We find ourselves in the midst of a global catastrophe. Some of you may already have lost family and friends to COVID-19, and some will tragically suffer such losses in the upcoming weeks and months. Many of you will become infected; some of you will die. I may die. I’m 68 years old, male, and vulnerable to bronchitis—a perfect candidate for the coronavirus grim reaper. Those who survive may possibly face an economic crisis the likes of which most have not experienced since the Great Depression. We have every reason to be anxious, not only for ourselves but especially for our children and grandchildren; and so we worry—incessantly, consumingly, exhaustingly. We know that worrying helps not one whit—as Jesus sagely remarked, “And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?”—yet we worry nonetheless. When we are not worrying, we invariably end up practicing some sophisticated form of denial; perhaps we even become adept at playing Pollyanna’s glad game. I’m not going to knock it. Pollyannaism has a lot going for it, but it also limits one to a superficial experience of life and false reconstructions of the past.
But I have never been very good at the glad game. The anti-glad voices in my head always win out, and there I am, once again trapped in anxiety, fear, and depression. For those who do not know me well, I probably should share with you that I suffer from persistent depressive disorder, or dysthymia (DSM-5 300.4), combined with occasional bouts of severe, disabling depression (called double depression). I have been in and out of therapy much of my adult life, and have been on multiple antidepressants. My psychiatric disorder (combined with bad decisions) is responsible for crippling my parochial ministry, finally breaking me in the process. I have hurt many (please forgive me). My wife and children have of course suffered the most, but that is their story to tell. The misery of a depressive impacts everyone around him, always threatening to pull them into the black hole that is his personal hell. Eventually they have no choice but to emotionally, and sometimes physically, distance themselves, thereby intensifying his isolation and pain.
Like so many others, I have sought deliverance from depression in Jesus Christ. I have no doubt that this was the driving force of my conversion to the Lord in 1975, even though I framed it as a matter of rational persuasion (thank you, C. S. Lewis). I desperately wanted wholeness. I sought out charismatic prayer healers (Leanne Payne, Fr Ted Dobson, Fr David Lord), but whatever relief I may have experienced was temporary. Always the darkness returned. At some point I found myself drawn to the practice of centering prayer, hoping that I might find deliverance through deeper union with God, but the practice fell to the wayside. When it comes to the observance of the spiritual disciplines, I am pretty much a failure, either because of depression, personality flaws, sin, or some combination thereof. I suppose this also explains my passionate commitment to sola gratia and the absolute love of God. If my salvation ultimately depends on my ascetical and moral self-improvement, I am truly lost.
The one lesson I have learned through all of this is the necessity to be rigorously honest about one’s spiritual life. All who suffer from depression are tempted to use religion as a way to keep the black dog at arm’s length. We talk extravagantly (and loudly) about the transformations and healings we have received, even though deep down we remain as sick and broken as we’ve always been. Religion thus becomes a psychological defense mechanism. Healthy people can see what we are doing, but we can’t. We are too busy justifying our religious experiences to ourselves and others. Pathology abides.
Three years ago I returned to centering prayer, but this time using the Jesus Prayer instead of a single word (I think “maranatha” was the prayer-word that I used way back then). I was surprisingly consistent in my rule, but as I progressed I found that the meditation was becoming more stressful and frustrating. Why? Because the more relaxed and quieter my mind became, the more difficult it became to silently say the prayer in unison with my breathing—it was too long. So I began shortening the prayer: from “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me” to “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me” to “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy” to “Lord Jesus, have mercy” and finally “Jesus.” At this point I realized that “Jesus” had simply become a mantra without content, and that didn’t feel right. I thought about returning to the centering prayer I had learned from Ron Delbene decades earlier.
Sometime in the middle of this, I contacted my first therapist, Dr John Gartner, to thank him for his therapeutic care back in the early 90s (I wrote a little about him in my post “Remembering and Forgetting“). John was just starting his practice when I became his client (think of me as one of his ur-clients.) He shared with me that since our time together, he had incorporated the practice of mindfulness meditation into his therapy, with positive results. Knowing my ongoing struggle with depression, he recommended that I check out a book by Andy Puddicombe, The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness, and the Headspace app (@Headspace). I was intrigued and so read up a bit on mindfulness meditation, about which I knew very little. I immediately noticed similarities in techniques between centering prayer, interior recitation of the Jesus Prayer, and mindfulness meditation.
All meditative techniques are centered on a concentrative focus on an object, either external or internal. Puddicombe calls this object a “meditation support.” External supports include gazing on a particular object, listening to a sound, audibly reciting a mantra or prayer; internal supports include the silent repetition of a mantra or prayer, focusing on the rhythms of breathing, or visualizing a particular object within the mind. All these focusing techniques result in relaxation and a quieting of the mind. The different religious traditions build upon these techniques to achieve different spiritual ends, but in themselves the techniques are value-free. Puddicombe’s secularized version of meditation employs concentrated attention on the breath. Its goal is the quieting of the mind, liberation from obsessive thoughts (what Evagrius calls logismoi and Martin Laird “the constant chatter of the cocktail party going on in our heads”), and clarity of vision.
Given that the practice of focused invocation of the Jesus had become a source of stress for me (the exact opposite of its intention), I decided to substitute breathing as my meditation support, using the Headspace app as guide. (Please understand: this did not mean an abandonment of the Jesus Prayer. Since the death of my son, the Jesus Prayer has been and continues to be my principle form of prayer.) The great advantage of using one’s breathing as one’s meditation support is that breathing is automatic. One doesn’t have to do anything to make it happen. It’s just there to be watched, as it were.
I immediately found meditation easier and less stressful. At the conclusion of each twenty minute session, both mind and body were relaxed and in a state of relative peace. Think of it as mind exercise, analogous to jogging or calisthenics as physical exercise. In this meditation I was not explicitly seeking deeper union with God, though I was (and am!) certainly open to that possibility—after all, all of creation is theophany. To mindfully attend to one feature of reality (breathing, for instance) is to ultimately attend to its Creator. And so it went for a couple of months. I made it through the introductory Headspace courses; but then, as usual, life intervened, discipline was interrupted, and I stopped meditating. Hence I cannot testify to a wondrous psychiatric transformation; but I can say that it didn’t injure me, either mentally or spiritually. And I enjoyed it.
When it became apparent that the coronavirus was going to become a pandemic, I noticed within myself an increase in anxiety. So in February I decided to return to the practice of mindfulness meditation. Each morning after my morning cup of coffee, I sit in my chair and for twenty minutes attend to the movements of my breathing. I begin by making the sign of the cross, followed by the collect for purity:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of my heart by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that I may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.
I then proceed with the meditation structure recommended by Puddicombe:
- Find a place to sit down comfortably, keeping a straight back.
- Ensure you’ll be left undisturbed during your meditation (switch off your mobile).
- Set the timer for 20 minutes.
- Take 5 deep breaths, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth and then gently close your eyes.
- Focus on the physical sensation of the body on the chair and the feet on the floor.
- Scan down through the body and notice which parts feel comfortable and relaxed, and which parts feel uncomfortable and tense.
- Notice how you’re feeling–i.e. what sort of mood you’re in right now.
Focusing the mind:
- Notice where you feel the rising and falling sensation of the breath most strongly.
- Notice how each breath feels, the rhythm of it–whether it’s long or short, deep or shallow, rough or smooth.
- Gently count the breaths as you focus on the rising and falling sensation–1 with the rise and 2 with the fall, upwards to a count of 10.
- Repeat this cycle between 5 and 10 times, or for as long as you have time available.
- Let go of any focus at all, allowing the mind to be as busy or as still as it wants to be for about 20 seconds.
- Bring the mind back to the sensation of the body on the chair and the feet on the floor.
- Gently open your eyes and stand up when you feel ready.
It’s as easy (and difficult) as that. The short-term goal is to get to the point where I do not need the crutch of counting to assist in my mindful attention to my breathing. I’ve made some progress with this, but I still find I need to return to counting.
When the timer softly chimes (I use the Insight Timer app on my iPad), I make the sign of the cross and say the Gloria patria. I then go upstairs and get my second coffee for the morning. I usually postpone my colloquy with the Lord (petition and intercession) for later in the day. And as I mentioned above, the Jesus Prayer remains my principle form of prayer. It’s always with me.
I hope I will be spiritually and psychologically prepared for what the future may bring in the coming months.
The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.
(Revised: 5 May 2020)