I am an ordained pastor, 62 years old. I grew up in a loving, though nominally Christian, family. I had little interest in matters of faith until my last year of high school when I joined the youth group in a mainline, non-evangelical church. This experience was transformative for me and marked the beginning of a lifelong thirst and search for God.
From the standpoint of my subjective experience, God has been painfully, unrelentingly absent from then until now. Whenever I have tried to connect with God, my prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling. Although despair has been a frequent visitor over the past 45 years, I have not stopped seeking God. Once in a great while, from out of nowhere, I have experienced what I can only describe as the fleeting embrace of warm, loving light. But a moment later it is gone.
In the fall of 1978, soon after I entered divinity school, I experienced my first bouts with depression. I don’t believe that the timing of this was a coincidence. While the depression has ebbed and flowed over the years, it has never left me. In 1980, I sought help and have found a measure of relief through antidepressant medication and ongoing psychotherapy.
My path into ministry was a circuitous one and my pastorate was brief. I began serving my first church in 1989. By 1995 my depression had worsened to the point that I was no longer able to work. I remain disabled by it to this day. Through all of it, God has remained silent and seemingly absent. My response to this inner darkness has ranged from wondering “why?” to feelings of rage, betrayal, and emptiness. But underneath all of it is deep sorrow and a longing for which I can find no words.
Two years ago, I began the practice of centering prayer and sought out the guidance of a spiritual director. Although my prayer practice has been dry as dust, it feels important to stay with it. So, for the most part, I have done so. Both of my spiritual directors (I recently made a change) have been kind and supportive. But in the end, I remain alone with my inner darkness.
I was struck by your words to Rachel in your second Dear Addie column: “Here is my best advice: Listen to the longing.” Could you say more about that? While your advice rings true to me, it seems very hard to do. Sometimes my own longing hurts so much that I can hardly bear it. There seems to be no end in sight and no light at the end of the tunnel.
If after reading this any thoughts should occur to you, I would welcome them.
In 2007 letters and diaries of Mother Teresa were compiled into a book: Come Be My Light – The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.
It had been ten years since her death, 28 years since she’d received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work among the poorest of the poor. Years after she’d become a caricature of service and devotion, a romanticized version of herself. The book is surprising.
In it, Mother Teresa characterizes her interior life as being filled with “such terrible darkness […] as if everything was dead.” This woman who had devoted her life to the work of God lived without feeling God’s presence – for more than 50 years.
Imagine doing that kind of work. Work that can only be propelled by the most intimate love. Imagine that Love no longer accessible to you – at least in a way you can experience. Imagine knowing – intellectually – that Jesus is among the poor and the forgotten and the leprous and the diseased – but you are not able to find him there.
I don’t know if Mother Teresa would have been diagnosed, like you and I, with “clinical depression.” Who knows if the right medication would have cleared some of the foggy darkness that she lived with constantly? I doubt it though: she was finding and feeding and filling that great, pulsing need in Calcutta every day of her life, even in the midst of her darkness.
When you have clinical depression, you can barely put on your shoes.
Still, it’s clear from the letters and the diaries she wrote that Mother Teresa didn’t have a “dry season” or a “dark night of the soul.” She lived her life in a faith landscape that was arid and dark. Think Utqiagvik, Alaska – 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun doesn’t shine for 67 days in a row, where the night is deep and long and there is so much that you cannot see.
It sounds like you might be living there too.
During her years of darkness, Mother Teresa wrote letters to many confessors and priests. The Reverend Joseph Neuner seemed to give her the most hope. He suggested that the absence she felt might be part of the way in which she connected to Christ’s suffering (My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?) and that her craving for God was a sign of his hidden presence.
In other words, he said, listen to the longing.
We live in a world that has an antidote for every desire, and it is entirely possible to go through life never listening to that capital “L” Longing – the one that goes beyond a spouse or a home or children or friendship or a fulfilling career or happiness.
It’s the longing for our true home. The nostalgia for that which has never happened but we know to be real. An absurd feeling that there is a part of our true selves lost to us in this world, but that exists, shimmering on the other side of some great void.
This is the Longing that only God meets, and not entirely here in this life. We cannot fix it or control it, so we create and consume one product after another so that it becomes less acute. So that the haunting song of it is so muffled that we scarcely hear it anymore.
Even our version of Christianity is not immune to trying to quiet the Longing. It offers Jesus packaged and pretty, available in any increment we think we need (5-minute devotionals! 30-minute sermons! 3 minute and 30-second worship songs scrolling on an endless loop on the Christian radio!)
It’s not so simple for people like us, David. We are the ones whose clinical depression never entirely abates, no matter how many different medications or therapies we try. We are the ones who no longer believe in products or cures or antidotes. The ones who walk through the world stripped down and raw. The typical things don’t work for us.
But this is a gift too. After all, to be aware of your emptiness is to be aware that you were made to be filled.
We are, all of us, something like hermit shells. We were made to be inhabited. As Christians, we all believe this. As Christians with Depression, Christians who spend so much time in a dark faith landscape, we feel that emptiness. We know in our DNA what is missing. We feel it like the wind whistling through.
After all, to be aware of your emptiness is to be aware that you were made to be filled.
I can’t tell you how to feel God. I can’t tell you that it will get better because it might not. (In letters dated shortly before her death, she was still feeling it – that darkness, that distance, that longing for God who did not seem to long for her.)
But before there was light and before there was water and trees and animals and Adam, there was the Void. And God was in it.
I have to believe that he still is.
You and I, we live in the Utqiagvik of faith. We will never see God waving soft like palm trees or lie still in the rays of hot sun. The happy-clappy worship songs will likely never speak to us in the way they do to others; we’ll never be able to escape the scraping sense that something is not right in our souls.
But we get to see other things – things that so few people see: ice floes glinting on the water, the deep-water fish leaping from the waves, our breath in the air before us.
In the muted light of the sunless, days, we see the outline of ice formations heaving out of the earth.
We look up and see the wild expanse of the sky, empty and full all at once. We feel it all.
Got a question?
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