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Night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. (John 9:4-5)
They say that dog-owners start to look like their dogs, or in some cases that dog owners share the personalities of their dogs. In my case, you can decide whether or not I look anything like my dogs, but I have to admit that if there is a breed whose characteristics I share, it is probably the Labrador. Labradors are happy, optimistic, tail-wagging dogs, whose besetting sin is their love of food. Labradors are not prone to frequent incidences of depression, addiction, or suicide, so those of us who are Labrador-like should tread more than a bit lightly if we speak of such things. And of course such things are seldom spoken of in church.
Today’s Gospel reading invites me most obviously to speak of blindness – but of course blindness is a stand-in here for whatever malady disrupts, distorts, or disfigures the life God gives us. It’s a lot easier to speak of things that are not our problem, than to speak of problems that secretly and silently grip people and families in our midst, and even some of us. There may be no good reason to lump depression, addiction and suicide together, except that these three are all tendencies that the Labradors among us sometimes have trouble understanding: they are easily mistaken for something they are not, the sufferer is frequently blamed for the suffering, and the suggestion of moral failing is often tied up with the experience of each – a suggestion sometimes advanced by the church.
Not far beneath the veneer of American life, however, lies a great deal of depression, addiction, and suicide. It’s not my aim to discuss any of these clinically, and it’s certainly none of my business to do so. It is my aim to acknowledge that even we Labradors are affected by depression, addiction, and suicide when the people we love suffer. And we know that all the tail-wagging in the world cannot bring an end to their suffering. And it is my aim to ask whether or not Jesus can do anything for those who suffer from depression, addiction, or suicidal tendencies.
I’m looking at the story of the man who was born blind, and who sits and begs, since this is the only occupation available to him in first century Palestine. And it begins with a question that is often asked of those who suffer with depression or addiction, or who commit suicide: Whose fault is it? Was it his own short-comings? Or was it a failure of his parents, who should have brought him up better? Whose fault is it? I’m not saying this is the right question, or a good or a reasonable question. I’m saying that lingering around depression and addiction and suicide you will often find this question: Whose fault is it?
Now, this is not one of those stories where the afflicted calls out for Jesus’ help; Jesus takes the initiative here (after his disciples ask whose fault the man’s blindness is). And there is this unusual moment when Jesus spits into the dirt to make mud, which he spreads on the blind man’s eyes, then sends him to the Pool of Siloam to wash, and the blind man’s sight is given to him – not restored - but given to him for the first time in his life. What are we to make of this? If it is not a prescription for curing blindness (which it most certainly is not), how can it be a prescription for depression, addiction, or suicidal ideation? Where are we supposed to smear the mud for these troublesome realities? What are we supposed to wash?
A few weeks ago I got a message that a young man I knew when he was a boy had died. I hadn’t seen him in years. I guess he’d be in his early thirties now, but in my mind he is eleven or twelve years old. No details accompanied the news of his death, only the suggestion that he had been sick.
Sick? I wondered. What kind of sick?
A day later, maybe less, came the smallest detail – he’d been suffering with depression for a long time. ___ ___ ___ And now he’s dead. A gap was left between these two pieces of information for me to fill in, and it was obvious to me how I was supposed to fill it. As if there is anything obvious here. As if there’s a cause and effect that are immediately apparent. As if such a tidy explanation might make sense of either the depression or the death.
There is nothing obvious about depression, or about addiction, or about suicide. The causes and effects are deeply shrouded. There are no tidy explanations to be found. There is only the often secret truth that life is disrupted, distorted, disfigured in the face of these afflictions. And there is no single story that neatly wraps these three painful realities into a neat package. What they share is a lot of secret, silent suffering. You’ve got your story – your stories – and I’ve got mine. I could stack up the stories of depression of people I love and care about. I could stack up the stories of ruinous addiction. I could catalog the stories of suicide. The details are important – but not right now.
Another thing that depression, addiction, and suicide have in common is how the sufferer is rendered powerless over the affliction. We Labradors find this hard to grasp. Shake out of it! – we want to cry. Just stop drinking! Just say no! – we want to counsel. See how much you have to live for! – we want to advise…. As if advice was what was needed in the face of a dark power, more powerful than the sufferer. As if determination could lift the cloud. As if you could ever really be stronger than the addiction.
So, I’m looking at this story of the blind man and the mud, and the pool. And I think, that’s right, there ought to be a kind of mud we could use. There ought to be a vial of holy spit. There ought to be a pool somewhere in which people could go wash. There ought to be a rock you could go kiss, or a statue you could touch. There ought to be a secret incantation they teach us priests to sing over the suffering. There ought to be a trail you could walk, or a spring from which you could drink. There ought to be a shroud you could lie under, or a hallucinogenic you could ingest. There ought to be a shaman who could visit you and smoke that could surround you. There ought to be a mountain you could climb, or a cave whose depths you could go down into. There ought to be a sacred fire you could burn things in, or oil that you could be anointed with. There ought to be a dance we could dance around you. There ought to be a holy person with healing touch you could visit. There ought to be a rainbow whose end you could locate. There ought to be star whose light could reach you with a special power. There ought to be a unicorn somewhere to which you could make a heroic journey, to find him in his sylvan glade, to approach him softly, and to reach out or lie down and entreat him to heal you with the touch of his mystical horn.
There ought to be. But there is not.
Another thing that depression, addiction, and suicide share is darkness. They afflict because they block the light, obscure the sun, and cloud the vision. I’m speaking figuratively, of course, but it might as well be literal. Maybe if you stretch it, you can even think of these afflictions as kinds of blindness. If you do, you can connect back to the story of Jesus and the man born blind. And I’m trying to discover if Jesus can do anything for those who are depressed, addicted, or suicidal, absent the spit, the mud, the pool, or the unicorn. And I notice that Jesus did not say that it was the spit, the mud, or the pool that gave the blind man his sight. He said that what gave the man his sight was he, himself: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Jesus warned that night was coming when no one could work. What did he mean by this? I imagine that people who struggle with depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts know too well what he might have meant, are all too familiar with the coming night, with the darkness that settles over the body, the mind, the heart. And what’s needed when the darkness settles is not a pep talk. And it may or may not be medication, or rehab… what’s needed is light: light powerful enough to pierce the gloom that settles over the body, the mind, the heart.
Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” This is why he can do something for those who struggle with depression, addiction, and whose thoughts turn to suicide. Because their lives have become shrouded by night, but he is the light of the world – as long as he is in the world.
How does the light of Christ make its way into the lives of those who suffer the despair of depression, addiction, or suicide? If there is no spit, no mud, no pool, no unicorn, how does the light find its way in to the darkness?
Light bends. Darkness sinks to cover what it will, but light bends to find its way to where it is needed. Interestingly, light only bends when it passes through some other substance: through a prism, or through water, for instance.
Maybe you are that substance that will bend light for someone who needs you. Maybe your doctor is the substance through which light will bend to find its way to you. Maybe a twelve-step group is the prism through which the light bends. Maybe it’s getting your meds right, or maybe it’s figuring out that you can do without the meds, at last. Maybe it’s the hour you spend here in church, which is the only hour of peace you can find. Maybe it’s the visits to your mother’s grave, or re-reading the letter your father wrote at the end of his life. Maybe it’s keeping the appointment with the shrink for another week, even though it has become tiresome. Maybe it’s the hour you spend in service to someone else who needs you. Maybe it’s the sound of bells calling you to prayer, or the words of a hymn that you can’t get out of your head. Maybe it’s an image of our Lady that sometimes appears repeatedly in your imagination even though you don’t believe in that sort of thing. Maybe it’s something as obvious as the stars that twinkle on a clear night, or the sun that shines on a clear day. Maybe it’s a passage from Scripture that begins with a question – whose fault is this man’s misfortune, his own or his parents? – that sounds just like the accusations of fault you hear about your own affliction, your own depression, your addiction, your thoughts of ending it all. And maybe it’s the reminder from Jesus that it’s not your fault or your parents, and it never was. Maybe it’s the silence after a bout of difficult prayer.
It could be any of these things – the substance which causes the light to bend, and the realization to dawn that yes, Jesus is still with us, and as long as he is with us, he is the light of the world… And the light is bending ever toward you in a thousand different ways, trying to pierce the darkness, working to find its way to you.
There is a light in the world. Isn’t that the answer to the question? There is light in the world that’s meant for you. The light may need to pass through some other substance to bend toward you – so reach for the thing that will let it bend. Or else, just let him shine on you. Let him be your unicorn. Let him shine his light directly in your heart, to end the night that has settled there for so long.
But do not doubt, do not forget, do not give up hope that there is light in the world. Darkness has settled on others who nonetheless found the light, let it bend its way toward them. And the darkness that threatens you now is not more powerful than this light – for nothing is more powerful than him, and his name is Jesus!
May the light of Jesus Christ our Lord pierce the gloom that settles over those who struggle with depression, addiction, and suicide. May countless people, objects, sights and sounds serve as prisms to bend that marvelous light. And may it shine in the hearts of us all, and especially on those who believed that night had fallen, and the darkness would never end.
Or, in the well-worn words of an old song: shine, Jesus, shine, and by your mercy help us all to see!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
30 March 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia