Elijah, in the first reading of today shows how negative emotions can take advantage of us. The prophet is frustrated, depressed, and sad at what is happening. If it’s today, he would be diagnosed of major depressive disorder with suicide ideation. Elijah shows frustration before God and wishes he is dead, “This is enough, O Lord!” he says, “Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” He sees himself not good enough and finds no reason to go on living. God allows Elijah to express his feelings, then sends his angel to bring him special food. The intervention of the Lord is important. The angel touches Elijah and orders him, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you.” Elijah eats the food and can walk forty days and forty nights to the mountain of the Lord named Horeb.
The human tendency is to grumble like the Jews when things get tough. We complain. We shut down. Sometimes, we feel depressed. Like Elijah, this can take a serious toll on us. Then, we seek coping in alternative ways. Depression is real and can happen to anyone and it’s not dependent on the spiritual life. It has nothing to do with how often one prays. God allows trials; trial of spiritual aridity, of lack of fervor, of doubts regarding His existence, of outrage at the injustices of life, of despair in the face of tragedy, or frustration with the mundane of daily life. This can make someone want to end their life.
In today’s medical world, depression happens when life faces the ups and downs. The neurotransmitters in the brains, the hormones, the psychological and physical functioning of the mind become altered. The entire body, mind, and soul are affected. Some of the saints, our older brothers and sisters in the spiritual life, also battled depression:
1. St. Augustine (4th century)
Augustine searched for the truth and for the meaning of existence with intense sincerity. However, in his disoriented journeys, he sought them in the appearances of created things, in lust and the pleasures of the senses. Augustine stayed far from God at the time. He wrote, “You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.” Even after his mother Monica died, Augustine’s powerful personality would still manifest a tendency to anger and eventually to … severe depression. Prayer, sacrifice, and work lifted him up from those dark moments.
2. St. Ignatius of Loyola (16th century)
After his conversion, Ignatius had to fight against a period of intense scrupulosity. Scrupulosity is a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) involving religious or moral obsessions. Scrupulous individuals are overly concerned that something they thought or did now or in the future might be a sin. That trial was followed by a depression that was so serious that Ignatius even thought of suicide. God saved him from the abyss of darkness and interior suffering, inspiring him to do great things with his life in the name of Christ and His Church. This depressive suffering led to one of the greatest works on spiritual wisdom and lessons that have helped countless Christians. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are known all over the world but wouldn’t have happened without his depression. He discovered that depression can be a great spiritual challenge and a great opportunity for growth.
3. St. Jane Frances de Chantal (16th century)
For eight years, Jane lived happily in her marriage with her husband, the Baron of Chantal. After her husband was killed in a hunting accident, her father-in-law, who was vain and stubborn, lived with her in the mansion with her three children, creating an atmosphere of constant conflicts, difficult trials, and … depression. Instead of taking refuge in playing the victim, St. Jane chose to keep smiling and to respond to her father-in-law’s cruelty with charity and comprehension. Jane continued experiencing moments of great suffering and of being judged unjustly — and she continued to respond with a smile, with hard work, and with a spirit turned towards God. She’s the patron saint of difficult in-laws.
4. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (18th century)
This first North American saint suffered from a constant feeling of loneliness and melancholy, so profound that she thought several times of suicide. She faced many problems during her life, especially regarding her family; her beloved husband died young and in financial ruin, and when she converted to the Catholic faith, many of her family and friends rejected her. Reading, music, and the sea helped her feel happier. After her conversion, the Eucharist and charity became her source of daily strength. Before she died at the age of 46, she had founded a religious community, a school, and two orphanages.
5. St. John Maria Vianney (19th century)
John Vianney is one of the most beloved priests in the history of the Church. Despite all the good he did, he couldn’t manage to see his own relevance before God, and lived constantly with an intense inferiority complex, considering himself to be useless—a symptom of depression which would accompany him throughout his entire life.
6. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) (20th century)
This saintly Discalced Carmelite, who was born Jewish and grew up as an atheist, suffered depression for a long time. At one point, she wrote: “I gradually worked myself into real despair … I could no longer cross the street without wishing that a car would run over me … and I would not come out alive …” Edith suffered intense depression, starting before her conversion, principally on the many occasions when she was scorned and humiliated because she was of Jewish origin and a woman. She faced it with a serene and peaceful soul, seeing beyond the immediate, and embracing a life that never ends, because it is eternal. https://aleteia.org/2018/05/02/8-saints-who-were-depressed-but-never-gave-up/
7. Mother Teresa of Calcutta (20th Century)
Mother Teresa had such a tough time that she also felt sometimes the dark night of the soul. Mother Teresa once wrote, "That terrible longing keeps growing and I feel as if something will break in me one day... Heaven seems closed from every side - and yet I long for God to love Him with every drop of life in me - and I want to love Him with a deep personal love."
The symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness, tearfulness, angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters. Sometimes, they are aggravated by the hormones that one cannot control (clinical depression). At other times, they might be triggered by circumstances such as a loss, betrayal, abuse, or things that negatively affect the individual. Depression can be cured by medication, therapy, or prescribed positive coping styles. So, there is no denying the fact that depression is real. However, the experience of Elijah provides great lessons for us from today’s reading. The presence of the Lord, the food of angels made the difference. No one is asking you to pray away depression, but having Christ is profound. Jesus says, “whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
My first recommendation is, go to Christ in the Blessed Eucharist. Discover an intimate relationship with him in your daily routine of life. My second recommendation is that you understand that life has great challenges and upheavals. It comes with its storms. My third recommendation is that you look to the future and see the bright light ahead, the redemptive nature of suffering. Suffering may not be a welcomed experience but suffering can pave the way to authentic freedom in Christ.
Let’s know this, the Blessed Eucharist is God offering us an amazing privilege, sometimes we do not realize that. Always approach Christ with a clean heart through the sacrament of confession. That way, you purge yourself of the guilt and shame which depression creates. The Eucharist offers grace and strength to journey on this faith pilgrimage. The Lord works with you. Remember, Christ faced abandonment, rejection, torture, denial, abuse, and death. But He overcame. He reassures you today, “and the bread that I will give you is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Readings: 1st- 1 Kgs 19:4-8; 2nd- Eph 4:30—5:2; Gospel- Jn 6:41-51