Depression - Despondency

Depression is a hard topic and I will try and do it justice.

 

Firstly I want to explain a personal experience I’ve had with it. I have mentioned in other talks that I was in a monastery in Greece before coming to the monastery in Jerusalem. I was in that monastery for a year and I was very unhappy. I didn’t realise how unhappy I was until I had to go to Australia to arrange some tax things and I would just be in my car and would all of a sudden start crying over nothing. After about a year I decided that I needed to find a new monastery. Now I had moved all, literally all my personal belongings from Australia to Greece with the mentality I would be in this monastery forever. Arranging my belongings was already hard but it wasn’t just that. I really loved the sisters and they loved me also. I still do and I still go and stay there every now and again but it just was not Gods will to stay there. I wasn’t diagnosed with depression but I definitely think I had it lightly. And I say lightly because although I was very down, it was light in the way that it didn’t hang around for long.

 

In the monastic world and the books of the saints, they say that when the world has abandoned you, God will give you comfort. And it’s very true. In this time, I was smelling fragrances coming out of nowhere. Two days before I left the monastery, it was the feast day of the Virgin Mary and the whole grounds of the monastery smelt like incense but none of the sisters could smell it. It was God comforting me because I didn’t have anyone else to. Keeping in mind I did have support in the world but I was closed off in the monastery without 24 hour access to my friends and family.

 

After getting my things out of the monastery and spending a month in Greece with a friend. I took a flight to Australia and had a stopover. At the stop over, I experienced from what I now know as an anxiety attack. At the time I thought I was having a heart attack. It was so painful. After 15 minutes, I decided to walk a little and it went away. It was the first of two times I’ve experienced an anxiety attack, just to give you an idea that it is not a normal part of my character to experience these sorts of things. (The second time was also another traumatic experience in witnessing something a friend went through).

 

So these are my brief personal experiences with depression and despondency. Although, my best friend since I was teenager has always had it so I’ve been around it for many years.

 

Now I want to look at it from a secular point of view before getting to the spiritual because I think this is important. Having depression most of the time is not because of someone’s spiritual state. However getting out of that depression can be because of someone’s spiritual state. But from the many people I know who have depression, its generally because of some sort of trauma, or pressures in their life whether that is family or financial and the biggest and most common one I’m seeing now is from bullying. The problem with bullying is it is effecting the young as well as the old. The young experience it at school or from their parents and the adults experience it from work or from family life as well. When someone falls into depression, it is a really wrong and incorrect thing to say, well that person is obviously not close to God to be experiencing that. Many people who are not close to God have not got depression and many who are close to God have depression. Unfortunately depression amongst monastics in communal monasteries is quite common with jealousy normally the reason for this bullying. So to say its because someone is not close to God is an unfair thing to say.

 

What happens with trauma in our lives is that when it causes depression it weakens someone’s psychological state. The best way to describe this is by the example of breaking a bone. Years ago I fractured my wrist. 99% of the time it’s fine, but it’s definitely not as strong as it was before the fracture and if I put too much pressure on it, it can be sore for a few days. The same thing happens with depression. A person might get passed it but they’re not as strong as before and so they easily fall back in to depression with traumas that don’t seem to be much to others. But for the person going through it, it’s the straw the breaks the camels back. Or keeps breaking the camels back because if it’s bullying, that bullying doesn’t just happen once, it’s normally an ongoing issue. As we age we also weaken, not just physically but psychologically as well and things will effect us more than they did when we were young.

 

In the secular sense there are strategies that can help. Obviously anti-depressants are the most commonly known. Unfortunately, they don’t work for everyone and they’re not a long term solution if the root of the depression isn’t stopped like a workplace bully that continues and continues. The other solution is changing environments if it’s actual people causing the depression and trauma.

 

Other great strategies that I know have worked for people are exercise, manual labor, focusing their mind on something else like painting as in art, and talking about it with their friends or a professional. There is a lot of government funding going into the arts in general as a way of dealing with mental health because it helps so much. If you play an instrument or like to draw, get right in to it. These are very helpful things and can even cure it.

 

Now I’ve mentioned these strategies but the reality is, it’s a cruel world and some people have been traumatised to the point that in this lifetime they will never surpass it. They can only try and mitigate (lessen and deal with) some of the symptoms. These people need our compassion, support and especially our prayers.

 

Moving onto the spiritual side of depression which we call despondency. Despondency can be caused by a spiritual state and not just trauma. But I discussed the worldly side first because it would be nasty to say someone who has experienced a severe trauma is despondent because of their spiritual state.

 

It’s important to know that for everything we suffer from in this life, God will reward or comfort us in the next life. And this is all well and good, but it is very little comfort to someone experiencing the trauma. It takes a saint to fully understand that. But we are plain simple people so lets deal with it as what we are.

 

The way to help you overcome it in a spiritual state, which will also help your physical state at the same time is by going back to the basics of establishing our relationship with God.

 

These basics include confession as a first. Personally I find confession to be a big help. It helps get issues off my chest, also the grace that comes with confession is consoling in itself. When I feel down, confession to my spiritual father and discussing it with the abbess of the monastery are my first steps.

 

 

Next is reading our bible, it doesn’t have to be much. Even just a few verses a day, especially from the gospels. Prayer is an obvious one. Even just repeating the Our Father throughout the day will be a big help. From there, a person can try and use the Jesus prayer more. Going to church and participating in Holy Communion regularly. By that I mean at least once a week but this should not be without frequent confession. Frequent confession can be categorised by someone who confesses once a month. Some people go more if needed or the church requires it for Holy Communion, and some less. In female monasteries, every 3 months is quite standard because their confessor might be a bishop who services 50 monasteries. Whatever your spiritual father says is the timeframe is what you should stick to, there is no rule about what’s right and wrong in this case.

 

Open communication with people who are in a higher spiritual state can also help. In my case, I like to talk to other nuns about my problems and firstly they pray for me, and secondly they help me process it in my head and deal with it my head before it reaches my heart and causes me to be despondent.

 

In the case of monastics, a monastic has made a commitment to God. To live their life for God only, without any other distractions. In these cases, monastics can become despondent because of spiritual causes. Not just worldly causes. And this is where going back to the basics will help them overcome it. Of course we can’t leave out humbling ourselves but that comes automatically with confession.

 

When I had that light depression, when I left the monastery in Greece, I was really struggling with getting back to the basics. Asking me to say the Jesus prayer was like asking me to climb Mount Everest. I just didn’t have the strength. And a very spiritual friend, with many spiritual gifts told me to at least read the service of the 6 psalms every day and I did.[1] I noticed such a huge difference that 10 years later, I still start my day like that. I told a friend about this, and this friend suffered from a deep depression for many years, and she tried it the next day and she said she instantly felt better and it was the first time she wasn’t depressed in months. This wasn’t a cure because she hadn’t cured the root of her depression, but it gave her some comfort.

 

The psalms are an integral part of prayer. There is a spiritual side of reading the psalms that I’m not sure we can ever fully understand in this life. A saint once said, “read the psalms anyway, even if you don’t understand them. Because the demons do and they tremble”. The demons are scared of the psalms and flee when you read them. So if you’re having a spiritual battle, this will help. Read a couple a day if you can.

 

Keep in mind the parable where Christ talks about building a house on a solid foundation.[2] Building your spiritual life on these basics or solid foundations will make it hard for the “weather” or tempter to destroy your “house”. If you try to jump into the highest level of spiritual things without a solid foundation, then you open yourself up to all sorts of temptations and delusions. An example of this is trying to say the Jesus prayer all day without having a foundation.

 

The solid foundations of the spiritual life, and the worldly life of living a healthy, well balanced life will all combat despondency. And to really help our despondency, humbling ourselves and asking for prayer will also help our situation.

 

Lets now look at the possibility of us being the cause of someone else’s depression. May God help and have mercy on your soul if this is the case! The most effective cure of depression is not causing it in the first place. Imagine a world where everyone was conscious of not causing these issues for others. We would already be living in paradise.

 

What can we do to not be the cause or help someone with depression? Show compassion without judgment and pointing fingers at blame. Provide a shoulder to lean or cry on. Go with them to counselling, exercise or whatever other support you can provide. And most of all. Fear God!  As Christ says in the gospel of St Luke, “Then He said to the disciples, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”[3]

 

And of course last but not least, pray for them. We should never forget the weak first in our prayers and show them love and try to share the burden of their suffering.

 

Amen!

 

 

[1] The Six Psalms (Psalms 3, 37, 62, 87, 102, and 142) are a regular part of nearly every Orthros (Matins) service in the Church. Taken as a single unit, they are never omitted, except during Paschaltide (the 39 days after Pascha, or in other traditions, during Bright Week). These Psalms are a summary of the Christian life, highlighting the sorrow that we so often meet along the way to our eternal joy.

[2] Matthew 7:24-27

“Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. “But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”

 

[3] Luke 17:1-2