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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Spirituality of Depression

I received an email today from a journal I subscribe to, The Way, letting me know about the contents of the latest issue. It's kind of frustrating because I live so far from where it originates (England) that it takes quite a while before it actually shows up in my mailbox. The journal is of Ignatian spirituality and this issue has a lot of what sound like interesting articles, the first of which - The Composition of Place: Creating Space for an Encounter by Nicolas Standaert - can be downloaded for free from The Way's Current Issue page. Here's the blurb for it ...

Why is one encouraged to make the 'composition of place' - to imagine the surroundings - in the Spiritual Exercises? Is this a higher or a lower form of prayer? This article explores how some illustrations dating from Ignatius' lifetime help us answer such questions.

Even more interesting to me, though, is another article in that issue ...

The 'Terrible Sonnets' of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Spirituality of Depression by Hilary Pearson ...... Hopkins' so-called 'Terrible Sonnets' emerged from profound mental suffering, of a kind that would probably now be identified as depression. What religious sense can we make of them? How can these texts speak to those suffering from depression today?

I tend to forget I'm not the only person who feels depressed, and it sort of comforts me to know someone like GM Hopkins experienced it as well. This excerpt from Hopkins' bio page at The Victorian Web speaks to that period of his life ...

From his ordination as a priest in 1877 until 1879, Hopkins served not too successfully as preacher or assistant to the parish priest in Sheffield, Oxford, and London; during the next three years he found stimulating but exhausting work as parish priest in the slums of three manufacturing cities, Manchester, Liverpool, and Glasgow. Late in 1881 he began ten months of spiritual study in London, and then for three years taught Latin and Greek at Stonyhurst College, Lancashire. His appointment in 1884 as Professor of Greek and Latin at University College, Dublin, which might be expected to be his happiest work, instead found him in prolonged depression. This resulted partly from the examination papers he had to read as Fellow in Classics for the Royal University of Ireland. The exams occured five or six times a year, might produce 500 papers, each one several pages of mostly uninspired student translations (in 1885 there were 631 failures to 1213 passes). More important, however, was his sense that his prayers no longer reached God; and this doubt produced the "terrible" sonnets. He refused to give way to his depression, however, and his last words as he lay dying of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889, were, "I am happy, so happy."

And here is one of those sonnets ...

41. ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’

NO worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing—
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief’.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.


Blogger Paul said...

I always liked him a lot, been a long time since I read that one. When he was dying he asked his best friend to destroy his poems - he felt that they glorified nature too much, I guess at the Creator's expense.

I guess it goes to show it's good to have your best friend just ignore you sometimes!

5:17 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Paul. I like his nature poems the best - glad those survived him.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Old Gerard even looks kind of down in that photo. You know, if I had to review that many papers, I'd be depressed too.

Paul (Darius), good to see you blogging again.

3:11 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Jeff - hey, thanks for that Talking Heads song. I really like it :-)

9:50 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...


I tend to forget I'm not the only person who feels depressed

That's one of the symptoms, of course, of depression. We tend to focus in too much on ourselves. One of the best aspects of talking to a therpist, for me, has been the realization that they seem slightly bored with my depression, because they've heard most of it a hundred times before!

Thanks for the Hopkins poem. I think I started reading your blog because you posted a Hopkins poem. Keep up the good work!

11:12 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi William :-)

11:46 AM  
Blogger Rachi said...

thanks for posting that Crystal.
as you said, it's comforting to know of other's struggles.
I find comfort in biblical characters who suffered from depression also, including Elijah, David and Saul. Also the author of ecclesiastes had a few moments there too!
I have taken St Elijah as my patron Saint, I ask for his help often.
I am reading a book at the moment called "Depression: A spiritual guide" by Archimandrite Spyridion Logothetis. Although it's from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, I think that being Catholic you may still find it useful, they are not that different :)
God Bless

10:00 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks Rachi, I'll look that book up. I like Eastern Orthodoxy ... the writing of David Bentley Hart, for instance. I have a couple of his books. Thanks again :-)

11:54 PM  

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