Mental Healing and the Psalms

There are many ways through the dark valleys of depression, and prayer must be one of them. The problem is that the depressive often cannot even stir to perform regular prayer. Simple tasks become a burden. Prayer routines fall by the wayside. Commitments are left undone.psalter

And with each little failure, the walls close in tighter and the sufferer sinks deeper.

Perhaps one way through the dark valley is to follow the trail laid down by our ancestors with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Psalms have within them the entire range of human emotion and experience. If the regular routine of prayer no longer works for us, if the liturgy of the hours or the rosary or whatever discipline we try to follow has become a drudgery and burden, then we have to find a new way to speak to God and, more importantly, let God speak to us.

Fifty-nine psalms—more one-third of them—have elements of Lament. It would appear, on the surface, to be utter folly for the person in the midst of a soul-crushing sorrow to enter deeper into a world of despair. That appearance is deceiving, however.

The laments are more than that. They are a dialog between man and God. They are a howl of sorrow, yes, but they are also a plea, a thanksgiving, and a sigh of hope and trust.

Psalms by category, from Verbum Bible Software

Psalms by category, from Verbum Bible Software

Perhaps we need a Depression Psalter: something to give voice to pain, speak to God, and express our hope. It could be part of our cold reboot of the soul, as we dispense with old habits, including habits of prayer, and engage cross and the desert head-on. Let me begin with Psalm 13. It opens with a question that, as so often in the psalms, is an accusation:

1 How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever?
How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

You can see in the repetition of “How long” the urgency and pain of the psalmist, while parallelism builds gradually sharper accusations against the Lord. A common feature of Hebrew poetry is to say the same thing twice in different ways, which has the effect of both echoing and amplifying points.

At first, the speaker asks how long the Lord will “forget” him, suggesting that his distress is not the direct action of God, but mere neglect.

In the next line, however, God has chosen to actively “hide thy face.” God has not forgotten the speaker: God has deliberately turned away from him. These mounting accusations are a more circumspect way to accuse Yahweh for his present plight

The pain in our souls and the sorrow in our hearts is as good a depiction of depression as you’re likely to find. This is De profundis clamavi: a cry from the depths.

Finally, we have the characterization of the enemy who is exalted over us. We can read “enemy” in many ways. It could be the world, the flesh, and the devil (mundus, caro, et diabolus): the inverted Trinity that leads us into darkness. Any one of these things may be at the root of our depression: stresses of life present and past (the world), challenges from our body from illness or temptation (the flesh), or the evil one himself, who must not be discounted as the root of some cases of severe depression.

But I think it may be more useful for those who suffer from true clinical depression to see the enemy as the depression itself. It’s not unusual to give personality and even character to depression. That’s why it’s called the Black Dog. This runs the risk of placing the depression outside ourselves rather than something that springs from within, but it can also be useful for understanding and confronting the forces pulling us down. In prayer, confronting our depression as an Other, an enemy, is just one way to reach out to God and articulate our pain. It says that we are not our illness, and it will not define us, and it allows for us to plead for this enemy to be driven away.

The next section is a prayer for help. We are asking for deliverance from the enemy, in this case, our depression.

3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death;
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him”;
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

The Hebrew word translated as “lighten my eyes” means to shine, dawn, or give light. It is a powerful way of asking for darkness to be driven away, but it also suggests enlightenment and spiritual wisdom. We are asking God not merely to drive away the pain, but to give wisdom to our souls so we may live better, and to bring the Light Himself to dwell within us.

And to make the stakes clear, God is warned that our very lives are at risk. Major depressive disorders are, in fact, a serious, life-threatening condition. Too many people today fail to understand this.

Again, we have the personification our of our pain as our “enemy” and our “foes.” We are pleading with God not to let them triumph.

The final section is common in Psalms. It’s a prayer of trust, hope, and gratitude for all the Lord has already given and will give:

5 But I have trusted in thy steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

This is key. Trust and rejoice! Whatever bears us down, the Lord bears us up. The Lord’s love is steadfast, and He will save us. We cannot despair.

However slender that reed of hope is, we must hold onto it and not be swallowed up by the darkness. We must trust and hope in the Lord. We must never give up on Him, even when we’ve given up on ourselves. If the Psalms teach us nothing else, they have to teach us that much.

The Cold Reboot of the Soul

I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
–Tennyson–

My brain is a treacherous organ. I’ve made my living from it for almost a quarter century, yet it has a defect that makes this hard sometimes. The defect is mental illness, and it’s been with me my whole life.

Usually, it behaves itself. Lately, it hasn’t been. It comes in cycles, sometimes keyed to seasons (late winter is a bad time for many), sometimes for no apparent reason.depression

Depression isn’t sadness. It’s not even in the same emotional class. Depression is like a vice on your brain. It can sometimes squeeze so tightly that the sufferer hallucinates. It’s like mental suffocation. And it comes on for no reason, even in the midst of happiness.

Drugs help. If you find someone claiming SSRIs are bad or they only work because of placebo effects or other nonsense, ignore them. I’ve conducted a personal 30 year clinical trial, on and off all manner of pharmaceuticals, and when someone finds the right one, they work. All the chattering therapy in the world can’t do what they do.

I went off a medication last summer while my doctors tried to find the cause of a heart problem. I felt okay so I stayed off it. The drugs, however, provide a floor so that when the depression comes on, it doesn’t get as bad as it might otherwise. The floor wasn’t there when it came on this time, and I felt like Wile E. Coyote being flattened under an anvil.

I felt my mind going. I started forgetting things I’ve taught for ten years. My memory is shot for now. I struggle to get a single thing done. If I work myself up to it and have everything written down, I can still get through public speaking and being around people, but it’s physically draining.

The interesting part of all this, and the reason I’m sharing it now when I very rarely write personal things, is that while it’s put pressure on my faith observations, it hasn’t damaged my actual faith at all. I don’t blame God for this and I accept it as my cross even though I’d really like to stop carrying it for a while any time now God.

Maintaining a regular prayer schedule is nearly impossible in this condition. I visited with some friends last night and spent some in their parish prayer chapel where the Eucharist was exposed. I was able to pray the 22nd Psalm and that was it. The rest of the time, I had hardly a single word in my head, not even the Jesus prayer which is usually my go-to meditation. I just sat silently staring at the sacrament.

And you know something? It was enough. My faith is always too much in my head. There’s a useful side effect to that: it’s very rarely shaken. Even when I don’t “feel” it I know that, intellectually, it’s still a rock to stand on. A faith that is too much in the head grows arid, but one that is too much in the heart is easily buffeted by emotional trauma.

Even when the faith sparks to flame in my heart, it’s always very bound to words. Words are my life. Wordlessness is a challenge. I want to pray? I read. Reading becomes my prayer.

And that’s part of the problem. Reading isn’t a prayer. Reading is the ground upon which prayer takes place. It prompts to the prayer. It’s the context for the prayer. Even the words we speak or think aren’t always the best prayer. “Words conceal the soul within,” as Tennyson points out in “In Memoriam AHH”. Yet they have a purpose as well:

But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

Before God, we shouldn’t try to numb the pain away. Before God we should be naked and exposed, as we were in first innocence. That much, at least, we owe him.
And so, sometimes, being stripped down and left wordless before the One Who saves is enough. Perhaps the cacophony of our life and work and prayer and study can, at times and for some, become an obstacle to the work of the Spirit.

Depression scours the mind and the soul like a hard desert windstorm. It reduces you. The intellect is compromised. The emotions are laid bare. You’re pushed to the very edge of a gaping pit of despair and forced to look.

As Christians, we need to think differently. Perhaps that pit is not despair, which after all is a sin. Perhaps it’s not even a pit. Perhaps it’s an invitation, a blank slate, a clean white sheet of paper.

When a computer starts to malfunction, what do you do?

You turn it off.

When you power it all the way down and then restart it, it’s called a cold reboot. A cold reboot interrupts the power and clears the memory leaks that may be causing a system to run poorly. Most everyday computer problems can be solved by simply restarting the system a couple of times.

Perhaps depression functions like a cold reboot of the soul. What does depression feel like? Paradoxically, it’s both a weight and an emptiness. Paradox is sometimes a cue that we’re dealing with the transcendent.

For a Christian, every weight is a cross.

For a Christian, every emptiness is a desert.

The cross is our participation in the divine work of Christ. The desert is the place where we empty ourselves so we may be filled with the Spirit.

And so we are poised not at the pit, but at the opposite place: at the hill at the edge of the desert, in the shadow of the cross.

It’s a place of pain and tears, make no mistake. For the person who suffers mental illness, it always feels like Good Friday, and Easter never comes.

But that’s an illusion, and illusions betray us. Just as we know we must pass through the pain of Good Friday to get to the joy of Easter, so too must we remember the reverse: suffering has an end and joy is assured. The hard part is hanging on long enough to get there.

Maybe if we just shift how we look at that time in the dark it will get a little more tolerable. Maybe if we’re content to sit in silence and just be in the presence of God, some of the weights dragging down our hearts and souls will fall. Maybe we just need to ask Christ to be our Simon of Cyrene and carry our cross a little way.

Everything is towards an end. Everything has a purpose. Even mental illness. Our challenge is to find that purpose, live through it, live in it, and come out the other side.

Pope Benedict, Creation, and Biblical Criticism

My paper “The Word in Creation: The Ratzingerian Critique of the Historical-Critical Method and Its Application to the Creation Accounts” is up at Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

Two of my preoccupations during my master’s studies were Creation (particularly the Augustinian understanding of Genesis) and the theology of Pope Benedict. This paper was where the two converged thanks to Ratzinger’s little masterpiece In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, which allowed me to explore his approach to Biblical criticism in the context of unfolding Genesis 1.

Here’s a bit of it:

Creation was not a preoccupation of the Israelites until after the Babylonian captivity, when they began looking back at their origins and—drawing on ancient tradition—developed the passages into the form we now know. What they tell the Jews is simply this: God was never just the God of one piece of land or one place. If he was, then he could be overthrown by another, stronger “god.” After Israel lost everything, and began encountering God again in their misery, they came to understand that this was the God of all people, all lands, and indeed, of all the universe. He had this power, first in Israel, then in Babylon, because he created the world and all that was in it.

In captivity, they heard creation myths such as that of the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which tells of Marduk splitting the body of a dragon in two to form the world, and fashioning humans out of dragon blood. All of this dark and primordial nonsense is banished by the image of an earth “without form and void.” No more dragons, no more gods, no more violence and blood: just the pure power of creation from nothing, by a God who made man, not to suffer and struggle and die, but to walk in paradise.

There was order to creation, not chaos. It emerged from Reason, not madness. And it was spoken into being by the Word of God. Indeed, Jews believed that the Torah existed before creation. Creation happened to make the Torah known.

Furthermore, the shape of the creation account itself was meant to echo the Torah and to sanctify time and the week. Time becomes sacred in this account, with man laboring for six days in imitation of God, and resting to worship God on the seventh, in imitation of the “rest” of God Himself. The creation accounts thus build towards, and culminate in, the Sabbath, “which is the sign of the covenant between God and humankind.”24 In a very real sense, then, the creation account can be seen as liturgical: “Creation exists for the sake of worship.” That final day is a day in which humanity itself participates in the freedom of the almighty, provided to us in the covenant. We “enter his rest” (in the words of Psalm 95 and Hebrews).

Read the rest.

Hip-Deep Heaps of Quail!

Today’s infographic comes courtesy of Translation Follies. It purports to illustrate Numbers 11:31, in which the Lord sends quail in abundance to the Israelites.

From Logos Bible Software

From Logos Bible Software

Some Bibles, including the NAB, do indeed translate the passage as “at a depth of two cubits upon the ground.” Even the fairly literal NASB adds an italicized deep in the passage.

The Hebrew, however, roughly works out to “about two cubits the surface the land,” without mentioning depth. (The Septuagint uses the Greek ἀπό, which means “away from” the land.)

The RSV gets it right with the key word “above” rather than “deep.” That is to say, the birds flew low–two cubits, or about 3 feet–over a large swath of land, making them easier to kill, not that Israelites were wading hip deep in a sea of quail swarming on the ground.