Some of us are blessed with good health, relative prosperity and long lives. But in even the most charmed life, there are times when things do not go as planned, when illness, accident, or bereavement threaten to leave a hole in the hearts and souls of the most faithful and optimistic Christians. In spite of our faith, all at once there seems no one or nothing to live for, no purpose toward which we might bend our dreams or talents, no answer to the insistent “why” of our lives. For those who suffer long-term or chronic illness or are in situations that produce overwhelming emotional pain (such as bereavement), it is easy to feel that all that exists is an unattainable past and a barely endurable present.
This is especially true for those who experience depression, an illness which can range from a draining but bearable state of tedium and stasis to an incapacitating nightmare. At its worst, it is an illness of existential anguish, in which every moment can encapsulate a lifetime of pain. To one in its throes, God is often known primarily by His absence, while despair is felt as an overwhelming presence. In more severe cases, even the prospect of death is welcome for the relief it offers. It is a common disorder; according to the National Institute for Mental Health, an estimated 6.7% of adults experience some form of major depression in any given year.
In Centering Prayer, we open ourselves to God’s presence, but in depression God’s presence often seems to be the most difficult thing in the universe to apprehend and prayer an almost impossible task in the dryness and futility of our impoverished awareness. This is not “the dark night of the soul” described so vividly by St. John of the Cross; it is another kind of desolation, produced by what Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison succinctly calls “a biological illness with psychological manifestations.” And, I would add, with spiritual ramifications. The religious depressive often feels that the gifts of the spirit have been taken away only to be replaced by feelings of void, unreality and despair.
I write from personal experience, for I have endured varying degrees of depressive illness for most of my adult life. I began practicing Centering Prayer in my mid-20s, although I had also practiced Zen meditation for several years before this. I have known times, especially when the depression was lighter, when things were going smoothly enough that I could easily fulfill my twice-daily prayer commitment—indeed, sometimes even adding on more time to each prayer period. I could center easily, with relatively few intrusive thoughts, received what I have since learned to call “consolations,” and at times had a vivid sense of my interconnectedness with all that is created. I experienced compassion. Some of these periods coincided with a time when a new anti-depressant I was taking had greatly reduced my symptoms and allowed all of the coping mechanisms I had developed in previous years to take me to a place of far greater vitality, stability and well-being.
But when a life trauma occurred—rejection by a fiancé—already preceded by the decreasing effectiveness of my medication (i.e., a grief reaction on top of endogenous depression), I tried to pray but could no longer sit still; I could not banish the insistent thoughts and fears that assailed me every second, drowning out even my sacred word in a barrage of noise. At times like these—and many of us (even those who are not clinically depressed) know them--it often seems that the center cannot hold. We feel as though we are spinning out of spiritual and psychological control. And yet the center does hold, even if we are not aware of it: God is always there, calling us home to Him and to ourselves. The noise may interfere with our ability to hear this call, but the call is never really absent. And I have learned through the many ups and downs of both my illness and my life how to hold on to the center and keep the channels to both God and life open.
I make no claim for Centering Prayer as a cure for depression (and I am assuming that if you are reading and identifying with this article that you are under the care of a professional therapist), but, speaking from my own experience, it can at the very least help you to cope—and that in itself is a great deal. It will also keep you closer to God, even when you can’t feel His presence. The “divine therapy” that Thomas Keating has so often described operates not simply on “undigested emotional material” but also on the neurological detritus thrown up by the illness itself. Troubling thoughts that arise during times of depressive illness will almost certainly intrude upon your awareness as you try to pray. This is not necessarily an “unloading of the unconscious” but just as likely a recycling of what is already informing your distorted consciousness. It is crucial to reject the apparent reality of intrusive thoughts that seem especially foreign or disturbing and to dismiss them as you would any other thoughts. This is by no means easy, but by doing so, you may gain at least a brief respite from the depression, as well as greater objectivity about the illness itself. Do this to the extent that you are able: The dictum, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t” is especially relevant in such circumstances. And if you find yourself either partially or even wholly unable to practice Centering Prayer in the generally prescribed manner, here are some suggestions.
First, try shorter periods. Do longer periods as you are able, but remember that when you are in extremis, your intent and commitment are more important than a specific prayer period. God knows how much you suffer and appreciates any time you offer to your relationship with Him. Even moments snatched here and there are of inestimable value. If you awaken during the night, if you can calm your mind enough, use this time to center. It may also help you to fall asleep again, which is another blessing. And by all means, do not beat yourself up over your inability to practice as you might wish to: God does not need this kind of guilt, and you can certainly do without it.
Second, practice any form of prayer you can. After my father died, while not in one of my worst episodes of depression, I was experiencing devastating grief. I could not practice Centering Prayer, but soon found myself gazing with a contemplative eye on a poster I had of one of Georges Rouault's crucifixion paintings; icons are often employed in a similar way (see Gail Fitzpatrick-Hopler’s excellent article on this practice, Visio Divina, in the last issue of the CO Newsletter). As time passed, I could add Lectio Divina to my practices, which eventually led me back to Centering Prayer. Music can also be used in this manner. I particularly recommend Gregorian chants, medieval and Renaissance liturgical music, and Taizé. There is something inherently spiritual about such music—and very healing. Again, after the death of my father, for weeks I could not get to sleep without listening to the music of the 12th-century composer and mystic Hildegard of Bingen. In times of extremity, one can also repeat the Psalm verse, “Oh, God, come to my assistance; Oh, Lord, make haste to help me” (Ps. 70:1), or say the rosary, with or without beads and mysteries. For those whose minds are continually beset by recurrent negative thoughts--which can happen especially in a time of crisis--I suggest that you try to center every time one of these thoughts arises, even when you are not sitting in prayer.
Third, attend as many Centering Prayer groups as possible. Praying with others can help immeasurably in your ability to keep up your prayer practice, and your group can help support and comfort you in your time of trial. Try to reach out, especially if you live alone. Isolation feeds depression; the company of others can help keep you alive, in more ways than one. Friends can also often help you feel safer, and feeling safer can help you to cry. Crying can be difficult in depression, but sometimes a song or a poem—or the comforting presence of a friend or family member--will trigger tears, which, even when they don’t feel like it, are a gift from God. Keep yourself open to laughter; even in the midst of profound depression, it can sometimes surprise you and make you feel more connected and alive.
Finally, do as much scriptural and spiritual reading as you can (although you might want to avoid Ecclesiastes). I especially recommend Julian of Norwich’s Showings, which includes some of the most consoling messages in all of Christian literature. And, while perhaps not comforting to everyone, the so-called “terrible sonnets” of Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins have helped me greatly in understanding how one can stay in relationship with God in the midst of great mental turbulence. Try to believe in that relationship and trust that God will not forsake you. Know that He bears you company in your pain, suffering along with you and holding you in His all-encompassing love. His cross is the measure of that love, a love that surrounds and permeates us even when we cannot feel it. It is a light beyond the darkness, a surety that will last forever, and an invitation to love ourselves as God Himself loves us.
By Julie Henigan
[Editor's note: Contemplative Outreach also recommends The Welcoming Prayer practice.]