The hope that does not pale

Traversing the darkness of so much of our mortal life we are kept on course by the inner conviction that a happy conclusion will be reached. Dame Julian of Norwich was taught in her Revelations of Divine Love that sin is necessary, but that all will be well in the fullness of time. The solution of this paradox, that sin is an integral part of life, lies in its being the portal of entry of forgiveness, whereby we alone may experience love and know its real meaning. Some of Jesus' encounters and parables illuminate this situation: the prodigal son, for instance, is received home rapturously by his rejoicing father, although he knows full well that he deserves humiliating reproof such as his older brother would gladly provide. But returning home to unrestrained rejoicing effects a juxtaposition of forgiveness and love into a previously selfish life, one that had regarded the satisfaction of carnal lusts as the summum bonum of a fruitful existence. When the Holy Spirit spoke in the depths of his soul while he was languishing in destitution, he came to himself in freedom from a hell of hedonism that had sown the seed of its own imprisonment. Then he was able to return home to whatever reception he might encounter (Luke 15.11-32).

This is how hope manifests itself when it suddenly bursts upon one during a period of despondency: there is an expansion felt in the region of the heart, the part of the body where affect manifests itself. In this way the vile experience of inner closure is relieved, as if a locked door is opened by a key and the soul exposed to the light of day. It is in this mood that one can concur with Dame Julian's conviction that all will be well; indeed all is well in eternity even if the present situation is painful. This openness to hope is dulled during a period of depression. No matter how sincere the encouragement of the sympathetic onlooker, how insistent may be the message of good tidings, the depressed person remains emotionally unmoved. It seems as if the information cannot penetrate the shut psychic portals through which emotional information reaches the mind. It is noteworthy that St John of the Cross described a not dissimilar state of affairs in what he called "the dark night of the spirit" (a state later than the better-known "dark night of the soul"), in which all spiritual consolation is powerless to penetrate the obfuscation enfolding the soul. The pain was not mitigated by well-meaning spiritual directors assuring him that all was in order, when he himself knew the matter to be the reverse, and the directors ignorant of his condition. The question arises as to whether the saint was describing a period of clinical depression or whether the experience was part of the spiritual journey of the soul to God, in a terrain where all spiritual light was necessarily occluded. Only thus would one know God in the divine darkness not only of the reasoning mind but also of the soul.

I believe the latter, that St John's experience was a grim part of his journey to God, who is beyond all description and is known to the mystic in negative categories, for no one can see God directly and remain alive. We begin to know God by his emergent energies of which love and light are the two compelling ones. But the mystic knows even more than these, for God is above all else the absolute nothing, "the cloud of unknowing" in terms of the title of a famous mystical treatise by an anonymous medieval English writer. The demeanour of the saint appears to be something more than that of a clinically depressed person. But it could well be that he had a depressive tendency. Whereas most depressives would remain helpless in their agony, he was able to use it in his spiritual journey. This illustrates something that we encounter repeatedly in our investigation of depression, that the condition is multifactorial, there being a number of factors involved in its causation.

To me the most terrible experience of depression encountered in the history of the Spirit is Jesus' grappling with demonic forces while he was in Gethsemane. He had some insight into the nature of his coming trial after the Passover meal during which he instituted the Eucharist, and so he chose his three most intimate disciples (Peter, John and James) to accompany him for what was about to occur. They were completely out of their depth, and were simply not with their Master during the time at Gethsemane. Jesus was effectively alone, and the struggle was of terrifying scale. But he prevailed in his conflict with cosmic evil, and was ready for the mosaic of events that followed. Here then is yet another factor in the development of depression: psychic conflict with demonic forces.

Hope is the most intimate of inner feelings; it comprises a combination of desire and expectation. This factor of anticipation separates hope from mere wishful thinking. In other words the end of hope is faith, which in terms of its famous definition in Hebrews 11.1 (in the Authorized Version) is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. In a more recent version faith is described as giving substance to our hopes and convincing us of realities we do not see. From all this it is evident that hope is the primary emotion. It gives birth to faith which shows itself in action: making our hopes realities by the exercise of the will. Faith is an active way to accomplishment, whereas belief is essentially an intellectual expression of certain articles of faith. One can, for instance, repeat the Creed daily, but until it becomes a clarion call to action, it remains purely theoretical.

Hope is like the first rays of the sun breaking through the darkness of a lengthy night and lighting up the previously hidden landscape to reveal its naked beauty. It comes to us all after some well-deserved humiliation, when we can hardly bear to show ourselves to our fellows. The emotion evoked is that of shame, and we wonder whether we will ever be able to face the world again. Those of low spiritual awareness will thrust themselves against the outer world with heedless insistence, showing what we call a brave face, and sometimes a shameless one too. But their behaviour is noticed, albeit frequently unconsciously, by others, for nothing that is done fails to evoke its corresponding reaction. On the other hand, the sensitive type of person will tend to hide himself or herself in the shadows in order to arouse as little comment as possible. And then the emergent rays of hope suddenly penetrate the darkness and illuminate it with the forgiveness that is divine in origin. The humiliated individual can now show themself to the world, and admit their fault without excuse. It is quite clear to me that they are accompanied by their guardian angel, God's messenger allotted to their particular care, and now their self-esteem is supported from a source much more exalted than any human agency. I believe categorically in the ministry of angels, who are messengers of God through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Every living organism is supported by its angelic protector, but only the human is capable of appreciating this aid. And even he or she seems often unaware of this support until the ego has been displaced from its customary place of dominance by peril of one kind or another. Humiliation is a great disaster inasmuch it cuts away much of the illusion that clothes the ego, revealing its naked weakness. It is at that moment that truth can penetrate the shaken ego and illuminate the personality that is so often hidden by specious pretension. When we are inwardly illuminated by truth, we suddenly come to see how beautiful we are in the sight of God; this even if our lives have been far from exemplary.

The essence of a happy life is an attitude of self-esteem which allows us to do our work without self-doubt or diffidence. That self should, however, be accepted rather than needing to be constantly affirmed by display or the praise of others. The less I think about myself in the course of my work, the better is the work performed and the greater is my feeling of satisfaction, which shows itself in ever more creative work on behalf of the community. Such work is bound to be less lucrative than private endeavour, but what may be sacrificed in terms of financial reward is returned in general goodwill. At that point I am identified with the whole, and need not assert myself as a private force requiring constant reassurance that all is well with me. "He who keeps watching the wind will never sow, and he who keeps his eye on the clouds will never reap" (Ecclesiastes 11.4). The essence of a fruitful life is one in which we are so closely united to the world in our endeavour that we can put our trust in the workings of divine grace, by which we are sustained day by day. There are sure to be occasions when disaster strikes, but if we are in one piece with the created order, we will survive and carry on as best as we are able. The story of the trials of Job points the way here, and when death ultimately closes the present scene, we will be ready for further adventures in the life beyond death. All this is an illustration of existence grounded in hope and lived with childlike faith. What is required of one is to serve quietly and with humour for the benefit of the community as a whole; one is supported by unseen forces which act best when one is animated with goodwill and trust, and can give of oneself unaffectedly to the task at hand. All this is a working description of a constructive life, something more than mere happiness, which is at best a fleeting state of affairs and wisely not to be grasped when it comes upon one. There should rather be gratitude to God for what has been given, and the will to continue in humility until the whole has been attained: this is the good life beyond all emotions that points to something of the peace which passes all understanding.

When one can face one's guilt in an attitude of straightforward truth, rather like the prodigal son, and ask God for forgiveness, one is instantly relieved of one's burden and given the strength to move on in contrition to the purpose ahead of one in one's life. "Come to me, all who are weary and whose load is heavy; I will give you rest" (Matthew 11.28). Christ does this by taking the load upon himself, so that we may have some respite from our inner turmoil, and as he lifts our pain from us, there flows in a golden ray of hope that soon broadens into a band of resolve. Through faith this resolve is actualized, and its substance fulfilled in our future work. The quotation continues, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble-hearted; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to wear, my load is light" (verses 29-30). In fact the yoke of Christ is the suffering of the whole world and the load the collective sin of humanity since its inception. But transcending all this pain there is an awareness of God, who will lift up the darkness, as Jesus' tortured body was raised at the time of his resurrection, and rain down upon all who are open to life and aware of their fellow creatures a blessing of light and an inner glow of hope that heralds a new way of service and love. Guilt is our emotional response to sin which we freely acknowledge, and shame is the attitude we register to those around us. When we can repeat St Paul's admission, "For all alike have sinned, and are deprived of the divine glory" (Romans 3.23), the joy of collective forgiveness comes upon us as hope expands our previously closed emotional response and allows the warmth of God's presence to direct our way. St Paul puts this more theologically as he continues, "and all are justified by God's free grace alone, through his act of liberation in the person of Christ Jesus" (verse 24). This justification, the act of being put in right relationship with God, follows Christ's love for us, and we in turn are freed and directed to show a similar love to our fellows, so that love may abound and hope flourish for what we are destined to achieve for the regeneration of the world.

During the period of the severe depression I had ten years ago I was engaged in writing a book about Christ's presence in the world today, which I entitled Coming in Glory. Sadly it is now out of print, but there is a portion of the prologue which is worth quoting.

I felt completely cut off from the usual source of my creativity. Prayer, which is the usual staple of my life, could then be carried out only by rote, for I was encompassed in a darkness that resembled a pea-soup type of fog. At the same time I was excessively sensitive emotionally, and past memories came flooding into my mind; I was overwhelmed by mental pain almost too acute to bear. But I continued praying for others, though no one needed prayer more than I. Suddenly one morning I was aware of a blue light in my spiritual horizon, such as is customary when I normally pray and am involved in the ministry of healing. This was my first indication that I had turned the corner of my depression, and was now able to see something of the spiritual realm once more.

The blue light which lightens the darkness in my prayer life is a pale spark of hope not only for myself but for all those whom I remember in my intercession. I would interpret it as a psychic phenomenon of high spiritual potency, signifying the illumination of the coarse emotional nature by a fine flame of God's cleansing love. This is precisely how hope inspires the psyche in its ever-proceeding course of action, a delicate light of purity that brings the person back again to their childhood innocence. This is the state of mind in which to pursue all creative activity, observing that the heart of creativity lies in relating with integrity to oneself and one's fellow creatures. The arts of music, visual representation, and literature are great products of creative imagination, but even more fundamental is the capacity to relate in open trust to another person. The arts themselves find their full realization in confiding the human spirit intimately to the world, so that people may become ennobled in their work together; the end is a transformed society in which love is the cardinal activity. This is admittedly a visionary aspiration when one considers the darkness of so much of the individual psyche that reached a nadir in the mass destruction of our present century. But hope springs in the most unlikely situations and from the most unprepossessing people whose "better selves" suddenly perform actions of the greatest heroism and self-sacrificing love. One can say with the Psalmist, "When I look up at your heavens, the work of your fingers, at the moon and the stars you have set in place, what is a frail mortal, that you should be mindful of him, a human being, that you should take notice of him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowning his head with glory and honour" (Psalm 8.3-5) There is hope in even the most desperate situations, and the capacity of a Spirit-filled human is enormous. The greatest work is neither technological marvels nor charismatic phenomena; it is the act of renunciation of the self for the sake of the world, which is concentrated into one's neighbour who is in need. "Anything you did for one of my brothers here, however insignificant, you did for me" (Matthew 25.40).

Hope stimulates faith which should put one's dearest aspirations into practice. Sometimes, however, faith becomes an end in itself, so that a literalistic view of a Scripture passage ends all discussion about a subject. This type of faith, very common amongst fundamentalists of various religious traditions, smothers hope in that it puts paid to any development of thought that might illuminate the present view with a broader perspective that is not afraid of the insights of modern scientific understanding and the spiritual genius of others of the world's great saints. Certainty puts an end to hope, but where the assurance is only true in part or even frankly erroneous, it quenches the human spirit and precipitates terrible reactions of intolerance, fanaticism and superstition: anyone who cannot subscribe fully to something that at its very best is of tentative nature is regarded as a dangerous heretic whose wrong attitudes may precipitate the wrath of God. The progressive nature of the unfolding of truth is hard for insecure individuals to accept, for they look for absolute certainty. They exclude the marvellous quality of hope from their lives and remain static until their death. Where growth ceases, atrophy and dissolution inevitably follow.

It must also be said that some exponents of modernistic, liberal religion are uncompromisingly reductionist, dogmatically attributing all phenomena to material causes, and contemptuously rejecting the psychic and spiritual nature of at least some human experience. This point of view is equally intolerant, and hope is sadly marginalized and eventually removed from its range of possibility. Anyone who is absolutely sure of a religious position may acquire a warm centre of repose, but if that person is not fully aware, they may find it a coffin also. No wonder we have to become as children if we are to enter the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18.3): they retire to bed peacefully each night, and awake in hope to new adventures each morning.

When people are incurably ill, especially those facing imminent death, it is very important for those around them to flow out in reasoned hope. This is not a blind optimism, that all will be well on this side of the grave, but a lightness of touch that seems to put the present sadness in the context of the vast universe. If matters of life and death are broached by the patient, it is wiser to listen than to hold the floor with dogmatic opinions. It seems that many slowly dying patients are given deep information not only about their condition and its probable outcome, but also about those who have recently died and the preparations under way for their own transition to the life beyond physical death.

The same approach is also true for those suffering from clinical depression. These often include a number of bereaved patients. I spoke in Chapter 1 about "communicative silence", and the heart of the matter lies in understanding the process. I might say that the term was used appreciatively of my company by a person I knew only moderately well, whom I had invited to dinner - her deceased mother with whom I had worked intensively in the ministry of deliverance, and whom I mention again in Chapter 13, was the point of contact, but a similar sort of compliment had been paid before when I was in the company of a woman whom I had previously counselled during a period of difficult family relationship. In this case she had invited me to a dress rehearsal at Glyndebourne, where she worked on the administrative staff. We had a light supper between acts of Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin's delightful folk opera.

In each case, and no doubt in many others too, I carried on such a conversation that we both enjoyed, and when the topic came to an end, I was quite happy to remain silent, enjoying the company of my partner and the atmosphere of the surroundings. In due course the conversation was resumed, when an interesting observation struck one of us, but no attempt was made to continue talking at all costs. The silence at first apparently disconcerted my friends, who were accustomed to a continuous flow of talk, but soon they began to relax and, like me, enjoy the moment at hand. It was a new experience for them, and a health-giving one also. I, living alone, am used to silence so much that the noise and conviviality of a party comes as an initial shock to me; likewise when the end of a silent retreat that I have conducted is happily celebrated over the last meal before we all return home. When one is with a clinically depressed person, this communicative silence is like balm to the victim. Somehow one's deep understanding and concern are much more effectively communicated psychically from a spiritual source within one (the "apex of the soul" where the spirit is situated, and it in turn is the focus of the Holy Spirit in each person), when one is completely silent until the Holy Spirit impels one to say a special word of encouragement or enlightenment. The apogee of communicative silence is prayer; only when we are quiet before the mystery of creation may the divine presence meet us, because then we are ready to receive God. As we grow in the way of prayer, so do we begin to know that true prayer is an aware openness to the workings of God, that we may play our part in transmitting the divine love to all whom we meet in the daily round. Prayer is universal in scope, for God has no favourites. The way of communicative silence is also the most effective way of knowing God and serving our fellow creatures. Communicative silence transmits hope directly to our depressed friends and indeed to all that bear the burden of misfortune and loneliness. I have little doubt that we will appreciate this silence when the body is dead and the soul passes forth into new surroundings for fresh adventures.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blest.
The soul, uneasy, and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutored mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul proud science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk or milky way;
Yet simple nature to his hope has giv'n,
Behind the cloud-topped hill, an humbler heav'n.
          Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle i, 1, 95

Chapter 7
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