My post last week was of a rather somber tone. But sometimes somber is necessary. And sometimes God confirms that in bold ways, in-person, in real time. I experienced that today.
Yes, I will elaborate.
This past weekend I visited Edmonton for a wedding, and on Sunday (yesterday) I attended mass with my piano instructor. She was still struggling with the loss of her elderly father to illness several weeks ago, but it was a gloriously beautiful Mass and it moved her a great deal. When I returned home yesterday evening, I read Janet Klasson’s post “For those who will die unprepared…” and found it a confirmation of the tone I took last week. (As a side note, her posts, and Mark Mallett’s, have been of immense help to me in my own spiritual journey. I highly recommend both of them though they are, perhaps, not for the faint of heart…)
This afternoon at my music history lesson, I happened to walk in moments after she had gotten off the phone with her daughter, who had called to inform her that her best friend’s brother died in a tragic accident last night, around the same time that I was reading Janet’s post. He was 19 years old and unbaptized. His 22 year old sister, the best-friend of my piano teacher’s daughter, was baptized this year after a powerful conversion experience that took place during the same week as my hospitalization this past February. My teacher was understandably badly shaken, and I spent the first fifteen minutes of our lesson praying the Divine Mercy chaplet while she called her daughter’s friend, then we prayed together for the young man’s soul and his family, and I offered her what comfort and reassurance I could.
To be honest, I wasn’t floored. These sorts of experiences have happened with such frequency in my life over the past year that while they usually take me off-guard, I find them comforting now rather than unnerving. I’m not a “seer.” I don’t receive visible apparitions from Our Lady like some people do. But I have experienced direct, internal communications in prayer on very rare occasions, and divinely inspired dreams (which occur which equal rarity and which I usually don’t share with anyone, since I often can’t interpret them properly until years later).
This evening, while beginning my daily family rosary, I experienced the soft, maternal touch I’ve come to associate with Our Lady and inwardly heard four words:
“I need you here.”
There is work to be done in this world. Heaven may be my eternal home, but God still has a purpose to fulfill with my life and if I wish to do his will, I have to be willing to accept whatever length of life he gives me.
I have no guarantees it will be a “long life,” but at the very least, I don’t anticipate I’m going to keel over tonight. Each and every person has a mission to fulfill with their life, whether they know it or not.
Are you aware of the mission God has given you?
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” ~ John 21:21-23
None of us can know for certain (leastways not without direct divine revelation) how long we have to live. John (the above-mentioned “man”), ended up being the only Apostle not to die a martyr (or by his own hand, if you count Judas). Personally, I think his fate in this life was much more difficult to endure than the fates of the others. He lived to old age, and left us with a number of beautiful letters and the ever-puzzling, endlessly deep Book of Revelation. Don’t assume he “got off easy” because he was the “favourite.” To live a long life after knowing Jesus personally would have been immensely painful. Not only that, he lived through the loss of Mary as well.
No, a long life is not necessarily a “golden ideal.” But neither is a short life, necessarily. There are no “golden ideals” on this earth. This life is not “the point” of our existence. It is temporary. Yet our actions here, in this brief period in history, hold consequence for all eternity.
So it’s worth asking yourself on a regular basis:
How am I using my daily life?
Personally, I wish to use my life to bring hope and joy into the world, in accordance with God’s will for me. I wish to use the time I’ve been given to create as much beauty and love as I can, to help my fellow sojourners in their respective life journeys. For as long as I’m here, I will strive to “wake the dawn.”
It’s been a long time since I posted anything. Or at least, it feels like a long time. Realistically it’s only been a few months, but that might as well have been a lifetime ago. A lot as happened since then.
I’d like to start with the good news: I successfully came off of my last medication (Lamictal/Lamotrigine) mid-December last year. It was, in a way, the most freeing experience of my life. It precipitated a manic episode that ended with me in the hospital, but that’s all right. I learned a lot from it. Christmas 2017 was beautiful for me. So many blessings. I had a strong re-conversion experience in which I gave my life to Jesus again to do with me what he willed. Admittedly, if I’d known doing that would end with me in a hospital, I probably would have hesitated. But God knows our weakness. He hid from me how things were going to turn out. He wanted my complete and unconditional trust, and he was there for me every step of the way. He and His mother, Mary.
I plan to write a blog series explaining what happened. For now, though, I’m still processing everything and picking up the pieces (i.e. catching up on everything I’m behind on after two weeks out-of-commission, and praying to discern God’s will moving forward). I just wanted to send a shout out to my few followers that yes, I am still alive! And I’m doing great. Just decidedly worn out after everything. I look forward to writing more in the future.
Has it really been two months since my last post? Time sure flies. I just got back from a 10 day trip to Kansas to visit a close friend and attend a writers’ workshop. I’d intended to get a post written up before I left, but clearly that didn’t happen. And now, in the aftermath of a very exciting, blessed trip during which I didn’t get nearly as much sleep as I should have, I am experiencing what is likely the start of a mixed or depressive episode. Which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.
An excellent time to write a post on suffering, yes?
What a perfect opportunity to sit back and analyze whether my belief that it’s possible to suffer depression joyfully is at all accurate.
I may be repeating myself, but having a proper definition of the word “joy” is required for this belief to make any sense at all. And pondering that definition led me to a question:
Is it acceptable to conflate “joy” and “peace”?
One could argue that it’s possible to be at “peace” without being joyful. If you take “peace” to simply mean “freedom from disturbance” or “tranquility,” and nothing more, then apathy can fill the shoes of peace just as easily as joy could. An apathetic person feels no disturbance or anxiety. They don’t care enough about anything to be anything but tranquil. But I don’t think anyone in a rational state of mind would conclude that apathetic peace is in any way comparable to joyful peace. It certainly isn’t preferable. Anyone who has ever reached the point of depression where they’ve lost all ability to care about anything in life, knows that the absence of cares does not equal peace. Of course, if you’ve been suffering through a firestorm of self-hatred and you suddenly drop to a level where you don’t even care enough to hate yourself anymore, it can certainly feel peaceful in comparison. Cool water can feel hot to someone dying of hypothermia. But no ordinary person would choose a cold bath over a warm one to ward off a chill. And even the severely depressed person will reach a point where the numbness of apathy becomes a smothering prison that they would do anything to break free from.
True peace is inherently joyful. I’m not quite sure whether you’re peaceful because you’re joyful or you’re joyful because you’re peaceful. But both are simultaneously present and neither would be possible in the absence of the other. True peace requires joy. True joy requires peace. And I don’t mean external peace. A look at the lives of any of the saints demonstrates that it’s possible to be a very peace-filled person in the most turbulent of external situations.
So when I say it’s possible to be joyful in the midst of depression, I believe what I’m really saying is that it’s possible to be at peace. Because to me, peace is just a calm, gentle form of joy. And I can reaffirm with great confidence that yes, it is possible to be at peace while depressed. I’m not saying it’s easy to reach that head space. I’m certainly not saying I automatically feel that way when my bipolar symptoms rear their head. I’m tempted to say “I have to work at it” in order to reach that place. But really, that isn’t true at all. To be honest, whenever I “work” at being a peaceful person, I usually wind up even more anxious and mentally disturbed than when I started. You can’t will yourself into peacefulness. It works about as well as willing yourself into happiness. If you achieve anything it all, it’s temporary, and the experience is a tense one.
So how does one achieve peace? It’s actually startlingly simple. The plain, uncomplicated truth is that you will never have peace if you make it a goal in and of itself. Why? Because true peace is simply a side effect. It’s the result of something else. And that something else is trust.
This year has been a year of trust for me. At the end of last year I read an article about picking a word to focus on in the new year. I sat down and prayed about it. And the first word that came to mind was trust. At the time I thought it was weird, because it struck me as something more applicable to my mother, who struggles with anxiety. But this has been a year of realizations for me about the importance of trust in one’s spiritual life — and a real eye-opener as to how mistrustful I really am. When it comes right down to it, the fastest way to become a joyful person is to trust in God. I mean really trust in God. If you aren’t joyful, you don’t trust God. It’s as simple as that. Last year, I thought I trusted God. But now I can see I was deluding myself. Because I’ve gotten a few tastes of what trust actually feels like this year and the peace and the joy that springs from it is like nothing I’ve never experienced before.
If you want to suffer joyfully, you must be at peace. If you want to be at peace, you have to trust in God. If you want to develop true, childlike trust in God…you have to get to know him. You have to develop a relationship with him.
In the next post we’ll take a look at the process of doing precisely that, and we’ll discuss some tangible steps to take.
“O afflicted one, storm-battered and unconsoled,I lay your pavements in carnelians,your foundations in sapphires; I will make your battlements of rubies,your gates of jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.” ~ Isaiah 54:11-12
As per usual this post is rather late in coming. Mentally formulating blog posts tends to take me a while. But I think I’ve finally figured out how to tackle this next one, so here goes!
The question I proposed to answer at the end of my last post was “what happens when you say ‘thy will be done’ to God, and truly mean it?” To put it simply, you become a very peace-filled person. You become joyful. But how? And why? After all, God’s will inevitably contains suffering of some sort. But the joy comes when you understand that the amount of good God brings out of your suffering far outweighs the suffering itself. I can attest to that from personal experience. But even so, I still struggle with that prayer when anxiety looms in my mind about one thing or another. I know that God will take care of everything in the best way possible, but the niggling little thought still sometimes surfaces… what if I don’t like the results of his plan?
The thing is, God wants us to be happy, and he knows what will make us truly happy in the long run far better than we do. Sometimes reaching the place where we will be truly happy involves going through some rough, uncomfortable places. Or some downright miserable places. And since we usually can’t see the destination that God has in mind for us, we’re left clinging to our faith in the dark, struggling to believe what God tells us through the prophet Jeremiah:
For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. ~ Jeremiah 29:11
This may sound rather grim, as if accepting God’s will means just gritting our teeth and bearing what comes. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t be that way. God’s will should bring joy to our lives, even when it contains suffering. The saints understood this better than anyone. Saints like Therese of Lisieux actively wished for suffering because they found joy in suffering for God. If we aren’t joyful in our sufferings it’s because we haven’t truly surrendered to the will of God and embraced it with our whole heart. The question then becomes, how are we supposed to do that?
First of all, we have to trust God. And unless we have a deep, personal relationship with him, that isn’t likely to happen. You can’t truly trust a person you don’t have a relationship with. And forming a deep relationship means spending a significant amount of time with the person in question. So if we want a relationship with God, we need to spend time with him in prayer and reading. Perhaps we can make “how to deepen your relationship with God” one of the topics of the following posts. I think it’s something well worth looking into. Also, we need to pray for the grace to trust him. We need to cry out to him with the words of the father of the epileptic boy in the Gospel of Mark: I believe; help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24).
Secondly, we need to have a clear understanding of the nature of the joy we’re talking about. The joy you experience while suffering is not usually a giddy, delightful feeling that makes you feel warm and fuzzy and tingly and excited. Especially not when you’re depressed. It’s more intellectual than physical. It brings calmness and peace, and also a sense of immense satisfaction. When you’re incapacitated by mental illness, or some other form of suffering, you tend to feel useless. But when you’ve embraced God’s will and accepted the suffering in order to offer it up to him for a good purpose, suddenly that sense of uselessness vanishes. You realize that God is accomplishing something important with what you’re going through, and even if you never personally see what that ‘something’ is, you are satisfied. Because it’s not going to waste.
To close off this post, I’d like to leave you with a quote from one of St. Josemaria Escriva’s homilies called “Towards Holiness.” He describes suffering in these terms:
This is the way Jesus fashions the souls of those he loves, while at the same time never failing to give them inner calm and joy … and he impresses on them a living conviction that they will only find comfort when they make up their minds to do without it. – Friends of God, pg 465
When we decide to embrace our suffering, it suddenly becomes a far less traumatizing thing, and we can find peace and joy in the midst of it. The difficult part is getting to the point where we trust God enough to say “thy will be done” and mean it. We’ll discuss that further in Part 3 of this series.
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” ~ Luke 9:23
Today was a beautiful Easter. I woke to sunshine streaming through my bedroom window — something all the more lovely since it was snowing the past two days. The above picture really doesn’t fit the mood of today in the slightest, but since I intend it to be the cover photo for this series as a whole, I decided to roll with it anyway. I actually meant to write and post this on Good Friday, buuuuuut life had other ideas. Really, I probably should have started this back at the beginning of Lent, but I suppose it’s better late than never, yes?
Today’s post will be more succinct than usual since I intend to focus my attention on one thing in particular: four simple words that shook the earth to its foundations, broke all the bonds of hell and brought salvation to every man, woman and child who was ever born, and will ever be born, should they choose to accept this mind boggling gift. Pretty darn impressive for four little words. And if you’re a Christian, you probably say them everyday (or at least every Sunday at church) without really giving them much thought.
Can you guess what they are? They come between “thy kingdom come” and “on earth as it is in heaven” in the prayer Jesus gave to us. How often have they rolled off our lips with hardly a split second’s thought or consideration? (For that matter, how often does the entire prayer roll off our lips that way? But that’s for a whole other post…). As you’ve probably already surmised, the four words are as follows:
Thy will be done.
They express the same sentiment as Mary’s four words in response to the Annunciation: “let it be done” (Luke 1:38).
This is a very powerful prayer. It’s also a very difficult prayer to say from the heart without tacking “if” or “but” on the end of it. Can you say those four words and mean them — really mean them — without any nagging hesitation or uncertainty? To be honest, I can’t. But I’m praying for the grace to reach that point soon. As soon as possible, in fact. Because while that prayer can be terrifying, it is also the most liberating prayer you can give voice to. “Thy will be done,” said from the heart, is the path to perfect peace — the peace of Christ that the world cannot give.
I chose to begin with this topic because it’s something I’ll be coming back to repeatedly throughout this series. It is the prerequisite to being able to embrace your cross. And embracing your cross is the prerequisite to suffering peacefully, even joyfully. Is it possible to suffer depression joyfully? That’s a question that’s plagued me ever since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a little over five years ago. If you’d asked me that question three years ago I would have scoffed and said “of course not!” Had you asked me last year, I’d have responded with an uneasy “I don’t know.” Today my answer would be “yes, I think.” The I think comes from the simple fact that I haven’t been tested by severe depression since I’ve begun developing this new mindset. Could I suffer through that joyfully? I really don’t know. But is it possible to suffer mild-to-moderate depression joyfully? Speaking from recent experience, yes.
Logically speaking, depression and joy should be mutually exclusive. Certainly, I believed they were for most of the past five years. But one of the most important marks of a Christian is their joy. One of the most important marks of a saint is their joy. Real, pure, joy. If we are living our faith as Christians in a deep way, our lives should be saturated with supernatural joy.
Where does that leave those of us afflicted with emotional disorders? Are we just plain out of luck? That’s bothered me for years. Is it possible to experience joy in the midst of mental illness? It’s one of the main things this series will explore. Because the answer, I think, is yes. And it starts with “thy will be done.”
Ponder those words. Do some soul searching. Do they frighten you? Ask yourself why. Why should we be afraid of the will of a God whose very nature is love? He made us specifically so He could love us. He entered the world we corrupted through sin and suffered more than anyone ever has for each individual person alive. For you. Because He wants you. He knows what will make you happy — He made you after all. He knows you better than you know yourself. And He wants you to be happy. His will leads to joy. Why should we fear it? Your heart cries out “Because His will can lead to suffering!” Yes. It can. And more than that, it does. But there is no way to escape suffering in this world. Wouldn’t you much rather be able to face what comes with joy?
To start off, here’s a playlist of some songs I’ve found immensely cathartic when going through rough patches:
I’ve been putting off writing this post for a long time. To be honest, despite having been personally suicidal before, I wasn’t sure what to say. It’s a difficult topic and there are no easy answers. However, I’ve been prompted rather clearly to finally tackle this. I’m not depressed and I haven’t thought about this topic for months, but in my evening prayer last night it popped into my mind out of the blue that I should really write this post. Then last night I dreamed that I attempted to commit suicide — a very strange thing to dream when you aren’t depressed. Then this morning in my morning reading, the article just happened to be about a person who attempted to commit suicide.
I think I get the message.
So whoever it is out there that needs to read this post, just know that God is looking out for you, because I had no intention of writing this originally.
I guess I should start by saying that I understand this topic at a personal level. If you want to die, or have ever wanted to die, I completely understand. If you go to bed at night desperately hoping you’ll never wake up again, I understand. If you’ve come up with at least half a dozen different ways you could pull suicide off, and you go through your days with that in the front of your mind most of the time, I get it because I’ve been there too. It’s an awful place to be. It’s been a couple years now since I was in that head-space but I have vivid memories of it. If you’re stuck there right now, I wish I could reach through the screen, give you a hug, and promise you in-person that it’s going to be okay, and it’s going to pass. Because it will. It doesn’t feel like it, but it will.
Suicide is, in some ways, especially challenging to tackle in a Christian context because yes, the act itself is gravely sinful. But as far as I’m concerned, Christianity gives the only solid reason not to go ahead with such a course of action.
Now, first off, there are some serious misconceptions out there about what the Church actually believes and teaches about this topic. In the strictly technical sense, if you in full knowledge of how gravely wrong the action is, and with clear thought and judgement make the decision to take your own life and you go ahead with that act, you have committed a mortal sin and have cut yourself off from God, and thus, heaven. However, most people that commit suicide are either unaware of just how serious the action is spiritually, and/or are not in possession of clear thought or judgement. This, of course, does not give you permission to go ahead with it because you’re miserable. Far from it. But it means we shouldn’t give up hope for people that have already done so.
Here’s what the Catechism has to say:
Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.
Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
~ CCC 2280-2281
Suicide is a serious matter. But it also goes on to say:
We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.
~ CCC 2283
So no, the Catholic church does not believe that all people who commit suicide are automatically going to hell. But it is still not an option we’re permitted to consider.
Now, there are some things about point 2280 that are perhaps frustrating to a person battling mental illness. The bit about being “obliged to accept life gratefully” for instance. It’s tempting to look at that, roll your eyes and respond “easy for you to say!” Being told to accept life gratefully can seem like a cruel joke when you’re severely depressed, or, perhaps, utterly exhausted after over a year of rapid cycling through mixed and depressive episodes. I’m the first to admit that I wasn’t the least bit grateful to be alive during some of my low points. In fact, I resented it. And then at other times, I would beat myself up over such feelings, telling myself I was a worthless monster for being so ungrateful.
Neither state of mind is correct.
Firstly, gratitude is not an emotion. It’s not a warm, fuzzy, joyful feeling (although it can have such feelings attached to it). You can try to snap yourself into a head-space of gratitude by listing all of the blessings and good things you’ve received throughout your life, and it’s a good thing to practice doing regularly. But it doesn’t always work. And that’s when you have to fall back on gratitude expressed by action. It’s possible to express your gratitude to someone even when you aren’t feeling especially grateful. You can do things out of gratitude for people even when you’re feeling frustrated with them. The act of staying alive and taking care of yourself when you’d really rather not can be an act of gratitude. “God, this is the last thing I feel like doing, but I’m doing it for you.” So don’t beat yourself up over not feeling grateful. Simply keep yourself alive and take care of yourself for God’s sake.
Now, resentment is trickier. Feeling angry at God isn’t a good thing, but it happens. In my own experience, it usually arises from feeling oppressed in some way. Thoughts of “what’s the point in all of this?” or “what did I do to deserve this?” rise to the surface, and then satan gets in there and gleefully stirs it all up till you’re boiling with frustration, resentment and self-pity. “Does God even care about me at all? If he really loves me, why is he putting me through this?” On and on the thoughts go, spiraling around each other until we’re a tangled up mess. It’s a toxic place to be, and we can’t afford to sit around there stewing. There must be some way out.
The first thing you need to do is consider what you believe about God.
If you question whether God actually loves you, look at that picture and realize that God himself is there, dying on that cross, because he loves you personally and wants you personally to be with him in heaven. That’s the only reason he’s there. He didn’t go get crucified for kicks. He also thought about you personally before he created the universe and decided he wanted you personally to exist, with all the aspects of you that make you you, so that he could love you and you could love him in return, and he believed in advance that you would be worth dying in agony for. He also understands what you’re going through in a personal way because he experienced it himself while he was alive on earth (and also because, if you’re baptized and in a state of grace, he lives in you and experiences everything you experience).
Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of “if he really loves me, why is he putting me through this?”
Firstly, it’s important to realize that God isn’t “putting you through it” in the sense of someone applying a punishment. According to Peter Kreeft in his book Making Sense Out of Suffering, God allows people to experience pain because he either intends to bring a much greater good out of it that couldn’t otherwise come about, or because he intends to avoid a much greater evil than might have happened had he not allowed you to experience it. That may or may not be of much comfort, but it at least points to two possible reasons why God is allowing you to go through this.
There is also one other aspect to suffering that I think is important and too often overlooked.
“Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:16-17
This life is not the point of existence. It’s only a “womb” for the eternal life to come. What we do and experience here determines what we will be when we are “born” into eternity. I firmly believe that people who experience unbearable suffering in this life will experience a much greater level of glory in heaven than people who do not.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.” ~ Romans 8:18
God knows better than anyone that this life is not the point. If we set all our hopes on being happy here, not only will we be constantly disappointed, but we will also be gravely mistaken. If God allows some people to suffer more than other people, or perhaps more frequently than other people (as is in the case of recurrent illness), it is actually a blessing in disguise. Those of us who spend a lot of time miserable become “detached” in a sense from the world because it doesn’t bring us joy. We can’t count on it to fulfill us. Of course, without God in the picture, that fact very easily drives a person to despair. But it can also drive a person to search for God because they are desperate to find some sort of meaning in life.
If we hang in there, even when we desperately want to die, God will make that sacrifice infinitely worth it. And by offering that pain up, we can make a huge difference in the lives of other people and help save souls. The prayers of the sick, especially intercessory ones, have special weight with God.
Another important thing to realize is that while God allows us to experience hardship, he also gladly helps us bear it if we let him.
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” ~ 2 Corinthians 4:8-10
Sometimes God allows us to experience weakness in order to demonstrate his power to us. If we go to him for help, throw ourselves down and admit that unless he helps us we are going to perish, he comes to our aid. He protects us from destruction. Until we realize our own weakness and incapability, we often don’t recognize how much he does for us and through us with his power, not ours.
I can attest to this from very personal, recent experience. This fall, in the midst of the university semester, I dealt with a severe hypomanic episode that morphed into a mixed episode and then dropped me into a depressive episode. It’s nothing I hadn’t experienced before, but there was a major difference between this time and the other times.
My faith life has deepened a lot since the episodes that drove me to consider suicide several years ago. I pray daily, multiple times a day, and have an actual relationship with God. This didn’t take away my suffering. Pain and misery are pain and misery. They hurt. It interrupted my life. I had to miss some classes, fell behind on my assignments and battled lots of intense self-harm urges. And yes, a had I few moments of complaining to God that this wasn’t fair and why couldn’t he have given me some other cross because I didn’t want this one (which is ironic, because when I’m battling relapses of tendonitis I demand that he take that cross away and give me back my mental illness cross instead because I’m better at coping with that *eye roll*). But this time, it was much, much easier to accept my cross, to even embrace it happily at times because it gave me something to offer up for other people, to stay aware of the people around me, to not fall into self-loathing and despair. I was given the strength to do the things that I needed to do. I was able to give myself permission to be weak but at the same time to trust that things would still somehow be okay because I’d surrendered myself into God’s hands and he was taking care of me.
And guess what. Everything worked out fine.
By the way, it is okay to complain to God and tell him how miserable you are. King David, whom God considered to be a man after his own heart, was an expert at that. If you ever find yourself at a loss as to how to pour out your heart to God when you’re in misery, here are just a few examples:
Lord, do not punish me in your anger; in your wrath do not chastise me! Your arrows have sunk deep in me; your hand has come down upon me. There is no wholesomeness in my flesh because of your anger; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. My iniquities overwhelm me, a burden too heavy for me.
Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck. I have sunk into the mire of the deep, where there is no foothold. I have gone down to the watery depths; the flood overwhelms me. I am weary with crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, from looking for my God.
~Psalm 69: 1-3
Do not reprove me in your anger, Lord, nor punish me in your wrath. Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; heal me, Lord, for my bones are shuddering. My soul too is shuddering greatly— and you, Lord, how long…? Turn back, Lord, rescue my soul; save me because of your mercy. For in death there is no remembrance of you. Who praises you in Sheol?
I am wearied with sighing; all night long I drench my bed with tears; I soak my couch with weeping. My eyes are dimmed with sorrow, worn out because of all my foes.
~Psalm 6: 1-7
Or one of my personal favourites, since the whole thing is short, sweet and to-the-point:
How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look upon me, answer me, Lord, my God! Give light to my eyes lest I sleep in death, Lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed,” lest my foes rejoice at my downfall.
But I trust in your mercy. Grant my heart joy in your salvation, I will sing to the Lord, for he has dealt bountifully with me!
And for good measure, here are two other prayers:
At a Time of Temptation
Lord Jesus, you know what temptation is like. You know how strongly the wrong thing fascinates me, and how much the forbidden thing attracts me.
Lord Jesus, help me not to fall. Help me to remember my own self-respect, and to remember that I cannot do a thing like this.
Help me to think of those who love me, and to know that I dare not bring disappointment and heartbreak to them. Help me to remember the unseen crowd of witnesses who surround me, and to know that I cannot grieve those who have passed on, but who are forever near.
Help me to remember Your presence, and in Your presence find safety.
This I ask for Your love’s sake. AMEN
A Prayer of Sorrow
I have fallen, Lord, once more. I can’t go on. I’ll never succeed.
I am ashamed. I don’t dare look at you. And yet I struggled, Lord, for I knew you were right near me, bending over me, watching. But temptation blew like a hurricane, and instead of you I turned my head away. I stepped aside, while you stood silent and sorrowful. Lord, don’t look at me like that.
For I am ashamed and sorrowful. I am down, shattered, with no strength left. I dare make no more promises. I can only stand bowed before you.
Come, Child, look up. Isn’t it mainly your vanity that is wounded? If you loved me you would grieve but you would trust. Do you think that there is a limit to God’s love? Do you think that for a moment I stopped loving you? But you still rely on yourself. You must rely on me. Ask my pardon and get up quickly. You see, it’s not falling that is worse, but staying on the ground.
Don’t lose hope. The suicidal thoughts will pass. The depression will pass. Go to God in prayer. Recognize that he will give you exactly what you need to get through what you are going through right now. He might not take your pain away. But he will help you bear it. He really does listen to us. When I was near the end of my rope after months and months and months of non-stop rapid cycling, I flat out begged him for just a month, just one month of stability, or I simply wasn’t going to make it. Apparently I was right in that claim because he answered my prayer. The next month was one of total and complete stability, something that completely floored my doctor. Then I sank back into another depressive episode. But after the month of stability I was refreshed and ready for it. God does listen to us. He doesn’t always give us what we want, but he gives us what’s best for us.
And as a closing note, prayer doesn’t always have to be in words. Quite a few times in my most recent episodes, I simply went to my church, sat in front of Jesus in the blessed sacrament, and wordlessly offered him my pain. I just sat there, resting my head on the pew in front of me, hurting, but knowing that he was there suffering right alongside me, accepting that sacrifice, and encouraging me — along with his mother, and all of the other saints. Some of my most painful moments were during those visits, but I always left with renewed strength to face the day. The Blessed Virgin helped a lot too. There is something immensely comforting about a motherly embrace, and she gladly offers that. Even if you’re a Protestant, that’s worth keeping in mind. Jesus gave us his mother when he was dying on the cross for a reason.
If you have any questions or just want to talk, feel free to leave a comment. I’m here and happy to listen and offer what advice I can.
He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful. ~ Corinthians 1:8
So back at the beginning of May I posted about my decision to start weening off of my medications. I’m happy to say I’ve been completely off of my antidepressant bupropion (better known as Wellbutrin) since August 15th. All that’s left is to start slowing coming off my mood stabilizer lamotrigine (better known as Lamictal). I’d intended to write several posts throughout the summer commenting on my progress coming off the antidepressant, but things didn’t go quite the way I’d planned them out. In fact, they still aren’t.
My plan for the summer was that I would come off of my antidepressant, experience some possibly moderate to severe depressive symptoms throughout the process and get through them with God’s grace, and then be back to normal by the time the semester started in September.
This lovely plan of mine should (rightly) provoke incredulous laughter from my fellow bipolar sufferers. Really? You planned out exactly what sort of episodes you would have, and for how long, and expected the universe to cooperate with that?
Well, it never hurts to think positively, right? Although, I was actually thinking rather negatively since I expected the summer to be hellish. In fact, it wasn’t. Coming off of bupropion was far, far easier than I expected. The worst I experienced was a week or two here and there of mild-to-moderate depression. Nothing more. (I tapered quite slowly, mind you, especially towards the end.) It was almost a let down after how hard I’d worked to brace myself for the worst.
But of course, when my plans don’t work out, it’s usually a complete and total bomb on every side. This is no exception. The rest of my plan was to hit the semester running and make my way through it relatively symptom free as I came off my mood stabilizer (which both I and my mother assumed would be easy peasy compared to the antidepressant).
Haaaah. Hahaha. Ha.
Yeah, no, that’s not quite the way it’s working out.
It seems that lamotrigine is a much harder drug for me to come off of than bupropion was (for whatever reason). Granted, I almost always have some symptoms in the fall. Season changes are a trigger for me. But I’d assumed from everything I’d heard that I could come off of this drug without any trouble over the course of a couple weeks. In fact, my psychiatrist had said back in April that I could stop it cold-turkey without any problems (and that at the same time I could stop my antidepressant cold turkey. Needless to say, I didn’t listen to her). So I decided to drop from 250mg right down to 200mg.
Well. That didn’t go over well. Much to my surprise, I almost couldn’t get out of bed the next morning. So I decided to bump back up to 225mg. Ever since that drop I’ve been experiencing mixed episode symptoms to a greater or lesser degree. They were quite dramatic in the week following the drop, and then eased off since then and have been fluctuating between hardly there or unpleasantly intense, depending on how much sleep I get. I’m fairly certain much of what I’m experiencing now is due to the season change and my body adjusting to my new sleep schedule. But the symptoms I experienced in the week after my initial drop were far more severe than any of the withdrawal effects I experienced from the antidepressant. Maybe its a coincidence and I would have experienced those symptoms if I hadn’t changed my meds. Its possible, but I’m certainly not going to count on that. I’ll be tapering this drug much slower than my last one, and have resigned myself to a rougher semester than I’ve had for a while.
I’m not going to lie. My initial response to God about this unplanned development was a whiny one. Why couldn’t I have just gotten all of the really difficult symptoms out of the way in the summer? I could have afforded to be incapacitated then! I’d been prepared for that. I’d been all ready and eager to shoulder that cross. I hadn’t signed on for this cross. The cross of wading through my university courses while battling symptoms. That hadn’t been part of my plan!
The response I received was quite simple: crosses aren’t something we get to choose. Jesus didn’t go to his father with a plan all worked out about which cross he was ready to carry. He took what his father gave him— and it certainly wasn’t a cross he wanted. He asked to have it taken away if possible, but he also bowed to his father’s will. And his father gave him all of the grace necessary to bear it. He sent an angel to him to strengthen him in his Agony, sent Simon of Cyrene to help him carry the cross, and sent both his mother and Veronica to encourage him on the road.
He does no less for us, and he also expects no less. He may not let us choose our cross, but he will always, without fail, give us the grace necessary to bear it, so long as we go to him for our strength and don’t try to do it all by ourselves.
This whole experience has also served as a gentle reminder that I need to stop making life plans and assuming they will work the way I expect, even if I think I’ve made them with him in mind. Really, you’d think I’d have figured that out by now.
As a parting thought, here’s a lovely something I stumbled across on Pinterest:
Crosses serve a purpose, even if we can’t see it in the moment.
It’s a question worth asking, and it really has no hard and fast answers. C.S. Lewis wrote a brilliant book on the subject that’s well worth checking out entitled The Problem of Pain. I’m not going to try and rehash what he already addressed. Instead, I’d like to put forward just one of the many answers to the above question for consideration.
Because suffering is part of the human condition, it’s one of the few things that any person, anywhere, from any culture, can bond with a fellow human over. Suffering brings people together like nothing else can — at least when the suffering is shared. Suffering allows you to understand and empathize with others who are going through the same, or similar, experiences. Yes, suffering can and does destroy some people. But on the flip side, it can and does move other people to heroic action. The very act of fighting to stay strong as you endure your own trials can bring hope and encouragement to others who desperately need it, without you even realizing it.
A little vignette from my life is illustrative of this.
During the winter of 2012-2013, I went through a very rough patch. I was hit with multiple episodes of severe depression, interspersed with some mixed episodes, and virtually no stability between any of them. While this was going on, I was also having some physical health problems that would have left me feeling miserable all on their own. Adding them to severe depression was really just some icing on an already large cake. But as anyone with depression knows, life doesn’t stop and wait for you to start feeling better. It keeps going. It becomes a matter of sink or swim. There really are no other options.
For me, one of the parts of life that keeps going regardless of how I feel is music ministry. Our church isn’t large. Back then, it was just me and a fellow lady parishioner who led the congregation in song. We both sang, but she was the cantor and I was the pianist. Her job would turn into an absolute nightmare if I failed to show up — it’s a tall order to lead an entire congregation without any instrumental accompaniment when you have no musical training. The result usually isn’t terribly pretty, though perhaps its mildly better than a dry mass (a mass with no music). Suffice to say, I couldn’t simply bow out, even though curling up in a corner and dying felt preferable to leaving the house. So I pulled together some hymns that weren’t too hard, and that I felt drawn to in my misery, and trooped off to church.
I could barely focus on the notes on the page. I didn’t even try to hear myself singing. I just mindlessly forced the memorized words out with as much force as my blind discomfort allowed, not caring if my voice cracked or went off key — which it very likely did. I was in a state of utter resignation. The whole thing didn’t seem worth the effort. I was tired of life. Everything was way too hard, and I confess I felt bitter about it deep down. What was the point of having to go through all of it? I was more than a little frustrated with my Creator, though I hadn’t outright admitted that to myself yet.
The mass finally ended. The last hymn was done. I decided that crawling under the piano and dying probably wouldn’t be looked upon as socially acceptable, so instead I started gathering up my sheet music. As I did so, a woman approached my fellow singer. I almost failed to notice, considering how caught up I was in my pity-party. But when I turned my attention on them, I momentarily forgot myself. The woman was wiping tears from her eyes as she thanked us for our effort.
There was no way she could know just how poorly I was doing — I’d never talked about it with anyone in my parish, and not even my fellow singer had clued in. But the music we made had touched this woman at a very personal level.
My fellow parishioners aren’t what you’d call an overemotional bunch. If they tear up during a mass, they cover it up and keep it to themselves. They also don’t usually hang around to chat with the music ministry. To have someone walk up to the front of the church and address us is uncommon. To have someone do so while in tears — well, it’s unheard of. I was so shocked I actually forgot how awful I felt. And for a severely depressed person, that is extremely impressive.
I went home feeling the least bad about things that I’d felt in weeks. The entire experience had been made worth it. Why? I suddenly remembered I wasn’t the only person in the world burdened with suffering. There were other people in my own community suffering too — and somehow managing to survive it. And I had just unintentionally reached out and touched one of those people by simply showing up and trying my best to hold it together as I fulfilled my commitment. And the fact that she was courageous enough to approach us and express how she felt touched me. I have no idea what she was going through, and she had no idea what I was going through, but by our mutual suffering we helped each other.
There’s something beautiful about that, no?
Take care and God bless,
Just Cry by Mandisa
Why you gotta act so strong
Go ahead and take off your brave face
Why you tellin’ me that nothing’s wrong
It’s obvious you’re not in a good place
Who’s tellin’ you to keep it all inside
And never let those feelings
Get past the corner of your eye
You don’t need to run
You don’t need to speak
Baby take some time
Let those prayers roll down your cheek
It may be tomorrow
You’ll be past the sorrow
But tonight it’s alright
I know you know your Sunday songs
A dozen verses by memory
Yeah they’re good but life is hard
And days get long
You gotta know God can handle your honesty
So feel the things you’re feeling
Name your fears and doubts
Don’t stuff your shame and sadness,
Loneliness and anger
Let it out, let it out
You don’t need to run
You don’t need to speak
Baby take some time
Let those prayers roll down your cheek
It may be tomorrow
You’ll be past the sorrow
But tonight it’s alright
It doesn’t mean you don’t trust Him
It doesn’t mean you don’t believe
It doesn’t mean you don’t know
He’s redeeming everything
You don’t need to run
You don’t need to speak
Baby take some time
Let those prayers roll down your cheek
It may be tomorrow
You’ll be past the sorrow
But tonight it’s alright
But tonight it’s alright
Why you gotta act so strong
Go ahead and take off your brave face
We’ve finally come to the last post in this series. A few days late— busyness and a mild relapse of tendonitis prevented me from getting it written for Good Friday —but better late than never.
In the previous post we looked at Jesus’ Carrying of the Cross. In this final post, we’ll examine the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery, the Crucifixion, and sum up everything we’ve discussed so far. If you’ve missed the previous posts in the series, I encourage you to check out Part 1 for an explanation of what I’m doing with them.
This final Mystery might come across as a largely physical torture, much like the Scourging at the Pillar, and thus it might not seem to have a lot in common with the sufferings that come along with mental illness. After all, it’s hard to compare psychosis or depression to getting your hands and feet nailed to a tree and being left to hang there until you die— and this after all of the other things Jesus had gone through.
Some might make the argument that mental and emotional suffering are worse than physical suffering, or that Jesus was only on the cross for 3 hours, whereas mental illness episodes can last for weeks and months. But as I said before, mental/emotional pain and physical pain are two different things that can’t be compared very effectively, and considering Jesus was sweating blood the previous day from his emotional and mental anguish, I have a feeling his level of suffering during those moments was worse than the amount of suffering stretched out in a month long (or longer) episode of depression.
But I digress.
For the purpose of this post, what I want to focus on is something that Jesus said while hanging on the cross:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ~ Matthew 27:46
What is hell? Biblical imagery gives us scenes of fiery torment, souls burning endlessly in agony. But setting aside all of that, what is the definition, the very essence, of hell? I would say it’s to be cut off completely from one’s creator, the source of all goodness, light, and love. I don’t think it much matters whether images of hell fire are meant to be taken literally or not, because to be utterly cut off from God, in and of itself, would be an infinitely greater torment than what any fire could cause.
What am I getting at here?
I’m saying Jesus experienced hell, for our sake, in a very literal sense. The Apostles Creed says “he descended into hell,” but in that case, “hell” is simply a word referring to the place of the dead, not the place of the damned. He went there to share the Good News that heavens gates were now open to them. But when Jesus was hanging on the cross, he experienced something that we simply cannot comprehend with our human intellects, because we cannot comprehend the Trinity. God the Father turned his back on God the Son, for the sake of our sins. It wasn’t for all eternity— or maybe in some sense it was; God is outside of time, after all —but Jesus was given a taste of what the souls in hell are sentenced to. In his time on earth, he experienced far more suffering than any human soul ever can or ever will, because he bore the weight of all our sins, all our guilt, all our sorrows. According to Isaiah:
“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” ~ Isaiah 53:3-4
So how does this tie into mental illness? Sometimes, in the midst of our trials, we feel that God has abandoned us. Maybe intellectually we realize he hasn’t, but it sure feels like he has. We can’t feel his presence. We are utterly miserable. Our prayers seem to be going unanswered. It’s like we’ve been forgotten. Rejected. Forsaken. And Jesus fully understands the feeling. We might not understand why God chooses to allow us to go through such experiences, but there’s obviously a reason or he wouldn’t put us through it; and we certainly aren’t on our own in the experience. God did the very same thing to Himself. Jesus gets it.
So what does all of this mean? We’ve walked through each of the Sorrowful Mysteries and have seen the different ways in which Christ has entered into the very same sufferings that the mentally ill are forced to endure. If you still feel at some level that what Jesus went through doesn’t match up with your own suffering, bear in mind what I said back in part 1: Jesus lives in you. He experiences what you experience every moment that you’re alive. Why do you think it hurts him so much when we sin? Especially when we sin by hurting other people. He feels our pain, very literally. When he chose to enter into the human experience, he chose to enter all of it— not just the pieces of it that a carpenter’s son living in ancient Palestine would have gone through. He understands what mental illness feels like far better than anyone else ever can or will— he’s experienced every form of it in existence, at every level of severity and in all life circumstances that accompany it. This is why the letter to the Hebrews can say:
“we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” ~ Hebrews 4:15
Taken by itself, that statement isn’t particularly helpful. Great. So we aren’t alone in our misery. How does that help us any? The next verse offers the perfect answer:
“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” ~ Hebrews 4:16
Because Jesus knows precisely how much we are suffering, we can go to him, boldly, and ask for his help. And he will have mercy on us and give us grace to help us endure our trials.
The catch is, of course, we have to go to him first. We have to approach him and ask for help. If we keep ourselves at a distance and refuse to acknowledge that we need assistance, there isn’t much he can do for us. But we’ve been promised time and again that he will look after us if we surrender ourselves to his care:
“O poor little one, tossed with tempest, without all comfort, behold I will lay thy stones in order, and will lay thy foundations with sapphires.”
~ Isaiah 54:11
“Take courage, my children, and cry to God, for you will be remembered by the one who brought this upon you.”
~ Baruch 4:27-29
“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
~ Psalm 30
“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.”
~ Psalm 31
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but the Lord delvers him out of them all.”
~ Psalm 34
“For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
“I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”
Mental illness is a cross— a very difficult one at times. But for those of us that have it, we have to keep in mind that there is a purpose behind it. You might not have discovered what that purpose is yet in your own case. I know it took me a while to discover the purpose for mine, but as time passes I continue to uncover more and more reasons why what I first looked on as a curse has actually become a very odd blessing in a rather unpleasant disguise. If we can truly wrap our minds around the fact that our illnesses were not dealt out to us out of spite, and that the God who allowed us to have them wants to help us manage them, the whole situation becomes a little bit easier to handle. But it requires faith. And faith is hard. Especially when it feels like God is quite simply ignoring you.
When you start to question whether or not God truly loves you and is going to look after you, stop for a moment and picture Jesus on the cross. He put himself there. For you. But there’s more to it than that. Do you honestly think God ever once stopped loving his only begotten son as Jesus went through the experience of taking on all of our sin and guilt? No. But still Jesus felt completely abandoned by his Father as he hung there on the cross. Even so, he commended his spirit into his Father’s hands as he died. And his Father raised him up to new life on the third day.
He will do the same for you if you cling to your faith, even if it’s just by the ragged ends of your fingernails. And not just after you die:
“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” ~ Psalm 27
Waiting can be hard. Take it from someone who has spent the last few years doing a lot of it, for various different health problems, not only mental ones. But answers do come eventually. Never stop praying. He will be there for you.
In the last post we took a look at Jesus’ Crowning with Thorns and how it ties into our mental illness discussion. Now we’ve reached the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery. This particular mystery has quite a lot to unpack. Realistically I could devote an entire series of blog posts just to this one passage of scripture, but for the purpose of our current series, I’ll try to make it more concise.
If you missed Part 1, I recommend you check it out to get an understanding of why I’m writing these posts in the first place.
As with the Scourging at the Pillar, the Gospels don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on Jesus’ trip from Pontius Pilate to Calvary. Mathew and Mark only state that Simon the Cyrenian was forced to carry the cross for him (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21). Luke adds the bit about Jesus pausing to address the weeping women (Luke 23:27-30). John fails to mention any of the above. The Stations of the Cross, a tradition that allows a person to meditate on certain aspects of Christ’s Passion, provides a lot more detail about this journey. There are usually 14 stations, and the are as follows:
Jesus is condemned to death
Jesus willingly takes up His cross
Jesus falls for the first time
Jesus meets His Blessed Mother
Simon the Cyrene helps Jesus carry His cross
Veronica wipes the Holy Face of Jesus
Jesus falls for the second time
Jesus comforts the Women of Jerusalem
Jesus falls for the third time
Jesus is stripped of His garments
Jesus is nailed to the cross
Jesus dies on the cross
Jesus is taken down from the cross
Jesus is laid in the tomb
Sometimes a 15th station is included that recounts Jesus’ resurrection as well. For the purposes of this post, we’ll be discussing stations 2-9, though not necessarily in that precise order. We dealt with station 1 previously, and we’ll deal with the final stations in the next post.
Firstly, lets start with some context. Jesus has been through severe emotional torture in the Agony, betrayal by his loved ones, extreme physical torture in the Scourging, and utter humiliation in the Crowning with Thorns. He is covered with deep, bleeding wounds, dust, and spit. He’s weak from lack of food and rest, not to mention blood loss. It’s just been one thing after another, and it’s only going to get worse.
Does that last sentence ring a bell? I know it does for me.
Now a heavy piece of wood is dropped onto Jesus’ shoulders— his bruised, mostly shredded shoulders. Does he deserve this? No. In fact, he’s the only person in existence who doesn’t deserve anything of the sort. It isn’t his fault humanity messed itself up so badly. But he willingly accepts his cross, nevertheless, because it is his Father’s will. Can we say the same for our own crosses? Of course, we aren’t innocent like Jesus was. We’re sinners. But did we personally do something so horrendous that we were cursed with our mental illnesses as retribution? Probably not. And even if we had done something horrible, God doesn’t go around dealing out punishments. But He does allow us to have our illnesses for a purpose, even though we might not have a clue what that purpose is at the moment. The weight of such a cross tends to provoke thoughts of “Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this?” I don’t have answers to either of those questions, although I’ve asked them myself in the past. All I can say is that Jesus fully understands that feeling far better than any of us ever will.
Jesus, shaking from pain and exhaustion, stumbles, and the weight of the cross drives him to the ground. As his body hits the earth, the heavy cross lands squarely on his back, compounding the pain of his countless injuries. Every inch of his body throbs, his limbs ache with exhaustion. But he hasn’t given up. He tries to gather his strength to get back to his feet, but he isn’t fast enough for the guards. He is kicked and hauled roughly up, then shoved down the road again.
Sometimes mental illness feels like an endless treadmill of misery. You go for days putting one foot in front of the other, struggling to think, struggling to focus, sometimes struggling just to breathe in and breathe out. You raise your head to look down the tunnel you’re in and you can’t see any light at the end of it. You do everything you can to try and pull yourself together and make things work. And sometimes you fail. You hit the ground hard, and you don’t know if you have the strength, let alone the will, to get up again. But you do. You don’t have any other choice. So you get back up and keep walking, even though you don’t see how things are ever going to get better again.
Jesus fell three times on that journey. Three times his legs give out; his horrific injuries slam against the earth and the stones. Each time it’s more difficult than the last to get back to his feet again. And to what purpose? There is nothing good waiting in his future. When he reaches his destination, he isn’t going to be relieved of his burden. He’s going to be nailed to the cross and left to die. He more than understands the feeling of having no light to look forward to at the end of the tunnel.
Partway through this journey, Jesus meets his mother. Can you imagine what she must have felt, seeing her only son in such a condition, with such a fate awaiting him? She is completely helpless. She can do nothing to intervene or save him. She cannot shield him from the abuse of the guards, or make his journey any easier. She stands in the place of every person who has ever had to watch a loved one suffer, unable to aid the afflicted person in any way, shape or form. She feels his pain as if it’s her own.
Anyone who has been in that sort of position can testify to the misery of it. I doubt anyone can feel more helpless than someone forced to stand by while mental illness consumes a loved one. As the person you know and love begins to disappear beneath the symptoms, or the mind-numbing side-effects of medication. Or to know your loved one is struggling with suicidal impulses that they might not be able to curb. But there’s a whole other side to the story. Jesus can see the pain he’s causing his mother. He knows its his fault that she is suffering to such an extent, even though it isn’t his fault that he’s in the position that he’s in. That’s something many mentally ill individuals can understand perfectly well. The added guilt of knowing your loved ones are worried sick, and being unable to do anything fix it.
Partway along this journey to death, Jesus becomes physically incapable of carrying his cross any farther. The guards are faced with the prospect of him dying before he even reaches the place where he is to be crucified. That’s unacceptable. They seize a bystander and press the man into service, forcing him to carry Jesus’ burden.
There are several things about this particular station that ring true when it comes to mental illness. First, the feeling of being incapable of taking care of yourself. Being unable to handle ordinary burdens while you’re in the midst of an episode. Or being unable to bear the burden of the illness itself. Other people are forced to step in and do the work that you’re unable to complete, or take time out of their lives to look after you. Sometimes these people do so willingly out of the goodness of their hearts. But sometimes, they resent you for it. They’re being forced to deal with something that isn’t their responsibility because you’ve proven incapable. It’s humiliating and guilt inducing. But there is another side to this station. Jesus’ Father knew he would be unable to complete the journey without assistance. A provision was made for that. Whether Simon was willing or not, he wound up being there to unknowingly assist the Savior of mankind. Even though He had to allow his son to go through that brutal experience, He didn’t abandon him. He made sure Jesus would be able to complete his mission. And He will do the same for us.
Along the same vein, Veronica arrives. She breaks past the guards and has to opportunity to wipe clean Jesus’ face. Did that do much practical good? Probably not. But it likely meant more on an emotional level than we’ll ever realize. In the face of such cruelty from the very humans he’s dying to save, there is someone who willingly reaches out to him, makes a conscious effort to comfort him even though she knows there is little she can do. This moment of compassion and solidarity offers him encouragement to press forward and do what needs doing.
Have you encountered any Veronicas in your life? Sometimes they are hard to come by, but sometimes they walk into your life precisely when you need them. A well timed comment or gesture of affection can have an enormous impact. It’s hard to tear our gazes off ourselves when we’re in the midst of misery, but have you ever considered being a Veronica for someone else? Sometimes a suffering person can comfort a fellow sufferer far more than anyone else can.
Finally, we come to the women of Jerusalem. Was it helpful to Jesus to have a group of them trailing after him wailing? It’s hard to say. There is the fact that they were there for him, that they were against his unjust condemnation and cared enough to become distraught. Sometimes its comforting when people are outraged and upset about something on your behalf. But sometimes it’s just frustrating. I can’t say one way or another what sort of impact it had on Jesus, but he can certainly understand what it’s like to have the people that care about you (to some degree or another) bewailing your condition. In the case of mental illness, it really isn’t a helpful response. It can be bewildering, and downright annoying, when other people are more upset about your illness than you are, especially when you’re newly diagnosed. “I’m the one with the disease, here. What reason do you have to be so freaked out?” Not everyone encounters this problem, but some people do. Jesus understands.
This brings us to the end of the Fourth Sorrowful Mystery. Tomorrow is Good Friday. Jesus will reach the end of his journey to the cross and give up his life to save mankind. In the final part of this series, we’ll examine the how the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery, The Crucifixion, fits into our discussion of mental illness.