Wrestling with Depression

Jesus said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29)

The desert fathers understood that we each are tempted by or influenced by demons.  They also understood that sometimes “demons” are our own thoughts over which we lose control so that they come to dominate us.  Depression is certainly such a demon.  It can oppress us and take away from us hope and joy and love.  In the modern age, we also realize that sometimes depression is caused by chemical imbalances in our brains and bodies.   Knowing these things, we also have many weapons to fight the “demons” of depression.  For some, medical treatment, including the use of pharmaceuticals, can help in the fight against depression.  For some, counseling can help rid us of false ideas which run like a continuous tape through our minds.  The fog can be lifted as we understand  what is oppressing us is not real, but false ideas that we believe to be true.  For some, prayer along with reading scriptures and the Fathers, and receiving the sacraments, drives from us those demons which suck the life and hope from us.  For some, all methods are needed.  This is true because as humans we are spiritual and physical beings, we are psychosomatic beings.  Whatever affects us spiritually, also affects us mentally and physically.  What affects our physical being, lays hold of our minds and spirit.  What affects us mentally, touches our bodies and souls.  We are one being, and whatever affects one part of us affects our entire being.

We don’t need to see psychological problems, or treatments, as somehow being nonspiritual or unChristian.  Healing is a gift from God.  Christ used physical means to heal people.  Christ healed bodies, minds and souls.  Depression is not some kind of spiritual failure, but can be part of the spiritual warfare in which we are engaged, hopefully only occasionally, but sometimes daily.

St. Cassian wrote about the demon of depression:

It is the evil spirit that causes depression and from that we come to know the fruits of the evil spirit, which are discouragement, anger, impatience, hatred, contentiousness, despair and sluggishness in praying. So let us struggle with the demon of depression, who casts the soul into despair, and drive him away from our hearts.”

(in Holy Joy by Anthony Coniaris, pp 102-103)

 

Blessed is the Kingdom

“The first exclamation of the Divine Liturgy reveals the key to the entire celebration:

Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

With these words the celebrant announces the source and the goal of the divine service of the People of God, the very context and contents of the entire liturgical action. It is the Kingdom of God brought to the world by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and mystically reigning already in the faithful disciples of Christ by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

The Kingdom of God is eternal life in communion with God in loving obedience to his divine will. It is life in union with the Blessed Trinity; life lived toward the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. It is the life which Christ has given to men by his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification. It is the life to be lived already in this world by the People of God. To bless the Kingdom of God means to love it as one’s most precious possession. The response of the people to the proclamation of blessing by the priest is with the word Amen, which means so be it. This is the solemn affirmation that indeed the blessing of God’s Kingdom is fitting and proper. It is the official confirmation that this Kingdom is indeed the ‘pearl of great price’ for the faithful, which once having found it, they will love it and serve it and desire to have it forever (Lk 13.14).” (Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith: Worship, Vol. 2, pp 152-153)

The Gospel lesson of Luke 17:12-19 –

Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.

And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner? And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.

As God’s own children, we are to “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).  Yet, we often need to be reminded to thank family, friends, co-workers, those who serve us and those who love us.  “Thank you” does not automatically flow from the hearts of many Christians even when others are kind to them.  And, God who constantly showers us with gifts of life, love, the world, is often taken for granted and we do not have the constant thankful and grateful hearts which we should have for our Creator.

 “Parents always want their children to be happy, content, and thankful to them for all their work and sacrifice. So when they see their children in a bad mood and unthankful, they’re saddened. It’s the same with our Heavenly Father. He has given us everything, but we are unsatisfied and gloomy. Instead of thanksgiving and praising God for everything, we only express our thankfulness with our lips, and our hearts remain cold. Joy is thankfulness, and when we are joyful, that is the best expression of thanks we can offer the Lord, Who delivers us from sorrow and sin.” (Ana Smiljanic in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, p 97)

Every Divine Liturgy is a Eucharistic Liturgy – our thanksgiving to God.  Every Sunday we gather together exactly to give thanks to God for all things.  We should come to the Liturgy with joy and rejoice throughout the Liturgy, for this is our communal thanksgiving to the Holy Trinity for creating us, sustaining us, and redeeming us.   The Divine Liturgy is not the time for our personal petitions to God, it is rather the time for us to join our fellow Christians in giving thanks to God.

The Present Age

In every period of history since the time of our Lord Jesus Christ, some Christians have found themselves living in perilous times.  St Paul in his epistles describes the endless threats and actual suffering he endured.  Christians suffered persecution from the Roman Empire, from Persians, from Arab Muslims, Turkish Muslims, from Tartars, from communists and at times from other Christians.   Scripture scholar Richard B. Hays says St Paul actually pictured all times on this earth, as long as we await the parousia (the end of history and this world), as being a perilous time for believers.  Despite the appearance of the incarnate God in Jesus the Messiah, we still live in a world which is a spiritual battlefield, in which Satan and evil have not yet been fully defeated.  For St Paul the struggles of Israel in the Scriptures foreshadows the trials Christians face in the world.

Paul regards the present as a time out of joint, an age riddled with anomolies: despite the revelation of the righteousness of God, human beings live in a state of rebellion and sin, and Israel stands skeptical of its appointed Messiah. Under such circumstances, God’s justice is mysteriously hidden and the people of God are exposed to ridicule and suffering, as Israel learned during the period of exile. Paul’s pastoral task thus entails not only formulating theological answers to doubts about God’s righteousness but also interpreting the suffering that the faithful community encounters during this anomalous interlude.  […]  The point is not that ‘righteous people have always suffered like this;, rather, Paul’s point in Rom. 8:35-36 is that Scripture prophesies suffering as the lot of those (i.e. himself and his readers) who live in the eschatological interval between Christ’s resurrection and the ultimate redemption of the world. Thus, in this instance as in many others that we will examine subsequently, Paul discerns in Scripture a foreshadowing of the church.”(Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of St. Paul, pp 57-58)

If we follow the teachings of St Paul, we are given a framework in which to understand the current age.  The present is not more perilous than the past for Christians, it just is our time to face the perils which have always been a threat to Christians.  As Christians living in this world we must always remember that times of prosperity are as dangerous to our spiritual lives as our times of peril.   The world is not made less under Satan’s power by prosperity!

American elections do not usher in the Kingdom of God nor do they thwart God’s Kingdom.   Even in America, we live in this world, a world still under Satan’s influence, a fallen world – no matter who is president, this is our reality.  We live in the same world that all Christians have since the time of Christ: a world created as good by a loving Creator, one which has fallen under the power of sin, death and Satan, and yet which is redeemed by Christ the Savior.  This is why we have hope and joy no matter what is happening in worldly politics.

 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  (Luke 12:32-34)

Adam’s Death And God’s Mercy

One aspect found in Patristic writings is that the authors always viewed God through the lens of “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).   This was considered to be an unvarying, non-negotiable truth, never up for interpretation or revision.  So all the passages in Scripture in which God appears to be only just or even cruel or capricious were viewed by them through the lens that God is love.  They felt the problem was not God appearing to be different in different bible passages, but our inability to understand God or to read the Scriptures correctly.  We are limited, one-sided creatures, and so we write about God and interpret Scripture to mean that God is something other than love.  We even have a need for this at times to justify our own actions.  These Patristic writers, however, felt we had to hold to the truth that God is love even when that truth seems to conflict with what the Scriptures literally say.  The very fact that God is Trinity, testified to them all that God is love, for the Three Persons of the Trinity abide in a unity of love.  They felt the literal reading of the text was the problem, God remained love no matter how we read the text.  So we see St. Gregory the Theologian (d. 389AD) reading the passage in Genesis 3 where Adam is expelled from Paradise and in which death becomes part of human existence.  While reading the words of the passage, he still sees the text as bearing witness to the love and mercy of God.  He does not see this as a passage about God’s justice and anger, but rather how God limits evil in our lives.  Death prevents us from sinning eternally.  Death prevents us from moving away from God forever.  Death prevents sin and evil from becoming eternal powers in our lives.  Thus for St. Gregory, even when God appears to punish, it turns out to be another form of God’s love and mercy.

“This being (man) He placed in Paradise, having honored him with the gift of free will (in order that God might belong to him as the result of choice); naked in his simplicity. Also He gave him a law, as a material for his Free Will to act upon. This Law, was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the The Tree of Knowledge. But when the Devil’s malice and the woman’s caprice, to which she succumbed as the more tender, brought to bear on the man, he forgot the commandments which had been given him, he yielded; and for his sin he was banished, at once from The Tree of Life, and from Paradise. Yet here too he makes a gain, namely death, and the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal. Thus punishment is changed into a mercy; for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment.”  (Gregory of Nazianzos, On the Birthday of Christ, p 7)

The Power of a Praying Community

“One can see them scattered in the desert waiting for Christ like loyal sons watching for their father, or like an army expecting its emperor, or like a sober household looking forward to the arrival of its master and liberator. For with them there is no solicitude, no anxiety for food and clothing. There is only the expectation of the coming of Christ in the singing of hymns. Consequently, when one of them lacks something necessary, he does not go to a town or village, or to a brother, or friend, or relation, or to parents, or children, or family to procure what he needs, for his will alone is sufficient. When he raises his hands to God in supplication and utters words of thanksgiving with his lips, all these things are provided for him in a miraculous way.” (Benedicta Ward, The Lives of the Desert Fathers, p 50)

The Incarnation is No Illusion

“Believe that for our sins this only begotten Son of God came down to earth from heaven, assumed this humanity with feelings like ours, and was born of holy Virgin and of Holy Spirit, since the incarnation took place, not through an illusion or mirage, but in reality. He did not only pass through the Virgin, as through a channel, but actually took flesh from her, actually ate as we do, actually drank as do, and was actually nourished with milk. For if the incarnation was an illusion, salvation is also an illusion.” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly: Vol.56, Num.2,2012, p 152)

What is True Repentance?

As we continue through the Nativity Fast, we know this season before Christmas, is a time for all of us to confess our sins before God and to acknowledge our need for God’s forgiveness.  Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos gives us a sense of the deep profoundness of confession.  It is not merely listing what commandments we have disobeyed.  He writes:

“Profound repentance is the entrance for the uncreated grace of God to man’s heart; it burns passions and makes man a bearer of Revelation.” (The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, p 58)

True repentance is humbling our self before God, emptying our self to allow God to enter into our hearts.  It is the realization that I cannot save myself or make myself into God.  Only by cooperating with God, and recognizing God as Lord, can I attain theosis.    Deification is possible in this lifetime, on this earth, but I must completely open my heart to God to allow this to happen.  This is true repentance.

Enumerating sins in confession might lead to true repentance or might result from it, but it is not equivalent to it.

The Redemption of the World

“First, God has created the world…To claim that we are God’s creation is to affirm that God’s voice is constantly speaking within us and saying to us, ‘And God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good’ (Gen. 1:31). The Fathers state that even the devil is good by nature and evil only through misuse of his free will. Then there is a second element, inseparable from the first: this world is fallen – fallen in its entirety; it has become the Kingdom of the prince of this world.

The Puritan world view, so prevalent within the American society in which I live, assumes that tomato juice is always good and that alcohol is always bad; in effect tomato juice is not fallen. Similarly, the television advertisements tell us, ‘Milk is natural’, in other words, it is not fallen. But in reality tomato juice and milk are equally part of the fallen world, along with everything else. All is created good; all is fallen; and finally – this is our third ‘fundamental acclamation’ – all is redeemed. It is redeemed through the incarnation, the cross, the resurrections and ascension of Christ, and through the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. Such is the intuition that we receive from God with gratitude and joy: our vision of the world as created, fallen, redeemed. Here is our theological agenda, our key to all the problems which today trouble the world.” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann in Living Icons by Michael Plekon, p 192)

 

Healing: Look for the Kingdom of God

The Gospel lesson of Luke 13:10-17 –     

Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 

And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up.  But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.”  And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.”  The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?  So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound-think of it-for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath? And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.

Roman Catholic biblical educator Marielle Frigge comments:

“Healing and exorcism stories in the gospels function as signs pointing to the truth of Jesus’ claim that the kingdom of God is beginning now, in Jesus’ person and work. Because first century Jews believed that any kind of illness was caused by evil powers, every healing performed by Jesus indicated that God was indeed at work in him, overcoming the rule of evil and establishing the rule of power of God (kingdom of God ) in this world. These accounts bear witness that the power of God has truly entered the world in Jesus, thus pointing to him as Yahweh’s chosen anointed agent.” (Beginning Biblical Studies, p 160)