Break Depression’s Grip

On National Review Online today, I interview Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, who is author, along with my friend Msgr. John Cihak, STD, in The Catholic Guide to Depression: How the Saints, the Sacraments, and Psychiatry Can Help You Break Its Grip and Find Happiness Again. It’s a practical, heartbreaking, liberating book, one that will both wretch and soothe the soul. If you’re depressed, if you know someone who is depressed, get help. It’s not a sin, it’s an illness. If you’re really depressed, it’s not just a passing bad day. It will only get harder without help.

Do read my interview on NRO, and if you’re interested we get into the affliction of our day even deeper in exclusive additional questions below.

I’ve wrote about Richard Shoop before, a young man I had a close encounter with before he killed himself a few months ago. There are so many young men, so many among us who just need love and help. Their hearts cry out, they are desperately in need of some peace. There is help.

LOPEZ: Why is it important to point out that “The confessional was never meant to cure neurosis or other mental disturbances, and the couch was never meant to absolve sin”?

DR. KHERIATY: The sacraments, including confession, are not magical incantations are amulets that we can use to control nature or cure natural afflictions. Confession is psychologically as well as spiritually healing in that it lifts the burdens of a guilty conscience. But that does not mean that it automatically cures depression or other mental illnesses. Likewise, medical treatments and psychotherapy have their own limitations. Even Freud recognized this and wrote that it would be absurd for him to say to a patient, “I forgive you your sins”. Psychotherapy has no such power. Freud recognized that psychoanalysis was no salvific system, and he had no messianic pretentions; he once stated flatly that the goal of psychotherapy was to turn neurotic misery into everyday unhappiness. That was the best that could be hoped for. But of course, human beings typically aspire to more than just everyday unhappiness, and Christianity offers just such hope — that our sins can be forgiven, that we can be reconciled to God and to one another, and that even in this life, with all its adversity and pain, we can find a measure of peace and joy.

LOPEZ: How does the “ordered interior life” of Jesus make him “more human”? How is he “capable of entering into the depths of human darkness more profoundly than anyone else?

DR. KHERIATY: Sin actually makes us less human, not more human. It blinds us to certain human realities and human experiences. That is among the reasons why Christ is not only perfect God, he is also perfect man, fully divine and also fully human. His passions were in conformity with reason, and so he was able to enter more fully into the depths of human experience, including the experience of suffering. And he could do so with full freedom, which none of us have completely, because sin makes us less free — it enslaves us, as Thomas Aquinas understood. In his passion and death, in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus Christ entered into the depths of not only our physical but also our psychological and emotional pain. Listen to his cry on the cross, without glossing over it or explaining it away too quickly: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” Jesus entered into the depths of human darkness, but he did not remain there. He rose. With him, we need not remain there either.

LOPEZ: What does it mean that God “enters fully into human life and redeems human nature from the inside”?

DR. KHERIATY: Christ assumed our human nature. He did not just appear to be human; he really was human. The Fathers of the Church had a theological principle that said what was not assumed, in terms of human nature, was not redeemed. So Christ was a man like us in all things except sin. If it’s not a sin, Christ experienced it: hunger, thirst, pain, loss, betrayal from a friend, disappointment, longing, work and toil, rest and refreshment. All this was assumed, experienced, and redeemed. Nothing human is foreign to God. This is astounding! Many of us have gotten so used to the claims of Christianity we tend to gloss over them with a sort of yawn — even those who profess to be believers. But these truths are astounding, and they have the power to astound us if we stop for a moment and really consider the implications of what Christians claim to believe.

LOPEZ: How is Pope Francis helping us understand this?

DR. KHERIATY: Pope Francis wants to present the Gospel as what it truly is — always new, always relevant, always timely, always in season. He is encouraging Christians not to lock ourselves securely behind the doors of our parishes, comfortable and self-enclosed, but to open ourselves to everyone, especially those who are marginalized and forgotten. Those who suffer from mental illnesses like depression are among the most misunderstood, marginalized, ignored, and unjustly stigmatized individuals in our society today. Pope Francis wants Christians to get out there and, as he said at World Youth Day, make a mess — rolling up our sleeves and getting involved in the lives of others, helping them, loving them, encouraging them, understanding them, and thereby, showing them the love of Jesus Christ. As he likes to put it, the Shepherds need to smell like the sheep: Christian leaders especially need to avoid distancing themselves from the real problems of ordinary people. The pope continues to speak of creating a “culture of encounter,” where we do not pass by people in a hurry, without noticing them, without recognizing how they are struggling or suffering. It’s so easy to do this with those who suffer from depression or anxiety or addictions — to pass them by without noticing — because their illness often remains hidden from sight. We have to get to know people, to befriend, them, to listen to them, to understand them. Not because we have all the answers to their problems or can cure every one of their mental afflictions, but simply because this encounter, these small acts of love and compassion and understanding, are precisely what suffering people need most.

LOPEZ: “The heart of the depressed person,” you write, “can find a connection with the profound sorrow found in the Heart of Jesus. When human suffering encounters the Sacred Heart of Christ, the result is life and hope: a withered hand is restored; an only son, a precious daughter, and a good friend are raised from the dead. Jesus points us to the future full of hope.” How have you seen this play out in practice?

DR. KHERIATY: I recall one patient who said, “If it was not for my relationship with Jesus, I would have killed myself a long time ago.” I have no doubt that she was speaking the literal truth. To me, experiences like hers are a far more convincing witness than a hundred treatises of theology.

LOPEZ: Cardinal Raymond Burke is known (albeit not by Rolling Stone) for his devotion to the Sacred Heart. Could the image of the Sacred Heart be a great help for our times?

DR. KHERIATY: Indeed, it can, for devotion to the Sacred Heart is devotion to the humanity of Christ, who had a human heart, a heart of flesh like ours. For too many Catholics, the Sacred Heart has been reduced to a plastic statue — to kitschy and insipid attempts at devotional art. But recovering an authentic devotion to the Sacred Heart is a beautiful and necessary way to connect with the humanity of Christ. I am fond of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s stunning little book on this theme, The Heart of the World, which I return to from time to time.


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