Get Thee Behind Me, Depression

What to do when clinical depression lays a Catholic low — with advice from St. Benedict on joyful living.

The wisdom behind St. Benedict's famous rule, ora et labora — pray and work — isn't just for monks. It's applicable to anyone who wants to achieve a healthy balance of body, mind and spirit.

In fact, say some, it can be as efficacious as modern medicines at managing the two most frequently diagnosed mental-health maladies of our day: clinical depression and anxiety disorders.

"Both Blessed Mother Teresa and St. Thérèse of Lisieux used physical productivity to overcome despondency," says Laurie Gramling, a clinical psychologist with the Tree of Life Center in Milwaukee. "There's a quiet pleasure that comes out of tending to the little things. It speaks not only to our bodies, but also to our hearts and minds."

Then, too, she points out, despair was considered a serious moral danger in the time of the Fathers of the Church.

"St. Benedict developed his rule based on the way people lived in his time, the sixth century," says Benedictine Father Edmund Boyce, abbot of Saint Benedict's Abbey in Benet Lake, Wis. "People rose with the sun and went down with the sun."

That simple schedule, Abbott Boyce explains, formed a natural pattern of work, prayer and rest, giving the original Benedictines a sense of balance in their lives. Being productive with their hands and spiritually linked to God and to one another in community warded off the temptations to despair some experienced under the disciplines of ancient monastic life.

"In St. Benedict's day, the monks worked in the kitchen, in the scriptorium, in the garden, and doing other manual labor," the abbot points out. "They all took their turns, every one of them, and they found it very enjoyable."

Today's Benedictines still follow their founder's rule, although present-day work routines and prayer schedules are variations on those of the first millennium.

In his detailed explication of his rule, St. Benedict took into account the fact that people differ in their capacities and capabilities.

"Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brethren should be occupied at certain times in manual labor and at other fixed hours in holy reading," he wrote. "As for those brethren who are sickly or weak, let such a work or craft be assigned them that they may be neither idle nor oppressed by the burden of their labor ..."

Pope John Paul II neatly captured the crux of Benedict's rejuvenating rule when he wrote, in his third encyclical, Laborem Exercens (Human Work), that "work is 'for man' and not man 'for work.'"

Worker's 'High'

When we're physically active, our brains release neurochemicals that can improve mood. That's why we often experience a kind of high — sometimes called a "runner's high" — after a vigorous workout.

The effect is so powerful that psychologists have found it efficacious in the treatment of depression. Of course, anyone suffering from a clinically diagnosed condition should seek the advice of a credentialed professional before making any changes in medication or therapy. But, as St. Benedict knew so long ago, adding physical productivity to your daily schedule can transform a difficult disposition into an even temperament.

"Depression directly involves the way we think about ourselves," says Gladys Sweeney, academic dean at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, a Catholic graduate school (online at "When we're depressed, we see ourselves as worthless or hopeless. The relationship between the physical, mental and spiritual is so strong that even mild depression can become a biological depression if left untreated."

Sweeney is convinced that when blended with spiritual exercises physical productivity can enhance or even replace conventional depression therapies. (Typically these include some combination of medication and talk sessions.)

Exercise alone probably won't do it, she says. To be truly reparative, the physical activity must be truly productive — cooking, gardening, building, fixing or, best of all, helping someone in need.

Exercise affects the body in a positive way, she adds, "but it doesn't draw one out of oneself in the same way as doing something that benefits others."

And attending to the spiritual dimension of human suffering gives it meaning, helping us reverse its downward pull.

Ginny, a mother of eight who spoke with the Register on condition of anonymity, has experienced these effects firsthand. When she was recently swept up in a rising wave of depression, she decided against medical treatment. Instead, she opted for "therapy" consisting of daily exercise, healthy diet, adequate sleep and quiet time for prayer and emotional regeneration.

"I have moved to other, less high-impact forms of exercise and continue to strive to improve my sleep and diet," she says. "But nothing gets me out of a funk faster than a nice brisk walk or half an hour of raking the lawn or shoveling snow."

Pat, a freelance writer and mother of four grown children, loves the way she feels when she tends to the "little things" in life.

"When I'm down a few degrees, I always do something around the condo, like organize a drawer, do my mending, sort through and toss some papers," she says. "Yesterday I organized my taxes so the AARP people can do them for me. Voilà I feel free," she jokes, "to start procrastinating on my next big project."

Gift to Others

Domestic work appeals to many aspects of human personality, says Dr. Therese Sulentich, a psychiatrist in Lake Forest, Ill.

"Any of such tasks has a beginning, an ending, a degree of creativity and sharing — all of which are very gratifying," she explains. The effect is "something very profound that we can't quite break down. It brings order to our lives, just as God gave order to the Earth when he created it."

When Jane Ann, mother of eight, feels overwhelmed or worn out, she heads for the kitchen. "I start with one counter, then another counter, and then another," she says. "Each little clean spot spurs me on until I have enough space to let out a sigh of relief. The satisfaction of seeing order where there was disorder is a great boost to my spirits."

Order around the home "isn't just a pragmatic issue for me — it's an emotional and spiritual reality, too," says Jane Ann. "God is a God of order, and we yearn for it."

If you're feeling a little down in the dumps or gripped by full-on clinical depression, following St. Benedict's prescription of ora et labora may be just what the Good Physician ordered.

"Find a way to give yourself to others," suggests Sweeney. "Do volunteer work that includes moderate amounts of physical activity. For example, why run a marathon when you can make a pilgrimage? It'll effect positive changes in your brain, make you feel more worthwhile and confident; it's inter-relational, and the gratitude you receive will help you look forward to being a gift to others again."

Marge Fenelon writes from
Cudahy, Wisconsin.