I was mulling over, recently, what it would be like to not have depression any more. It’s tempting to think of “getting back to normal”, and “going back to how I used to be”, but maybe it’s not that simple. I’ve changed so much over this last year and a bit, and some of it has been for the good. Perhaps I wouldn’t choose to go back to “just like it was before”…..but to find a new sort of normal.
One of the ways I have changed the most is in how I pray. In case you have a knee jerk reaction, (like I do), to seeing prayer and depression in the same sentence, can I reassure you now that this is not going to turn into one of those, “Christians shouldn’t get depressed, you would be fine if only you prayed more” guilt trips. I promise.
I’ve always had a lot of oughts and shoulds in my head, when it comes to prayer. Part of it comes from my desire to be top of my class at whatever I do, and get merit marks from teacher. There must be a right and wrong way of praying, and I want my prayers to be the best prayers. Top of the class, 95%, A* prayers, that leave God nodding and smiling in satisfaction at how well I’ve done.
Some of the teaching on prayer I’ve grown up with has tended to feed into those tendancies, for me, at least. I’ve always been a sucker for any sort of system that helps you to remember different types of prayer and getting the correct balance between them, or any proposal for keeping prayer lists, or prayer journals, as aids to Doing it Right. As a teenager I came across a book that explained how it was really easy to pray for an hour every day, if you divided the hour up into 5 minute sections, and did a different type of prayer for every 5 minute slot. I even made a diagram of all the segments, on a big piece of lining paper, stuck it up on my bedroom wall and set my alarm clock an hour earlier….(that’s completely normal teenage behaviour, right??) I stuck to the program for, oh, at least 3 days, before the desire to go back to sleep won out. (Anyone who knows what I’m like first thing in the morning will be astonished that I lasted as long as I did!)
That’s always been the problem. I’ve never been able to keep any of these things up for long. You see, if I can’t be sure of doing a great job when I pray, it’s better not to pray at all, surely. If my concentration might not be top notch right now, I’ll do a rubbish job of praying, so I’d better wait till tomorrow and do it then. If I’ve got a lot on my mind, and am feeling emotional and confused about stuff, I won’t have an excellent Quiet Time, and I’d hate to think God wasn’t going to be impressed with my prayers….so, perhaps better to leave it until another time. Prayer became yet another hoop to jump through, a particularly high and tricky one. A burden and a duty, seldom a joy.
Overwhelmed by everything, starting each day in a dark cloud of gloom and dread, you might think that prayer would become even less likely to happen. After all, plenty of other good and helpful behaviours became more and more of a struggle.
But by some miracle, that wasn’t the case.
I couldn’t pretend to God any more. I couldn’t “only pray about the things that were going well”, because there weren’t any, or not that I could see, anyway. There was not a chance I could do a balanced mix of Thanksgiving, Supplication and Praise, along with a nice dose of Intercessing for the people on my Prayer List for the day. I just couldn’t.
So I would slump down in the corner of my study, light a candle, top up my coffee and tell God just how bad it all was. On better days, I might read a psalm, until I came to a bit that made me say, “Yeah, God, that’s what it’s like”. On worse days, I would sit and stare blankly at a psalm. And it was good. It never seemed like God said much in reply. But it felt like a companionable silence, rather than an empty one, at least.
The fact that I could do that, could turn up and tell God the truth about how it was, was a revelation. I’d spent so long trying to impress God with my prayers, and with how well I was coping, that to just sit and lean against him and say, “It’s all a bit bleak”, and that to be enough, was utterly new. And judging by how many of the psalms made me say, “Yeah, God, what he said”, I felt that perhaps God was fine with me blurting all that mess out at him. I certainly had plenty of company, that was for sure.
There were days when, “no matter how bad today is, at least I’ll be able to curl up in my special chair and tell God about it when I get back”, was the one positive thing I felt I had to look forward to.
Prayer certainly hasn’t made my depression go away. If only. And the route from depression to a closer relationship with God is far from obvious or autmatic. I know other folk who have had very different experiences.
Depression has been bleak and gray and horrible. But for me, at least, it has had this one redeeming feature. Prayer has become home, the place I can be more truly myself than anywhere else, and feel that I belong, no matter what.