Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reflections: Fighting the Blues

Looking at the date on my last blog post, I realize that I’ve been neglecting it for some time. There are multiple reasons for this. One reason is Facebook. Tending to the attentions of one’s Facebook friends becomes a time-consuming activity. It is pleasant, but it is a distraction from reading and writing. The site becomes a low and friendly fence over which one pleasantly wastes time gabbing with the neighbors. These things need to be consciously balanced, or things get out of hand.

Secondly, I’ve been spending a good portion of my free time reading the books of some newly discovered poets, Charles Simic in particular—as has been obvious both to my FB friends and to any other readers of this blog. But, in addition to Simic, I’ve been reading Mark Strand and Bill Knott. A Facebook friend also recently turned me on to Mary Oliver and I’ve been checking her work out online.

In addition to reading poetry, I’ve been writing a lot of it. I’ve posted at least one new piece every day of the week for several weeks straight. It has been an almost unprecedented burst of creativity for me—and I am grateful for it. Here’s a little exemplary tidbit:


He awoke
xxxxxxxxxxfrom a dream
xxxxxxxxxxin which
xxxxxxxxxxhe had been
xxxxxxxxxxto smother
xxxxxxxxxxEve's apple
xxxxxxxxxxa pillow.

Finally, however, for a complex of reasons which I’m not going to go into, I’ve also been battling depression for a couple of weeks. Some of the afore-mentioned Facebook friends have noted hints of this in the poetry I’ve been posting recently.

As so often happens with intensely directed reading, the reader will pick up a book and open the pages to find there exactly what his intellect, or his spirit, needs to find at that very moment. This happened to (or, more accurately, for me) recently, at the depths of my depression.

I previously wrote about my readings in The Philokalia (follow the link, if you want more information on that.) Feeling very blue one morning, I picked that book up for the first time in a long time, and on the very page I opened to, I found the excerpts which follow. I think it will be immediately apparent how appropriate they were (and are) to understanding the nature of my psychic affliction. That which Evagiros refers to as “demons,” we now have a variety of psychological terms for; but the psychic mechanisms are described by this 4th century Christian monk with truly mind-boggling accuracy:

Evagrios the Solitary (b. 345 or 346)

11. All the demons teach the soul to love pleasure; only the demon of dejection refrains from doing this, since he corrupts the thought of those he enters by cutting off every pleasure of the soul and drying it up through dejection, for ‘the bones of the dejected are dried up’ (Prov. 17:22 LXX). Now if this demon attacks only to a moderate degree, he makes the anchorite more resolute; for he encourages him to seek nothing worldly and to shun all pleasures. But when the demon remains for longer, he encourages the soul to give up, for forces it to run away. Even Job was tormented by this demon, and it was because of this that he said: ‘O that I might lay hands upon myself, or at least ask someone else to this for me’ (Job 30:24. LXX)

The symbol of this demon is the viper. When used in moderation for man’s good, its poison is an antidote against that of other venomous creatures, but when taken in excess it kills whoever takes it. It was to this demon that Paul delivered the man at Corinth who had fallen into sin. That is why he quickly wrote again to the Corinthians saying: ‘Confirm you love towards him…lest perhaps he should be swallowed up with too great dejection’ (2 Cor. 2:7-8). He knew that this spirit, in troubling men, can also bring about true repentance. It was for this reason that St John the Baptist gave the name ‘progeny of vipers’ to those who were goaded by the spirit to seek refuge in God, saying: ‘Who has warned you to flee from the anger to come? Bring forth fruits, then, that testify to your repentance; and do not think that you can just say within yourselves, We have Abraham as our father’ (Matt. 3:7-9). But if a man imitates Abraham and leaves his country and kindred (cf. Gen.12:1), he thereby becomes stronger than this demon.

These two paragraphs represent only those passages of the teachings of Evagiros on “dejection” which I chose at the time to copy out for the use to which they have now been put. I urge any person who values the contemplation of things psycho-spiritual to investigate the Philokalia and any other writings of the Desert Fathers.