On the second Sunday of Light, we heard two very different experiences of God. Abram found God in the “deep, terrifying darkness” and Peter and John experienced God in the brilliance of the Trans­figuration. As we look forward to the celebration of the Lord’s Passion, Death and Burial, the question arises: When is the deep experience of darkness like Abram’s, the agony of Jesus in the Garden, and the fear of the disciples normal and when is this a symptom of something else, such as depression or anxiety? 

To begin, we all must admit that there is a normal range of human feelings and emotions. Sadness and tears are normal; fear is a necessary reaction to many situations; anger can be a force to make change; and doubt is part of the spiritual life at times, etc. In the celebrations of this coming week, we will see the entire range of normal human emotions. But, when does it become an issue? For me, the rule of thumb is when it becomes something “that causes the individual clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” DSM-5. 

St. John of the Cross wrote about the “dark night of the soul.” Is it depression or something else? Is feeling the absence of God, feeling fear as a person of faith or the questions of the saints who have had visions indicative of some issue with the person’s mental health? There are no easy answers.

Referring back to my rule of thumb, the question that needs to be asked is this: are these experiences caus­ing major issues in a person’s functioning every day?

Someone who experiences the silence and absence of God and goes to work every day and is doing all the “normal stuff” of his or her life is probably not depressed. Usually, a person going through this dryness in prayer has a sense of hope; there is an energy to persevere in the spiritual journey. What will help a person in this circumstance is to be in spiritual direction. A person who struggles with depression has little or no energy, a sense of hope dwindles, pleasure ebbs away, appetite is affected, normal activities ebb away and, for many, there are suicidal thoughts. These are the indications that the person needs to have mental health treatment. 

The spiritual experience is not always the high of the Mountain of Transfiguration nor is it always the Agony in the Garden. For someone advancing in the spiritual life, these highs and lows are part of growth and the deepening of one’s relationship with God. 

The discernment that is necessary to distinguish between religious experiences and a mental health issue is something that a person should never do by themselves. A spiritual director can assist a person to become aware of what is really happening and hopefully, know when to refer.

Many therapists may have some difficulty with the spiritual; but hopefully, that person will consult with someone from the person’s faith tradition or culture. I do believe that the rule of thumb is always how something is affecting a person’s normal functioning. No matter the issues occurring; the end of this week reminds us all that there is always hope because Jesus is risen from the dead.

He has conquered all sin and darkness.

Father Thomas Konopka is the Director of the Consultation Center of the Albany Diocese.