Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by life that it feels like you can’t move? Have you ever been depressed – not just sad but really, truly depressed? It’s a situation in which many people find themselves, and many of them allow it to consume them, even to the point of despair. It’s a real problem – a mental illness – and too few of us are willing to admit that it has a grip on us or our loved ones. Sometimes, however, simply admitting it, realizing that you are beyond your limits, and stepping toward help is all that it takes to lift you out and set you on a road to recovery.
I say this, because in 2007 I was diagnosed with depression. It was a dark time in my life. I slept a lot; I didn’t eat; I was exhausted when I had to be “on”; I cried for no reason; and I simply could not cope. I finally spoke to my family and my doctor and was able to get some help. Depression has reared its head from time to time since – it’s a part of me – but thank God I have been able to recognize the signs (usually) and manage with the help of professionals.
Real talk right now: I feel it again. The assumption of the pastorate of two places, the need to learn the goings-on of our people, the desires of folks to make sure I am doing what they want me to do, the complaints about policies and pastoral worry – all of it is a burden, sometimes overwhelming. It’s not an inappropriate one for a priest, no more than such worries are inappropriate for a parent. However, I know that my brain is wired to feel that burden a little heavier sometimes – when I haven’t exercised or been eating properly, when I haven’t seen the sun in a while, when I haven’t taken time to recharge. Right or wrong, I am a person with depression.
So I totally understand Elijah in our first reading today – maybe way more than I would like to understand him. King Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel (yes, that Jezebel) are o angry with the prophet that they want him dead – all for announcing what the Lord has asked. We encounter Elijah now, overwhelmed, lying under a tree, and just wanting to sleep until he dies.
What a place to be! And yet, many people find themselves there. Maybe some of you have found yourself there. For people of faith, this is particularly hard because it can feel like a failure of faith – that we are somehow defective in our relationship with God and our knowledge of His love for us. Often, people of faith who are depressed can feel guilty and bury their feelings even deeper.
In encountering Elijah the prophet today, I want us to realize something very important. Simply being called and loved by God is not a shield against being human. In fact, it can enhance our awareness of our humanity. God loves you because He created you, and He created you human – with your circumstances and your brain. There is no getting away from that.
But wouldn’t it be nice if God showed us some care and coddling sometimes? Why doesn’t the angel come to Elijah today and just give him a big hug? A pat on the back saying “It’ll be alright?” Nope. That’s not what God does here. Instead, Elijah gets a biscuit and some water. After another attempt at a nap, it happens again and God offers a kick in the rear and says, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you.”
Life moves. And life moves forward, not backward. Dwelling on the past to the expense of the present – fretting over the future to the loss of the now – these things paralyze us. We can become so overwhelmed that we simply cannot move – like Elijah under that tree. We get worn down by life and come to God to feel better and be cared for. Now that's not wrong, and God does care for us, but not necessarily like we would expect. And the way of God is supposed to be the way of the Church. At first, yes, the angel is there to feed us. When we are completely spent, we are cared for and given the nourishment we need.
But the whole purpose of becoming rested and healthy is so that we can be back about God's business. The angel does not say to Elijah, “Eat so you'll feel better.” He says to eat so that he will have strength for the journey. When the angel has cared for Elijah, God shows up with another task...sending him right back into the danger he was running from. Faith is not for sissies.
This is why no simple ordinary bread will do to support us for the work of discipleship. This is why Jesus is the living bread that come down from heaven. It has to be Him – it has to be the Body and Blood of the Lord, because no other remedy can fulfill the deepest longing of our hungry, human hearts. When I am totally overwhelmed – and I admit that I have been lately – it is the Eucharist that sustains me. Not because I “feel good” about it; but rather because I know that there I encounter Jesus Christ, loving me, nourishing me, and sending me to do His work. Jesus feeds us so that we can imitate Him and have true life – not just so that we survive in our various deserts.
I will close with some advice. Depression is real. It can rob you of perspective, so that everything is out of proportion and the smallest things can seem like world-ending catastrophes. This is not so – or it doesn’t have to be. Speak to a friend. Talk to your doctor. I would be happy to chat as well. Help is out there. But help is also certainly here. Connect to the Eucharist; know its true power and love. Jesus is present and loving you right here. And He invites us to share in His gift of Himself, so those who eat of His Flesh may truly have eternal life and share that life with others.