In the fall of 2007 Mother Teresa graced the cover of Time magazine when her private writings were published, many of the excerpts filled with surprising doubt, despair, and a kind of spiritual anguish. Some journalists questioned whether or not she was clinically depressed. Did this modern saint have an untreated mood disorder or did her pain fall into the category of a “dark night of the soul,” a concept introduced by Saint John of the Cross, a Carmelite friar who lived in Spain during the late 1500s? I believe it was the latter, given her incredible productivity in the years of her struggle.
The distinction is important, even as it can be impossible to make, because many religious and spiritual people forego treatment thinking that the pain they endure is necessary to purify their souls. For example, I thought that my desire to die as a young girl meant that I was a mystic.
Gerald May, M.D., a retired psychiatrist and Senior Fellow in Contemplative Theology and Psychology, discusses both in his book, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” When a person is clinically depressed, he explains, she loses her sense of humor and the ability to see comedy in certain situations. The person is also too shut down to reach out to others who are in pain, to offer compassion to others. She can’t see beyond her own discomfort. Clinical depression can render an energetic, sensitive person apathetic so that all her senses are disabled. Her very being seems to disappear beneath her illness. With a dark night of the soul, the person stays in tact, even though she is hurting. While a person in the midst of a dark night of the soul knows, on some level, there is a purpose to the pain, the depressed person is embittered and wants to be relieved immediately. “In accompanying people through dark-night experiences, I never felt the negativity and resentment I often felt when working with depressed people,” explains May.