Spiritual Cumulonimbus, Depression & Another Way to Pray

Because Britain is a relatively small island over which the jet stream constantly oscillates, the weather changes all the frigging time.

A soggy morning might turn into an absolutely heavenly afternoon, which could then give way to a twilight drizzle, only to be followed by a cloud-free starry night.

That’s just how it goes. Rain is a periodic companion.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the children’s book “Hello, Moon!” Since I moved to the UK, I’ve been contemplating writing a companion book to be called “Goodbye, Sun.”

One of the things I love about Brits, though, is that they just get on with it, regardless of what’s happening outside. For example, a couple of Saturdays ago it poured down all day long, but six hundred runners still showed up in the morning for a weekly community race at the local park, and the afternoon storming was no match for the swells of cheers coming from the football field across the street.

They may obsess about it, they may whine about it, they may talk on and on about how “in Britain, you can have four seasons in one day!” but rarely do they let the weather stop them from living their lives.

Let’s just say that my cultural response to meteorological drama is still quite un-British.

I remember one time when I was living in Chicago when I had a morning flight to catch, and I woke up to an absolutely miserable weather day. I walked with my bags through the rain to the subway, got drenched even with an umbrella, made it to the airport, made it to the gate, found out that the flight was overbooked and, of course, delayed due to weather, eventually boarded the plane and sat down wet, frustrated, fluctuating between a low pressure system of vague depression and a high pressure system of slight anxiety, worried about whatever I was worried about. I looked out of the plane window from my cramped middle seat only to be greeted by abject gloominess.

Finally we took off, hurtled down the runway into the sky, and immediately we were right into the thick of the clouds, layers and layers of them, and the windows were an unflinching grey, like a Brutalist cement wall. And then, a couple minutes into the flight, there was a flash and the wall was suddenly gone, replaced by radiant morning sun. We had broken through the top shelf of clouds, thousands of feet above the ground, and what had felt so oppressive when we were in it looked so beautiful when we were above it. If you’ve ever flown on a day like that, you know what I’m talking about.

As the sun’s brilliance filtered into my cramped middle-seat lack-of-space, I felt the morning’s emotional doldrums lift a bit, and I thought: Which of these two conditions is more true? The clouds or the sun? The quasi-depression or the relief from it?

There’s a biblical proverb: “Do not rely on your own insight” (Proverbs 3.5). I wonder if its point is not that your insight is unimportant or necessarily bad or sinful, but that it is always provisional. Your insight is necessarily incomplete. Because you are one person. Because I am one person.

So, which “reality” is more true? Is it cloudy or is it sunny? Is it both? Is it neither?

Depression & Spirituality

Anthony deMello, an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist who explored the contemplative resonance between the East and the West, wrote in Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality: “Before enlightenment, I used to be depressed; after enlightenment, I continue to be depressed. But there is a difference: I don’t identify with it anymore.”

(To any fellow Christians reading: please don’t skip over deMello’s wisdom simply because he uses a traditionally Buddhist metaphor. Either substitute in the Christian vocabulary word “salvation” or, even better, consider the places where the processes that the words refer to might meaningfully intersect. For example, what do you make of the Gospel according to John 1.9: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world”?)

As we undergo God, the stormy weather does not disappear. I think that’s basically what deMello is testifying to. As we deepen spiritually, we don’t completely stop feeling sad or anxious or depressed. We are not altogether freed from doubt or uncertainty or fear.

As we grow in faith, we begin to understand that these conditions are not only a part of life; they can also become a part of faith, particularly as we learn how to receive them and treat them when they arise.

Instead of (on one end of the emotional spectrum) hyper-analyzing and agonizing about them or (on the other end of the spectrum) ignoring and potentially repressing them, we can learn to notice these conditions, to name them, and then let them be, even let them do what they do. We can learn to stop resisting them: “Ah, there you are again, anxiety. I know you that show up from time to time. Not gonna lie, I’m not thrilled to see you, but since you’re here anyway, welcome, I guess.”

As we learn not to freak out when these emotional weather systems brew, we become less “run” by them, whether they’re with us for only an afternoon storm or they sock us in for a whole monsoon season. Very slowly, we begin to let go of the idol that “being spiritual” equals “being sunny.” We realize that, while still in our depression or anxiety or fear, we are becoming enlightened: we are being saved. Whatever the weather, we are being freed to live.

Another Way to Pray

I love nature — some Christian mystics refer to the creation as “the first Bible” — and so my former spiritual director gave me a natural image for prayer. She said to think of God as a great mountain, and you’re on the mountain, you’re on God, you’re with God, you’re rooted in God. Some days on the mountain it’s luminous and feels like a perfect day. But on other days the clouds roll in with their rain, wind, sleet and snow.

Prayer is simply the practice of remembering the mountain beneath your feet. And while not ignoring the rain (or the sun, for that matter, which is no more divine than the rain), learning to see it for what it is, which is just weather. Weather that is temporary. Weather that will come and go, and come again, and go again.

Don’t get me wrong: when crappy weather rolls in, it sucks. It really does. Depression is not to be romanticized: it’s frustrating, uncomfortable, and — in my past (and future?) experience and the current experience of many whom I love — often downright painful.

But in contemplative prayer, meditation, and conscious contact with God, we slowly receive more reliable insight than our solitary capacities allow: insight to perceive that the bad weather (or good weather) is not the mountain itself. And, since we are ourselves on the mountain, that the weather isn’t our truest reality either.

Whatever the forecast, our truest reality is the mountain itself.

As the old hymn sings: “Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, mount of God’s redeeming love.”

A Suggestion

To experiment with some different forms of prayer similar to the one described in this post, check out these resources on Centering Prayer. There are a couple of short videos and a detailed brochure about the method.

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