Memoir of depression and prayer

Yesterday, Oct. 10, was World Mental Health Day. The UN Secretary General issued a message, a portion of which said: “We must leave no one behind… Healthy societies require greater integration of mental health into broader health and social care systems, under the umbrella of universal health coverage.”

By  – @inquirerdotnet

Timely for me to have interviewed Geoffrey Lilburne, the author of “Joy Interrupted: A Memoir of Depression and Prayer” (Coventry Press, 2018), a slim volume packed full of insights derived from firsthand experience.

Lilburne is a theologian and poet, with qualifications in counseling and professional supervision, a retired lecturer in theology (with graduate studies at the Yale School of Divinity in the United States). He is a Uniting Church minister in active ministry with a rural congregation in Western Australia.

Lilburne was in the country recently with his wife, Sophie Lizares, my friend of more than 30 years and at one time a colleague in social action and journalism. Sophie is now an ordained minister in the Uniting Church in Australia and is chaplain at UnitingCare West.

Lilburne begins with a startling revelation of how it began: “I awoke one morning wishing I had died during the night… I was 13 years of age.” What was a boy in the cusp of adolescence to make of what was going on inside him, a boy whose family background was relatively normal, who had no traumas to hark back to?

The book details Lilburne’s lifetime battle with depression (and manic episodes), how it was in different stages of his life, his seeking “professional assistance from general practitioners, psychiatrists, counselors, pastoral carers, ministers and spiritual directors.” But alongside these is Lilburne’s journey as an academic and, later, in various church ministries.

What was it like and what did he do to cope with it, deal with it, be healed of it, live with it? Lilburne’s early struggles meant pharmacological interventions or prescribed antidepressants, with names that were hard to spell and even harder to pronounce.

It was while he was in the United States that he met famous Catholic priest, theologian and author Henri Nouwen, who suggested a week at the Trappist monastery as a suitable therapy. Lilburne writes: “I have already alluded to the possibility that prayer might be significant in relation to depression, and have so far advanced the view that, for the person suffering from depression, prayer seems like a desperate ‘last resort.’” Much like what happens to atheists in the trenches.


Henri Nouwen

But he also admits that the “episodic dips into depression also seemed to deprive me of any sense of relationship with God. They were not only dark times of sadness, they were for me also godless periods.” Lilburne writes (and he did say this in our interview) that the carer needs to pray for the depressed who are incapable of praying for themselves.

Lilburne ends the dark chapters by announcing that “just as joy had suddenly disappeared from my life when I was a young teenaged boy, joy returned to this old man… One day, it just came.” I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ “Surprised by Joy.”

This space is not enough for Lilburne’s rich insights, so let me zoom to the end chapter, “Spirituality and Depression,” where he discusses “medicalization” or reliance on pharmacology and finding a “better framework,” “an alternative engagement.”

For spiritual counselors and carers, read Lilburne’s take on Saint John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul.” Lilburne describes depression as a “spiritual disturbance” or “spiritual disfiguring.” He asks: “Might it be helpful then, to regard depression and/or mood disorders as fundamentally disturbances of a person’s spirit, and to propose that the treatment of them should be a form of holistic therapy that embraces body, mind and spirit?”

St. John of the Cross

Lilburne provides guidelines on “living with the black dog” while discovering “one’s best friend which is one’s self, with God as the ultimate ground of our best friend self, the source of best friending.”

I am not a depressive, but reading Lilburne, I say I am awed. I paraphrase Saint Augustine on his behalf: (Not) too late have I (found) Thee, beauty so ancient yet ever new.

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