“What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been!” Thus says Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, which explores the quest we are all on to find our true calling. For thirty-eight years, my call as a pastoral counselor has been to be a faithful companion to many clergy by walking alongside those who have found the courage to search for their “birthright gift of self.” Statistically, clergy have higher rates of depression and anxiety than the normal population. Educated as a theologian and clinician, my ministry has stood at the intersections of physical, emotional and spiritual pain and confusion. Clergy can suffer from a case of mistaken identity.
Life is an experiment with truth. In this quest for truth and wholeness is an often ignored dimension we are invited to embrace, which is holding what we dislike and find shameful about ourselves, as well as what we are confident and proud of. We are disabused of our original giftedness in the first half of our lives, and if awakened to our loss, can spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed. The link between mind and soul, emotional health and spiritual maturity, is found only under quiet conditions where the soul can speak its truth. There is a Hasidic tale that reveals, with amazing brevity, both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the ultimate importance of becoming one’s self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”
This quest towards spiritual maturity is arrived at only after a long journey through alien lands. It is most akin to the ancient idea of pilgrimage -“a transformative journey to a sacred center” full of hardships, darkness, and peril. It is a journey where we are invited not to distance ourselves from the shameful, fearful, and embarrassing chapters of our story, but to find the grace to embrace, listen, and learn that these truths are important for our moving forward in reclaiming that which has been lost.
It continues to be my experience that the way to God is not up but down. When the way we have been living becomes closed, I invite people to look down and within before looking up and out. Let me illustrate this by the example of depression. The underground is a potentially life-giving place to which depression takes us; a place where we come to understand that the self is not set apart or special or superior, but is a common mix of good and evil and a place we share in common with others. To embrace this holistic view of life is to accept a more demanding life because once you embrace this you must live your whole life from the mountain to the valley. Theologically, it is to embrace a cross – a symbol of death and ultimate disconnection with an empty tomb, a symbol of new life and reconnection.
Depression is the ultimate experience in being disconnected. It deprives one of relatedness, which is the lifeline of existence. Like Job’s visitors, we often offer sympathy, explanations, and solutions to the despondent out of our own discomfort and feelings of helplessness. Many times our sincere efforts to help the depressed only compound the weight of their darkness. What we can offer the depressed is not so much our words as our authentic presence. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “Love…consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” This is the kind of love that does not invade the inward awfulness with false comfort or advice, but simply stands on its boundaries, modeling respect of the other and their journey and the courage to let it be. Rilke describes a love that neither invades nor avoids the soul’s suffering. It is a love in which we represent God’s love to a suffering person – a God who does not fix us, but gives us strength by suffering with us.
As I learned from one of my clinical supervisors along the way, Dr. Bill Oglesby, depression is not the enemy trying to crush you, but can be the hand of a friend, pressing you down to the ground on which it is safe to stand. Parker Palmer reminds us of this by commenting on his own depression. He states that sometimes we can live our lives so ungrounded and at such an altitude that it becomes unsafe. The problem with living at such altitudes is that when we slip, as we always do, we have a long way to fall and the landings can literally kill us. The grace of being pressed down to the ground is also simple; when we slip and fall, it is usually not fatal, and we can get up. Being grounded is the safest place to stand when you are in pain.
This delicate interplay between the life of our body, emotions and our spirit is a relationship where what is underground/unseen informs the shape of what is seen. This “hidden wholeness” that Parker Palmer describes transcends shoring up the emotions to grounding our mind in the vitality of the spirit. This deeper reality was the call I responded to thirty-eight years ago as a young seminarian. It was the call to walk alongside those who had lost their way with the hopes of pointing them towards the “truth that can set us free.”