The Spiritual Meaning of Depression – Melancholy and Accidie in Desert Tradition

“The heart of the wise are in the house of mourning, but the heart of the fools is in the house of mirth” [Ecclesiastes, 7, 4].

PREAMBLE

This statement presents not a medical, nor a narrowly psychiatric, understanding of depression. The spiritual meaning of depression to be explored here is that which is implicit in the story of David in the Psalms. David underwent both kinds of depression; there are Psalms where struggle with melancholy occurs [Septuagint: 68, 87, 41], while there are other Psalms where struggle with accidie occurs [Septuagint:101, 60, 88].

We should understand and heal the process of depression in the same way that is evident in the troubled and turbulent experience of David, who was not only [Eros inspired] poet and lover, but also [Daemonic dynamised] warrior and king. Melancholy is the disease that poisons the soul of the poet and lover. Accidie is the disease that flattens the heart of the warrior and king.

[I] The Spiritual Dynamic in Depression

1,
Depression undermines soul life and heart activity on the outside and drags us, kicking and screaming, back to the inside, and plunges us down into the deeps, to the foundations and bases of all life and all activity. Where before we walked on the surface of existence, seemingly on solid ground, suddenly in depression we are plunged into the cave of the soul or into the abyss of the heart.

We either get stuck in this place of inside and of deeps, unable to die to the old way of soul life and of heart activity, yet prevented from returning to it due to its being undercut and stricken; or this process of interiorisation and deepening undoes us and remakes us in the bases and foundations of soul and of heart.

We are undone to be remade vis a vis:

–God.
–Humanity and the World.

Depression is an invitation to fall into the hands of the living God, and to really rejoin the human race, by rejoining the human tragedy.

2,
The cure for depression?

There is no cure. The very word ‘cure’ expresses our clinging to the old life and old activity, demanding it be restored to us. In depression, God wounds us to take this away.

There is no cure, but there is a healing, for depression. The healing is paradoxical. The healing of the wound of existence is to be harshly stricken by it and go farther into it.

We are healed by a wound.

[II] The Fallen Passions

1,
The Desert Tradition of Eastern Christianity speaks of 8 ‘fallen passions’ in the human mind, soul, heart, and spirit. These are deeply lodged in us. They are not just behaviours performed in the external that can be externally altered by pressure, manipulation, inducement. These are inherent states of mind, soul, heart, and spirit, and it is their ‘lodging’ in us which has to be changed. So long as they dominate our inward ground, they act as compulsions which drive us; they rob us of freedom and love. Without choice, we are forced to manifest unloving energies towards the world.

Yet, the fallen passions of soul and heart are not evil per se, but simply the distortion of something good and true.

The soul: created as a Vessel of God’s Goodness. The soul longs for the Goodness of God. Symbolically, this Goodness is life-giving waters. I thirst, said David.

The heart: created as a Vehicle of God’s Truth. The heart suffers and fights for the truth of God. Symbolically, this Truth is sacrificial fire. I came into the world to kindle fire, and how I wish it were kindled already, Christ said.

In the Old Testament, it is never a matter of suppressing the bad behaviour, or even refusing to entertain the cognitive phantasy that accompanies it, but the challenge is to change the deeper lodged motive. For example, God’s ‘righteousness’ does not refer to behavioural or cognitive manifestations, but to what is in the heart. The heart contains the basic intent. Only God sees into the heart. To become righteous, we must see into the heart, so as to change its intent. This is far harder than changing behaviour or phantasy.

Thus, Goodness is of the soul, and God sees what Goodness is or is not in the soul. Truth is of the heart, and God sees what Truth is or is not in the heart.

2,
The nous searches, the soul desires, the heart fights, according to St Maximos. A soul that cannot desire the Good is in a kind of Hades, a heart that cannot fight for the Truth is in a kind of Hell.

The later Latin tradition [Gregory the Great, 590-604] reduced the 8 fallen passions of the earlier Greek tradition [gluttony, greed, lust, hatred, dejection/melancholy, despondency or accidie, vainglory, pride] to 7: by collapsing pride and vainglory into one, called “pride”; adding “envy”; and collapsing the two kinds of depression into one, called “sloth.” It was John Cassian who brought Evagrius [375-400?], and the entire Desert Tradition, of Egypt and Palestine to the West.

The Latin word ‘sloth’ isn’t very helpful as a designation for depression, but it does make clear that neither the anguished grief, nor the devastating incapacitation of life and activity, within depression is sinful; the sinful element is ‘spiritual laziness’: passivity, the unliving and inaction– the soul not ‘living’ the goodness of life and the heart not ‘acting for’ truth. In depression, we turn against the energies that animate soul, and that move heart: we remain in unlife and inaction, and thus fail to live and do what we were put into this world to live and do. We make no contribution to this world, nor let it contribute to us. Yet in reality this is a tragedy. Why be born at all if only a deadened life and a paralysed action is our lot in this world? Thus the Desert Tradition makes no hard and fast distinction between sin and illness. Depression is a sickness– we can borrow from Kierkegaard to describe it as “the sickness unto death”– but within this sickness is the potentiality of a dying and rebirth, a greater healing than ‘how happy we were’ before we fell into depression.

But just here we come to a more nuanced understanding of spiritual laziness: what it really refers to is not just the tragedy of our never living to the full and never acting to the full, but something more subtle. In order for the turn around in the deeps to occur, through a death that is a rebirth, we need to do some inner, and depth ‘work.’ The spiritual laziness in depression that is sinful is not the pain and paralysis in the condition that destroys our old life/activity, and its inability as yet to give birth to a new life/activity, but our passivity toward the opportunity provided by the depression– our refusal to do the work in it, psychological and spiritual, which will co-operate with and facilitate the inner, and deep, dying that leads on to rebirth. There is no way ‘out’ of depression, but there is a way ‘through.’ Spiritual laziness is refusing to take up what the Chinese ‘I Ching’ calls “work on what has been spoiled”– work that will help the way through to emerge; instead, we passively remain in the tomb of depression because something in the depression is compensating us for what the depression has taken away from us.

The inner, depth work we do in depression is to examine our life and action at root, and to allow both damage and error to come to light; but it is more fundamental even than this. We must let go of the old foundation, by letting the soul be emptied and the heart burnt to ashes: we must embrace God’s wound. In depression we are wrestling in this dilemma: something in us is resisting the Daemonic blow of God, refusing it and solacing ourselves for it, which creates the dynamic phenomenology, or experiential process, of the depressive state; while something else is embracing the wound and being healed by virtue of embracing it.

The wound that befalls us, like a fate, heals us of shallowness, hurt, error, if we work with it, and allow its process to go all the way in undoing us to remake us. We have to die to be reborn.

In short, the cave of soul and the abyss of heart either becomes a place of death and rebirth, or it becomes our tomb.

[III] The 2 Depressions in Desert Tradition

1,
Since melancholy afflicts soul, and accidie afflicts heart, it is necessary to say something more about them.

What does the desire of soul really desire?
Eros.
Eros: God’s fullness and richness, God’s power of fruition and creation, which plants heaven in earth, making a Garden and Wellspring of Goodness.
Eros: the Good and our union with it. Joy.
From the point of view of the soul, God created to bestow his Goodness on us as a gift.

What does the passion of heart really want?
Truth.
Truth: God’s promise and vow– the Pillar of this world, that carries it like a load. The load is a suffering and it is a burden.
Truth: the Sacrificial and our trust in it. Hope.
From the point of view of the heart, God created to take a terrible risk, a deep gamble, that heart truth can uphold and finally redeem the world.

In the Desert Tradition, the two different kinds of depression are called in Greek ‘melancholy’ and ‘accidie.’ Melancholy originally breaks down into two parts, “melan”: black, and “khole”: bile. ‘Black bile’: something dark and heavy in which one is stuck. Experientially, melancholy is ‘wet’ and ‘heavy’, a swamp. Accidie also originally breaks down into two parts, “a”: not, and “kedia”: to care for others, as you would in burying the dead. ‘Not caring about anything: even leaving the dead unburied.’ Experientially, accidie is ‘dry’ and ‘enervated’, a desert.

In melancholy, the soul is sucked into a sludge of water and earth, swallowed in mud. In accidie, the heart is trapped in a furnace of sun and earth, baked to dust.

2,
Melancholy and accidie will now be looked at in more detail.

[1] MELANCHOLY = a sickness of the soul’s desire and imagination [appetetive faculty]. “DEJECTION” [de: down, jectere: thrown; literally ‘thrown down’; to be downcast, one’s spirits lowered, or pressed down; David speaks of being under the waves: unable to come up for air]. A gloomy, brooding, vinegary, vexed, rancorous Sadness, which Longs for something Unobtainable.

BIBLICAL= This melancholy overwhelmed the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, causing them to fall asleep as Christ underwent his battle with himself, before he battled the devil for the world. That the disciples could not stay awake because of melancholy is evident in the text, for it says when Christ returned he found them “sleeping for sorrow” [Luke, 22, 45]. St Paul refers to a holy sorrow which leads to fundamental change, but he also distinguishes holy ‘lype’ from a worldly sorrowing that deadens the soul [2 Corinthians, 7,10]. The deadening is a kind of sleep, a sleep haunted by dreams of bitterness and yearning.

PRE MODERN= Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’ [1621]– a protest against loss, a twisted sadness that can find no joy in the world, and seeks for what desire has lost, or cannot have, in phantasy and dreaming; yearning for the unreal replaces any satisfaction with the real. Often seen as resonant with profundity, the stigmata of artists and philosophers. Samuel Johnson said melancholy is the sickness of one “separated from his fulfilments.” Freud repeated the older understanding when he noted that melancholy arises out of mourning, as a distortion of grieving, and that the plaints in melancholia are really complaints: ‘life has let me down, not given me what I so thirst for.’

DESERT WAY= the “deprivation of desire.” Resentment for not getting our desire, and a longing that fixates us to the lost, or unrealisable, object of that desire, in imagination. Hence nothing real satisfies us. All love for life is gone: there is no Eros outside our imagination. The phantasies and dreams of imagination soothe us, but take us further and further from reality. We are never satisfied: we turn from what we do have, because it is never good enough. Real life pales, and our life becomes drawn into an unreal domain of longed for but never to be found fulfilment. In Shamanic terms, our soul is sucked into the land of the dead [compare with St Paul’s ‘worldly sorrow’ that leads to deadness, 2 Corinthians, 7,10]– because it seeks an unrealisable life, and won’t let it go. We sulk, we are sullen, we brood; we have no gratitude for what we do have.

HASIDISM= “The world looks brightly illuminated for those who don’t want it — and gloomy and dark to those who seek to possess it.”

THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL= all images must be surrendered, not just worldly but also sacred, to come to God qua God.

1,a = Basic Description– DISCONTENTMENT.
1,b = Healing– Acceptance of the Loss in existence.

[2] ACCIDIE = a sickness of the heart’s will and passion [incensive faculty].
“DESPONDENCY” [de: away from, spondere: promise; literally ‘to give up on one’s promise’; to lose heart, loss of courage, loss of hope; David speaks of his vital force turning to ashes: burnt up, burnt out].

A desolate, forsaken, wasted away Listlessness, given to restless Wandering, to avoid an unavoidable Burden.

BIBLICAL = This Accidie rendered David desperate in the Psalms: “A prayer of one suffering from ‘akedia’ and pleading before the Lord” [Psalm 101]. David exposes his illness honestly; he is ‘gutted’– a vitality extinguished, like smoke easily blown away; a heart stricken and withered; a hunger too wasted away to eat his bread: “I eat ashes like bread, and mingle tears with my drink”; he is awake long hours with terrible lucidity, unlike the melancholy in which we cannot wake from the heaviness of sleep and its yearning dreams, but in his lucidity all he can see are ‘the cracks in the pavement.’

DESERT WAY = The “noon day devil”, under whose too harsh demands and challenges we wilt, thus “abandoning our post.”

EXISTENTIALISM= alienation– the world is absurd, the person a hollow and burnt out shell. Nothing matters, and even if it did, no human being can make any difference to it. Apathy: disinclined for exertion of will, and lacking any energy of passion with which to go out toward anything meaningful, valuable, purposive. This contains a huge negation thrown at life and the self, a way of saying to both ‘this is beyond help.’

2,a = Basic Description– DISCOURAGEMENT.
2,b = Healing– Trust in the Risk of existence

[IV] Final Conclusion

We have to Accept the Loss and Trust the Risk that calls us into a new basis and foundation, and therefore provides for us a new soul life and a new heart activity, after we die to the old and are reborn to the new.

1–New soul life and new heart activity towards God: Poverty [blessed are the poor in spirit].

The soul is emptied to be made full of the water of life, in its Erotic Goodness, Beauty, Wisdom, Joy; the heart is burnt to ashes to be kindled by the fire of truth, in its Daemonic Ardour, Courage, Generosity, Fervour, Hope. We acquire, from poverty of soul and heart, the soul and heart indwelt by God, and able to be the soul vessel and heart vehicle God intends for our soul desire and heart fight in and towards the world.

2–New soul life and new heart activity towards Humanity and the World: Mourning [blessed are those that mourn].

2,a
We become a new Wellspring of water of soul life and a new Pillar of fire of heart action in the world: a new eros shared and given away to the world, a new passion serving, protecting, sacrificed, for the world.

2,b
But this happens paradoxically.

This paradox is evident in the life of a famous Hasidic Zadik—this word means not ‘master’ or ‘elder’, but ‘tested and proved’, or ‘checked out’–called Rebbe Barukh, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. Unlike other Zadiks who were gentle and kind, Rebbe Barukh was sad and angry, pouring onto his followers both his fierce grief and his fierce anger.

He taught: In a world where love is absent, love is not enough. Sadness and a certain Anger “blessed from above and below” is needed. How can one not despair of this unredeemed world? Love does not lessen the tragedy of existence, but love prevents this tragedy from being vacuous and pointless; love makes this tragedy noble and profound. But it does not remove the tragedy.

He said: The tragedy of this world means that there are Existential Questions which interrogate us. We must not avoid these questions, we must not turn our gaze away from the abyss. Look into despair, even if it remains until the last breath.

He also said: To help another human, we must confront the same peril they do, and be bruised by the same dark flame that bruised them.

Rebbe Barukh was sad, and angry, because he cared, because he had ‘Ahavat Israel’– concern for the people. To risk our life for someone else’s life, to risk our faith for someone else’s faith: this was Rebbe Barukh’s understanding, and practice, of Ahavat Israel.

He told a young disciple who had lost all faith and was contemplating suicide: “I know there are questions that have no answers; there is a suffering that has no name; there is injustice in God’s creation—and there are reasons enough for man to explode with rage. I know there are reasons for you to be angry. Good. Let us be angry. Together.”

2,c
We can enter the wound of existence, the tragedy of the world, to give something redemptive to it, only if we are truly wounded by it. Thus, like everyone else, and like Christ on the Cross, we must mourn for this world, mourn for life drowned in illusion and action burnt up in futility.

Our mourning with people is a recognition that God has not yet redeemed the world. This is why in our mourning is both Sadness and Anger, even Despair: for the world and God are not yet, and might never be, reconciled finally. Thus, for Christ to give God to the world, redemptively, he had to share the world’s genuine existential emptiness/sadness and the world’s genuine existential dereliction/anger. Christ had to know disappointment of all joy, and forsakenness of all hope, just as we know it. He had to cry with us to God, why have you abandoned the world?

When we are solid with the brother and sister in their deepest and most authentic existential sense of loss and sense of failure, then–and only then–do we really share the bad together and give the good to the bad, and really shoulder the burden together and give strength to weakness. We must sorrow with those who sorrow, to give God’s joy to their human sorrow; we must be angry and despairing with those in anger and despair, to give God’s hope to their human discouragement. There is no joy resurrected from sorrow that is not in inconsolable sorrow first; there is no hope resurrected from dereliction that is not in irremovable futility first.

Indeed, Rebbe Barukh was right: Love is not enough.

Love operates through a Wound.

We are wounded by God, emptied of fullness and burnt to ashes in the poverty of the first beatitude, in order to rejoin the human wound at its most true and savage and raw. There is no depression in the mourning of the second beatitude, only the real soul thirst and heart hunger, the soul’s sorrowful sigh and the heart’s anguished cry, in which “deep cries to deep.”

We must cease being religious boy and girl scouts, pretending God has remade us in such a way as to be absolved from, or lifted out of, the common human destiny. No! In our poverty, we are unmade and remade for God, in order to rejoin the human wound, the sighing and crying of all the world, to experience its hurt more deeply, more purely, more inescapably, so that by being wounded by the world’s condition, we can give God to it to work in the deeps like a seed that dies and sinks down into the ground, but can thereby transform the deeps from within. From the deeps emerges a joy born of sorrow, from the deeps emerges a hope born of despair. This is Christ’s process–of crucifixion, descent into Hades and Hell, before resurrection–and it must be ours.

We must be Sad about God and Angry with God because of the world’s abandonment, to be solid with people in sadness and in anger. To rejoice with those dancing with joy, and fight with those fighting from Hope, is part of our solidarity, but more deeply, we must also sorrow with those in sorrow over God’s absence from the world, and be angry with those who are in anger over God’s impotence toward the world. We must share the existential suffering and struggle, by ourselves being hurt by it, if we are to stand with the brother and sister in this, and give them something redemptive from God.

The mourning that will be comforted is only this:

Be Sad about God and Angry with God — together.

Go through the tragedy together, and emerge together.

This is the mark our mourning is God’s mourning for the world. In our poverty where we put God first, we learn to mourn together, and to rejoice and take heart together as the mourning is comforted by God.

We must enter and embrace the common fate, of the abandonment by God, to meet this tragedy as God does, giving joy to sorrow, hope to despair, to redeem it.

2,d
The healing of the wound of existence is to be harshly stricken by it and go deeper in to it, so that we can reach poverty in God, and by virtue of that, reach mourning for the world.

God wounds us to place us differently in the wound of existence.

We are healed and heal by a wound.