One of the first faculties to suffer when a pastor stumbles into the valley of shadows is the capacity for theological reflection, says a Christian leader who has struggled with depression.
Ever been at the beach on a sunny, clear day, the sea nearly flat as you look out toward the horizon, gentle surf breaking at the shoreline, soft wind blowing -- as if you’d ordered the scene off a menu?
Then you notice a swell beginning to form way out, starting its journey shoreward, heaving the water upward as it increases in speed and strength, white foam at the crest as it nears the shallows at the beach, until it roars ashore, sweeping away the peaceful scene you’d been enjoying?
My depressive episodes used to arrive like that.
I could sense them coming, sometimes hours before they broke over me. I could feel the calm being sucked away beneath my feet, just as the sand on the shore gasps and recedes just before a huge wave hits.
And in that interval of sensing the wave while it was still far off, in those moments or hours of knowing its crash over me was inevitable, my own powerlessness was paralyzing: I felt trapped on the shore at water’s edge, the monster calmly advancing toward me.
My psychiatrist found this description “interesting” and asked whether she could use it at a conference where she would be presenting, naturally keeping me anonymous.
I wrote it up for her, borrowing my title -- “On the Beach” -- from Nevil Shute’s 1957 post-nuclear war apocalyptic novel (by the way, the film version starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner is worth the watching). I nearly missed the deadline for getting the manuscript to my doctor, delayed by a bout with, yes, depression. She changed my prescription.
My struggle lasted nearly 10 years, off and on, and I credit my healing -- I haven’t had a wave break over me in at least 15 years now -- to excellent medical care, the fellowship of good friends, cultivation of a healthy skepticism toward the ecclesiastical structure in which I work, and to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, whose presence in the midst of all of this must have been persistent.
I emerged from the valley of shadows with a few scars, intellectual and spiritual, but I count them gifts for ministry with folks who are now frozen on the beach, the flood approaching. I speak their dialect and grasp their metaphors, thanks be to God.
We know that depression is largely a matter of brain chemistry, significantly affected by genetics and environment. Recent research has identified specific regions of the brain that change in depression, and has established that the illness -- it is an illness -- is experienced variously by patients when diseased neurological circuits fail to communicate properly with one another.
Taking these findings into account, medicine has fine-tuned therapy to a remarkable degree. A recent article in The New York Times, summarizing much of this, concludes that “… psychotherapy is a biological treatment, a brain therapy. It produces lasting, detectable physical changes in our brain, much as learning does.”
At the safe remove of years from my own depression, I am clear that one of the first faculties to suffer when a pastor stumbles into the valley of shadows is the capacity for theological reflection.
This is as profound a loss as losing the ability to read music would be for a pianist, because depression requires theological analysis, its organic origins notwithstanding. The pastor wandering about in the valley, ironically, can scarcely begin this thinking, her reflective capacity seriously compromised.
I’ve found it helpful -- here comes my Wesleyan background -- to think about depression as a pernicious, modern form of predestination: we don’t choose it through an act of free will; to the contrary, biology and environment stack the cards against some of us, making it more likely (if not inevitable for some folks) that we’ll wander into the valley of shadows, each step sapping our power to do an about-face.
If we grant that the real biological changes in the brain that conspire to create depression are a witches’ brew of genetic predisposition, environmental factors and other ingredients, then the appropriate cure is a large dose of grace. And grace comes in many forms, competent therapy a modern counterpart to the manna Yahweh provided the Israelites as they wandered about in their own wilderness.
Working with United Methodist pastors across many years -- the last five spent with North Carolina clergy as part of Duke’s Clergy Health Initiative -- I’ve been saddened when some of my colleagues confess their reluctance to seek therapy for depression because they fear the professional consequences.
The good news is that ecclesiastical hierarchies are becoming aware that depression is fairly common among pastors and that seeking help when lost in the valley is a sign of spiritual maturity, not weakness.
How can a pastor take responsibility for the cure of souls in the parish while neglecting the cure of his own?
In the Wesleyan tradition, we acknowledge that grace comes to us through many channels: worship, study, fellowship, sacraments -- the list goes on.
Occasionally, the Holy Spirit -- that interrupter of our complacency -- acquaints us with yet another stream flowing from the river of life, one we’d not considered before. Therapy can be the refreshment that strengthens us for the trek out of the valley and back into the light. It is a means of grace, even when its practitioners stand outside our own faith tradition.
My psychiatrist was a Dutch Buddhist, professionally brilliant but unaware she was giving me manna for a blessed journey. Didn’t matter -- the Spirit was in charge. Grace comes through many channels and speaks many dialects. Thanks be to God.