JESUS WEPT: WHEN FAITH AND DEPRESSION MEET
Barbara Cawthorne Crafton
(Brett Best, 2018)
The BOTTOM LINE
Jesus Wept combines personal experiences (the author’s and others’) with thoughtful analysis and extraordinary wordsmithing to create a volume that gives expression to feelings associated with depression.
How did She do It?
The preface begins precisely where it ought to begin; attempting to define the set of experiences typically understood/diagnosed as “depression.” I appreciated Crafton’s approach; she explored meanings while insisting that the experience is so different from person to person that it must be understood in manifold ways. To help the reader, I’ve kept a list of symptoms, definitions, or descriptions below.
Chapter 1 – Jesus Wept
As I am also a pastor who has suffered from depression, this chapter had extra force. For example, her line, “I never would have killed myself, but I would have seen to it that the church killed me” (p. 12) may not be immediately understandable to a lay reader, but my heart knew it instantly.
Service occupations (pastors, social workers, counselors) can give pretext for burying depression but serving others will not solve the problem. Crafton explores the seductive lies of depression, telling the sufferer that covering up their true self, attempting to hide the cloying struggle is safer than transparency. One’s own body, however, is not deceived and ill health will betray an ill spirit. External manipulations and trivia won’t address spiritual problems and/or chemical imbalances.
How’s this for an opening salvo? “At first, I didn’t know I was depressed. I thought I was just religious.” (p. 1)
Chapter Two – A Learning Experience
Finding meaning in suffering is a subject where a person’s theological convictions tend to rise to the surface rather quickly. To illustrate, let’s consider a couple extremities of focus. If your focus is extremely God-centered, your first reflections on experiences will be, “What is God doing here? What’s His message to me?” If your focus is extremely human-centered, your reflections will tend toward, “What’s going on here? What caused this? What can I learn from this?”
Crafton tends to the latter. She tends to suspect God-centered answers to personal experiences as signs of self-centeredness. Yet she does not want to discount Providence. This is what she calls “a more nuanced view of God.” (p. 17) In my experience, “nuanced” is especially a virtue among those who have theological views on the left – a more human-centered position. This means that depression is not necessarily an exercise of Providence, it can occur as a result of randomness, an impersonal force that is indifferent to will and has meaning only when it is interpreted in hindsight.
As a theologian, it is a horror to me to say that God’s will and randomness occur side-by-side as causational events. There’s nothing biblical in that thought, nor is there anything comforting. If stuff “just happens” then there is no point to a search for meaning; all is merely subjective interpretation. Admittedly, a problem with pain as a God-given teaching device arises in situations where pain is chronic or cyclical. Who needs to learn that much or can learn that much? We can see several different divine purposes in pain and suffering but one needs a more God-centered predisposition (aka “faith”) to see them.
This chapter is a hash of things Crafton has learned or surmised by use of hindsight. There are some gems here, but her thoughts are not presented systematically or with any other organization other than “stream of consciousness.” Ironically, in her search to avoid anthropomorphism, she becomes more anthrocentric.
Chapter Three – I Just Don’t Feel Anything
As a body goes into shock or even into a coma as a response to some kind of physical trauma, it may be that a psychic/spiritual numbness occurs as a response to trauma to the soul. If there is a correlation, just as shock and coma can be ultimately good for the body, depression may help preserve the soul.
That feels like a stretch, but it may be an insight that helps put depression in a therapeutic light; it is the soul’s response to turn inward and marshal inner resources to come back from trauma. Would this be a different experience than the kind of depression that has no discernable cause? Who would be qualified to make such a distinction? The therapist stands too far away to have adequate knowledge and the client too close to permit objective knowledge.
A personal observation about depression is that I have felt more sensitive and aware while depressed. It’s easy to think about my happier self as being blissful because of my ignorance. That’s one aspect of the lack of objectivity a person can have while amidst of a depression. While depressed, I have no reason to revel in my heightened awareness and intelligence, but I may believe I do. To this notion, Crafton wrote, “The fear that easing the pain of depression will somehow deprive us of a necessary important spiritual season in our lives is not particularly well-founded.” (p. 34)
I wonder how much of a role personality plays in depression. Are some personalities so maudlin that it would be difficult to draw a line between normal function and depression? Is personality ever mistaken for depression? Is it possible people are treated for depression when their affect is normal for them? Are certain personality types more likely to suffer depression?
“What if some depression has a healing, consolidating mission in the life of the one to whom it comes?” (p. 32, emphasis hers)
“Maybe the numbness of clinical depression is a splint, sometimes. Maybe it does keep us still for a time, when stillness is exactly what we need. But only for a season. Nobody needs a lifetime of catatonia.” (p. 35, emphasis hers)
Chapter Four – Trouble in Paradise
This chapter merely introduces a topic that would be a deep well from which much discussion could be made: how religion helps and/or hinders recovery from depression. (Not coincidentally, one’s answer would also reveal a lot about one’s base theological convictions.) I don’t care for Crafton’s use of the word “mythology” as a synonym for “theology” or “faith.” This is a failing common to those on the left (the human-centered theologians) and it may sound rational to those sets of ears, but to mine it’s calling truth “falsehood.” Also, false guilt is not a part of our faith (read 2 Corinthians 7:10 for the definitive word on guilt).
“Many people resist turning to their communities of faith with the truth about themselves, for fear that understanding and support will not be forthcoming. Such self-censorship where depression is concerned arises from the fear of rejection by the church, as much as from the fact of it: some people are already so convinced that their condition is shameful that they don’t even apply.” (p. 40) To be fair, no one can help a person who will either refuse to acknowledge a problem or refused to acknowledge a solution. Still, Crafton’s critique is generally true. As usual, the Church struggles to keep pace with the culture’s level of information and nuanced response.
“But healing each case of depression is small and slow, the delicate work of the soul’s healing, partnering with the mystery of brain chemistry and the nourishing experience of being heard and understood.” (p. 45, emphasis hers)
Chapter Five – Charged with The Care of Souls
As you might guess from the title, this chapter was written for members of the clergy. Others will be left to appropriate meaning by example. After all, there are “workaholics” in all professions. One difference between clergy and laity is that clergypersons don’t have co-workers/peers/accomplices in the workplace. Another difference is that clergypersons are convinced that role-playing is vital to success or at least contributes to job security.
“We know that those charged with the care of souls can do a lot of damage, that if we don’t take care of ourselves in the right way, we’ll take care of ourselves in the wrong way.” (p. 52)
Chapter Six – The Defendant as Prosecutor
Crafton’s point in this chapter is that pride creates shame and shame keeps us from getting the help we need to emerge from depression. Pride might be an over-inflated ego, shame an under-inflated one. In both cases, it can be argued, they are contributing causes to making depression last longer than need be.
This is one of the more personal chapters in the book where the author details injury, depression, and ways her spiritual life attempted to define her experiences. It references the fact that the client is too close to have objectivity in making decisions about treatment, particularly medications. Crafton is unflinchingly candid here: “I habitually entertain a scathing attitude toward my own sins and sorrows that I would never hold toward anyone else’s.” (p. 66)
Chapter Seven – This is My Last Hope
This chapter details the benefits of Electro-convulsive Therapy (ECT), how depression finds its azimuth in Holy Week, and her belief that depression can be cyclical. (In the case of cyclical depression, the strategy is to cease striving for a cure and simply wait the cycle out.) Obviously, covering this range of subjects in a single chapter requires a singular focus or resorts to jumping around. Crafton has done the latter. The thoughts here follow a stream of consciousness, not a path of crafted reasoning. In a way, this is expressive of post-modernism, where narrative trumps analysis and knowing anything for certain is an illusion caused by a desire to generalize personal preferences. This chapter is among the least helpful.
Chapter Eight – Sorrowful Mysteries
We like to think that for the joy set before us, we could endure even the slums of Calcutta. Jesus endured the cross on that very basis. This chapter deals with the shocking truth that Mother Theresa endured the slums of Calcutta without joy of any kind as a motive. This truth – from her own journals – challenges our paradigm of what motivates service.
Crafton suggests Mother Theresa was unaware of depression as a biochemical condition. As this cause of depression and its treatment was in its infancy in her lifetime, she may have been unaware of its potential to elevate her gloomy affect and the science may have been inadequate to the task. Apparently no one suggested it to her and she may have rejected it as a way of paying too much heed to herself.
In any event, maybe the joylessness of her psyche helped her to endure ministry to those most brutally oppressed by poverty. It may have been a coping mechanism. How often do we see people who accomplish historic things having done so by means of great sacrifice, singular focus, and a commitment that shuts out all other light? We ordinary folk divide ourselves among manifold lesser things. Perhaps we lack the focus and the single-mindedness that Mother Theresa displayed.
As I stated earlier, the line between the disease and personality is not clear to me. How does one’s character figure into the onset of depression?
Reflecting on this chapter theologically, who’s to say Mother Theresa did not live her life exactly as God intended? Where are we promised happiness in this life? Don’t the achievements vindicate her attitude? Are we troubled by Mother Theresa’s depression because we want to make a virtue of happiness and a vice of sorrow? Scripture confirms God is present in both.
It’s likely that the most disquieting thing about these post-mortem revelations about Mother Theresa is how thoroughly she fooled us. The smile on her face feels like a lie. I wonder if she had chosen to be more transparent that well-intended folk might have got in her way. Might she have avoided talking about it for that reason?
Chapter Nine – The Dark Night
Here Crafton compares the Christian mystic concept of “the Dark Night of the Soul,” with our modern paradigm of depression and universal experience of sorrow. She finds inadequate difference to merit a distinction between the terms, except that depression might respond to pharmaceuticals where a spiritual experience might not.
“If sorrow is about loss, and depression is about bitter despair, the Dark Night is about mystery – its obscurity cloaks all meaning, so that none of it is clearly visible. You can’t find your familiar landmarks.” (p. 102)
“It might not be too much to say that a depressed person of faith almost always experiences a dark night of the soul as well, whatever means of healing he or she eventually finds: that the hopelessness is the illness, and the mystery whose shape gradually emerges as dawn breaks is the dark night, the eventual blessing of meaning’s return.” (p. 104)
Chapter Ten – Words Fail Me
This chapter is both the most organized and the most off-putting chapter in the book. Based on a synchretistic/universalistic theology (the downfall of the “New Age”), Crafton offers “centering prayer” as an alternative to traditional prayer. For the folks who have no words, she offers a way to pray that is not prayer and requires no words. It does matter which God people believe in; a vaguely-defined “spirituality” is not going to help anyone. Additionally, spirituality is a means, not an end. Spirituality is a means to knowing God and maturing.
To call this practice prayer violates the definition of the word. Her “centering prayer” calls for no communication with God, no reflection on God or self. It is an emptying exercise designed to achieve – relaxation?
Her tone is more of an instructor, less of the guide that she has been in the previous chapters. Its almost as if this is the one thing for which she argues dogmatically. If she wants people to meditate, she should say so and she should call it meditation instead of mislabeling it as prayer. I believe prayer not anchored in Scripture and good theology is not a spiritual exercise or a maturing experience. It is not prayer, it is something else, something less.
Chapter Ten – Wanting to Die
While she expresses herself artfully in this chapter, there is very little in the way of new information. A book on depression would be incomplete without some mention of suicide, but Crafton’s treatment of the subject is neither novel or particularly helpful. I don’t recall her expressing suicidal thoughts elsewhere in the book, nor does she use the idiom of depression as a disease much outside of this chapter. That said, the chapter is adequate to the author’s purpose. More clinical and more complete information is easily available elsewhere.
“Religious people who consider suicide encounter an immediate obstacle: centuries of church teaching which have held that suicide is a mortal sin. It combines murder with despair, a perfect storm.” (p. 130)
“It is counterintuitive to those who are not suicidal, but death feels to the sufferer like a measure of freedom in an otherwise imprisoned life, a light at the end of an interminable tunnel.” (p. 133)
Chapter Twelve – The Family Disease
This final chapter is written to help families deal with their depressed members. It became a foray into philosophy and social commentary on family life. I don’t have an opinion on the depth of insight or accuracy of Crafton’s words her, but I admire the way she put them together. As her discourse became more general, it became less helpful. As an ending to a chapter, Crafton’s final words fell flat. As an ending to an entire book, it’s a sad contrast to the craftsmanship that preceded it. I’d suggest writing an epilogue.
“Living with someone with any mental illness can be hard work, and I can’t think of any reason other than misplaced politeness to pretend that it is not.” (p. 143)
“The family is the crucible of all things human. We pour every need and longing we have into the leaky vessels with whom we live. They can’t hold it all of course: people are insufficient as objects of utter dependence, however much they may want to oblige.” (pp. 144-145)
“This is the key: the fact of our being is sufficient cause for God’s celebration. We need look no further for validation.” (p. 155)
An Exhaustive Definition of Depression
…different from sadness or sorrow, temporary conditions that everyone experiences. Depression feels similarly but has different quality (depth) and quantity (duration).
…not merely circumstantial, though events can trigger it.
…not something everyone experiences.
…a sapping of spiritual strength and joy.
…living in grayscale, not color.
…an inability to honor one’s successes or claim one’s blessings.
…a profound mistrust of self.
…out of step with the world’s way of living.
…a self-inflicted or at least self-aggravated wound.
…more involved with anxiety and worry than with serenity and delight.
…an individual experience.
…not knowing things can be any different than they are.
…a result of prolonged, unresolved stress.
…a distrust of hope, reduced hope, a lack of hope.
…a desire to be dead (whether suicide is attempted). Many persons think a lot about the afterlife, regardless of their religiosity. Others are less heedful, seeking a more immediate fix: an experience of resolution and the silence it brings.
…a loss of the experiences of beauty and wonder.
…reliance on duty to motivate one’s self rather than devotion.
…anger. (Benignly, this can be impatience with typical or trivial inconveniences. More malignancy seems less common as it takes passion and energy to be angry in that way.)
…occasionally over-performing in public things (like work) while routinely under-performing in private things (especially self-care).
…uncertainty over one’s motives and perceptions with the result of a delay in getting care and/or going public with one’s state of being.
…a lack of vision.
…progressive (as depression episodes recur, they can come back with greater intensity).
…a perverse preference for stasis.
…an inability to feel pleasure or pain to the usual degree.
…a soul quietly starving.
…”hard to hold in your hand, hard to describe, and hard to delineate.” (p. 83)
At the End of it All
This book is useful as a primer on depression from a Christian point of view. It handily puts into good words the feelings that have been so hard for so many of us to describe. It is not technical reading; just the opposite. It is some preliminary thoughts that have been wrung from difficult experience.
As for a cure to depression, Crafton offers two simple things:
“1. From others, a quiet and respectful presence, a willingness to be beside the one who suffers.
“2. From you, a gentle, abiding tenderness toward your own battered self while it gropes its way toward healing and the restoration of meaning and love.” (p. 106)