“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”
In his book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon affirms the place of religion for the mentally ill. Despite being an atheist, he says that religion “provides answers to unanswerable questions.” As beneficial as this might be for those suffering from depression, he also notes that “it [religion] cannot pull people out of depression; indeed, even the most religious people find their faith thins or vanishes during the depths of depression.”
When the secret diaries of Mother Theresa were released, many people found it shocking that this holy woman should be so forsaken by God. For more than forty years, Mother Theresa lived in spiritual darkness, without the comfort or assurance of the presence of God. In Come Be My Light, she writes:
"Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?"
Why does God seem to forsake those most in need of His comfort? It is to make them strong. It is a common thing for us to miss the things we do not have, and to take for granted those things that we do have. For someone so accustomed to an intimate relationship with God, His absence can be especially painful. The absence of God can lead one either to despair or to a burning longing. In this way our faith is tested: we are called to trust in what we cannot see or feel, and to spit in the face of despair.
The fact that the Son of God would utter the words: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” is in many ways unfathomable. How could Jesus as the incarnate God be separated from Himself? It is generally accepted that in taking the sins of the world upon himself, Jesus assumed sin and all its consequences; namely, separation from God. St. Paul wrote, “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
In our seemingly perpetual state of sin, we should be perpetually separated from God. But God does not abandon us, even when He draws Himself into the shadows from time to time. Like the Apostles who scattered when Jesus was arrested, it is we who abandon God. And yet God does not turn his back on us; it is we who turn our backs on God.
I do not think God withdraws Himself as some kind of punishment. Theologically speaking, God and sin cannot coexist. When we choose sin, we choose it over God, and assume the consequences. When we turn our hearts to God, despite our sin, God is there. In this way it is only to our senses that God abandons us in our darkest hour.
Depression is a kind of abandonment. As Andrew Solomon writes, it is the “flaw in love.” Where there is no love, or when love cannot shine through the thick mucus of depression, there is the feeling of being forsaken. In this sense, it is a natural feeling. That does not, however, take away from the real pain of such an absence. In the darkest depression, sometimes nothing helps. It is here we are called to sit with the tension of our pain, to ride it out like a storm. The spiritual response is to believe in the face of unbelief, trust in the face of despair, in the spirit of Pascal’s Wager. Fitting is St. Augustine’s paradoxical prayer: “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief!”
Is there anything which helps to assuage this pain that does not require running away from the darkness God deigns us to sit in? One tangible thing that does seem to help me when I am depressed is writing. In it I can spill my self onto paper and offer it to God as a humble oblation of suffering, of my very self. I pray best on paper. When I have been especially negligent, the page screams out, “Rob, Rob, why have you forsaken me?"
Writing—or whatever form of self-expression—in this way flips the feeling of abandonment on its head, just as being there for someone who is depressed while we ourselves are imprisoned by depression frees us to love, and gets us out of ourselves. This is a worthy offering in the eyes of God, since it is tried in the blazing furnace of existential pain. Knowing this pain of abandonment, we become reluctant to abandon others.
Writing is my way of personally revealing myself to God. When I refuse to open myself to God in this way, it is I who forsakes the page, not the other way around. However, we all have our own unique gifts and ways of laying before God our wretched self. In this way we are a little like God, creatively actualizing. Try writing you pain out on the page, like a child writing a letter to Santa Claus. Do not edit yourself; spill your entrails unabashed. Or try creating something. Paint. Plant seeds. Volunteer. Take the hard opportunity to go against your feelings and love and create in the face of death and despair, just as Mother Theresa did all her life. We are not Mother Theresa, but we can do little things with great love, or at least, as much love as we can muster given the circumstances. Doing so can help to loosen the debilitating grip of depression, maybe even lessen the pain. And remember: this, too, shall pass.