Do You Suffer From Depression? St. Ignatius of Loyola Has Been There Too

St. Ignatius knew what it was to have a heart called by heaven and a mind trapped in sadness.

Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), “The Conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyola”
Miguel Cabrera (1695-1768), “The Conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyola” (photo: Public Domain)

In a secluded cave, near the Catalonian town of Manresa, there was a man. The dancing candlelight pulsed over his clasped hands like a heartbeat. He stood uneven on his knees, for one leg had been rendered shorter from having been wounded in a battle. 

“Lord, why is this happening?” he surely must have whispered while praying in that cave.

This praying man had converted recently, in the year of Our Lord 1521, while recovering from the wound that he’d received in battle. As penance he’d given his belongings away and hung his sword and dagger at Our Lady’s Altar in the town of Montserrat. He’d been living since like a holy fool by begging for his keep. 

His conversion was genuine, and yet dark thoughts had consumed his mind in the days since, that his own mind had become his own demon. He’d been considering suicide, obsessively on some days, and only his fear of offending God had prevented him from plunging a dagger into his own wrist. 

He knew what it was to have a heart called by Heaven, a body grounded on Earth, and a mind still seemingly trapped in hell. 

“When will this pass?” he surely must have asked about his plight. “O my God, will it? Have you forgotten me already? Or is it that You never really wanted my heart in the first place?”

No, a thing like this wasn’t “supposed” to happen after his conversion, according to so many of the impressions made upon on him. He was “supposed” to have a heart and mind pouring out with joy and gratitude. And yet it was happening.

There was no hotline for him to call, no therapist for him to visit, no medications for him to swallow. Even less was known back then about clinical depression and how it may be treated. All that he knew he could do was pray. And so he prayed, and he kept on praying.

St. Ignatius of Loyola knew very well that he was helpless. His mind’s unwelcome and incessant urging to despair proved to him that he wasn’t even able to control his own thoughts, and that any human effort by him to do so was utter vanity. All that he, or anyone, could really do was surrender to God.

Such darkness is blinding. He couldn’t see that in those pitch-black moments his heart was softening, arousing compassion which soon would be paired with his very keen intelligence. This experience with mental anguish would bless him for the remainder of his life with a greater sensitivity to the pain of others. The very God whom his mind had accused of abandoning him was placing his feet on the path to a very unique destiny. 

He kept on praying in that cave, for eleven months. All of the pains from his past, and illusions he’d previously held about God, slowly receded like the wave’s waters going back into the sea. Healing often takes time.

St. Ignatius finally emerged from that cave a humbled man. Many of the seeds of his great works of writing, much of which could be considered a forerunner of cognitive behavioral therapy, had been planted in his mind. The conviction necessary for him to go on to co-found the Society of Jesus had been placed in his heart. And from his experience with depression a great prayer would be penned by his hand:  

O Christ Jesus,
when all is darkness
and we feel our weakness and helplessness,
give us the sense of Your presence,
Your love, and Your strength.
Help us to have perfect trust
in Your protecting love
and strengthening power,
so that nothing may frighten or worry us,
for, living close to You,
we shall see Your hand,
Your purpose, Your will through all things.

I do love this prayer, for very personal reasons.

My own first episode of depression happened during the summer of 2006. On a Saturday afternoon, on Jan. 6, 2007, I was walking along the Hudson River while wondering whether it was a fine idea to just hurl myself into the waters. The words “born again” had suddenly flashed in my mind as I was walking. It took an embarrassingly long time for me to realize that this little epiphany occurred on the date of Epiphany. I’d never seriously considered becoming a Christian, much less a practicing Christian, before that moment. But the idea of some kind of fresh start just had far too much appeal.

I was baptized at a non-denominational Protestant church in June 2007. I’d assumed that those agonizing stretches of weeks, or even months, of being convinced that life was nothing more than loneliness and failure, and that God couldn’t care less about any of us, would drown away along with my previous sins in those baptismal waters. But soon enough, another one of those agonizing stretches came back.

That wasn’t “supposed” to happen, according to what I’d gathered during the infancy of my Christian journey. I had become an active Christian, and yet I still had an inability to feel more gratitude and joy during those agonizing stretches, leaving me haunted by guilt. If what I’d been taught was true, that it was those who “believe” who were “saved,” then could it be that such episodes proved that I’d never actually been saved at all? Had that “yes” I’d said to God’s great offer not been said with enough sincerity? Is a person who struggles with depression, or any mental illness, lost beyond God’s grace?

“Quit feeling sorry for yourself,” I’d tried muttering to myself, plenty of times, when praying in the midst of those stretches, as if the haunting suspicions could be turned off with the flip of a switch. “O God, please give me more faith so that I can quit being like this — so that I can be good!”

It hardly ever occurred to me back then that to keep on praying, even while suspecting that prayer was pointless, could be a sign of faith as having any proper belief.  

I was confirmed in the Catholic Church in 2012, and very hopeful that the sacraments would render those episodes a thing of the past. But those annual episodes have, thus far, been just as routine in the years since my confirmation. Depression couldn’t care less about what a person’s creed is.

Again, that wasn’t “supposed” to happen. But who am I to judge what is “supposed” to happen?

I’ve privately, and very selectively, spoken to several of my friends (from both my Protestant and Catholic days) about this over the years. The impression I’ve almost always gotten, at least among those who (to the best of my knowledge) wouldn’t qualify as having clinical depression, is that depression is considered a thoroughly “bad” thing. There are, after all, plenty of available statistics which can ring alarms in any caring friend.

Episodes of depression are, of course, always unpleasant. I’d learned from the experience of an ankle injury, two years ago, that physical pain, and the time it takes to recover afterward, can even be an incredibly welcome distraction from it. But could depression also be a tremendous opportunity to grow in faith? Is it so thoroughly “bad” if it can also be necessary toward a good end?

Yes, I’ve gone through a fair number of stretches, of weeks or months, unconvinced that God loves any of us. And yet, at the same time, I’m a Christian today because I was persuaded to lend an ear to the Gospel during one such stretch. I’ve spent many more hours in prayer, and far more days fasting, hoping for some kind of relief from depression, which I never would have bothered doing if I was always happy. I’ve learned that I can’t always control my own thoughts, and so I have fewer illusions of my own “control” I have as a result, which makes it that much easier to say, “Thy will be done.” 

Also, just a heads up: Saying “thy will be done” could mean hearing the call to write an article about a topic, such as this, which you’re typically embarrassed to share about. But if doing so can ever help just one person, then it’s worth it a hundredfold. 

Sometimes I wonder if depression serves many of us as a sort of chemotherapy for the soul — it does weaken the truth for some time, while destroying many of the illusions which we could otherwise spend our lives being spellbound by. The inability to perceive the opportunities in life is likewise an opportunity. 

A strong enough sense of purpose can render any amount of sadness bearable. The person suffering from depression is under the spell of the soul-crushing illusion that his or her sadness serves no higher purpose. And yet, at the same time, we do have examples of historical figures who’ve gone on to do great deeds because they were depressed, rather than in spite of being depressed. 

Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill each gained the mental fortitude necessary for them to guide their nations through very trying years from having been battered by their own thoughts throughout their adult lives. Each of them brilliantly handled the enormous pressures surrounding them which would easily have caused any “normal” leader to crumble in only a few weeks. (Prime Minister Churchill’s more optimistic predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, was an example of such crumbling.) Our own nation remained intact through her darkest hour because she’d been led by a man who was intimately familiar with sadness!

Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had each experienced depression, and thoughts of suicide along with it, at some point during their lives. Plenty of great artists and authors, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Mark Twain, went on to use their experiences with depression to create world-class works.  

We know that the greatest historical examples of persons whom we can learn from are the saints. St. Teresa of Calcutta spent many long and agonizing years doubting God’s presence in her life, and yet she still carried on with her work. St. Dymphna, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, St. John Vianney, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Blessed Bartolo Longo and many others all experienced depression. They are each testimony that a person is so much more than just their minds.

And would the great St. Ignatius of Loyola have been able to give our world such masterful writings, and such great deeds, had he not grappled with the darkness of despair while in that cave?

Perhaps, but I doubt it. Can any of us truly judge of what is “supposed” to happen?

When I began RCIA, in 2011, I had a rather naïve image of the saints. I pictured them all, including those among them who are martyrs, as men and women who were always and endlessly happy. I thought first and foremost of St. Francis of Assisi, hanging out with his brothers without a care in the world.

But the truth is so much more comforting than any such naïve images: They are men and women who carried their crosses, no matter what those crosses may have been. The saints are our friends in heaven who not only pray for us, but have given us examples of how to live. Among them we can find examples apt for any trials that any of us will ever have to face, because they themselves had been there while on earth.