All of us are prone to depression, “the most human and real of all
things”, J.Vanier1 says, an expert in the human heart as an enigmatic
reality. Perhaps, we could somehow move beyond this to say that most
probably all of us have gone through some experience of depression in
our life, or we may still be in it. In the depth of our life there may
persist a kind of “depressed I”, ready to peep out as soon as things do
not go the right way. After all, Bernanos says, hope is born at the
same spot where desperation could be born. Indeed, it comes from the
same intra-psychic depths, which means that even the hopeful types of
persons, in spite of their positive and optimistic attitudes, have
somehow felt, at least for an instant, the spectre of their contrary,
desperation. How could one who has never shed a tear know and taste the
savour of joy?
With this he wants to say that we are not speaking of some clinic cases,
or at least not only of them, but rather of something that belongs to us
and lives within us and that in someone at times emerges with particular
evidence and suffering.
With this short reflection, we would like to see the meaning depression
may assume in a convent (mainly feminine one) and then, more as a
proposal, we shall identify some attitudes to be avoided and others to
be practised, in order to help the depressed person to live its
depression as best as possible.
Let us start with a descriptive definition of the phenomenon. “The
depressed person –in a diversified way, according to stages- is
generally characterised by a deep interior suffering, by attitudes of
apathy, scarce trust in itself and in life, sense of inadequacy and
guilt, failure and obscure future; a clinging on self, a sense of being
abandoned even by God”, 2 to the extent of feeling life as unbearable
and senseless. 3
More synthetically, we could reduce the constitutive elements of
depression and its roots to three of them: -the feeling of not being
lovable – of not being made to be loved – the conviction that existence
is devoid of sense.
These three elements are strictly linked among them, since the first two
of them cause the third one. It is important to underline this because
it makes us to understand the fundamentally relational and emotive
nature of depression. In other words, relation is the
dimension in which depression is born, 4 and the emotive-affective
sphere is the prevalent area in which it is manifested. In fact,
depression is a problem of humour, not of the thought (like other
syndromes, for instance schizophrenia). Therefore, if Sr. Depressed
tends to isolate herself and to refuse any relation, in reality she
needs relations most. Perhaps she is just verifying if truly there is no
one to take care of her.
It is a datus of fact that women are doubly affected by depression if
compared with men, perhaps because of the particular meaning, with
consequent high emotive investment, that relation has for the feminine
psychology. This tells us that the phenomenon can be present also in
convents, rather somebody says that today the feminine religious
depression is on the increase.
How to help these persons?
He who enjoys the gift of faith should have a further arm to get rid of
co-sisters of Sr. Depressed
We have said that depression is a relational problem; therefore its
therapy must be linked to relation. Obviously, this is true without
excluding, for serious clinical cases, medical treatment and
psychotherapy (which is itself a relational phenomenon).
This is why now our attention passes from Sr. Depressed to those who
live at her side. A certain kind of presence is fundamental to help the
depressed. It is even more fundamental that those who choose to live
close to her may understand the role they play in this work, feeling the
extent of their fraternal responsibility. As we have already underlined
above, they must remember that nobody is immune of this problem. If this
is true, the relation with the depressed reveals the relation each has
with one’s own “depressed I” and with the recurring sensations of not
feeling lovable, even before God. Before a depressed person we ourselves
become poor because in reality we feel to be before our own poverty. 5
First we shall see what we should not do, then the positive aspect.
Attitudes to be avoided
There is a series of prejudices against these persons or against the
syndrome itself. They are not helpful at all for the community to face
the problem, or for the sister to solve it.
«She does it only to be the centre of attention, but I do not give in”.
It is always dangerous to act as psychologists with banal
interpretations taken for granted, even worse presuming to judge,
assuming the role of severe and rigorous judges. It is true that the
problem of the depressed is a sort of self-centred reality, but it is a
quite different thing to read it as a compulsive need, before which Sr.
Depressed is relatively powerless and of which she is often not even
aware; or like a trick into which I, an intelligent person without
problems, avoid to fall. In the first case a certain merciful
understanding is created ipso facto, in the second the presuming
judgement worsens the situation.
«It is you that have put certain ideas in your head. Chase them away
These are several errors at a stretch. The first is that of sending a
message that increases the feeling of guilt and the negative perception
the depressed person already nurtures in itself; the second is the will
of exercising an influence solely on the will, just as if it were so
easy to turn upside down a situation that the person keeps carrying with
itself for a long time; it is wrong also to make the person understand
that it is just her own idea. In fact, it is true that the depressed
person distorts the reality, yet nobody can deny this feeling in a
person who does not feel loved. The states of soul are not either false
or true, they are there and that is all. Finally, the reference to the
temptations is also not admissible because it increases the sensation of
being far from God.
«I also have felt depressed but have reacted. Come on, try and help
To say this (or to think of it, there is not too much of a difference)
is the same as saying: “I am cleverer than you”, or it is as if we
pushed Sr. Depressed even more into the abyss of feeling her
nothingness, with the usual voluntary reminder, which increases
frustration. At times just these messages, (however they are sent)
determine anger in the depressed person, not so much against the one who
speaks like this, the ever winning brave one, but against himself, above
all with dangerous results.
«Poor thing, I pity her! She needs a warm and intimate friendship”.
The enthusiasm and good intention are admirable, but we must pay
attention to two things. First, the real motivation that urges to go
towards the sister: is it her dignity or only because I pity her? Our
help is true only if it is sincere, if it is urged by appreciation of
the other; compassion does not cause others to grow, just because it
does not transmit appreciation, a thing which the depressed person needs
Moreover, we must understand that depression acts as a barrier against
intimate communication, for which Sr. Depressed is unable to answer this
super-friendship, feeling it to be excessive, just as if it asked of her
anything she is unable to give. It follows that, either she refuses it
by isolating herself, or, on the contrary, she starts depending on it.
«She is not happy with us. Let us try to make her change community”.
Thus, we unload ourselves of further responsibility! Unless there is a
causal relation between depression and environment, it is wiser to let
her stay in the same environment, even if she herself asks to be
transferred, a thing that would provoke further stress and instability.
When the feelings are fragile and the critical capacity is weakened, it
is not advisable to plan changes of life or place.
«There is nothing we can do because she is neurotic”.
Certain behaviours (isolation, muteness, refusal to eat…), during
depressive crises, may make us think of a neurotic problem, but this is
not always the case. These messages are to be deciphered and to be given
adequate answers. This is not always so very easy.
Finally, to target a sister as a neurotic person, could be a cunning way
for not feeling responsible before her.
«If we keep on being joyful, she will forget everything and will
rejoice”. What a blessing would be to see that raising the tone of a
community causes the solution of depressions! True, at time the
depression of one person (the psychologically weakest one), results in
the sadness of all the others, or the consequence of a scarce
evangelical joy in the fraternity. However, giving orders to be joyful
does not solve all the problems: nothing is more inauthentic than
artificial joy! Anyhow, though the end is good, invitation to joy could
increase in Sr. Depressed the sensation of not being understood, or
almost of being mocked.
Attitudes to be set in action
Let us now indicate some positive attitudes that could help us to live
depression well, within the limits of possibility, without pretending to
solve it or turning into improvised therapeutics, but with the intention
of accompanying Sr. Depressed towards the discovery that this is not her
real, true name.
We must try to know the symptoms as soon as possible.
Here also we apply the principle of a preventive medicine, the sooner we
experience a certain fatigue of living, and the better it is. Which are
its symptoms? Uneasiness, tendency to isolation, general frustration,
diffused sadness (without reason), dumbness, general anaemia,
suspiciousness, insomnia, lack of appetite… It is more important that
the person itself gradually comes to admit its interior state, in a
moment when it can still do something before falling into full
depression. The human relation with the person is decisive, because it
offers the possibility of making a triple experience: self-esteem in
its own amiability, self-acceptance also in its own non-amiability and
the responsibility it has to shoulder, in order to give sense to
life. This is the above-mentioned triad therapy of depression, answering
the mentioned three constitutive elements: the feeling unloved and
non-lovable and the sensation that life has no sense.
We have to resist the fleeing away and decide to stay near the person.
To ignore the problem and the person is a big temptation, with a
thousand alibi (“it causes anguish in me”, “it pertains to the
superior”, “to pay attention to her is worse”…) effectively, to play or
not to play the complex relation game, which active depression
activates, is always a highly committed choice. Just because of this, it
must be felt as a free and responsible choice, a kind of voluntary
action within the religious community, as a decision of staying near Sr.
Depressed, without presuming to understand or to solve soon everything,
rather with the intelligent availability to invent afresh the relation
with a person we presume to know well.
We are to accept the confrontation with our own depression.
This is the neuralgic and true motive of the fleeing temptation, as
already mentioned: the contact with the depression of others unavoidably
re-awakens that of our “depressed I”, or with the part of our I that
does not feel lovable. This conflict, then, is a precious opportunity to
account for ourselves, and could offer the non-expected discovery of
finding some not fully known aspect of self, which emerges strongly and
clearly in the tentative of helping others. 6
For instance, it could help me to discover on what is my amiability
founded (or my self-esteem),. or –even more important- it could reveal
to me whether I have made the experience of being loved in my
amiability, but also in my non amiability, which is a fundamental
experience for a Christian. .
We are to offer our appreciation (or make the person discover its
The appreciation (we must activate) is the first of the therapeutic
triad. If depression is born in the relation and because of some
relation, also the therapy will have to be relational, of a true human
relation, in which Sr. Depressed might recuperate or correct first of ll
the perception of her amiability, which she has been doubting of.
The fundamental condition, therefore, will be that he who stays near the
depressed person does not pretend to love, or does not love because of
compassion or of feeling virtuous, but uniquely because of the
dignity of the other, because the other deserves it and it is right
to act so, because in Sr. Depressed there is such an objective
amiability as it cannot be scratched by nothing and nobody, by no
sin and no condemnation. In fact, esteem is the utmost sign of love: it
is its unavoidable consequence, but also its implacable verification. If
in a relation there is no esteem, there cannot be love, there can be
compassion, which does not come from love and does not communicate
esteem. This will be even truer for a depressed person who already feels
negative and reveals a vital need of esteem
It is obvious that we have arguments to convince Sr. Depressed that she
is lovable, but we can give her only the possibility of making a real
and concrete experience in the relation that we offer her to live, so
that even through it she may discover her radical amiability. This is
like a scar of divine origin and the foundation of self-esteem. Sr.
Depressed will soon catch the sincerity of the one who nears her, while
she would shut up like a hedgehog before approaches that are not born
from esteem or do not give her esteem.
We are to love the person “in its amiability”.
With the strength of his experience, J. Vanier recommends: “We must love
the persons in their depression. This is the best way of helping them to
get rid of it” 7 To love them in their depression is not a generic
invitation to do something good for the person, but to offer the
experience of being loved even in their non amiability, a thing that is
fundamental for every human being, which means to love beyond one’s own
merit and rights. We have seen that a depressed person feels
non-lovable. In reality, this is normal; everyone is non-lovable under
certain aspects: it is useless to hide this negative zone present in all
of us. It is even more useless and false to tell a depressed person that
there is nothing non-lovable in him/her. However, it is possible to love
him/her all the same, and this is what we must invest upon in our
relation: we must lead him/her to the experience of being liked even
in his/her non-amiability, beyond merits, beyond every possible
expectation, even where there is weakness and incoherence. This is
possible because it is the very way God loves us, because it is the
typical Christian experience, which ultimately allows each one to accept
The ambiguity of Sr. Depressed, in fact, perhaps favoured by a certain
false and poor, somehow meritocratic and narcissistic spirituality, is
that of feeling to be queer, poorly endowed, of no value(especially if
compared with the others). Thus, she does not accept herself; she is in
a perennial struggle with herself, not loveable, therefore, just a
wreck. It would be senseless and frustrating, at this point, to insist
on telling her that she must accept herself. It would have non sense,
first because this type of order must not be given, second because
acceptance would be possible only if Another Person enters the scene:
the Other, the You of God. At psychological level a man is ready to
accept himself only when he is accepted by another; now, only God can
guarantee a total and unconditional acceptance, therefore the other can
be God alone. Only the man who looks at himself with the eyes of God can
finish by accepting himself, because only the Creator can look with
radically benevolent eyes at man, his creature, welcoming him in his
limits and never allowing his weakness to obscure his radical beauty.
This truth of faith becomes experience for Sr. Depressed, it becomes a
lived truth in the glance and proximity, in the gesture and word of the
sisters who has chosen to be by her. It is as if her eyes, hands, heart
and mouth were the eyes, the hands, the heart and the mouth of the
Eternal Beloved One.
We have to promote our sense of responsibility and give sense to life.
At this point it is possible to answer also the third symptom or
constitutive element of depression, namely the feeling of the non sense
of life. Where can this inversion of sense come from?
It can come from the quality of the relational experience,
particularly from the truth of the human affection, which is at its
centre and which man gradually discovers within his life, his history,
in the persons at his side, starting from his parents, despite the many
unavoidable limitations which accompany every existential human event.
It is as if the affection transmitted to Sr. Depressed in her relation
with the sisters at her side unblocked her perceptive capacity,
finally consenting her to see the love she has already received in her
history, and to discover the intensity of this love, feeling moved
before it. Anyhow, love alone can discover love, freeing memory from the
The new sense of life and of what appeared meaningless, or of what was
felt as a burden or even as injustice flows from here. If it is rue that
nothing renders us responsible as love does, the discovery of receiving
love in abundance makes the sister feel her responsibility for life, for
the received love and for others, giving love to them, mainly to those
who, like her, suffer the temptation of not feeling loved.
The moment Sr. Depressed starts catching this connection of meanings
between the received love and her responsibility for life, she feels
healed from depression. Perhaps this will make life more complicated,
but in a constructive sense, it will be open to the future. In fact, the
depressed man at times is one who weeps on himself and his own history,
since he actually feels unloved. He “unconsciously” knows (no
contradiction: it is possible) that to admit of having received love
means to start being responsible of this love, therefore trying her best
to return this love. However this is felt as very much difficult and
frightens her. This is why she prefers not to recognise the received
love and to cry on herself.
To favour her setting free from ambiguity means to give return life to
her, putting her in the condition of giving sense to her life, to
re-open her way towards the future.
Now, if to be near a depressed man means to make an account with one’s
own depression, whenever we are on this journey it is not only Sr.
Depressed that learns how to smile at life, but also he who accompanies
her and also her entire community. All together praise the Lord who
fills my youth with joy!
Salesian Pontifical University
Bakhita, 1 - 37030 Poiano (Verona)