The Saints & DepressionFATHER JOSEPH ESPER
As Ignatius discovered, depression can be a great spiritual challenge — and also a great opportunity for growth.
Depression can often have a physiological aspect, which means that an examination by a physician will frequently be a good starting point in addressing the situation and any underlying problems. Severe, ongoing depression isn't something we should become resigned to or attempt to cope with alone; professional assistance should generally be obtained, usually after a doctor has ruled out a physical or chemical cause.
But almost everyone suffers from a mild form of depression from time to time, and in such situations, the experiences of some of the saints may be able to help and encourage us.
Is it possible that a saint — someone who has tasted the wonder and richness of divine love far more deeply than the rest of us have — could be troubled by a melancholy, restless spirit? Most definitely. For instance, the fourteenth-century virgin St. Flora of Beaulieu, after a normal childhood, refused to cooperate with her parents' attempts to find her a husband; instead, she announced that she was dedicating herself to God and entered a convent. This, however — even though it was her calling — precipitated an intense and prolonged period of depression, affecting her behavior in a way that greatly irritated the other sisters. Eventually, with the help of an understanding confessor, Flora weathered this period and made great spiritual progress because of it.
Two seventeenth-century French saints in particular suffered greatly from depression — for very different reasons. The Jesuit priest St. Noel Chabanel was one of the North American Martyrs; he worked among the Huron Indians with St. Charles Garnier. Missionaries often become very sympathetic toward those to whom they minister, but this was not the case for Fr. Noel; he felt a strong repugnance for the Indians and their customs. This, along with difficulty in learning their language and similar challenges, caused him a lasting sense of sadness and spiritual suffocation. How did he respond? By making a solemn vow never to give up or to leave his assignment — a vow that he kept until the day of his martyrdom.
A different form of heroic sanctity was practiced by St. Jane Frances de Chantal. She was happily married to Baron de Chantal for eight years; when her husband died, her father-in-law — a vain, stubborn old man — forced Jane and her three children to move in with him. It's not surprising that Jane became very depressed. What is perhaps surprising (at least to our society, in which people make a high art of complaining and of claiming "victimhood" status) is how Jane responded: she chose to remain cheerful and to respond to the unkindness of her father-in-law with charity and understanding.
Much later in life, even after forming a warm and holy friendship with the great bishop St. Francis de Sales and working with him to establish a religious order for older women, Jane still experienced times of suffering and trial — but she continued to respond by remaining cheerful and active.
Keeping busy also proved to be a lifeline amid the seas of depression for St. Augustine, one of the greatest figures of the Church — and, indeed, of Western Civilization. His mother, St. Monica, no doubt merited great graces simply by patiently bearing her brilliant son's moodiness and unpredictability. Augustine was searching for truth, but on his own terms, and it was many years before — assisted by his mother's innumerable prayers and his admiration for the great bishop St. Ambrose — he finally surrendered to God and accepted Baptism. Soon afterward his mother died and then his own son, and during the more than forty years that followed, his powerful personality—sanctified but not erased by divine grace — often manifested itself in a tendency toward both intense anger and severe depression. St. Augustine rose above these shackles through prayer, sacrifice, and work. Indeed, his responsibilities as bishop and his writings in defense of the Church kept him very busy.
Another powerful personality — one also given to feelings of deep restlessness and grief — was possessed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. In his autobiography (written in the third person), Ignatius stated, "The things he saw strengthened him then and always gave him such strength in his faith that he often thought to himself: if there were no Scriptures to teach us of these matters of the Faith, he would be resolved to die for them, only because of what he had seen." This sense of certainty and conviction had not come easily; after his conversion to the Faith, Ignatius had to struggle with a period of scrupulosity (in which he was tempted to despair of ever being worthy in God's sight), followed by a depression so severe that he actually considered suicide. Of course, he persevered, and God drew him out of the dark pit of inner suffering, through which he had been prepared to do great things on behalf of Christ and His Church.
St. Ignatius experienced first-hand what he was later to refer to as desolation in his Spiritual Exercises. Much akin to depression, desolation is a state in which we feel restless, irritated, uncomfortable, unsure of ourselves and our decisions, assailed by doubts, and unable to persevere in our good intentions. According to Ignatius, God cannot cause desolation, although He may allow it for His own purposes — such as to remind us of our profound need for Him, or to "shake up" a sinner so as to bring about repentance. Feelings of desolation, Ignatius notes, are often caused or provoked by the evil one, especially after we've taken practical steps to grow in holiness or to discern and follow God's will. Based in part on his own experience, St. Ignatius of Loyola offers three very important pieces of advice to anyone undergoing desolation:
As Ignatius discovered, depression can be a great spiritual challenge — and also a great opportunity for growth. Let us keep this in mind whenever we suffer from depression and turn to the saints for their intercession.
St. Philip Neri, known for his constant cheerfulness, used to pray, "Let me get through today, and I shall not fear tomorrow."
"Refresh yourself with spiritual songs, which have often caused the tempter to cease his wiles; as in the case of Saul, whose evil spirit departed from him when David played upon his harp before the king.25 It is also useful to be actively employed, and that with as much variety as may be, so as to divert the mind from the cause of its sadness." — St. Francis de Sales
"I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve." — Albert Schweitzer
Proverbs 12:15; Proverbs 15:15; Psalm 77:1-14.
Reprinted with permission from Sophia Institute Press.
Fr. Joseph Esper studied at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and at St. John's Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1982. He has lectured at Marian conferences, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic, Pastoral Review, and other publications. From his experience as a parish priest, Fr. Esper offers today's readers practical, encouraging, and inspiring wisdom. He is the author of Saintly Solutions to Life's Common Problems, More Saintly Solutions to Life's Common Problems, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me?: Coping with suffering and guilt.
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