A few weeks back, I surveyed my subscribers to ask what topics you would like to me address. I received this response from a woman I’ll call “Miriam” —
Maybe could you write about tips for maintaining a prayer life and connection with God in the midst of a severe depression when all spiritual consciousness feels absent and motivation is non-existent due to the disorder.
Oh my, Miriam, we’ve been to some of the same miserable places. I suspect many of you reading this have as well. They say misery loves company. I say there is no better company for misery than a fellowship of faith.
I’m typically not one to give advice, or tips. But I can share some stories from my experience and the experience of others I’ve known that might be an encouragement. When we have fallen into a pit of despair, sometimes it helps to know we are not alone. It is not as if God has abandoned us. We are not the most wicked person in the world, the sole sinner alone worthy of such punishment. Suffering such as depression is part of life for those of us with disordered brain chemistry. Though it feels like God has turned his back on us, nothing can be further from the truth.
God’s Word is full of this promised presence. One thing I’ve done when I find myself unable to rise out of bed, is to put on an audio of Scripture (you can find nearly any translation read by the marvelous Max McLean at: biblegateway.com). Even when my depressed mind is unable to concentrate on the meaning of the words to apply it, there is something about the Word read that is uplifting.
There have been times in my darkest depression when it is all I can do to breathe, much less pray. We toss and turn, unable to shape prayers into words. Then,
… the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. (Romans 8:26)
God does not expect us to be articulate in our prayers. Just honest. And if we honestly find it next to impossible to breathe, our very gasp becomes our prayer. If we can’t form a coherent thought, we lift up to God our scattered images and trust the Spirit will shape them in such a way that they will be holy and pleasing.
One aspect of having bipolar is my exasperation over consistency. Nowhere is this more evident than in my spiritual life. When I am going through mania, it can feel like I am so close to God I can whisper in his ear. I hear voices and see visions that seem to be divine revelation. But ultimately, I come crashing down and realize these were only delusions. I question my capacity to carry on a relationship with God at all. This often sends me into a depression in which I perceive God as cold and distant.
How can I pray when it seems God isn’t listening?
The truth is, Miriam, there are times in our walk of faith where we don’t pray. Or not in the way we usually think of prayer. We stop talking to God and listening for God’s response. But God keeps listening to us and responding in love. Even when it doesn’t feel like it. When our faith seems feeble, the faith of Christ steps in and is our strength.
When I first left pastoral ministry, I lost my will to pray. I felt lost. I was desperate for direction. My journals are filled with advice from countless teachers from a wide variety of faith traditions. I was looking for something that would shine a laser on the sin within me that was causing my dysfunction so I could surgically remove it. But nothing helped.
I thought it might help if I served persons with problems greater than my own, so I volunteered at a local VA. Every Wednesday, I wheeled a man, Jim, to Mass and back. Jim was a diabetic, but would always ask me sneak in the gift shop to buy a Snickers for him and M&Ms for me. “Hell,” he would say, “I’m 95. What is it going to do? Kill me?”
As I wheeled Jim down the hallways, nearly every staff member would pause as he smiled and called them by name, asking them someone personal. Commenting on a haircut. Lost weight. A bright blouse.
My Wednesday drives home from the VA were often peaks in my week. The flowing Finger Lake out my passenger window reminded me that nothing in life remains stagnant. There is a Light no darkness can overcome. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of this. I caught a spark of this in Jim. It didn’t ignite a flame immediately. Instead, it smoldered for some years. But now, I see that at this time when I couldn’t pray, Jim was praying for me. And his prayers for me kept me going until I could once again pray myself.