My soul has questions. It came to me like this. I’m fairly certain my soul thinks this whole life thing is an interrogation. I face questions everyday such as: why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Where can I find meaning? Do humans all find the same meaning in life? Why are we so fractured?
The list goes on. When I was a child the questions were a crushing weight (no adults seemed to have answers that I could hang my hat on); now, well, we get along better.
I suffered severe depression and anxiety from the latter part of 2016 until the fall of 2019. For those blessed to not have experienced this ailment of soul, body, and mind, allow me to make something inescapably clear: spirituality doesn’t work when you’re depressed. Honestly, the desperate struggle that I made to hold onto my spirituality contributed to my depression (that’s another story).
My current working theory on this is that (western) spirituality becomes unhelpful when one is depressed because depression disconnects us from our body, and muddles the mind terribly (think slicing pain, forgetfulness, loss of will to live. You’re jealous, I know.). Traditionally in the West we have held our spirituality in the mind and spirit. See how the two don’t jive? Depression=mind muddled, disconnection from body. Western spirituality=lives in the mind and spirit, rather than in the body. See?
Leading up to and during this season of depression (not my first, probably not my last, but, hey, I’m getting good at it!) my faith slowly slipped away. You say Jesus, my mind says “but was he real? And resurrection…really? Even if it did happen, how is that relevant to my inability to get off this couch?” You say mysticism, my spirit says, “I still want to die, and no matter how much you meditate, that feeling won’t go away.” See what I mean? Spirituality just didn’t work for me anymore, so the faith of my mind and spirit, well, it slipped away.
Not that I didn’t try to hold onto it. Desperately. If I was Jack Dawson and the door under Rose was faith, I was pushing her off to save myself. That’s how fervently I wanted to keep believing. Even if I didn’t go to church. Even if my relationships with practicing (mostly conservative) Christians continued to deteriorate. I wanted Jesus. I wanted the moral code that I had studied and followed for my entire life. I wanted to be able to read Psalm 139 without throwing my Bible against the wall. I wanted the comfort that spiritual songs used to bring me. But I couldn’t do any of it. Trying to was nearly torture.
My beliefs in Jesus from strong, to non-existent, to a gentle acceptance of it all.
What stopped my clinging to the Christian tradition and finally pushed me over the edge, you ask?
The Christians. The people I would have called my community. The self-proclaimed gate-keepers of the Kingdom (so much for Peter, up there taking heavenly role). People who had seen me energetically greet refugees and immigrants from other countries. People who had funded missions trips I went on and bragged about my service and joy.
I kept my distance from the entire Christian community during the course of my depression (except for a select few friends who manage to love and respect me despite our differences), not wanting to kick the hornet’s nest. Then, through a series of events involving a roommate (you know how that usually goes, damn it), word got out that I was–gasp–a universalist.
The Christians couldn’t take it. I was met with, told I was wrong, told I was no longer invited to their community.
A social media post about my new, more open and inclusive beliefs, that I hadn’t posted with the attention of offending anyone, was met with pages of cruel comments. I was told that I could say blank but I could not say blank. It wouldn’t have hurt, I would have written them off as your run-of-the-mill jerks, if it wasn’t people who had known me for so long. If it wasn’t the same thing that I had grown up hearing. If it wasn’t what my own blood says.
It hurt. I was done. Christianity could die a cruel death (the tradition has a history with that sort of death anyway).
That was, until Christmas this year.
Of course, it wasn’t just Christmas season popping up that helped me find my way back to a loose hold on Jesus. I had remembered, over the past few months, the importance of stopping to smell the roses. I’ve never been a fan of how roses smell, personally, but it’s the concept I am after here: pauses are essential components of mental and emotional health. Pausing to absorb something good all the way into the body is a holy practice. Returning to meditative practices such as reading poetry slowly, taking walks, letting go of fear-driven action, and pausing to look at flowers, trees, my cat, etc. had begun to pull me out of the lingering fog of depression and anxiety (along with good food, deep rest, and frequent exercise) by the time Christmas decor appeared in the Anthropologie window display.
My relationship with Christmas over the years hasn’t been particularly noteworthy–I don’t watch Lifetime movies and I’ll be fine if I never walk into another Hallmark store.
As a child, I did love staying up late in my room on Christmas Eve to soak up the soft glow of the Christmas lights hung over my curtains. My family took a yearly trip to visit relatives that left me over-stimulated (I hadn’t yet learned the importance of 10-20 minutes per day with my eyes closed and my legs up the wall to reduce my ever-present anxiety), over fed with rich food that caused me severe stomach aches (gluten intolerance and dairy sensitivity, both unidentified until I was in high school), and uncomfortable (I have needed regular movement since I was a child, and was generally denied it on these trips).
So, by the time I broke ties with my family when I was 18, I needed a break from Christmas. One year I was suicidal on Christmas and spent the evening in my car listening to beautiful, melancholy songs by one of my favorite bands, Gungor. Later, I spent two years overseas for Christmas (in a country that celebrates the holiday on a far less extravagant scale).
That was my break from Christmas. Last year, I felt pretty meh about it as well.
This year is different. Oh ho ho, my friend, this year, some magic has infiltrated me. Did you know there are stickers in the shape of glittery gingerbread shaped men at Michael’s? Do you know how delectable the Holiday Spice Yankee Candle smells? Have you felt the utter joy of sitting on a couch in the dark, staring at the lights and ornaments on a two-foot-tall tree with your hand stroking a black cat’s smooth fur?
I know it isn’t the Christmas things that are making me feel this way. Not entirely, that is. But since I have cultivated that practice again of pausing and absorbing, and probably due to the long break from engaging with Christmas, the Christmas ish is digging its way through sensations in my body, into my soul. The Christmas lights pinned against dark winter nights, the yumminess of Christmas cards, the warmth emitted by Thistle Farms candles, the exchanges of good cheer and song. It’s priceless, and it is bringing my heart, body, and spirit back together as one.
Last Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church that I semi-regularly attend (per the insistence of my inquisitive soul that relentlessly longs for conversation about all that is impossible to put into words, i.e., spirituality), the Reverend Jan said something that made me catch my breath: “We need not leave behind the stories that hold meaning in our hearts.”
We need not leave behind the stories that hold meaning in our hearts.
Jesus. I need not leave behind Jesus.
I need not leave behind Christmas–a holiday who is shrouded in painful memories for myself and many people–because it brings light into my dark spaces. I need not leave behind the stories of Jesus, and of unconditional, all-encompassing Divine Love that the Christian tradition handed to me.
Let the bullshit be as it is. Let Jesus be who he has been for you, Lydia. Let the Psalms be what they have been. Leave the rest out of your mind.
If Christmas can be redeemed and redemptive in my life, than maybe Christianity can too.
As my favorite Christian author, Sarah Bessey said in her new book, “I pray that you will bless the box you once needed for God and that you will treat it tenderly even as you leave it behind.”
There is tons more to this story. Religion and spiritual beliefs are an undeniable, inevitable part of my life (how else could I hold this soul?). I’ve experienced my greatest pain and greatest joy at the hand of religion, of this idea of Jesus, of God. I’ve read books about indigenous sacred beliefs that are arguably more peaceful and inclusive than the Bible. There is the reality that I am a white woman of European descent and I’m not sure about how I feel that my people have hijacked the holy book of the Jews. There’s a lot to this. Clearly. But for now, this is the story of Christmas season for me this year, and a splish of redemption in my story of spiritual exploration
Re-embracing the stories that hold meaning in my heart may be just as sacred and healing of a practice as staring at my Christmas tree and its’ beautiful orbs of light nearly every December evening is. Encountering abysmal darkness on the path of our lives is unavoidable. We may as well allow every light–even that of the smallest or most inexplicable candle–to glimmer over our secret souls. I can let the stories of Jesus, and my memories of Christmas, shape-shift before my eyes. Holding them loosely allows them to breathe, allows them to become relevant to my constantly changing experience.
That being said, I’ll leave you with a blessing:
May the scent and sensation of Christmas light fill your spirit. And if your spirit is lost to you this Christmas, and you are unable to connect enough with your body to feel the goodness of the Holiday in your bones, because of depression or any other suffering you face, may you experience a breath of relief and a whiff of hope on the heels of this season.
“There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. It is the glowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the ultimate truth of creation: that there is a God and we are not it.” ~ Joan Chittister