Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Melancholy and Prayer

I share the common tendency among Americans to depression. I think this is partly because our culture is in such disarray and distress. We have come almost totally unmoored from the anchor that could stabilize us. Romani Guardini wrote a wonderful chapter called "Prayer in Times of Incapacity" in his book, The Art of Praying. In it he describes various obstacles to prayer and how to deal with them. Here is his wonderful description of melancholy:

Special mention must be made of those emotional maladjustments which come
under the heading of melancholia or depression. They are important in the
context because it is people of vivid religious sensibility who are prone to
them, and also because they involve the very side of the psyche in which the
religious impulse originates.

The melancholic has an extreme vulnerable [woundable] psyche. He experiences life more vividly than other people (the beautiful, the luminous, the great, as well as the depressing, the ugly and the cruel) and he does this in a way which overstreses and overaccentuates everything and strains his inner resources too severely. Everything touches him more closely, excites him more profoundly, wounds him more deeply, and leaves on him more a lasting impression than on people of more balanced disposition. The melancholic frequently has a very vivid imagination, coupled with a powerful desire for the unattainable. All this often results in a great deal of disappointment and sorrow [no kidding!].

A creative talent, whether in the realm of people or of things, often goes together with melancholic tendencies, which then have to be accepted as the price of the creative gift. The hours of abundance and accomplishment must be paid for with those of emptiness and inner distress. Frequently, too, the melancholic is a person with a great capacity for love. This love is extremely demanding and vulnerable and contains within it greater possibilities for sorrow than of joy. Or he may long to be able to love, knowing what it would be like if he could, but knowing, too, that he cannot do it.

A good deal more could be said about this, but whatever the kind of melancholia and whatever its roots, it is invariably characterized by periods in which everything becomes dark, in which color and beauty vanish, in which life loses its meaning and man feels himself imprisoned in a void. When this happens he is lost to prayer, for not only have words become meaningless, but the consciousness of the reality of God has vanished. Man stands in a desert, a burden to himself. Religion not only palls, but provokes opposition and rebellion, and the only thing that seems to retain some meaning are work or a round of pleasure. (pp. 163-4)

Clearly Guardini knows this experience from the inside. He spends several of the following pages describing in general terms how a melancholic ought to respond to such an experience. I'm not going to summarize it because it would seem too platitudinous to the melancholic. But the whole book is very rich and this chapter in particular, especially for you fellow melancholics out there, but also for anyone who wishes to enrich his life of prayer.

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