His name is Hope: Christ’s Transformation of Depression:
In the hearts of those with the psychological diagnosis of depression, hope is weak and fleeting. It is something that is just beyond our reach. It might appear like the sun’s rays peaking past the clouds. It might appear as small voice that whispers news of a better, far off world but flies away when trouble comes. We are not alone. The history of the Christian tradition provides a language and a context by which the Church can speak hope into depression with a resolute voice. Gregory of Nyssa, in a scene in De Anima et Resurrectione, offers us glimpse into his emotional life that is transformed through an embodied therapy of hope by a transformation of passions and desires. Articulated through the development of Christology in the later fathers this therapy of hope is transformed in the person of Christ. Learning to participate in Christ and being made into the image of His likeness, later thinkers like Thomas Aquinas help us to conceive hope not as static fanciful thinking but as active virtue rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Through a therapy, a transformation, and virtue of hope, the history of the Christian witness speaks the one word of hope into the modern diagnoses of depression: Jesus Christ.
In a scene in his dialogue De Anima et Ressurectione and the account of his sister’s death in De Vita Macrinae Gregory of Nyssa presents an embodied therapy of hope through the transformation of our passions as the first step in his program of spiritual ascent to know and experience God’s holy presence. Gregory’s therapy of hope speaks into the modern diagnosis of depression by offering us an anthropology that is grounded imago dei. Gregory critiques and synthesizes the Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic philosophies of the soul to articulate an understanding his anthropology and how human passions like grief fit into human life. By examining these accounts of grief in Gregory’s life, in De Anima et Resurrectione and De Vita Macrinae, we understand his program of spiritual ascent in three steps: overcoming passions in this life, rightly ordering passions in this life, and third, transforming passions in the eschaton.
Like Gregory of Nyssa’s therapy of desire, over against the modern language of emotion, the history of the Christian witness offers the language of passions and desires to get to the root of the problem. By tracing the terms passion and emotion and more specifically melancholy and depression, we can see the medicalization and systematization of mental illness throughout time. While this medicalization led to groundbreaking psychiatric technologies, psychiatry has not adopted a value system that offers an adequate anthropology. Over against modern psychological diagnosis tools like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Gregory’s therapy of hope and the continued Christian witness to desire and passion speaks to depression by offering a clear and consistent anthropology, a reason for its disordered nature, and a way out of that disordered nature through participation in Christ.
This therapy of hope is not just a new self-help program. It is the Church’s proclamation of the Risen One. His incarnation, life and death, Christ embodies, renews and redirects our passions. In the incarnation, the two natures of Christ (human and divine) are inextricably bound to the single person, the Second Person of Trinity. For Cyril of Alexandria, natures of Christ come together remain what they are while the qualities or properties of these qualities mix. This means that as man, Christ retains His status as God. The natures retain their own boundaries meaning that man and God are not mixed into a new thing but exist with the person of Christ as two separate entities. As Cyril writes, the Logos is therefore bound up into His flesh—hypostasis, like an iron in a fire. An iron is heated in a fire, but not changed substantively by the fire. This also means that by taking on our flesh, He also takes everything it means to be human—including passions or emotions. With two natures that are both distinct and act together in one subject, Christ experiences life on two planes. As we have seen, Christ experiences both cross and crown at once. Christ suffers impassibly in that Christ experiences real suffering but that suffering is transformed because of His divinity. Christ always sees the telos of suffering. And it is through this embodiment of our passions that they are transformed.. As partakers in a dignity that transcends our nature, our nature in conformed into His nature. But as a reflection of our conformed nature, we in lifting our minds heavenward experience suffering with this new telos in mind. Cyril speaks into depression in that our emotions are not transformed by holding onto an external hope but as a fact of our own transformed ontology– by Christ work not only on us but in us.
With a transformed nature, we can now act out of that ontology and develop habits that cultivate virtue of hope: prudence that orders the passions, faith that carries memories of hope into the future and courage that pursues community rather than isolation. Virtue for Aquanis is made up of habits that allow us to embody dispositions of our heart. Therefore the virtue of hope is a disposition of the heart sees present difficult and works toward and longs for God’s goodness in the eschaton. Prudence, for Aquinas, is an awareness of the present that integrates reason and emotion toward their proper ends. If passions were created by God to enjoy his goodness, prudence guides the human heart heavenward toward its proper end. Through prudence and the ordering of our passions, we are formed as people back into the imago dei. Although prudence acts in the present, the virtue of hope fuels a faith that carries memories of God’s faithfulness into the future. As represented by the songs of lament, this habit of hope integrates past and future that when trouble comes presses harder into who God has revealed Himself to be in the past. It sees goodness when God seems absent. Grounded in the ontological reality of the transformation of our nature, it can persevere through difficulties without losing its narrative of self that is grounded in His reality. And lastly, habits of hope courageously pursues community rather than isolation. The Psalms hope not as individuals but hope as a community. Hope in a communal context means holding hope for the depressed when it cannot be carried alone. To a depressed person, a community might say, “You are unable to hope right now, and that’s OK. You don’t have to. We will carry you for a time in the work of hoping.” Understanding mental illness as malformation rather than disease helps us to see medicine as a teaching virtue, or good formation rather than a cure. Therefore, the Church joins with the psychotherapy in the reordering of desire and reworking of the heart toward a virtue of hope.
The one word of hope is the one word by which the universe is held together: Jesus Christ. Gregory of Nyssa’s therapy of hope gives us an anthropology by which our passions can be ordered. Cyril of Alexandria presents our transformed anthropology through the person of Christ. And by our new ontological reality, Thomas Aquinas invites us into habits that cultivate a virtue of hope.