Anyone who has experienced the grip of depression knows it is a spiritual disease as much mental as physical. Is there a spiritual path out of the dark night?
There is an old and wise foreboding in Catholic monastic traditions to “Beware the Noonday Devil.” That is also the title of an excellent 2007 post by Father Paul Scalia at Catholic Exchange. For monks who arose in the night for the Divine Office prayer of Matins, and then arose again early in the morning for Lauds, the noonday period sometimes induced lethargy and sloth that left monks in the grip of depression. Noonday with its exhaustion and malaise was seen as a spiritually vulnerable time. Thus in monastic life depression came to be known as “the noonday devil.”
Support for the monastic concern was also found in Sacred Scripture, notably in the Gospel: “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42). An admonition of Saint Peter warns us to “Stay sober and alert for your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Psalm 91, my favorite of the Psalms, addressed the noonday dread more directly:
“You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that lays waste at noonday.” (Psalm 91:5-6)
For anyone who has ever suffered from chronic depression, Saint Peter’s characterization of “a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” pretty much captures it. So does the Psalmist’s “the destruction that lays waste at noon.” As Lent approached this year, I began to look at how I could challenge my own chronic depression. Then I decided to make a post of it, and invite others to join this Lenten battle.
First, however, if you take medication for depression, don’t give that up for Lent! I can offer no medical expertise for treating the insidious disease of depression, but I do have some hard-won experience on depression’s spiritual toll. I can also offer some of the spiritual guidance that, for me, at least, has proven effective in taming this roaring lion for it has devoured me too often. I’ve learned an important truth about coping with depression in my current milieu, but that lesson begins with a painful and depressing story.
Two weeks before I sat down to write this post, I was lying in my bunk one night at 10:00 PM. My little television was tuned to a PBS station. I was just about to turn it off when an episode of PBS Frontline began. “It’s like being buried alive,” I heard a shaky voice say. “It makes you mean; it makes you violent, it [expletive’s] up your head,” said another. Added a third, “If you don’t have a strong mind, this place can break you quick.”
Then a somber voice introduced Rodney Bouffard, Warden of Maine State Prison’s “supermax” unit who said, “You can have them do their whole time in segregation, but I don’t want him living next to me when you release him.”
I suddenly realized that I was about to see a Frontline production about the solitary confinement “supermax” unit of the Maine State Prison where Pornchai Moontri spent thirteen years before being transferred to the New Hampshire prison where we met. As Frontline introduced the story, Pornchai was fast asleep in his bunk just a few feet above me. I pondered for a moment whether to awaken him, and then decided against it.
Each night at 9:00 PM, Pornchai is given medication for diagnoses of anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The meds generally send him into a deep sleep by 10:00 PM on every night except Sunday when he struggles to remain awake for Mass. So I decided to brave Frontline’s “Solitary Nation” alone and then tell him about it the next day. By the time it was over, Pornchai remained fast asleep while I spent much of that night in a state of restless horror.
The Frontline cameras spent six months filming in a place rarely seen by the public. I followed the plight of a few Maine prisoners who spent months at a time in and out of solitary confinement, rendered, as the Warden predicted, socially dysfunctional and broken because of their months in solitary. One prisoner who spent a year there in one stretch was the one quoted above who described how it made him mean, violent, and broken.
As the documentary unfolded, I saw prisoners covered in blood having cut themselves in their solitary madness. I saw fecal matter come flying out the food slots in the doors toward guards. I watched the horror of a screaming young man being placed for the first time in one of those bloodstained and horribly smelling tombs. I saw men so broken and mentally ill by the time they moved on that I knew they could not last long out among the living, only to land in solitary again.
Then I recalled that Pornchai spent a total of over six years there, confined in one stretch of solitary confinement for three-and-a-half years in what had to be the longest any prisoner survived in Maine’s supermax. I could conceive of no modern horror more destructive to one’s humanity than what I witnessed on that small screen. The fact that I was seeing for the first time the conditions Pornchai lived in, and still lives with, made me unable to turn away or turn it off.
I remember reading Pornchai’s somber details in “Welcome to Supermax,” a courageous article he wrote two years ago published by the prison reform organization, Solitary Watch. I knew Pornchai never exaggerated any of his experiences there, but articles can be easy to intellectualize. Now I had a visual to go along with it, and it woke me up to the bitter reality of what had happened to him.
It was important that I understand this. If you want to understand it as well, I recommend viewing “Solitary Nation” at PBS.org. If the visual reality is just too depressing, then the transcript is also available. I had one printed and sent to me, and Pornchai bravely read it. He read every word, then handed it back saying, “Now you know.”
When I look back over the seven years since Pornchai was moved from there to here, I can see more clearly now that he came back from the brink of total despair. Pornchai himself wrote about this a year ago in an inspiring guest post, “I Come to the Catholic Church for Healing and Hope.”
There are some parts of that story that are missing, and I will try to fill them in.
When Pornchai and I first became friends in 2007, he had periods in which he sank into deep, hopeless depression. I remember one day that his cellmate at the time came to me and said, “I don’t know what to do. He hasn’t spoken or eaten or even gotten out of bed in five days except to use the bathroom.” That was seven years ago.
I remember going to talk with Pornchai, and being very concerned about the lifeless expression and hopelessness in his face. So I told him that I was not leaving his cell “until you get your butt out of that bunk and talk to me.” He obliged, but only to get rid of me. The anger in his eyes masked deep, deep chasms of pain and distrust born of betrayal and abuse.
Over the long run, as you know if you have been reading These Stone Walls, friendship found a well of trust, and then a source of hope, and then the courage to have faith, and then the discovery of Divine Mercy and, finally, a radical conversion. Seven years later, it seems impossible to reconcile the account above with the face of Pornchai Moontri at his 2012 high school graduation in prison, a face that you have seen often on TSW for it radiates hope and promise and redemption.
How does one go from years of brutal solitary confinement in a supermax prison to that? The question becomes ever more mysterious if you watch the Frontline video. As Pornchai himself described it, “I woke up one day with a future when up to then all I ever had was a past.”
THE DESTRUCTION THAT LAYS WASTE
About a year ago, I sank into a depression of my own. Actually, I have noticed that every time I have become depressed in prison, it was always a result of thinking myself into the depression. Feelings of hopelessness and futility crept in, and as I dwelt on them, I played their messages over and over in my mind, filling up all the empty moments with my inner language of injustice and resentment.
I always ended up on the slippery slope toward a bout of depression. Few of my episodes lasted long, but a year ago, the destruction that laid waste came from inside my own mind, and left me unprepared to stand my ground. It was precipitated by a visit from my bishop, the first after many years of silence, and presumably the last.
The visit was far from transcendent. Every attempt I made to speak in my own defense was rebuffed and silenced. It became clear to me that the script had already been written, and Church officials would continue to refuse to allow any defense, any due process. At the same time, an American cardinal assured writer, Ryan MacDonald that every accused American Catholic priest is afforded due process and a full canonical defense. The disconnect between reality and rhetoric is… well… depressing!
I recently wrote about this to a TSW reader who described her own bouts with depression in a letter to me. She wanted to know how I could possibly avoid depression in prison under these circumstances. In my letter, I explained that as I sank into my own depression, I became oblivious – as the noonday devil often demands – of its effect on others.
Then one day I witnessed something I had not seen for a long time in the face of my friend, doubt, uncertainty, and grief. Pornchai’s own bouts of suffering from deeply felt discouragement and abandonment had diminished. Now he was suffering from mine. As my spirit slowly descended, I came to see that I could not afford to let it fall any further. I was losing my grip not on my own cross, but on someone else’s. Just imagine Simon of Cyrene letting that happen.
A NOBEL PURPOSE GREATER THAN MYSELF
Suzanne Sadler, TSW’s wonderful editor in Australia, recently sent me a message that she had ordered a book for me. I doubted I would ever see it as most books sent to me require that I give one up to receive it, and that is sometimes difficult. Without a hitch, however, the book arrived, and it’s a treasure just in time for this post.
The book is The Catholic Guide to Depression by Aaron Kheriaty, MD, with Father John Cihak, STD (Sophia Press, 2012). I had a chuckle because Suzanne ordered the book from Australia, but when I first opened it, I saw that Sophia Press publishes in Manchester, New Hampshire, less than twenty miles from this prison. I haven’t had the book long enough to fully digest it, but when I first opened it I landed immediately on a page I believe I was meant to see.
“The well-known psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observed that hope is essential if one is to go on living under difficult circumstances. Frankl was a Jew imprisoned in Auschwitz who years later wrote his most famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning… Frankl argued that survival in such circumstances required that a person find some meaning, some noble end or purpose to his life.” (p. 210)
These Stone Walls began with Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In a 2013 post entitled “Suffering and Saint Maximilian Kolbe Behind These Stone Walls,” I wrote of how it led me to this great modern Saint of Auschwitz, how it taught me to cope with the prison of depression and despair by placing the pain of others ahead of my own, and of how Pornchai, moved by this Saint Maximilian’s sacrifice, took his name at the time of his Divine Mercy conversion.
I found it astonishing that both Viktor Frankl and Aaron Kheriaty, MD went on in their respective books to cite Saint Maximilian Kolbe as an example of the virtue of hope lived for the good of others. “Hope is a virtue that changes everything,” Dr. Kheriaty wrote. He quoted Pope Benedict XVI in his magisterial encyclical, Spe Salvi, Saved by Hope: “The one who has hope lives differently.”
Only by failing to instill hope in others can the roaring lion of depression ever devour you. Once such a thing takes place, there is no room for depression. It loses its will to feed itself, and ceases its descent. Saint Maximilian gave his life because he found a suffering greater than his own, and that became his cross, willingly borne.
The key to coping with depression is to become Maximilian Kolbe, to bear the cross of another, never putting it down long enough to make room for self-absorption. It gives birth to hope, and “the one who has hope lives differently.” It’s what places you, as Psalm 91 promises, “In the shelter, of the Most High, abiding in the shadow of the Almighty,” a worthy destination for a Lenten journey.
A Note From Father Gordon
Readers may know from following comments that the prison I am in spent a week under total quarantine for an outbreak of influenza near the end of January. This was followed immediately by a major blizzard and then several smaller snow storms in New Hampshire. As a result, I have not been able to type a post to follow this one. So our next post on These Stone Walls will be March 4, and to make up for it, here is some suggested reading for Lent:
Some Further Lenten Reading from These Stone Walls:
- “Potholes on the High Road: Forgiving Those Who Trespass Against Us”
- “In a City on a Hill: Lent, Sacrifice, and the Passage of Time”
- “Forty Days of Lent in the Practice of the Presence of God”
- “With the Dawn Comes Rejoicing: Lent for the Lost and Found”
- “Inspired by Divine Mercy: Giving Up Getting Even”
Editor’s Note: We have met our goal for the fund for Father Gordon MacRae’s Federal Appeal at These Stone Walls. At this writing, the habeas corpus appeal remains pending before the United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire. Father MacRae is deeply grateful to readers for their generosity and spirit of justice. As this troubling case proceeds, there will be other costs, legal and otherwise. Should you wish to help or to continue assisting with the support of These Stone Walls, the PayPal link on TSW remains active. Please, see the CONTACT page on These Stone Walls for additional avenues of assistance.