When I heard of a new book about seven saints in history who struggled with depression and doubt, I wondered who it might include. Maybe Martin Luther—the great reformer of the sixteenth century—and his experience with depression. Or the twentieth-century Mother Teresa—well-known for her international charitable work—and her less well-known dark night of the soul. I actually couldn’t think of anyone else offhand, but I knew there must be many, many more.
Today I’m pleased to share an excerpt from Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints Who Struggled with Depression and Doubt by Diana Gruver (InterVarsity Press, 2020). I confess I’d never heard of Hannah Allen, who was a religious writer of the seventeenth century. But in this book excerpt, author Diana Gruver does an excellent job of telling Hannah’s story, both her struggle with depression and the holistic way she tried to address it. What’s more, she sets Hannah’s story in the larger context of what we can learn about depression and how we can respond in faith when it seeps into our physical and spiritual lives today.
Thank you, Diana, for being my guest, and for your excellent book that I hope will encourage those who struggle with depression and doubt, and those who seek to come alongside in caring and life-giving ways.
When Depression Seeps into Your Spiritual Life
An excerpt from Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints Who Struggled with Depression and Doubt by Diana Gruver. Copyright (c) 2020 by Diana Janelle Gruver. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
Nearly a decade before Hannah Allen’s attempts at suicide, she was a young bride of seventeen, happily married to her husband, Hannibal. They joyfully welcomed a son. The cloud over their domestic bliss was Hannibal’s frequent absences from their home in England on merchant voyages, which sent Hannah dipping into melancholy.
After eight years of marriage, she received devastating news: Hannibal had died at sea. Hannah suddenly found herself bereft, a young widow with a young son to care for alone. She went to live first with her aunt and then with her mother, but the loss of Hannibal precipitated a deeper descent into depression.
In this tenuous place, Hannah fought in the best ways she knew how. She sought medical care but still saw her mental state wreaking havoc on her body and her health. She traveled to see friends, which provided relief, but only for as long as she was in their presence. She employed the tools of her faith, repeating promises to herself from Scripture that applied to her situation. But nothing helped to ward off her growing despair. Her condition only grew worse.
As I read Hannah’s journal entries, her words sound familiar, as if they could be pulled from my own journals during my own depression. She suffers. She wrestles with her thoughts, begging God to intervene, fighting between hope and despair. I can relate to her sense of spiritual isolation, to the fragility of her faith.
Depression notoriously seeps into our spiritual lives. (I have yet to meet anyone for whom this isn’t the case.) Thoughts grow sluggish, prayers leaden. It can feel as though God’s presence has silently withdrawn, leaving us behind in a foggy mist of doubt, fear, and desperation.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Hannah’s depression came with intense spiritual struggles. Her spiritual life didn’t just come under depression’s sway, however, as many of us have experienced; it also became an obsession that clouded and deluded her mind.
What fascinates me about Hannah Allen’s experience is her insistence on the relationship between her physical and spiritual trials. The physical and spiritual were deeply intertwined, and as one painfully flared, so did the other. In spite of her religious obsessions and the profound religious fixation of her depression, she declared clearly that her body was healed, and the spiritual disturbances worked out as a result.
Hannah would say Satan used her physical state—her mind darkened and corrupted by melancholy—to tempt her soul. But she insisted that it was as her melancholy left her that her spiritual state returned to normal—not the other way around.
I know many people who struggle with the blurring of the line between depression and our spiritual lives. Those of us who suffer with depression hear the refrain to “just pray more” or “just have more faith.” We’re asked how we can be depressed if the fruit of the Spirit includes joy. I once heard someone who was praying for a Christian friend struggling with suicidal thoughts say, “Lord, we know she once knew you but for some reason is choosing to walk away from that right now”—as if her faith had been cast to the wayside instead of being one of the few things keeping her alive.
I have seen great damage done with this mentality. Pain and guilt are compounded. I have felt the burden of that guilt myself—of the shame that I ought to be doing better, ought to be a “better Christian” (whatever that means). And I have sat with the tears and questions of other dear souls who are caught in the crosshairs of these questions.
Depression is a spiritual issue in the sense that everything in our lives is a spiritual issue—our habits, our thoughts, even the minutest of decisions. But we cannot classify depression as a solely spiritual issue, with solely spiritual causes, and a solely spiritual cure—even in a case like Hannah’s, where thought patterns were particularly spiritual. Those caring for her in the seventeenth century, far before the development of modern psychology or neuroscience or psychotropic medications, knew the situation was more complicated than that. The anonymous writer of the introduction to her autobiography reminds us that “if the Body be out of frame and tune, the Soul cannot be well at ease.”
Sure, her friends tried to persuade her to reason. They prayed with her. They continued to remind her of the truth of her faith. These actions are part of the arsenal of the Christian community in the midst of all sorts of painful circumstances. They are the means by which the community of faith surrounds its walking wounded, whether that “wound” is depression or any other malady that may befall us. But the importance of prayer or the encouragement of Scripture does not mean we can abandon other means of healing. We wouldn’t do it for cancer. We can’t do it for depression either.
Hannah and her faithful caretakers remind us that we must treat depression holistically. We seek the healing of body, mind, and soul. We care for the soul, battered about by depression’s wiles. And we use the medical options available, like evidence-based therapies and medication. These actions should not be mutually exclusive.
The cure for Hannah Allen wasn’t to drag her to church. It wasn’t to convince her to pray more. It wasn’t to quote Scripture at her until it removed her despair. Her caretakers sought for her the best medical care of the day. They changed her surroundings. They put her on what we would now call suicide watch. They kept showing up with compassion. They attended to her soul, yes, but they also attended to her body.
Was God still at work? Absolutely. Hannah tells us herself that God, in his mercy, was still with her in her darkest days. He was still present and working in the pain. But this didn’t stop her from seeing a doctor.
Writing/Reflection Prompt: Who have been your companions in the darkness of doubt and difficulty?
Guest Bio: Diana Gruver writes about discipleship and spiritual formation in the every day. She serves as a writer and communications director for Vere Institute, and lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and daughter.
For more on writing and other acts of faith,