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Depression and Spiritual Integration

LukeNotes, Summer 2022

An integrated spiritual life involves both intellect and emotions, the mind and the heart. A person comes to know God through the teachings of their faith tradition but also through their experience of God working in their lives. An integrated spiritual journey involves joining the rational powers of the mind with the intuitive awareness of the heart. Either alone is incomplete.

Saint Francis DeSales contended that the spiritual life is inseparable from the rest of who we are:

Our soul is spiritual, indivisible, immortal. It understands, it wills, and it wills freely. It is capable of judging, of reasoning, of knowing, and of having virtues. In all this it resembles God. It resides in the whole body, and whole in each of the body’s parts, even as the divinity is whole in the whole world, and whole in each part of the world.i

In this view of the human person, there is no dualism, no separation of mind, body, and spirit. The human person is an embodied spirit. There is no hint that the flesh is evil and no demeaning of our physical life. The soul resides in all of who we are, and God’s grace is present in every part of us.

Most Saint Luke Institute clients are well-trained in theology, and their rational abilities are quite developed. While they trust the intellect, listening to the heart is almost always a bigger challenge. Talking about feelings can be difficult for anyone whose comfort zone is the intellect, but talking about feelings when depressed is especially challenging, because depression can numb a person’s feelings. Even if a depressed person knows that God is present, they have little or no affective experience of that presence.

In cases of depression, a spiritual integrator witnesses to God’s faithful love, holding the light of that love in what can seem like darkness. As depression begins to lift and feelings begin to return, the first emotions that emerge are often negative, including anger at God over the depression and whatever precipitated it. A spiritual integrator sometimes needs to encourage the client to express anger and other negative emotions in prayer, while affirming that prayer does not even require words. Sadness, desolation, frustration, and anger can be lifted to God as prayer. A spiritual integrator can witness to their own belief that God’s love is strong enough to hold any pain.

A spiritual integrator can also witness to the “God of the future approaching from the future.”ii God does not intend for the client to remain stuck in the past, but always calls them forward. The spiritual integrator holds the light of hope that God calls all of us to fullness of life: “life in abundance.” (John 10:10)

Sometimes clients equate the experience of depression with the Dark Night described by Saint John of the Cross. This spiritual experience can certainly have some overlap with depression. Both involve the feeling of God being absent. Both involve the loss of a healthy sense of self, a feeling that the “self” has been torn away. However, there are important differences.

The Dark Night is a spiritual experience. Other aspects of a person’s life—physical health, emotions, human relationships—are not necessarily affected. Depression, on the other hand, can affect the mind, the body, and relationships as well as the spiritual life.

Another difference can be found in the wish to pray. Surrender to the Dark Night requires a deep desire for union with God; the hunger to pray usually remains. Depression, in contrast, can often involve the numbing of the desire or even the inclination to pray.

The Dark Night is God’s work in a self that has been “over-constructed” by human attachments and ambitions. What John of the Cross calls the “passive night of the spirit” involves God’s work in a person to remove attachments that have become barriers to their relationship with God. God is at work forming a new self in right relationship with God. The person desires this new self, if not the pain involved in its evolution. The spiritual Dark Night involves a conscious surrender to what God is doing. Depression, on the other hand, is the human psyche dealing with a self that has been “under-constructed” and the disintegration of the person’s sense of agency. The person seeks simply to function once again as the former self. When the Dark Night recedes, the result is transformation. When depression recedes, the result is restoration.iii

Both the Dark Night and depression involve what can seem like passivity. The Dark Night requires an intentional surrender to any suffering required in pursuit of deeper union with God.iv Depression, to the extent that it involves an intentional emptying of the self, often requires surrender to the care of health professionals and cooperation with them.

Perhaps most importantly, a spiritual integrator can witness to the belief that, despite what a person might feel, God is never absent.

Because God is the ground of our being, the relationship between creature and Creator is such that, by sheer grace, separation is not possible. God does not know how to be absent. The fact that most of us experience throughout most of our lives a sense of absence or distance from God is the great illusion that we are caught up in; it is the human condition. The sense of separation from God is real, but the meeting of stillness reveals that this perceived separation does not have the last word.v

Even in what seems like darkness, God is never absent.

There is no such thing, either in the world or in the heart, as literal vacancy, as a vacuum. And whenever space is really left—by death, by renunciation, by parting, by apparent emptiness, provided the emptiness that cannot remain empty is not filled by the world, or activity, or chatter, or the deadly grief of the world— there is God.vi


iFrancis DeSales, Treatise on the Love of God (1:15)
iiConstance Fitzgerald, “From Impasse to Prophetic Hope,” address to the Catholic Theological Society
iiiDenys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, (Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 243.
ivIbid, p. 236.
vMartin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Practice of Christian Contemplation (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 15
viKarl Rahner, Biblical Homilies, 77.

Dr. Kathleen Hope Brown is the coordinator of spiritual formation at Saint Luke Institute