in my life.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jan

    Does anyone know of a support group that can be joined online? I do not come out of the house anymore and friends and family have long gone. Thank you,

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Melissa

    I like the humor in this article! It is really cool when you can be intentional about looking for the little things in your day that are beautiful, lovely, worthy of praise, of good report, noble, and right. Great article!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Dick

    I love your vulnerability and insights. Sometimes pass them on; as I will this one; to a Christian group of people who get together on Facebook. Our struggles come from a good source since Jesus sweat drops of blood in the garden and certainly knew what anxiety was. May god richly bless you and your family as you continue to bless the world. :)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Pat Nixon

    Religion came first, Then depression. I disagree. I often more solace and comfort and meaning to life in Bugs Bunny cartoons as a depressed child than I ever did in the Catholic church which wasted my time on happy little ditties like ” Oh sacred head surrounded and crowned by piercing thorns.” I am happier away from organized guilt and shame for nothing that I have done to the universe. If it comforts you Terry, great, but I agree with the Anabaptists on this one. Religion should not be foisted on children who are defenseless.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Liti

    A wonderful article.True and funny.A nurse who helped me once said”You have to go through the fire to get the gold”in her Island accent.That was over 35 years ago and I still recall it.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Bill Brenneman

    They’re right, Therese. You nailed this one with love, compassion and humor. Thanks, again.

  • Pingback: A few good links | eChurch Blog

  • Mary Devitt

    Beautifully written, as always, Therese.

    Your post made me think of a book I read last year–one of the many sources I consulted as I fought my way out of a two-year depression. It’s called The Van Gogh Blues, and is written by Eric Maisel. His premise is that creative people–like spiritual/religious people, I’m thinking–are engaged in a nearly constant search for meaning. And because meaning is problematic for us, we are prone to depression. The creative process works to address that, as does spirituality. I guess what I’m saying is that the questioning leads to all the rest, the depression, the religious orientation, and the creativity.

    Quite a gift, huh?

  • Neilesh Kumar (Biotechnology Afficionado)

    I came across your blog when googling for cool biotechnology articles – didn’t expect to find this, but enjoyed some of your posts. Keep it up.


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  • Pingback: “Who Am I?” a poem by Bonhoeffer; Spurgeon on how to lead a Bible Study, and other fascinating links | Dreaming Beneath the Spires

  • Pingback: "Who Am I?" a poem by Bonhoeffer; Spurgeon on how to lead a Bible Study, and other fascinating links - Dreaming Beneath the Spires

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