Monday, October 5, 2015

On Depression and Jonah

In the novel Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Gail Godwin creates a narrative of a priest who is prone to bouts of depression, who earns the nickname “Father Melancholy” from his parishoners.  Throughout the book, Father Melancholy describes his depression as getting lost behind a Black Curtain, and he can’t find his way out.  When encouraged by his wife to take antidepressants prescribed by his well-loved doctor, Father Melancholy says that he wants to get to the bottom of it, to “look the damn thing in the face… to help me see… well, I don’t know what,” so that he could emerge triumphant.

His emergences in the novel are always sudden.  The passage that struck me most about his emergence was when he told his wife that “these mashed potatoes are creamy and delicious, the ham is tasty, and I have a new book from the library I’m looking forward to reading later.”  And as a firsthand sufferer of bouts of depression, I can assure that these sudden emergences sometimes happen; you don’t realize how much better you feel until the moment hits you like a smack to the head that life is, indeed, a beautiful and blessed thing.

What strikes me most about Godwin’s novel, though, is that she never draws Father Melancholy’s bouts of depression to the story of Jonah and the whale.  It seems so obvious: Father Melancholy gets lost behind his Black Curtain, much as Jonah was swallowed by the whale.  They both spend a time in darkness, aching and wishing for light to come, and desperately praying.  And suddenly, the whale vomits Jonah onto shore, just as one evening Father Melancholy realizes that his mashed potatoes are creamy and delicious, and that he is looking forward to reading his new book.

And what about our need for these dark moments, for these times in the belly of the proverbial whale, that we may eventually emerge on the shore to see the world in a different way?  So much research has been done on diagnoses of “mental illness” – be it depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. – in those involved in the arts.  Nancy Andreason, a physician-neuroscientist who has studied the correlation between creative persons and mental illness states an interesting perspective to our need for these dark moments: “Did mental illness facilitate [their] unique abilities, whether it be to play a concerto or to perceive a novel mathematical relationship?  Or did mental illness impair their creativity after its initial meteoric burst in their twenties?  Or is the relationship more complex than a simple one of cause and effect, in either direction?”

So is mental illness – depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mania, or even alcoholism and drug abuse – a precursor to creativity or simply something that comes with it?  Do artists of any type spend their time in dark periods so that they may be spit upon the shore and gain a new perspective with a beginner’s mind?  Is this why people of such creative genius are able to make amazing connections that many have never thought of before?  Does mental illness allow creative persons to feel more deeply and bring those feelings to the rest of the world in new, beautiful, and amazing ways?  Do our dark periods, as Jonah in the whale’s belly, ultimately become a gift to us so that we gain a new perspective?

Perhaps we all need to be as Jonah; take a dark period to really examine ourselves with no distractions, no light – just ourselves in an enclosed, quiet, and completely solitary environment.  And once we realize the Lord’s call for us, may we be spit upon the shore and see the world with clearer eyes and a more open heart.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Why We're Here

Welcome.  I am the Silly Episcopalian.  I am also a music teacher for students with developmental disabilities.

I go to Zion Episcopal Church in Rome, NY.  I'm on the vestry, in the choir, and newly hatched, and I'm here to tell my story about my faith and its journey.

I was baptized, raised, and confirmed Roman Catholic.  I went to parochial school from kindergarten through grade 8; I was allowed to go to the local public school in my hometown because of the music program it had (which ultimately led me to pursue music education in college).

As a little girl, I was always impulsive and couldn't keep myself still for longer than a couple of minutes.  Welcome to me messing around during mass, and mom putting me in the children's choir.

Music transformed my faith. "Sing to the Lord a new song" became the philosophy of my life, even though I didn't quite know it yet.

I was also interested in priesthood and ministry.  Mom started quite the lively discussion in our diocesan newspaper about whether or not girls should be allowed to be altar servers (I wanted to be one BADLY); I wound up being in the first class of altar servers in my church that allowed girls to serve.

When we were in school and discussing whether or not girls could be the President, Sister Paul said that we certainly could.  I took this one step further and declared that I'd like to be the first female Pope.  Ridicule ensued.

I didn't really question my Roman Catholicism until it became time to consider things for Confirmation and when we started learning about different religions and different sects of Christianity in religion class.  I learned that the Episcopal Church had female priests and even married priests.  I wanted to go and see more.  But my request was met with a resounding NO.  Resentment ensued.

I stayed resentful for a long time.  My junior year of college I discovered a pianist at the local Catholic church and rediscovered how much fun it was to sing and play there.  I felt like my faith was awakened.  It lasted quite a while.  Sometimes I wonder if the music masked my feelings about the institution itself.

Then grad school in Philadelphia (Temple to be exact).  I was living in graduate school housing across from the main campus in a row house apartment... which is not exactly a great neighborhood, but not a terrible one.  Campus lighting at night is practically daylight.  I didn't know the city, was basically afraid to drive in it, and didn't know what to do regarding subway and church shopping.

Then my friend Grace, who really is amazing, invited me to her church (Saint Mark's Philadelphia) because the choir was amazing and she thought I'd enjoy it.  I was entranced.  First mass was a little tough because it lasted longer than an hour and people didn't RACE out during the postlude (old habits die hard); instead they sat and listened to the (magnificent!) organ playing.

Even though it was a long-ish mass that was weird to me, I wound up going back.  Sharing breakfast with Grace at the cafe across the street from the church, then sharing mass.  And what a mass!  It was such a beautiful, beautiful place and experience.  This planted the seed in me, but it was to remain latent for about 8 years.

Then I met a fabulous pianist in a pit orchestra for Seussical the Musical (I'm a rather decent woodwind player).  I was deeply impressed with his piano-ing, and he mentioned that he was the music director at Zion Episcopal Church.  About a year after meeting him, I finally mustered up the courage to see how different or how similar it was to my experiences at St. Mark's from years ago.

It was every bit as spiritual and wonderful.  I kept coming back.

And that is where my story begins.