Merton, Depression, and Therapy

I’m an individualist who protects himself with information. That’s what the Enneagram tells me, or […]

Kendall Gunter / 8.29.19

I’m an individualist who protects himself with information. That’s what the Enneagram tells me, or what my friends who’ve studied it tell me it tells me. I used to resent personality tests—you can’t put me in a box!—but then the personality test explained why I resented them in the first place—because I want to be different, and I fear others using intellectual resources against me.

Because of this need to be intellectually elite, I tend to look askance at psychology. And I have my reasons: in both popular and academic discourses, psychology often holds sway like an absolute arbitrator of “normal” and “aberrant.” And even if someone does demonstrate unhealthy thoughts or behaviors, psychological talk often locates the problem within the mind of the individual. (I’m thinking of “hysterical housewives” and “homosexual perverts.”) I realize some of these apprehensions are dated, and that much contemporary research in and therapy for our mental lives is much more nuanced and gentle. But I need to keep telling myself I’m smart. I don’t need psychology; I have history and philosophy. Nay, I have ascetic theology!

As it turns out, this mindset follows the reactionary approach that many churches have been wielding for a long time. In a recent essay at Commonweal, Nick Scrimenti recounts how his early attraction to contemplative practice, especially through Thomas Merton, deprived him of more holistic resources he needed for mental and spiritual health. The severity of traditional teaching gave him black-and-white extremes:

One of Merton’s lines struck me with particular force, and remained with me: “Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love.” The idea became my spiritual benchmark: as long as I was avoiding hopelessness and despair, I reasoned that I must also be avoiding the sin of pride. Despair became the tell-tale sign of my spiritual laxity, and indicated the need for more and greater austerities.

If only I’d known then how naïve that was. After a few years, new sadnesses and worries posed serious challenges to my spiritual life; I habitually responded by doubling down on my discipline and resolve. My reading of Merton made me translate every instance of despair into a failure of self-denial, the result of being too lax: “You need to meditate more.” “You’ve never really tried fasting.” “How about going to Mass for once?” And so on. Although I considered myself a careful student of Merton, I had unwittingly rendered asceticism an end in itself.

What could have been a helpful means to a good end—self-discipline to facilitate interior peace—became poisonous instead, when it became an insatiable metric, as though God just wanted him to suffer, and his attempts kept coming up in the red. But he couldn’t even see the problem, since his only way of understanding his problems was to follow a narrow subset of rituals:

For a long time I avoided going to therapy because I always considered my problems more theological than psychological. Merton himself seemed to think that many issues, today treatable under the banner of psychology, could be addressed with the right combination of prayerful humility and ascetic practice. On the other hand, the church’s spiritualizing responses—“go to confession” or “talk to a priest”—also seemed insufficient for grappling with complex interior problems. …

It was only later, in a welcome moment of reprieve from depression, that I discovered Merton had in fact foreseen the serious consequences of asceticism for the many of us who struggle with mental illness. Later in the early ’50s, following the post-Seven Storey Mountain surge in monastic vocations, Merton became a strong proponent of psychological screenings for incoming novices. Presciently, he proposed this at a time when Pope Pius XII was tending in the opposite direction, warning psychologists not to “lose sight of the truths established by reason and by faith.” Merton worried about the toll “neurotics” might take on the monastic community, as well as the undue burdens placed on them by cloistered life. While he did not disqualify people with various mental illnesses from pursuing religious vocations, he warned that “a depressive character will nevertheless suffer much more acutely in religion that out of it.”

Notably, Scrimenti did not abandon his faith or even his contemplation or self-discipline. But he needed something more than the few spiritual resources he had on hand. As he remarks, “asceticism often requires a corrective force to bring things back into balance.”

(As a side note, the work of theologian Sarah Coakley has been a brilliant light in my own life. She writes to retrieve ascesis not as a form of repression or mere denial but as a means of plumbing the depths of desire—including sexual desire, but much more than that, too—and finding God’s original desire for us. Of course, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” This is just one more intellectual resource for righting the problem experienced by Scrimenti and so many other bookish Christians.)

Scrimenti notes that, in his own communion, greater openness to psychological counseling has occurred: Vatican II promoted its benefits for spiritual life, and Pope Francis has spoken about his own experiences with therapy and the reasons guilt arises apart from simple wrongdoing. These are helpful reminders for me, too, that I don’t need to figure it all out, that I don’t need to hold all the intellectual cards or have my spiritual ducks in a row, and that I should probably just talk to somebody.