Depression and the Mind of Christ

shutterstock_83301658I dislike the word “depression.” It doesn’t evoke the state of mind it signifies. I especially dislike the phrase “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” often used for the kind of depression that strikes in winter.

But we make do with the words we have – especially those of us who must periodically explain why we find Advent to be a difficult time of year.

Even with these psychological terms at hand, I find depression hard to discuss – not because it’s too personal, but because it makes so little sense. Seasonal depression, in particular, is a mystery to me: a sort of black-box, a brute fact I can’t peer into.

But I don’t necessarily need to understand depression. There’s a Buddhist saying I like, in this regard: When you’re wounded by an arrow, don’t waste time wondering who shot it. Just deal with the wound. Be practical, in other words: change your thoughts, your behaviors, your perspective.

Good advice, as far as it goes. Even then, however, relief is not guaranteed. Sometimes there is no way out – or rather, “the way out is through.”

I’m not qualified to offer psychological advice on finding relief from depression. You’ll have to look elsewhere for that – and if you need to, you should. What I can offer are my thoughts on finding God in the midst of mental suffering.

Grace is not an antidepressant or a painkiller. But God’s presence transfigures our pain, and reveals its ultimate meaning. It is never easy, but always possible, to find God in suffering. We can begin by examining a basic duality within ourselves.

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Faith and experience tell me that I am, in a sense, two different people. There is the person God intends me to be; and there is person I make myself into, when I fail to cooperate with grace.

St. Paul speaks of this split in terms of the New Man and the Old Man, or the “spiritual man” and the “natural man.” Thomas Merton uses the terms “Real Self” and “False Self” for the same reality – because the self I construct on my own, apart from God, is ultimately hollow and deceptive.

Since we are speaking about psychological matters, we can consider this same duality in terms of the “Big Mind” and the “Small Mind.” Both of these minds can suffer the Cross of depression – but with quite different results.

What I mean by the Big Mind, is what St. Paul means when he says: “We have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor. 2:16). And likewise, when he says: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:5)

This mind judges with wisdom, seeing things as they are rather than projecting desires onto them. The Mind of Christ is joined to God, awake to the present moment, and attuned to other people. This is its “bigness.”

But the “Small Mind” corresponds to what the apostle says of the unspiritual man. He is closed off from the life of the Holy Spirit, trapped instead in his own desires and aims. This also puts him at a distance from others and the life around him. Hence, the “smallness” of this mind.

Experience confirms this divide in us. There is the self-centered “me” who seeks comfort and pleasure, living for himself. He alternates – ironically – between ignoring God and other people one moment, and lamenting his apparent (though only apparent) state of isolation a minute later.

Depression is a disaster for the Small Mind. Comfort and pleasure stop being comfortable and pleasant. Doing what I want isn’t satisfying. My focus is turned inward, but I don’t like what I see. The Small Mind loses its normal satisfactions, but has nothing else to feed on.

Yet this Small Mind is not the only mind in me. “We have the mind of Christ” – the Big Mind, conferred by God through baptism and the other sacraments.

The Big Mind is not self-absorbed or self-centered. It is centered on God, and effortlessly united with him in Christ. This mind forgets itself before the reality of God’s presence; its own desires are eclipsed by the reality of God’s will in the present moment.

This mind is clear and calm, even in the midst of suffering. It does not make irrational choices out of pride or fear. The stresses and labors of life cannot sever its union with God, which it possesses with no effort – for it is Christ’s own mind, given to us.

In the Big Mind, our self-consciousness gives way to “Big Awareness”: consciousness of God, other people, and the present moment. C.S. Lewis summed up this mode of consciousness well, when he taught that the best response to God’s presence was “to forget about yourself altogether.”

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Some people assume the Mind of Christ cannot suffer depression – but this is not true. Our Lord was “a man of sorrows,” bearing grief in solidarity with us. Union with God is not an anesthetic: indeed, the Big Mind – our Christ Mind – is often awakened and developed through suffering.

The point is not to escape pain, but to go through it with wisdom, love, and the awareness of God. The Big Mind, joined with God and centered on him, can do this in a way our ordinary Small Mind cannot.

Depression can wipe out comfort, pleasure, my sense of accomplishment, my self-satisfaction. If my life is built on the sand-foundation of those things, I may be swept away with them. But depression can’t overcome our true foundation.

I may feel far from God, but God is close to us; and in the state of grace, I am already one with him in Christ. If God’s will seems elusive, his providence means I can find it in each moment’s duty. And when I dare to forget myself altogether, God makes himself felt, in the very freedom of my doing so.

These are not abstractions. They are realities we can experience, if we are willing to pray, and to live with an awakened and watchful spirit.

Suffering tends to prune away complicated prayer methods – leaving what is simple, and often best. Some of the Desert Fathers would repeat a single phrase: “Jesus, help me.” “God, come to my assistance.” But they did so with patience and perseverance.

In the tradition of Eastern Christian monasticism, I have learned to set aside thoughts, and let them be replaced with prayer: such as the slow, word-by-word repetition of the “Our Father”; the invocation of the Name of Jesus; or simply a wordless silence, acknowledging the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Depression has taught me a lot about prayer. But prayer is not a cure for depression: it is a cure for illusion. Prayer dispels our illusion of separation from God, and removes the impediments that can turn that illusion into a kind of reality.

Suffering is inevitable, and depression rarely has a quick fix. But it is always possible to pray, to forget ourselves, and to attend to the present moment.

Then we can enter effortlessly into the presence of God, who is already with us. We can recall our identity in Christ – who unites us with God, and gives us his own mind.

It is not easy to set aside the self-centered Small Mind, and put on the Mind of Christ. Yet God makes it possible. If we turn to him, we have his promise: even in our suffering, “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).

image: Shutterstock

Benjamin Mann

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Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former journalist, and incurable philosopher. He is preparing to enter monastic life at Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz, Wisconsin.

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  • Antonia

    Thank you, Benjamin. You have no idea of how much your article resonated with me. I’m crying because you have newly revealed the love of God which passes understanding. I’m a sinner – as we all are – yet He loves us. It’s so humbling.

  • I’m with HIM

    To be aware of this world’s reality is indeed depressing. It’s Advent, rejoice.

  • Teresa Moore

    Yes, Benjamin thank you too as you have helped me greatly to-day.
    I can now truly embrace my sorrow instead of struggling with it and fighting it and trying for many many years to understand it.
    I will embrace the simplicity of prayer as it is really all I can do instead of feeling guilty for not being able to do more.
    I will accept it as my Crown of Thorns and move forward slowly but surely one day at a time.
    Thank you again and may God bless you abundantly. You will have helped each and every person who suffers from depression by this most eye opening article.

  • Elyse Olson

    With God’s Grace I can endure. That is what He promised.

  • anne

    “small-minded, unspiritual, and self-centered”. I find this article truly insulting. I have had clinical depression for over 20 years. Thank you Mr. Mann.

  • Lee

    Dear Anne,
    I am sorry that you have had to deal with clinical depression, I have had my own feelings of depression from time to time, and have found that asking for the Holy Spirit to help me through has helped me to, “harden not my heart”, and move forward with new hope.Suffering is that thing in our lives we never have to endure alone.

  • Guest

    I completely understand where you are coming from in turning towards the Holy Spirit for help, but I feel for Anne. Sometime depression is a chemical, uncontrolled issue. There is a difference between feeling “down” and “unmotivated” and being clinically depressed. It’s not a matter of finding the right frame of mind. And it can be dangerous to assume that everyone can “mentally” pull themselves from depression through prayer. Sometimes people need external help, sometimes even in the way of medication. It does not mean they are not spiritual or Christ-focused. And it does not mean they are weak. I would think that a Christian would have more compassionate understanding.
    So sorry, Anne, for your suffering.

  • Ted Hewitt Ofs

    All Christians are called to discern, all are called to struggle, such is the Way of the Cross. I like the article’s use of the term, Big Mind and Small Mind. I can relate to it. With deep contemplative prayer, one can transcend the cares of this world and reach out towards heaven. But so very much more often we humans with our feet in the mud, are more aware of the pleasant and unpleasant temporalities of life and they overwhelm our awareness.

    Not being a monk, I live in the world of temporalities. This isn’t all bad either. Look to the Sermon on the Mount to understand that Christ himself instructed us to take care of each other in the here and now. He wants us to be fully human in the flesh, and fully god-like in the spirit.

    Depression seems most common when the spirit-side of us, the Big Mind, is obscured and our flesh-side, or Little Mind is in pain. During this time it is most tempting to seek to relieve that pain through whatever means possible. Prayer is hard. Patience is hard. It is a Dark Night for both body and soul. If one can persevere, dawn is beautiful indeed. But during the Dark Night, dawn can seem very far off, and so can God.

    Again, not being a monk, I see this as an opportunity to allow Charity to happen. We are often thinking of Charity as something we do. But it’s not. Charity is something God does through us. We like to think of Charity as pouring out of us, but it is God pouring through us. And sometimes, we need to allow ourselves to be the object of Charity – to allow God to pour through others.

    The is a story told to me by the late Fr. Basil. He grew tired of his middle class life-style and hoped to “suffer more for Christ.” So he transferred for a time to a Leper Colony. This was almost more than he could handle. The Lepers would allow the nuns to wash them, but they refused to allow him, a priest, to do so because they would not wish to profane sacred hands. This frustrated him, but he accepted their will on it. Instead he tried to comfort them and talk with them, but instead he found that they comforted him and made him better understand and respect his place as a priest. But also they taught him something about the Divine Economy that he never saw in his middle class state. One leper one day confided in Fr. Basil that he thanked God daily for his leprosy. Fr. Basil was aghast at the thought, but the Leper explained.

    “Every day I sit at the bus stop, with my boll, and I accept alms. Every day, people pause, forget themselves for a moment and take pity on me, and drop a few coins in my boll. For this, I know that God will reward them a hundred times a hundred times. For this I am truly thankful.”

    May we all be truly thankful.

  • Lee

    I agree,I did not mean to come across as not compassionate.
    No matter who, where, why or when, do we not all need the Holy Spirit in our lives or have I misunderstood the purpose of this article?

  • I’m with HIM

    Hi Anne,
    The illness, depression, is truly not understood by most of the people. Education is good. The more it is talked about, the more informed people will become. Clinical depression is not something a person can: “Snap out of it”. That’s the part people just don’t get. They don’t know the person has difficulties with memory, can’t concentrate, can’t focus, etc., and as each person is different, each case is different.

    Thank you, God, for those who specialize in the care of clinical depression. Seeking God is an answer, Anne, one can not do it without HIM. The life God gave you really is good enough for HIM, is it not for you? Choose to see through and with the heart. Trust.

    I do not sense it was Mr. Mann’s intention to hurt anyone when he chose the words he did. With all of God’s Love, think about that. Do a faith check, how much do you really believe in God’s sovereignty and providence? I mean, you are reading this column. And yes, it may very well be painful and quite humiliating. But remember, humility is good for the soul – I love that.

    Anne, read through the article again with every ounce of Love you have, through God’s eyes, HE who loves us all the same. You are in my prayers.

  • Friend

    I suffered with overwhelming depression for more than one year as a result of mis-medication. It was by far the worst experience of my life. An earlier heart attack was as nothing compared to this horror. During this year I was able to attend a daily traditional Catholic mass which kept me afloat during the catastrophic days of emotional pain. I existed on the couch. I fortunately, abruptly, stopped all medication and was cured in less than a week of this mental monster. The doctor’s prescriptions were killing me! Check your medications for their possible harmful effects, find a leading psychiatrist and ask God to heal you. I am convinced that many people, with God’s help, can find relief if not a cure of this awful condition. I’ll pray for you.

  • pnyikos

    “Some people assume the Mind of Christ cannot suffer depression – but
    this is not true. Our Lord was “a man of sorrows,” bearing grief in
    solidarity with us.”

    Yes, his weeping over Lazarus comes to mind. Another kind of depression seems to be behind comments like “But when the Son of Man returns, will he find any faith left on earth?”

  • Brian

    Hi Benjamin,
    Thank you very much for your most thoughtful and loving article—countless people will benefit. Best to you as you enter monastic life, and please continue to write. God Bless and Merry Christmas,
    Brian

  • Jane Ellen Hautanen

    I found this insulting too, Anne ):

  • S.

    Excellent article, Mr. Mann. I suspect this advice is also applicable to other neurological and psychological problems. Thanks for writing it.

  • paul giroux

    I would like to agree…but being afflicted with SAD…ADHD…and major depression, including PTSD, I find it extremely difficult to look upward.If anyone can offer advise…I welcome it. My email address is below.
    Thanks

  • John.J.C.Herbert

    Praise God!

  • transformyournow

    Depression runs in my family. I offer it daily to Christ as my gift. My value is affected each day by the amount of depression I experience. My ‘False Self’ or the ‘small mind’ will not be my ruler. It is my acceptance of my daily offering of my depression, sense of loss, grief, lack of value, what ever – that is my true gift. That I know my burdens are welcomed by my Savior is in itself a grace. Whether or not I choose to use that act of humility and courage to give these up, is where the work is done. So, for those with clinical and long term depression, know that with a daily, and sometimes frequent daily prayers are needed to just get through the moment. It is a constant reminder that we are flawed, and truly do need salvation. It is for us to give it up and release it, a reason to stay in ‘prayer unceasing’, a moment to moment conscious choice for alertness of Christ within us. My contemplative prayer practices and inner choices are my tools. Thank you for your article – it has touched many already!

  • Adrian Johnson

    Depression–depressive mood disorder — does not mean feelng “sad” physically; physically one usually “feels” weary or irritable or insomniac. Emotionally, one feels nothing–neither pleasure nor grief. One sleepwalks through one’s day, lacking motivation and any energy to even to care, and this despite intellectually understanding very well what the problem is.

    Depression is one of the conditions where understanding the problem is OF NO HELP in correcting it (e.g., I can’t motivate myself to exercise though I know I should.) . The causes may be biochemical, hereditary, environment, triggered by life events, or even of diabolical origin — or any combination thereof. I have spent a long time in the grey area where depression segues into the vice of “accedia”. Practically, speaking clinging to faith, even when, “zombie-like” you cannot pray as you used to, is itself a prayer.

    Believing in Hope even when you do not feel hopeful is itself a prayer. And longing to do God’s will, even when you feel unable to, is itself Love. The longing to pray is itself prayer, and your own endurance, resisting temptations to suicide, is each day a step closer to deliverance from the demon of depression. Trust in God may feel like slogging in darkness through mollasses, yet somehow knowing that God will not test you beyond your ability to endure, and will deliver you eventually. To a person of faith this is “the dark night of the soul” but it purifies like purgatory on earth; and in the next life we will see that suffering it will gain us an unbelievable measure of eternal Glory. Faith Hope and Love would not be virtues if they were EASY, especially over a long haul which seems like a life sentence.

  • Claire Anderson

    Love this article. It sums up exactly how I’m feeling at the minute – torn between two minds. I think I knew this subconsciously but this brilliant writing confirms it for me and I’m comforted to know that others actually feel like me. Thanks!

  • Jeannie

    You have described exactly how I feel. Without prayer and trust in God, I would not be alive now.

  • cyw

    Anne, I think you have misunderstood what Mann is trying to convey. Your pseudo-quote is revealing: Mann never said “small-minded”. “Small-minded” is an adjective, a common insult. “Small mind” — what Mann actually wrote — is a noun. It describes one part of our personality, something we all have. For a Christian, we all have a part that is inward-focused rather than God-focused, a byproduct of original sin. The point of the article is to remind us of our other, better part. There is no insult here.

    Though this article uses completely different terminology, it covers the major components of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) that is commonly used to treat depression. ACT directs patients to defuse/disconnect from the inward self-absorbed focus of our thoughts (the small mind), be present and observant, and act according to our values (the big mind). It does not try to eliminate unhappy thoughts, but trains people to thrive in spite of present suffering.

    Such discussion often have problems with terminology. If “small mind” causes some reaction, the “acceptance” part of ACT is also a misleading term. What I would recommend is not to get too hung up over the terminology used and try to understand the real substance of the article.

  • Jeni

    Suffering tends to prune away complicated prayer methods – leaving what is simple, and often best.

    So true!! When I was at my lowest moments, like not capable of distraction and unable to laugh or smile, I knew I was with Jesus and His mother at the foot of the cross. I couldn’t put thoughts together to pray but I knew God knew. Simple indeed.

  • Mary Pineda

    The other day I made a comment regarding serious depression and the ability to process your article. I have done some thinking about the whole of what you have to say. I think my stumbling block comes from the use of depression as the spring board for the rest of your article. I think perhaps you are mixing up depression with the condition called ‘Acedia’, sort of an emotional or spiritual laziness for want of a better description.

  • Teresa

    I think you misunderstood him. What he’s saying is that the “small mind” is a part of us that is unspiritual and self-centered, and that depression destroys this part of us. But we have another part of us, the “big mind,” that can survive depression because of its connection with God. He’s not saying that depressed people are small-minded, unspiritual, or self-centered any more than non-depressed people–just that depression can make obvious how shallow it is to live life only at that level.

  • Danette

    I’m glad to have read this, Ben. I appreciate what you have to say about prayer in the midst of depression. One thing that I struggle with is understanding how to pray FOR someone who is fighting depression. I wonder what you might say about that?

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