St. John Vianney, the famous Cure of the tiny French village of Ars, is most popularly known as the holy and humble priest who spent sixteen to eighteen hours a day hearing confessions and giving advice to long processions of people. He practiced extraordinary penances and fasts for the conversion of sinners and was subject to diabolic persecution all his priestly life. It is said that the devil revealed once that if there were but three priests in the world like the Cure of Ars, the devil would lose his kingdom.
What is less known is the overwhelming depression that weighed upon John Vianney's soul without relief his entire life. Though he was the most sought-after man in all of France, he seemed incapable of seeing the immense amount of good he was doing. Despite the tens of thousands of pilgrims who traveled to Ars each year in the hope of receiving the sacraments or a word of advice from him, he believed himself useless. The priest who had reawakened the faith of a village and set all France aflame through his preaching and holiness felt God so far from him that he was afraid he had no more faith. He believed himself to have no intelligence or gift of discernment. It is as if God drew a veil over his eyes so that he could see nothing of what God was doing through him for others. The Cure feared he was ruining everything and had become an obstacle in God's way.
The root of John Vianney's severe depression was his fear of doing badly at every turn, and the thousands who traveled to Ars increased his terror. It never occurred to him that he might have a special grace. Instead, he feared that the long line of penitents to his village church were a sign that he was a hypocrite. He feared facing the judgment with the responsibility for all these people on his conscience. There was not a moment when he felt that God was satisfied with him. A great and profound sadness possessed his soul so powerfully that he eventually could not even imagine relief.
Whenever the tempests of depression seemed to have enough power to drown him in the vision of his own miseries, the Cure would bow his head, throw himself before God like "a dog at the feet of his master," and allow the storm to pass without changing his resolve to love and serve God if he could. Yet he kept this pain so private that except for a few confidantes, most people saw only tranquility and gentleness in his bearing.
Jesus Is in the Darkness with You
You may discover that the shadows and tempests of depression alter the way you look at God and the way you believe God looks at you. When you pray you may be unable to sit still or to keep your mind focused for more than a few moments. Everything may appear to be a huge gaping hole of silence, all so useless. God may seem to be mocking your attempts to pray. I know people who have gone three, five, ten years without "praying," though they were faithful to setting time aside for prayer regardless of its seeming uselessness. In the haunting darkness where all communication had gone silent, they found loneliness, boredom, frustration, anger. Were they praying? Yes.
Recognizing agony in a void that is filled only with darkness and absence calls a depressed person to be present to the Now, even if the Now is darkness. There is a God in that void, the God of Jesus. To be present to this God, to know that Jesus is in the darkness with you and for you as prayer, even were no words or act of love to pass through your heart. God's abiding love is deep within, never forsaking you in darkness. You are alone in the void with the Son of God-both of you keeping silent. Suffering with you is Jesus, the abandoned Son on the cross. When it is impossible to hold on to a thought or to pray, Jesus is praying and contemplating within the one who is suffering from depression. Day by day, moment by moment, groping in the darkness, you are not alone. Jesus is struggling with you. He is there feeling it all. Nothing goes unnoticed by him or his Father. Through Jesus' Spirit who is in you, you can hope for peace.
Ideas for Praying When Depressed
St. Gregory Nazianzus wrote these words during a time when he found anxiety and depression crowding out any space for prayer in his soul:
The breath of life, O Lord, seems spent. My body is tense, my mind filled with anxiety, yet I have no zest, no energy. I am helpless to allay my fears. I am incapable of relaxing my limbs. Dark thoughts constantly invade my head ....Lord, raise up my soul, revive my body.If this is happening to you, try these forms of prayer and contemplative love:
1. Try to find a quiet place. Put on some soothing music. Keep it soft and gentle. Take a few deep breaths, holding each one for a few seconds and then slowly exhaling. Relax. Feel the chair you're sitting on, your feet on the floor. Smell the scents in the room. Imagine Jesus coming toward you with a smile on his face. Tell him how you are feeling right now-anxious, uncomfortable, fidgety, distracted, wanting to focus. Tell him what things are like for you today. Open your heart to him. Feel his presence very close to you. Let his love into your heart. Thank him for this gift.
3. Call to mind someone else you know who is hurting or sick. Focus for a few minutes on what that person may be feeling, and on what you would like to say to him or her. Lift this person up by name to Jesus and ask his blessing on them.
4. Hold a crucifix in your hands. Close your eyes and think of Jesus in agony. Join your sufferings to his in his act of redemption.
5. If you're feeling low, go to a quiet place and hold your Bible. Read Psalm 130 or focus on a phrase of it. Embrace how you feel, even if it's uncomfortable. Know that God is loving you through these moments of darkness.
6. When you are unable to focus because your mind is racing, try to remember and pray the words, "My God, I love you." Open yourself to God's love.
7. Turn on soft music. Read this Bible verse over and over while thinking about it: "My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?" (cf. Mk 15:34). This is Jesus' own prayer of emptiness and abandonment.
8. When you pass by your local church, stop in for a few minutes. Pause and connect with the One who loves you.
9. If you can't get up, lie still and repeat the name of Jesus over, and over, and over. His love catches these words and he embraces you with love.
10. Go to Eucharistic adoration and spend some time in God's presence.