The daughter of the archbishop of Canterbury has talked about how the Bible helps her through her dark times
Katherine Welby’s remarkable blog post and interview about her depression rings true to anyone who has ever been ill in this way but it also illuminates the complex ways in which religious belief can twine round the condition, providing either a vine to tangle your feet in or a beanstalk to climb out on.
The daughter of the archbishop of Canterbury herself is clear about the way in which the Bible helped her get a little clear of the awfulness:
“The Bible is my key. Reading the psalms (that oh so regularly quoted ‘you can yell at God, look’ book) I find that I don’t need to have hope every second of the day. In my hopelessness I just need to acknowledge that God is bigger than my illness and he will come through – eventually. Not always easy, but always possible. I go back to Job in the Bible, again an inspiration, a man in despair, who maintained trust and faith, but not in a squeaky clean ‘all is fine’ kind of way. In fact, I don’t know that I have yet encountered a single person from the Bible who did have a ‘everything is fine’ kind of life. … The Bible is full of people who screw up, who get miserable, angry, who hurt and who weep. Even Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane found life a little too much to bear and pleaded with God.”
What’s odd, to an outsider, is the shadow picture she is rejecting, of a Bible full of flawless heroes as this is obviously how some evangelicals do read it. She writes on her blog:
“I have a God who will stand with me every step. It is just a shame that so often his people will not … I don’t want to be told that I ‘have not a correct faith’ or ‘do not understand God’s love for me’ one more time.”
Elaborating in an interview, she says that:
“Some Christians will say, ‘You’re not depressed’. Then they insinuate – or state directly – that you don’t have enough faith, or that depression is not biblical because the Holy Spirit gives us joy, or that you haven’t experienced the love of God. To which I just say, ‘I experienced the love of God more during my darkest period than at any other point in my life.'”
This kind of trampling on the weak is certainly a feature of some kinds of Christianity. But so is its opposite. And Welby’s belief that she was never closer to God than when she was close to despair is echoed in many accounts. Her own father has described his desolation after his first child was killed in a car crash as a baby in similar terms. The Christian psychotherapist Martin Israel wrote a book, Dark Victory, about depression as a way of understanding God.
Depression is, among other things, excruciatingly painful. That’s not something that normally turns people towards God. But it can also involve a loss of value, of worth and of meaning. The sufferer is worthless, their life is valueless, their world is meaningless. These are not ideas to play with, but feelings that play with you.
And God, if he exists, is the ultimate guarantor of worth. That’s a very large part of his job, along with sustaining the universe in being and so on. So faith in God can’t cure depression, but it can be a reassurance of what is hardest to suppose and impossible to believe – that there is a world beyond, outside the chilling fog.