Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Retreat House

What a glum month February is! (I say this even though we have family birthdays in February.) Winter can have its last and most enveloping gasp in February. The dark nights, the cold, the flu all collude to drag the most cheerful soul down. I am (friends and family tell me) a sickeningly cheerful person – my enthusiasm does grate on some! Nevertheless, February is a time of depressing associations for me and I can sometimes touch the edge of what many other people experience as the norm. Gonville French-Bayter wrote a short pamphlet (available through SLG Press, Fairacres, Oxford) titled Encountering Depression which I offer as help to people who suffer from depression. I know enough to be aware that there are no glib shortcuts through dark times. What Fr French-Bayter makes clear is that the Lord is present in the darkness.

Modern medication does have wonderful effects in relieving the symptoms of depression and anxiety, but all those involved in the care of sufferers agree that it is not sufficient by itself. Spiritual direction is the oldest form of counselling and cognitive behaviour therapy, and thus it is that accompanying individuals through the underlying causes of depression and anxiety is part and parcel of the ministry. One of the first questions I would ask is ‘Have you seen your doctor?’ It is also true that spiritual disciplines and ministry will rarely suffice by themselves. The Holy Spirit does work through doctors too.

Everyone experiences downturns in emotional moods and energy. Here the medicine of the Gospel can bring healing. There are two spiritual disciplines that can help. The first is the discipline of thanksgiving; as the Eucharistic preface reminds us, ‘it is our duty and our joy, at all times and in all places to be thankful.’ Or, in the words of the chorus, ‘count your blessings one by one and you will be surprised what the Lord has done!’ The second is the review of conscience that can lead to confession. This is also a duty, but the ways of coming to confession and forgiveness are various. Your parish priest is there to help with this.

Some people may feel depressed, but to those closest to them and to colleagues they exhibit no symptoms of depression. In such a case, a person feels very able to work, to keep up relationships, feels physically fit, has no problems with sleeping or getting up in the morning, they are not unusually worried or anxious and yet they have a sense of heaviness and darkness of heart. Although it takes spiritual discernment to be certain in these instances, it is often the case that this is ‘desolation’ and not depression. It follows from this that desolation is a condition experienced by those who have an active and self-aware spiritual life.

Sometimes the Lord removes any spiritual or emotional comfort in prayer and thus by faith alone draws the will into another way of communion and cooperation with his will. Desolation can be a time of rich blessing although it will certainly not feel like it. It helps to talk with someone experienced in prayer about this. In any event, you are not alone: ‘the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day!’

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