Understanding Faith and Depression: The Ashes This Year Were Perfect (Staying Open to Grace Is Enough)


ashes.jpgI like to repost this article written by a reader, Dania, every Lent.

There is a dark smudge on my forehead. I am acutely aware of it. It feels kinda slimy. And people notice. This year, I’m not sure I want them to.

There are plenty of years I’ve wanted people to notice the ashes on my forehead, for all the wrong reasons. ” Look,” I wanted to say, “I’m pious, I’m observant, and I take my faith seriously.” So much for praying in a closet. I’ve never been particularly uncomfortable declaring or discussing my faith. Working in the church, it simply comes with the territory. Those conversations can often be difficult…”what kind of Christian are you?” but those discussions are usually discussions I can handle, that push me to think and to delve more deeply into faith.

In the last three years, that has changed. Most psychiatrists would probably tell you that I’ve suffered from some form of clinical depression and anxiety for a very long time. They’re probably right. But it’s only in the last three or four years that the disorder has struck a blow so hard that I can’t even articulate my thoughts about faith. A glance at my journals will tell you that my spiritual burn-out began during a very difficult work experience. But what is happening now is something much, much deeper than that.

In the past three years, I’ve avoided church more times than I can count. I can’t find a place where I feel comfortable. I squirm through most services. I’ve put away most of my cross necklaces and I avoid religious discussions when I know I’m feeling the impacts of my mood disorder. Of course, I can sing the language of faith. I can fool a lot of people. I know exactly what I’d say if I was an outsider, observing my dilemma. “Doubt,” I’d tell me “is a part of faith.” “I don’t have any good answers…” I’d tell me. “What I do know is that God is present in everything, including our suffering.” That might be true. In fact, I’m sure it’s true. That’s why I’d say it.

But what I’m experiencing is deeper than doubt. It’s a living death, terror, and sheer exhaustion rolled into one. “I’m tired…” I attempt to tell people, “so…tired.” “Of course you’re tired,” well meaning friends respond, “you’re in law school and you don’t get enough sleep.” But that’s not it, I want to scream…I’m tired of life. Living is exhausting for me. But I’ve stopped trying to explain. It requires too much energy. Energy I just don’t have.

So does thinking about God. Somewhere I lost my conception of what God is. I don’t doubt that God exists. I’ve always known God exists, as much as I know I exist. It’s just what is. I know Something is there. But in my current state of depression, I don’t have any connection to that Thing. All I can feel is numb. All I can hear is the terror raging in my head. It hasn’t always been this way. At various points in my depression; most of my life, I’ve been able to participate in my faith. Not now.

I know I’m sick (in theory). I know that the depression makes it harder for me to process thoughts. It’s physical. The days I spend prying myself out of bed, rushing to school even though I can barely stand remind me of that. The hours I spend trying to form a sentence on a page when my cognitions have slowed, remind me of that. And the times I cannot sit still through an entire class, because of the anxiety that rages through my body and mind remind me of that. If I was my own pastor, I’d tell myself that I was ill, that this illness was a sign of my brokenness, and my humanity, but that the love of God transcends that even when I can’t feel it. But I’m not my own pastor. And all I hear is the static of my own brain torturing me.

Paul Tillich refers to God as the “ground of our being” and talks about the “God beyond God.” I know what he means. The God beyond God is a phrase that I just understand…it means that God is out there, and that God is what really exists when you strip away all the symbols and stories you attach to make meaning out of your daily life. The God beyond God is the God that Jesus cried out to on the cross I think.

But I’m not going to find the love of God, not going to find faith, not going to find anything by avoidance. I’m a bit of a pluralist (or really, maybe I’m an outright Universalist). God, to me, can be found a lot of places. And when you can’t think of the notion of Divinity at all…the whole Jesus story is completely beyond my grasp. The story is nice and powerful, but the reality of it lacks when you’re not sure there’s anything out there anywhere. It lacks meaning when you just want to shut out the world and sleep.

Faith is not going to fix my depression. But I’m not going to find God under the covers either. Maybe I’ll find Her in yoga class. But I think I’m most likely to find Him in the traditions, the symbols, and the words I grew up around. I have to make space for grace. For now, I’m incapable of doing this with others…other than to sit in a church. And prayer, aside from a rote, repeated phrase is also impossible. But the rote, repeated phrase calms my anxious brain. The candles at the Thursday student services lull my soul. And today, as I listened to my friend deliver the Ash Wednesday homily, I felt for a moment, only a moment a glimmer of hope There was a break in the lethargy of my brain, a connection to the Something.

Having ashes on my forehead made me feel hypocritical this year. Being unable or unwilling to answer inquiries about my faith, or even to laugh at childhood stores about Lent, made the isolation I feel from my faith even more acute. And yet, this year might be the least hypocritical I have ever been about Ash Weds. Because the Ashes on your forehead don’t represent a pious, observant Christian. They represent a broken, shattered, and sinful human being in need of God’s love and restoration. The ashes this year were perfect. They were a symbol of repentence, a symbol of a period of fasting, discipline, and listening that I am going to observe. Ash Wednesday this year was about the moment I felt that gentle touch on my forehead, reminding me of my humanity and mortality, my connection to others. This year, more than any other, my prayers were not shouted on the street corners. I couldn’t explain the ashes on my forehead, but I didn’t need to. Being present was enough this year, staying open to grace was enough this year, embracing the hope that at the end of 40 days in the wilderness there is the radical hope of Easter is more than enough. I’m not there yet. But I pray that someday I will be.

Originally published on Beyond Blue at Beliefnet.com

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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12 Responses
  1. Mike Leach

    This is so good, Therese, so good. The book is so good, so good. It will come to you, Therese. And you will know it.

  2. Debbi

    this is/has been me! So great to hear someone else knows what it’s like. Has experienced it. Such a dark place – to lose hope and desire for life. Thank you for reposting this article.

      1. Hi Donna,

        I’ve been in that same place many times: losing/lost hope, desire, interest in everything, and feeling overwhelmed by all my faults, bad decisions, and the disappointments I’ve forced on others and probably will again – all the negatives. I’m past ruminating on why me, and how/ when/ will I ever get better – maybe I will, maybe I won’t – but I can’t solve that rubric at that moment (or ever). It’s too horrible to face.

        What brings me back (at least a little) is briefly thinking about where that slippery slope leads, the tragic effect IT (sneezing) would have on my family; or making even casual contact with someone I care about; my faith; and some kind of spontaneous activity like listening to music, stepping outside (to feel the sun, cold, wind, fresh air, look at the stars, or just close my eyes and stand there); taking a drive in my car. It’s almost a mantra, allowing it to happen, rather than trying to do it.

        Donna, the mere fact that you expressed your distress here, suggests to me that you want to turn around, and that you have the will to do it. I think each of us needs help from outside of ourselves to trigger that distracting hopeful mantra. Be open to the seemingly invisible grace and blessings that surround you. They’re there, truly there, inside and all around you, whether you believe or can’t sense them.

        This article, (and as you might know) this blog, especially Therese, the author of this article, and her online support groups/subgroups are amazing resources, right there for the asking. Or write back to me, or contact some others. We can share our misery or help lift each other, or talk about the weather, chickens, movies (I watched a lousy one last night), faith, or whatever you want, or nothing. (Therese can give you my email address.) Silence sometimes can be golden, even if shared with another.

        I believe its worth it to others for me to stick around – though sometimes I have to pray for the grace to feel it. I believe you’re worth it, too.

        Peace. Be yourself. Be as well as you can be, please.

  3. Patricia Hills-Burtner

    I so appreciate this post! It is nearly exactly where I am. I didn’t go to Ash Wednesday services. I felt too hypercritical. Faith has become a black hole for me. I feel lost, abandoned, confused, angry, and can’t find God. I can’t go to mass for sometime. Thank you for sharing your struggle.Maybe at the end of Lent, we will both be transformed!

  4. Beautifully written. It’s so hard to connect with my faith when I’m in a depressive episode. Yet my faith is very personal, very deep. I find it hard to go to church, certainly hard to worship or sing praise. Sometimes, I just listen for God’s whisper to me. If I can eek out words to a song or response to a reading, I try to remind myself that it’s ok – it’s a sacrifice of praise.

  5. Kris

    Therese this is another eloquent essay. I am astounded so often with your gift of articulating that which is so difficult to put into words. I feel this too.

  6. Words words and more words…and so little ever changes…the earth keeps turning and people keep on birthing and dying…all for what??….living with the ultimate of indefinite uncertainty…the angst of knowing that we do not know that is the challenge of being human…better get used to it and if not, then that too must be being human…if you don’t get it you don’t get it…and it all must be god’s will or it would be different…ergo theofatalism…

  7. “Ash Wednesday this year was about the moment I felt that gentle touch on my forehead”

    You gather awesome people Therese – thank you for that and please don’t stop – with whatever you are doing and however you are doing it. You make a difference. …this article is so, so – it’s great. Every sentence.

    Most – or at least many , of my Ash Wed’s have been like that – years that I’ve gone, and years that I’ve skipped.

    This year it was just too cold to go out! And I so want time and focus to start putting words down about why I felt that gentle touch anyway – all by myself. Sitting here in my little office, not really getting anything done. Kate

  8. amy

    Every state I have ever had is temporary. I was so depressed I was catatonic at one point. I could not conceive of one positive image in these states I found myself. I empathize. I do not know all you are suffering, since we can never live another’s pain. I have found that now I no longer care if I end up in that state again since I know that it is temporary. Eternity is a very long time of course and one may find oneself in many different states of being. Hope is a thing that is glimpsed through the thick leaves at opportune times when the sun shines through. Brief but it comes more and more to me now. What I was hoping for was outside myself and it is no longer that way. The way down is also the way up.