This is the third and final in a series of columns by the author about his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and his experience with depression.
Every day is Christmas in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Pilgrims from all over the world visit this basilica which tradition holds is the place of the birth of Jesus. Originally built in the 300s under Constantine the Great and his mother Saint Helena, it was destroyed and subsequently rebuilt in the 500s under the Byzantine emperor Justinian. It has remained virtually unchanged since then.
One morning we pilgrims from America Media entered this holy basilica, I was struck by a curious contradiction. Here in this location of the birth of the Prince of Peace, the hundreds of pilgrims were acting with not a lot of peace as they pushed and jockeyed for position.
In order to get to the sacred spot of His birth, one must first pass the Door of Humility, stooping lowly. It is a fitting gesture — to bend low to be in the presence of our Lord.
That morning we were encouraged by our pilgrimage leader to reflect on the vulnerability of Jesus. God enters our world vulnerable, as a child, completely dependent on Mary and Joseph for his survival. And God leaves this world also vulnerable, naked on a cross. What does that say to us that God would be so vulnerable? What does that say how much God must love us to be so vulnerable in our midst?
In two previous articles for the Catholic Star Herald (4/13/18 and 5/25/18), I wrote about my pilgrimage to the Holy Land and especially about my experience with depression. Last summer, a cherished friend suddenly terminated our 15-year friendship. I was devastated and heart-broken. The depression felt like a huge weight on my spirit, my soul, my body, my mind. I had never experienced such deep and painful emotional grief. I felt rejected and worthless.
Depression is like drowning but without being able to die.
With depression come irrational thoughts. And many dark, dark thoughts.
The Sufi mystic Rumi said: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” My wound was huge; there must have been a lot of Light pouring into me. Despite my depression or perhaps in spite of it, I continued to function at work and at home with my family. The joy of my daughter’s wedding occurred in the fall when I was feeling most vulnerable. I still had clients that I counseled and prayed that they would not know or see my pain. The Light of the vulnerable Prince of Peace was sustaining me.
In his stirring song “Broken Things,” Matthew West sings,
If grace were a kingdom, I stopped at the gate,
Thinking I don’t deserve to pass through
After all the mistakes that I’ve made.
Because of my friend’s rejection, in my depression I felt as if everyone rejected me and that I did not deserve happiness. West goes on with these lines:
Now I’m just a beggar in the presence of a King
I wish I could bring so much more.
But if it’s true You use broken things
Then here I am Lord, I’m all Yours!
When we are vulnerable, when we are broken, Jesus works through us. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul says, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints, for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
During a conference I attended in New Orleans this past spring, a speaker, a survivor of child sexual abuse, prayed, “Jesus, take my brokenness and make something beautiful from it.” That became my prayer for the next several weeks. How could I do beautiful things from my brokenness? How does Jesus work through me from my broken heart?
Healing from depression involves hard work and entails cognitive restructuring. I used to say that my friend broke my heart. She did not. She does not have that much power. Instead, more accurately, I allowed my heart to be broken. There is a subtle difference in that, but it gives me the control that I need to recover from my broken heart.
When my friend deleted me from her life, I thought that meant everyone felt the same way about me — that I was worthless. I have come to realize that that is not true. That’s the dysfunctional depression speaking. There are many people in my life who do value me.
People who are in pain, who are suffering from depression need to be listened to. I took more time to just simply listen. To be a presence of patience and understanding and to try to understand their pain. Psalm 34: “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
Brokenness can be a gift. Our brokenness connects us to each other and brings us to Jesus. And He makes us whole.
It has been a year since my friend abruptly ended our 15-year relationship. The Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Trust in the slow work of God.” May you never doubt the slow, healing work of God in your heart, in your mind, in your soul.
Rod J. Herrera, LCSW, is director, Office of Child and Youth Protection, Diocese of Camden.