Saturday, October 19, 2013

Of Dark Nights and Depression

Therese of Lisieux 

I mentioned in yesterday’s posting that some people—and in this case Michael Voris, the proponent of modern pseudo-orthodoxy—confuse depression with the Dark Night of the Soul just as they often confuse their own psychological rage for God’s Divine Justice.   One of the questions I am often asked when I speak on the subject of historical spirituality—one of the subjects that I teach—is how can you discern depression from the Dark Night.  Depression is often misdiagnosed, even (and especially) by priests whose lack of training in spirituality does not intimidate them from attempting to serve as “spiritual directors.” 
The simple answer—and beware of simple answers though this one is anything but simplistic—is that in depression the person is turned inward on himself or herself and is occupied in trying to alleviate the psychic pain in which they find themselves, while in the Dark Night the person finds themselves letting go of control and yielding to God.  Why I say that this answer, while simple, is not simplistic is that the director must be very attentive not only to the actions of the directee but the motivations—motivations about which the directee may not be being honest even to himself or herself. 
In the Dark Night the individual finds an increase—often a dramatic increase—in charity (love of God and love of neighbor) in their souls whereas in depression the person is obsessed with themselves and trying to alleviate the pain of the depression.  What makes this a difficult analysis is that one of the ways that people have of “self-medicating” the pain caused by the depression is throwing themselves into comforting pieties.  Another way that people have of self-medicating their emotional pain, and only one and not the most common of ways, is by being “nice” and by doing things for others in ways that will either evoke a positive response from those who benefit from their kindnesses or will win them recognition for their kindness.  I don’t mean to negate such good acts or even the intention behind them, but they are good works being done for a “pay-off” rather than being done as an overflow of the charity that is growing in their souls from the Dark Night. The Spiritual Director must listen very carefully to the experience of the person who is going through this trial to discern whether it is the Dark Night or whether it is depression.  Charity is always the key to the answer as charity is the only infallible sign of the action of the Holy Spirit, but the question will be is the charity authentic or is it, at the root, self-interested.  
I always think of the Night of Faith of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux during the final eighteen months of her life.  Thérèse found herself in terrible darkness of faith—some say that it was not the Dark Night of the Soul at all but something even far more testing.  Yet as subject to trial as was her faith, she never wavered in charity.  Those around her had no idea of her trial for she was as loving and generous as ever.  All of which is to say that if bitchiness accompanies one’s Dark Night, it isn’t a Dark Night and it is time to go for therapy not spiritual direction.  Hear that Janet?  G-E-T  H-E-L-P.

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