Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mourning, Melancholia and the Clergy

Sigmund FreudImage via Wikipedia

One of the things I come to understand over the years is that depression is simply part of the background noise for many clergy. And this holds true whether the individual in question is Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant or Evangelical Christian, male or female. This isn't to say that the cleric in question is incapacitated. Far from it in fact. Many of the clergy I know who are depressed are rather high functioning and often considered to be successful and even exemplary examples of pastoral ministry in their tradition.
But depressed they are nevertheless.
Freud somewhere argued that depression is a result of the loss of one's love object. In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the love object is that person or project in which I invested my libidinous energies. While the term libido now has sexual connotations, this was not the case for Freud. Rather libido, was more a generic term for psychic energy (though granted, this energy can, and often is, in Freud's view sexual in character).
When that love object is lost, whether literally or figuratively, I experience depression, or (to use Freud's term) melancholia. Robert Clark, a Reader in English at the University of East Anglia​, in his brief essay on Freud's essay on depression, “Mourning and Melancholia”> (1917), writes that Freud thinks of depression or
melancholia as a “profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment.” (Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 11, p. 248).
And again, as I said a moment ago, while melancholia results from “the death of a loved person, but it might also occur when something has been lost as an object of love, or even when 'one cannot see clearly what has been lost. (254).”
Mourning, on the other hand, has a slightly different content. Again, as Clark writes, “In mourning 'it is the world that has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself' (254).” Clinically, “Freud noted that melancholics were inclined to accuse themselves of many failings in an entirely unjustified way, and noted that the accusations were such as should have been more correctly directed against someone whom the patient loves or has loved.”
Freud's description of depression then is of loss and anger turned inward against the ego or the “I” that should, more reasonably, be directed outward at those who have abandoned or failed me (and again, this might be literally or symbolically). While there is much that I would reject in Freud, it seems to me that his insight into depression is profound. It is all the more profound as I think about my own, and other's, experiences in ministry.
Loss is inseparable from ministry because it is inseparable from human life in general and the Christian life in particular. It is hard, for example, to read the sayings of the desert fathers and not come away with the realization that mourning is essential to the Christian life. For example, Abba Poeman says that “He who wishes to purify his faults purifies them with tears. . . . ; for weeping is the way the Scriptures and our fathers give us, when they say, 'Weep!' Truly, there is no other way than this.” And Isaac the Syrian goes so far as to say “The man who follows Christ in solitary mourning is greater than he who praises Christ amid the congregation of men.”
But if mourning is essential to the spiritual life, melancholia/depression has no place and reflects mourning that has gone terribly wrong. Again, as Freud reminds us, in mourning, I come to sense the poverty of the world—m ourning (to transpose Freud into an anthropology more consonant with the fathers) is the realization that though this world is a great and beautiful gift, it is nevertheless “transitory.” It is only to the degree that I realize this that, as St Gregory the Great somewhere says, I am able “to stretch out the mind in humility to God and [my] neighbor.” Mourning is what helps “preserve patience against offered insults and, with patience guarded, to repel the pain of malice from the heart.” Mourning is to foundation of my love of the poor and makes it possible for me to “give [my] property to the poor, not to covet that of others, to esteem the friend in God, on God's account to love even those who are hostile.” It is through mourning that I am able to be and lead others to become evermore that “new creature whom the Master of the nations seeks with watchful eye amid the other disciples, saying: 'If, then, any be in Christ a new creature, the old things are passed away. Behold all things are made new' (2 Cor. 5:17).”
While mourning and melancholia are similar, they are not the same. Worse, if we are not careful we can easily confuse mourning and melancholia. It is unwise to expect clergy, or for clergy to expect from ourselves, a life of selfless service if we are not also clear that such service is different in tone and content from depression. I think rather too easily we all of us—whether clergy or not—allow ourselves to confuse mourning and melancholia; too easily when we ought to counsel detachment we are instead fostering depression.
Too simply be angry with myself, to see my own failings and shortcomings in isolation from any larger content that realizes my own (and other's) weakness is a way of life that is psychologically and spiritually unsustainable.
I am very much taken by St Gregory the Great's notion that the mournful person is able to stretch out, in humility, his mind to God and neighbor. To understand humility as if it were some species of melancholia is, I think, to misunderstand humility. Yes because of my manifold sins and transgressions, I fall short of the glory of God (see Rms 3.12). But do I realize that even if I were not sinful, I would—; as a creature—fall short of the Divine Glory?
Real mourning—as opposed to its counterfeit, melancholia—gives birth to real humility. And what is this real humility? I think St Gregory Nyssa offers a good a description as any I've read:
This is true perfection: not to avoid a wicked life because like slaves we severely fear punishment, not to do good because we hope for rewards, as if cashing in on the virtuous life by some business-like arrangement. On the contrary, disregarding all those things for which we hope and which have been reserved by promise, we regard falling from God's friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming God's friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire. This, as I have said, is the perfection of life.
To befriend God and neighbor is, it seems to me, the fruit of humility and a heart that mourns for its own sins and the sins of the world.
Many clergy struggle valiantly to be friends with God and neighbor But their struggles are often undermined by their own, and others, confusion of melancholia and depression. Thinking about this I wonder if it might not be helpful for clergy, but also for all of us who love Christ, if we made a bit more room in our communities for saying goodbye and seeing all the little (and great) losses of life as blessings and not curses?
Nicholas Ray in his essay (“ Trauer und Melancholie”) on Freud's theory of depresstiont, writes that for Freud, mourning is “not – or at least is not only – a process of remembrance; it is a labour of severance, of slowly cutting ties with what has gone. The painful re-traversal of memories and expectations connected to the lost object is undertaken by the psyche with a separative aim in view.”
Watching the different disagreements and divisions that seem to be inflicting the Orthodox Church in the States, as well as the suffering of my fellow clergy, I wonder, if in fact we have not in someway undercut the hard work of mourning that Freud and the fathers describe? And, if we have, I wonder, what is the way back?

In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]