On Depression, Faith and Hope
(Christine, the heroine from my series ‘Daughter of Odysseus’, reflects on her experience with depression, her journey back towards her Orthodox Christian faith and her determination to reclaim her roots in the land of her ancestors—Greece. This section has been deleted from the novel series).
In the beginning was. . .
A carefree youth revelling in the world of men, rejoicing in the inhabited world, delighting in the human race. Yet like the great Job, this rejoicing would soon turn to grief and unfathomable suffering and tears. Where one laments the day of their birth—cursing it and with it—the whole created order that had once delighted Wisdom herself. . .
Where a world of cruelty, a fallen world banished from God’s presence, became flesh and clung to my body, creating this disease of depression that is as mystifying as the origins of the Word that took flesh and dwelt among us.
When did this all happen—this depression—this psychological disease that consumed me—that threw me into some deep black hole, into a pit of despair? It seemed to happen so suddenly—so mysteriously—so unexpectedly. Where kin fled from me as if from leprosy; where the breath I breathed repulsed all around me; where my own bones clung to my flesh.
Yet I feel a need to write it down—inscribe the words—engrave them on a rock so that they could live forever. . .
The beginning. . .The origins? If I were to speak to a therapist, I could tell them when—according to earthly terms—when this depression started: ‘Oh you know, when I finished high school. . .everything just went black, as if this great change in my life forced me to reflect on my past, my present and the future and rather than seeing hope, I saw the angel of death smothering me with a black curtain and delighting in my suffering. But (I would continue to say) who can explain the mystery of depression—the mystery of the human psyche in its complexity—as created by God and as obsessed with by theologians and psychologists alike?
So yes, Mr. Therapist, there was the great change in my life; of leaving the safe confines of high school, of routine and friends, and entering the big wide world and embarking upon the metamorphosis into adulthood. And yet the cruel memories of high school clung to me more insidiously than the happy memories and thus the trauma of this sudden change in my life could have caused my depression; stress coupled with a terrible low self-esteem that intensified with the slow abandonment and the outright hostility of friends I so cherished. And for what reason? I still don’t know. . .
As for science? That too has an explanation. Could confidently explain depression as caused by a chemical change that affects how the brain functions. Did my neurotransmitters, my brain chemicals responsible for sending and receiving messages from the rest of my body stop delivering, correctly, those chemical messages between brain cells—disrupting communication? Did my brain chemicals, so central for our emotional state, decide to stop functioning properly?
And who—damn them—told them to stop?
Trauma of change, stress, cruelty, low self-esteem, and now neurotransmitters thrown in for good measure.
But there is the genetic argument. That the disease of depression can run in families for generations and the individual is at the mercy of the hereditary gods. So, did it run in my family? Did I inherit a gene that made me vulnerable to depression? Did my father and mother suffer from it? Their forebears, some mentally tormented aunt or uncle, who closed themselves too in their room, drank the sweet nectar that numbed the pain and silenced the voices raging within them? Contemplated suicide whilst stuck in a world of illusion and delusion?
As for the religious argument (for they too have a justification and explanation for this malady), what did it have to say? That a spiritually and physically corrupt world is the root cause of depression, despair and despondency. That the Fall of Adam and Eve distorted the heart and mind of man, alienating him from God and the entire Universe. Thus, everything became blackened; relationships between humans, between humans and the cosmos, humans and God. That a lack of faith in God led to the malady of depression; where the Shakina—the Spirit of God—ceased to shine its light and the darkness of despondency, this pitiless demon, plunged humanity into a black pit. That only through regeneration and recreation in Christ can the mind be renewed—can the Holy Spirit return—can depression and dejection flee—can the mind and soul be cured—can the person reject that existential despair where life has no meaning and purpose, where one can experience hope, love and everlasting life. Where one begins again to walk in the Garden with God in the cool evening breeze and commune with him face to face and without fear. . .
At the puerile age of 18 I of course could not answer the why. Why I would lock myself in my room and weep, flooding my environs so that I drowned in my own grief. Why the sweet wine nourished me and numbed the pain if but for a while. Why this disease, which has left me mentally and physically scarred for life, why it took hold of me like an obsessed lover and left me fantasising about suicide which was none other than a scream for help and attention.
Where I cut myself off from social contact, where my family became my enemy and my only activity seemed to be lodging my Social Security form. Where the walls of my room became my very own sepulchre and where the suburbs around me incarcerated me with their sterility and barrenness.
So here I was—a socially useless being—a non-being—a nothing—a blob of flesh and muscle and tissue—an animal even where I just ate and slept and defecated. . .
Yet within this mass of skin and bones, of blood and artilleries, of cells and fleshy tissue, a divine spark—none other than the breath of life breathed into the first man who was but then mere dust, stirred within me and imparted me with notions of hope and fulfilment. As if God had not abandoned me but was waiting—waiting for me to return to him—a much stronger person with character, with endurance and with trust.
A seed implanted within my soul; of travelling and exploring; of language and culture; of history and poetry; of learning and teaching; of spiritual wholeness and meaning.
And when I worked as a teacher with Maria, my depression withdrew momentarily; whilst camping in mysterious and isolating locations in which dwelt ancestral spirits I could not understand. Whilst I woke up to kookaburras singing heartily and kangaroos drinking in nearby lakes. As I climbed steep hills and walked across rickety bridges; as I got cut to shred by thorns and frightened to death by fake spiders and snakes. As Carlos wrote me love songs which at the time made me wince because I was too immature, selfish and frightened to appreciate genuine love from another human being.
But depression lingered, like a pesky friend who just can’t get the hint and leave. It would come back for a ‘visit’ far too often than I wanted and tormented me with terrible nightmares and ghastly visions of such suffering and horror I often did not know who I was—where I was—and what was the purpose of this thing called life.
My life, by this stage, it seemed, had become a cycle of joy and grief, of bloom and barrenness, a metaphoric spring and winter. The eternal mystery that is the cycle of the earth and of life and explained by my forebears through the story of Persephone and Demeter; a tale told to me by the almost mythical, flamboyant legend himself—my old Greek Teacher Mr. Panagos—when he spoke with such pathos and emotion it was as if he were experiencing the grief of Demeter herself at the loss of her daughter Persephone.
Demeter the Mother he would call her as he elevated the myths of the past as representing the true spirit of the Greeks. This most beloved of ancient Greek goddess who gave to humanity the precious gift of the harvest, the one who taught humanity how to grow and prepare the grain that sustained and nourished them. The nurturer and provider who was intimately bound up in the everyday life of the Greeks; the source of life itself. . .
But, he would go on to say with his theatrical eloquence and nationalistic passion, she truly became a part of humanity through her experience of suffering, grief and depression at the loss of her daughter Persephone, who was kidnapped by the god Hades whilst enchanted by the seductive aroma of the narcissus and snatched to the Underworld, forced to become the Queen of the Underworld—the dominion of the dead—never to see the light of day again.
Demeter, upon hearing her daughters screams, frantically began searching for her daughter, traversing the entire world in search of a daughter who had disappeared as if into oblivion, yet in vain. Consumed by inexplicable heartache, loss and depression, her tormented state resulted in the barrenness of the earth. Too overcome with grief, she ceased her duties as the Goddess of the Grain and Harvest. The earth began to die, the plants withered and the people suffered, a metaphor for her own spiritual death.
Upon discovering that her daughter was now Queen of the Underworld, and that Zeus had sanctioned this deceitful crime, Demeter—with a strong feeling of betrayal—departed from Mt. Olympus, declaring that until her daughter would return to her, Mother Earth would never see fertility again. The land would continue to remain unfruitful—sterile; the harvests would cease; agriculture abundance and the hope of new beginnings would vanish from earth.
Humanity would experience an eternal winter. An icy despair in a hostile world of thorns and thistles, of death and hunger.
Zeus finally gave into Demeter’s demands and Persephone rejoiced when she heard that she would be returning to her mother. But prior to leaving, Hades, deceptively, offered his beloved wife the fruit pomegranate to eat—the fruit of life—knowing that if she were to eat it, she would be bound to the Underworld forever. Persephone accepted, pressing the seeds to her mouth, relishing the sweet taste of the forbidden fruit.
Having tasted of the fruit, Persephone was destined to remain in Hades forever, in the murky underworld away from her mother. But Zeus offered her the hope of returning to her mother, albeit for a while, before returning again to the Underworld.
Thus, each spring, Persephone would return to mother earth—to her mother—and Demeter would resume her role as the Goddess of the Harvest, as the one sustaining humanity, with the budding flowers and signs of renewal proclaiming the reality of new beginnings, of rebirth, of the resurrection from the dead. . .
But with the ruby red seeds of the pomegranate staining her lips, Persephone was forced to return to Hades and to her husband. Her mother would begin her mourning, her slide into depression and winter darkness would hence descend upon the earth, bringing with it again desolation and infertility.
Until…Persephone returns again each year—spring returns—where the warmth replaces the cold, hope replaces hopelessness, resurrection replaces death. Representing none other than the dichotomy of human life, the reality that there are times of terrible anguish yet always the promise of joy and rebirth…
A story I have always found captivating as it encapsulates the mystery of the human condition, the mystery of my life. Where we are confronted by a numbing deadness of the soul so that everything becomes hateful and hostile—even God himself. For it feels that Persephone will never return and everything will continue to remain desolate and gloomy as Hades itself.
For me, Persephone came and went with baffling irregularity and capriciousness until. . .until a miracle happened. Spring came with such force and with such lushness I drowned in a sea of lilies and golden sunflowers, of pomegranates and the immortal ivy.
For the seed that had been planted within me and which grew as I studied at University and thirsted for foreign shores, this seed growing slowly into a sapling became fertilised by none other than the intoxicating Spirit of God. . .
How can mere words express what I had experienced when a bitter agnosticism transformed into an ardent faith; where I experienced my very own Damascus so that the scales fell from my blind eyes and I underwent a spiritual metamorphosis of such intensity, of such divine pathos, I understood St. Paul’s words when he recalled being taken to the seventh heaven and seeing the Lord himself face to face. Where I stood with a stupefied Nicodemus when Christ explained to him that one must become born again through the Spirit—emerge from the baptismal font a new creature; where I danced with joy within the walls of Jerusalem as Christ told the people that out of the believers hearts shall flow rivers of living water for the Comforter—the Spirit of Truth—will descend upon the person as it once descended upon the Holy Tabernacle of God.
I now understood what it meant to be alive. Where the feelings of lethargy and alienation were swept away and replaced with a sense of dynamism and spiritual awareness. Where love replaced hate, hope replaced despair and peace replaced hostility and torment. Where I walked as if leaping on soft clouds, where I soared above the earth for the Holy Spirit that had raised Christ from the dead had seized me, burning within me like a flame of fire—tingling my senses, and restoring the flesh that had become pallid, where fat, slimy earthworms had already begun to attach themselves to a body covered in soil, where vultures gathered for they sniffed a corpse and hurried to the feast my body would provide. . .
Rise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you. . .
Can I say that I had been ‘born again’? That I was once dead but now alive? Yes, and although I had been baptised in the Holy Orthodox Church as an infant, had partaken in the Sacrament of Baptism and Chrismation, I now truly understood what it meant to be filled with the Holy Spirit—to be a new creation in Christ. I had seen the presence of the Transfigured Lord and experienced his deep compassion for the suffering and the lost. I was the lost sheep found by my shepherd, the prodigal daughter returning to her father, Eve returning to her home.
I shall never forget my journey back to the Greek Orthodox Church. It happened one Good Friday evening, that moment when the congregation gathered around the symbolic tomb of Christ to celebrate the perfect Man Jesus who although now buried in the tomb—having experienced the terror that is death—could not remain dead for long. From the unusually bitter Autumn cold I entered the ark that is the church and I immediately felt the warm, dazzling brightness and presence of the Godhead as the women chanted hymns to the myrrh-bearing women who with boldness and love approached the tomb only to be confronted by the presence of an Angel proclaiming the Resurrection. . .
O Christ, the Life, You were laid in the tomb, and ranks of Angels were amazed, glorifying your condescension. . .
All generations offer a hymn to Your Burial, O my Christ. . .
The myrrh–bearing Women came very early in the morning and sprinkled the tomb with myrrh. . .
The melodious praises sung, the priest censuring the tomb with the sweet-smelling incense that made my nostrils quiver, the light reflecting off the icons with their vibrant colours of blues and greens, reds and yellows, the red and white flowers decorating the wooden and symbolic tomb exuding an aroma that mingled with the creatures made of earth and spirit, reaching up as smoke towards the heavens and cleansing the air. The people gathered around the tomb and following the priest as he proceeded to walk outside the church building—Gospel in hand; the only light that of the candles held by the faithful, a physical act symbolising Christ’s walk towards Golgotha yet his complete victory over darkness and death.
How earthy, how physical, how stimulating worship is in the Orthodox Church. How it acknowledges that humans are creatures of sense: of sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing. How it glorifies the material world because it was created by God, not because it serves a selfish utilitarian function, that says all life is sacramental, that everything has a mysterious and divine worth—from the humble bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Christ—to the foetus transformed into a living human being.
From then on, I would give my life to the Orthodox Church—the historic church—the living body of Christ amongst a corrupt world. A faith that did not depart from ancient truths despite a world heading towards a hedonism and materialism unlike anything seen before.
And when I took Father Nectarios’ advice and began some theological study, I was in my element. Studying the Bible from a literary, historical, cultural and theological perspective. From the Burning Bush and the enigmatic name of the God of Israel—to the Prophet Jeremiahs’ words of disaster towards the Israelites; from the literary brilliance of the Gospel of Mark where the end points to the beginning—the beginning to the end—to deciphering the mysteries within the Book of Revelation and coming to an understanding of the Alpha and the Omega of all human existence. It was all exhilarating and eye-opening. I grew, was challenged, felt threatened, went into despair, underwent renewal and matured in my faith in ways I never imagined.
As I grew in faith (and after coming to a realisation that the same temptations can still linger around and try once again to ensnare you), as I studied with women who were training for ministry and as I came to the realisation that there is neither male nor female in Christ—that women served as ministers in the early Church—I began to hunger for the opportunity to serve the church and share the gifts I believe God had given me.
Sometimes I regret completing my Honours Thesis in Theology but other times I recall the strong calling I felt to write it. Perhaps with blind devotion, or perhaps one day it will make a difference in the lives of some. Or it will scandalise many; my masterpiece in which I poured all my energy and wisdom in exploring the role of women in the early church and the intricacies of trying to interpret a mysterious past of fragmented documents and subjective male voices that muffled the voice of women and distorted her role for ideological purposes.
It was my dedication—my ode to the women of the church—those silenced by male domination and a hostility emanating from the Fall. It was my hymn to equality which I wanted to chant to the world. . .
The diversity of stories that surround women within the early Christian tradition is a terrible irony. Exalted as apostles and missionaries, women are likewise denied ministerial roles because there were only ‘male’ apostles in the early church. Such contradictions and inconsistencies illustrate the contention that surrounded the ‘woman’s’ issue’ in the primitive community, an issue that most certainly existed. Starting out as an egalitarian movement, the church attempted to maintain faithful to the egalitarian ethos of its roots in spite of growing hostility towards women and their role within the church. Indeed, this ambivalence can be seen in the actual hymns dedicated to women saints, hymns which degrade the feminine and constantly refer to the rottenness of female nature…The diversity and tension that exists over the role and place of women within the church—and as reflected by tradition—is indicative of the struggle between an egalitarian vision of the church and a vision more rooted in patriarchal Greco-Roman society…Although early Christian women like Junia and Prisca have been neglected and have become virtually unknown, to unearth their memory is to challenge those patriarchal myths that distort and simplify history and that work against women…The Orthodox Christian tradition abounds with stories that illustrate the egalitarian ethos of early Christianity and it is to this that the church must once again bring to light in order for it to be truly the body of Christ on earth—a Christ who took on all flesh and restored the disharmony between man and woman. . .
In my determination and passion to make a difference through my writing and hope that women could somehow serve in ministry in this institution where the priesthood was strictly reserved for men, I of course failed to be aware of the controversy and scandal of what I was saying and what I represented to the Orthodox Church.
Here I stood: gifted, devoted, determined, zealous and desirous to serve a church where the role of women had become relegated to that of baking, cleaning and organising luncheons for the Greek community. Important roles that I do not deny. With elements of dignity and holiness. But they were not for me.
So, I resorted to fantasies, not really wanting to acknowledge reality; about studying and lecturing at seminaries, speaking in front of the great Bishops of the Church, of having my work read by thousands, of opening the door for the thousands of Orthodox Christian women frustrated with the male-dominated church but too weak and unsure to do anything about it.
I began to believe that my suffering was for a purpose, this suffering that led me back to the church. That I had gained this wisdom despite my psychological wounds, that I had a gift and I had to enrich humanity, had to make the church relevant to a modern world where the status of women had radically changed forever.
The reality check came for me, a reality check that was bitter and hurtful and which nearly plunged me back into the depths of despair—back into the arms of Hades.
In my experience within the church, my dealings with the priests, bishops, in seminars, in theological groups where I got a chance to give talks to the dedicated few, with the chanters, with fellow lay-Christians, as I sat and observed the liturgy performed by the chosen sex, as I spoke with women who served their churches and looked forward to their ordination, I came to the terrible and soul-destroying conclusion—so bitter and harrowing for me—that there was no room for me in the Church.
I was not wanted. I was not needed. I, with my ‘radical’ views in the egalitarian ethos of the gospel, was not welcome.
When did I—in my idealism and devotion—realise this?
Was it because my role in the Church was resigned to Sunday School Teaching and baking bread? Was it because I was barred from entering the Holy of Holies, impure and dirty? Was it because I saw young men flourishing in the church, declared theologians and praised as chanters, while I—despite the wisdom bestowed upon me by God—was an embarrassment—to be scorned and treated with derision? Was it because I was ridiculed when I talked about the woman’s issue as if it were a preposterous notion and women were treated perfectly fine in the church?
Was it because I understood the bitter frustration and despair of having the gifts of the Holy Spirit and not being able to do anything with these gifts? Was it because the women’s issue was declared a ‘controversial issue’ within the church, a foreign concept and irrelevant, indeed, alien and blasphemous? Was it because I could do nothing with my Theological Degree, in spite of the years of time and energy I spent on it, labouring with love to serve God and his Church? Where I would hear the words:
‘Why are you studying theology – do you want to be a priest?’
And recoil at the sniggering and presumptuous arrogance of those who disparaged me but who secretly feared me. . .
Was it because (and I shall never forget these words) I was bluntly and cruelly told by the same priest I confided everything to:
If you give women too much freedom they will destroy the church…
Indeed, was it because I came to believe in my own inferiority as the weaker sex, the demonic daughter of Eve responsible for the fall of humanity, a creature belonging to that cursed female tribe that only sought the destruction of the church as uttered by many?
Humiliated, rejected, and abandoned, I realized that I am a second-class citizen—a woman—an educated woman in this medieval, conservative, patriarchal institution that—for me at least—has betrayed the gospel in regards to women. I did not or have not experienced the inclusivity and love that was found in Jesus’ ministry but rather the exclusivity and concepts of ritual ‘cleanliness’ and hierarchy found in the pages of the Old Testament.
But I clung on, and still cling on with hope, in desperate struggle as if I am clinging on to life itself. I love the Church: its hymnology, its theology, its saints, and its liturgy. I relish studying the lives of the Saints, from St. Maximus the Confessor with his dazzling Christological reflections to St. Seraphim of Sarov, with his deep insights into the presence of the Holy Spirit and his overwhelming love and compassion for those around him. Then there is St. Thecla, who became a disciple of St. Paul and preached the gospel despite the persecution she experienced. I truly believe that even the ministerial role of deaconess is a right for women to have as we too are created in the Image of God—we too have charismatic gifts for the Spirit does not discriminate—for the Spirit is poured upon all flesh.
And those words, those cruel words come back to haunt me time and time again, tormenting me with their pure malice—with their lies. . .
If you give women too much freedom they will destroy the church
Destroy, demolish, pull down, obliterate, annihilate, wipe out. . .
Yet the only thing that had been destroyed was my hope and the only thing that could not be undone was the psychological scarring this rejection and humiliation had caused.
Persephone had arrived with such splendour yet was beginning to wither away with the diminishing sunshine and the arctic bitter chill.
Yet through this faith I have come to an awareness of my Greek heritage, a heritage I had always found irrelevant and embarrassing. Even though I do not see the church as an ethnic institution, I believe the gospel enriched my people and brought them to a new awareness of the divine that had been the topic of discussion by philosophers from all generations. That it was Hellenism that enabled the seed of the Gospel to be scattered throughout the world and it was in the language of Greek that the Word that was at the beginning of time took shape so that the message of salvation penetrated a world wallowing in sin.
Greece, it has taken on mythical dimensions in my mind. Where churches and monasteries abound, where miracles are a part of the normal cycle of life, where (so I’ve been told), a vibrant parish life exists and where opportunities await me in the study of theology and a participation in an Orthodox Church speaking to a modern, western world. Where the church in its heavenly truth has room for me and which has a burning desire and need for people like me.
Greece has become my hope. A place where perhaps I will find people who will listen to me. Where I will find a community that will encourage me and help me make a difference. Where I can chant in ancient churches and participate in the liturgical cycle—with the angels—that will lead to my ultimate divinization.
Perhaps, as Andrew and Antigone state with a strange urgency, there I will meet my destiny and a consciousness of my purpose in life.
Greece, in a way I never expected, has become my hope. And as I leave in a few months, I will ensure Persephone never abandons me; that the Spirit constantly renews me despite any obstacle I may face.
An eternal spring? Only time will tell but I must take that chance. I must spring forth from this tomb I inhabit and put on the clothes of immortality. I must meet my past and my ancestors raging within me. I must live the present and I must sprout seeds so that future generations who are longing to emerge from me see the light of day and continue the work that I and others before me have started.