The Positive Side of Melancholy


Normally none of us like feeling sad, heavy, or depressed. Generally we prefer sunshine to darkness, lightheartedness to melancholy. That’s why, most of the time, we do everything we canto distract ourselves from melancholy, to keep heaviness and sadness at bay. We tend to run from those feelings inside us that sadden or frighten u

That’s why, for the most part, we think of melancholy and her children (sadness, gloomynostalgia, loneliness, depression, feelings of loss, feelings of regret, intimations of our own morality, a sense of missing out on life, fear of what lies in the dark corners of our minds, andheaviness of soul) as negative. But these feelings have their positive sides. Simply put, they help keep us in touch with those parts of our soul to which we are normally not attentive. Our souls are deep and complex, and trying to hear what they are saying involves listening to them inside of every mood within our lives, including, and sometimes especially, when we feel sad and out of sorts. In sadness, melancholy, and fear, the soul tells us things that we normally refuse to hear. Hence, it’s important to examine the positive side of melancholy.

Unfortunately, today it is common to see sadness and heaviness of soul as a loss of health, as a deficiency in our vibrancy, as an unhealthy condition. That’s both unfortunate and shortsighted. For instance, in many medieval and renaissance medical books melancholy was seen as a gift to the soul, something that one needed to pass through, at certain points in his or her life, in order to come to deeper health and wholeness. This, of course, doesn’t refer to clinical depression, a true loss of health, but to all those other depressions that draw us inward and downward. Why do we need to pass through melancholy in order to come to wholeness?

Thomas Moore, who writes with deep insight on how we need to learn to listen more carefully to the impulses and needs of our souls, offers this insight: “Depression gives us valuable qualities that we need in order to be fully human. It gives us weight, when we are too light about our lives. It offers a degree of gravitas. It was associated with the metal lead and was said to be heavy. It also ages us so that we grow appropriately and don’t pretend to be younger than we are. It grows us up and gives us the range of human emotion and character that we need in order to deal with the seriousness of life. In classic Renaissance images, found in old medical texts and collections of remedies, depression is an old person wearing a broad-rimmed hat, in the shadows, holding his head in his hands.”

Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, in his classic novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, echoes what Moore says. His heroine, Teresa, struggles to be at peace with life when it’s not heavy, when it’s too much lightness, sunshine, and, seemingly, non-mindful; when it’s devoid of the type of anxieties that hint at darkness and mortality. Thus, she feels always the need for gravitas, for some heaviness that signals that life is more than simply the present flourishing of health and comfort. For her, lightness equates with superficiality.

In many cultures, and indeed in all of the great world religions, periods of melancholy and sadness are considered as the necessary path one must travel in order to sustain one’s health and come to wholeness. Indeed, isn’t that part of the very essence of undergoing the paschal mystery within Christianity? Jesus, himself, when preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice for love, had to, painfully, accept that there was no path to Easter Sunday that didn’t involve the darkness of Good Friday. Good Friday was bad, long before it was good; or, at least, so it looks from the outside. Melancholy, sadness, and heaviness of soul mostly look the same.

So how might we look at periods of sadness and heaviness in our lives? How might we deal with melancholy and her children?

First off, it’s important to see melancholy (whatever its form) as something normal and healthywithin our lives. Heaviness of soul is not necessarily an indication that there is something wrong inside us. Rather, normally, it’s the soul itself signally for our attention, asking to be heard, trying to ground us in some deeper way, and trying, as Moore puts it, to age us appropriately. But, for this to happen, we need to resist two opposite temptations, namely, to distract ourselves from the sadness or to indulge in it. How do we do that? James Hillman gives us this advice: What to do with heaviness of soul? “Put it into a suitcase and carry it with you.” Keep it close, but contained; make sure it stays available, but don’t let it take you over.

That’s secular wording for Jesus’ challenge: If you wish to be my disciple, take up your cross every day and follow me.


Looking for the One God inside our Denominational and Faith Divisions


Christian de Cherge, the Trappist Abbott who was martyred in Algeria in 1996, was fond of sharing this story: He had a very close Muslim friend, Mohammed, and the two of them used to pray together, even as they remained aware of their differences, as Muslim and Christian.  Aware too that certain schools of thought, both Muslim and Christian, warn against this type of prayer, fearing that the various faiths are not praying to the same God, the two of them didn’t call their sessions together prayer. Rather they imagined themselves as “digging a well together”. One day Christian asked Mohammed: “When we get to the bottom of our well, what will we find? Muslim water or Christian water?” Mohammed, half-amused but still deadly serious, replied: “Come on now, we’ve spent all this time walking together, and you’re still asking me this question. You know well that at the bottom of that well, what we’ll find is God’s water.”

There are important religious truths couched inside that story. First off, all religions worthy of the name believe that the first thing we need to affirm about God is that God is ineffable, that is, God is beyond all human imagination, conceptualization, and language. Everything we think and say about God, even within scripture and our defined dogmas, is more inadequate than adequate. It reveals some truth, but, this side of eternity, never the complete truth. No dogma and no religion ever provide an adequate expression of God. If this is true, and it is, then all religious truth is always partial and limited in its historical expression and cannot claim adequacy. All religions, all dogmas, and all expressions of theology, irrespective of denomination or religion, must humbly acknowledge their incompleteness. Only God is absolute, and an absolute knowledge of God lies at the bottom of the well, at the end of our religious journey.

That fact radically changes the way we need to conceive of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. Since no one, us included, has the full truth, the way of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue should not be conceived, as has been so much the case up to the present, of one side winning the other side over: We, alone, have the truth and you must join us! Rather the way has to be conceived of precisely “digging a well together”, namely, as each of us, with an open heart, longing for those others who are not at our table, refusing all proselyting, becoming engaged through our own religious tradition in the search for deeper conversion. That search is precisely the search to get to the bottom of the well, knowing that, once there, we, as all other sincere, authentic religious searchers, will find both God’s water and unity with everyone else who is there.

The renowned ecumenist, Avery Dulles, called this the path of “progressive convergence”. Eventual unity among the various churches and various faiths will not come about by everyone in the world converting to one denomination or one religion. Rather it will come about, and can only come about, by each of us converting more deeply inside our own tradition. As each of us and each faith move more deeply into the mystery of God we will progressively draw closer and closer to each other. Christian de Cherge’s story illustrates this wonderfully.

And this path, when correctly taken, does not lead us into relativism and the naïve belief that all religions are equal. Nor does it mean that we do not enthusiastically and openly celebrate our own religious faith tradition, stand ready to defend it, and stand ready to welcome anyone into it. But it does mean that we must humbly accept that, while we have the truth, the truth is not ours alone. God is not a tribal deity and God’s salvific intent is universal. God desires the salvation of those in other denominations and in other religious traditions just surely as he desires our own. Hence, as Jesus teaches us, God has “other sheep”, loved individuals and loved communities who are not of our fold. God’s love and revelation embrace everyone.

The path to unity among Christians of different denominations and the path to unity among world religions is not then the path of proselytism within which any one tradition, Christianity included, claims absolute truth for itself and demands that union can be achieved only by everyone converting to its side. Rather it lies in “digging a well together”, that is, in each of us, within our own tradition, converting more deeply into the mystery of God and into all that asks of us. As we move deeper into the mystery of God we will find ourselves more and more one, as brothers and sisters in faith.

No religion is absolute, only God is absolute. Knowing that, should make us less smug in the practice of our own religion, more respectful of other denominations and religions, and more willing to let God’s vision trump our own.

The Importance of the Interior and Private


We can never be challenged too strongly with regards to being committed to social justice. A key, non-negotiable, summons that comes from Jesus himself is precisely the challenge to reach out to the poor, to the excluded, to those whom society deems expendable. 

Therefore the huge, global issues of justice should preoccupy us. Can we be good Christians or even decent human beings without letting the daily news baptize us? The majority of the world still lives in hunger, thousands are dying of Ebola and other such illnesses, countless lives are torn apart by war and violence, and we are still, as a world, a long ways from dealing realistically with racism, sexism, abortion, and the integrity of physical creation. These are major moral issues and we may not escape into our own private world and simply ignore them.

However, precisely because they are so mammoth and important, we can get the impression that the other moral issues we have to deal with, issues of private morality, are not as important. It’s all too easy to conclude that, given the mega-problems in our world, it doesn’t matter much how we live in the deeper recesses of our private worlds.

Our private, little moral concerns can look pretty petty when weighed against the problems of the world as a whole. Do we really believe that God cares much whether or not we say our morning prayers, gossip about a colleague, nurse a grudge or two, or are less than fully honest in our sexual lives? Does God really care about these things?

Yes. God cares because we care. Large, global issues notwithstanding, issues of personal integrity are generally what make or break our happiness, not to mention our character and our intimate relationships. In the end, they aren’t petty concerns at all. They shape the big things. Social morality is simply a reflection of private morality. What we see in the global picture is simply a magnification of the human heart.

When ego, greed, lust, and selfishness are not dealt with inside the private recesses of the heart, it’s naive to think that they will be dealt with at a global level. How are we to build a just, loving world, if we cannot, first of all, tame selfishness inside us? There will be no transparency at a global level as long as we continue to think it’s okay to not be transparent in our private lives. The global simply reflects the private. The failure to recognize this is, to my mind, the elephant in the room in terms of our inability to bring justice to the earth.

Social action that does not have private morality as its base is not spirituality, but simple political action, power dealing with power, important in itself, but the not to be confused with real transformation.  The kingdom of God doesn’t work that way. It works by conversion and real conversion is an eminently personal act. Carlos Castaneda, the Native American mystic, writes: “I come from Latin America where intellectuals are always talking about political and social revolution and where a lot of bombs are being thrown. But nothing has changed much. It takes little daring to bomb a building, but in order to stop being jealous or to come to internal silence, you have to remake yourself. This is where real reform begins.”

Thomas Merton makes the same point. During the 1960s, when so many intellectuals were involved in various social struggles, Merton was tucked away in a monastery, far (it would seem) from the real battlefronts. Stung by outside criticism of his monastic seclusion, he admitted that to most outsiders it “must seem like small potatoes” to be engaged mainly in a war against one’s private demons. However, he still believed that he was fighting the real battle: that of changing hearts. When you change a heart, he says, you have helped bring about some permanent structural, moral change on this planet. Everything else is simply one power attempting to displace another.

Private morality and all that comes with it – private prayer and the attempt to be honest and transparent in even the smallest and most secret of things – is the core from which all morality takes its root.  Jan Walgrave, commenting on the social importance of mysticism, suggests: “You can generate more energy by splitting a single atom than you can by harnessing all the forces of water and wind on earth. That is precisely what Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed did. They split the inner atom of love. Great energy flowed out.” John of the Cross, in teaching about the vital importance of honesty in small things, says: “It makes no difference whether a bird is tied down by a heavy rope or by the slenderest of cords, it can’t fly in either case.”

Private morality is not an unimportant, unaffordable luxury, a soft virtue, something that stands in the way of commitment to social justice. It’s the deep place where the moral atom needs to be split.