25 years ago
25 years ago, on Maundy Thursday, I kept watch through the night beside my Dad, struggling to cough his lungs clear of fluid at the end of a two year fight with a brain tumour. In the early hours, he just said, “I’m tired,” and gave up the struggle. Pneumonia quickly set in, and he died on Easter Saturday. Maundy Thursdays have never quite been the same.
This Easter week, I was sacked, after 20 years in a large organisation, following more than a year off work with a combination of depression and anxiety. I bear no grudge for that decision: no employer can sustain endless absence.
But, sitting here this Easter, I’m prompted to reflect on my experience of God through this, the second truly challenging episode of my life.
And I can only write, in honesty and sadness, of the complete absence of any feeling of a divine presence. No supernatural reassurance. No comforting, no Comforter. No mystical sense, even, of ‘the other’ or ‘a beyond’. Just silent, deepening, abandonment.
In his Maundy Thursday sermon, Justin Welby seemed to ask, ‘Did Jesus, as he went through that first Easter Week, know it was all going to turn out all right?’ For me, Jesus’ anguished cry on the cross – ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani’ – suggests that, at that crunch moment, he did not.
In my own crunch moment of the last year, when my depression was at its worst, I lay in bed one night, utterly convinced that death – suicide – was the course that offered goodness and light; and that life, on the other hand, offered only darkness. It was not desperation. Just a stark reversal – abandonment – of much that I had once believed to be true.
In the following few days, I must have recovered some level of healthier insight, and I clung to my family and my therapist for all it was worth. Their patience, their love, their kindness has been constant as I have falteringly and slowly edged my way up a path of recovery.
As was the case 25 years ago, it has been people – not God – who have been comfort in the darkness. I rather think the historical Jesus might have been pleased at the strange set of characters too.
My Buddhist-leaning therapist, who has helped me to develop a mindfulness practice, and to offer myself more compassion and loving kindness
My pink-haired (sometimes green-haired) former boss, reckoned by many at work to be the abrasive, overly blunt sort, but who has been an ever-present voice of tenderness
My atheist Mum – uncomprehending perhaps, but desperate to help
My Christian wife, of stoical Yorkshire stock
And Twitter – that epitome of social media dismissiveness, but which has, for me, daily amplified voices of other mental ill-health sufferers, and provided an unknowing community of people who you know really ‘get it’
Others can theologise on just how far these have been angels I have met as strangers on the road - Jesus’ hands and feet as some would have it. I am still too close to the pain to offer any sensible perspective.
Will my faith recover? I don’t know. But I can. And am already past the worst. And believe that with patience, loving kindness to myself, and yes, a bit of gentle self-discipline, I will continue gradually to mend.
For any once-Christians, struggling-Christians, this Easter, for whom faith has withered under the cruel, relentless assault of mental ill-health, I only offer this thought: that it’s probably OK to cling to people, and their love, when God appears to have abandoned us. Loss of faith need not – must not – be a further stick with which we beat ourselves.
When Jesus looked around himself from the cross, at the ragtag bunch of oddballs, outcasts, and a dying thief, who were still there for him, perhaps it was their very human expressions of love that helped him through too.