Q: Dear Catholic Spiritual Direction: We are but days into Lent, and, after being to our church’s Way of the Cross tonight, I’m overwhelmed with the “low” that Lent is already. Are we to embrace the low to make the joy of Easter even greater, or is there still joy to be found in the 40 days of the Lenten journey? If it’s intended to be 40 days of all low, how do we prevent ourselves from being overcome with the grief and depression that accompanies our reflection of what Christ endured for us sinners, especially when our focus is on his suffering rather than his resurrection during this season?
A: These are important questions; let’s take them one at a time.
First, embrace the lows of Lent to make the joy of Easter greater? Absolutely. This is the wisdom of the Church. Without suffering it is very difficult for us, in our broken state, to fully experience the joy that God has for us. Kahlil Gibran echoed this thought when he said, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain… When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you will see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” So it is with Lent. The deeper we allow the sorrow to carve into our being during Lent, the more joy we will experience when we celebrate his resurrection!
Second, is there any joy found during Lent? Without a doubt. When Mel Gibson was making The Passion of The Christ, he ran into a problem. He recognized that the scenes of Christ’s sufferings were too much to take in any one sitting. He came up with the idea to intersperse flashbacks into the story. This gave just enough relief without totally leaving the theme of Christ’s horrific suffering and death on our behalf. Similarly, during Lent, every Sunday we have a time where we can set aside our fasting and remember not only his suffering but also his resurrection and provision for us in the Mass. Beyond this gift, we maintain our composure through all this because we know the end of the story. Those of us who suffer from lifelong illnesses sometimes are overwhelmed because in the midst of our suffering we don’t know if it will end in this life. With Lent we not only know the end of the story, but we even know the exact date when it it will end. This should give us the courage to persevere through the challenges and purification this season brings to our souls.
A few more points about grief and depression. It is one thing to feel great sorrow over our sins and to thereby enter into the deep sufferings of Christ, and another to enter into anything like clinical depression or any other unhealthy spiritual or emotional state. With respect to the former, St. Teresa of Avila, after meditating on Christ’s sufferings on her behalf, would often become overwhelmed with grief and weeping for lengthy periods time. The harm done? Absolutely none. In fact, she attributes a great deal of the work of God in her soul, and the souls of other holy men and women, to this kind of affective meditation. How can you tell the difference? The difference is that someone who is truly experiencing union with Christ and his sufferings will experience two things:
1) Peace: Even with intense suffering of this kind, if we maintain peace in the depths of our souls and feel a greater compulsion to love him for what he has done for us, this is a good indicator that our sorrow is truly godly sorrow rather than an unhealthy state of depression.
2) Virtue: If our heightened sense of his love for us and our corresponding love for him leads us to deepen our prayer, expand our acts of charity, or further intensify our mortification, then, again, our suffering is likely sourced in God’s real and active presence in our meditation.
St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians clearly echoes these truths (emphasis mine):
As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves… what longing, what zeal …!
Finally, if you find yourself with a sorrow that does not meet the test of “godly sorrow” you can do two things about it. First, go absorb yourself in service to others – particularly those less fortunate than you. If the enemy is behind the anxiety in your heart, responding with love toward God and others will drive this oppression away. If you continue to struggle, make sure you talk with your spiritual director to get more specific insights into how you can make this season one in which you grow in your love and knowledge of Christ and in the virtuous life.
He is real, present, and good… may he always be so to you,