Did you ever hear something on the radio or see something on the television that made you want to leap up, grab the device and scream: “Listen to me! I know the answer!”
That happens to me with radio call-in shows. It happened to me one day when I was listening to a program on Catholic radio.
I thought I had a better solution to a caller’s problem than the guest did, which is somewhat amazing since the guest was a very well-respected priest. All I could do was pray for the caller. And then, quite suddenly, my eyes and mind and heart were opened to something incredible the priest said, a seemingly innocent line that he shared as he tried to find the right words to help. Now I am left to ponder that line. I will let you ponder it as well.
Let me first take you to that particular caller. The show was “Catholic Answers” and the guest was Father Vincent Serpa, who is called the chaplain of the ministry. I have enjoyed listening to him whenever he has been on the program. He is very pastoral and sensitive, the kind of priest I would love to have as a confessor.
A man called and explained a little of his background. He’s married, a father, a teacher in a Catholic school and close to completing his doctoral studies. Sounded like an extremely responsible, dedicated man, and he came across as a man of faith.
“I have so much to be happy about,” the caller said, “but it’s all I can do to not give in to the temptation of despair. I can’t figure out what’s wrong.” He went on to say that he was having difficulty understanding why God loves him so much.
In many ways I felt as if I was listening to myself talking about my last 13 years.
Father Serpa’s heart clearly went out to the man. He told the caller it sounded like he was undergoing a great deal of stress, that he was trying to hide that from all the people in his life and, in doing so, isolated himself that much more. He felt alone. And in that loneliness, with the stress at such a high level, the despair could feel overwhelming.
Father Serpa advised the caller to seek counsel from a priest that he trusted, someone with whom he felt comfortable. I liked that advice a great deal. When facing what feels like a spiritual crisis, a spiritual director with whom you can be honest and with whom you can pray can bring great peace.
But I was hearing something more. The man sounded like someone with depression.
Now, I’m no doctor. I’m not ever going to diagnose a person, but I’ve had depression and anxiety for a long time. I have discussed my symptoms with doctors and therapists. I have read books. I have talked to dozens of people who have been diagnosed with the disease as well and know of our many things in common.
If I could have been on the phone with that caller, I would have recommended he meet with a priest as well to see if there was a “spiritual diagnosis.” I also would have asked him to see a doctor, to explain his situation in great detail, to get the doctor’s opinion on what might be wrong mentally as well as spiritually. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that a doctor would prescribe an anti-depressant.
And I would have recommended the caller meet with a talk therapist. He truly did seem to be going through a great deal of stress, trying to be a model husband and father, to be an exemplary Catholic for his colleagues and students, to successfully complete his doctorate degree.
“Seek professional help, please.” That’s what I wanted to scream to the radio. That became my prayer for him.
Father Serpa didn’t seem to want to let the caller go. He kept trying to find words that could console the man, that could open his eyes and mind to an understanding that he shouldn’t despair because God really and truly loves him and doesn’t want him to suffer as he was.
“If you were the only person on earth who needed to be redeemed,” Father Serpa said, “Christ would have suffered for you.”
Oh, my God.
I don’t know if the words did anything for the caller. He clearly was in the midst of a difficult day. But you know what? So was I. I had been struggling with a similar inclination toward despair, and frankly I had been for quite a while — and I am again.
In an appointment with my therapist, she tried to help me understand that I am lovable, especially to God. Father Serpa was saying the same thing in an extremely visual and personal way: If everyone in the world already had been saved, for whatever reason, but I still had not been, then Jesus would have come to earth, suffered his passion and died on the cross.
Only for me.
I don’t know how well I believe that yet. It’s something I have to keep working on. These things aren’t solved easily, just as I wouldn’t expect a man’s depression to be erased simply with medication, spiritual guidance and talk therapy in a matter of weeks, months, or even a few years.
But I want to tell that caller something more than my initial thoughts. Although Father Serpa’s words might be true, I actually am not the only person on earth who needed to be redeemed. I’m not the only person for whom Christ suffered. I also am not the only person affected by depression or given to despair or dealing with something really challenging.
If I could talk to the caller right now, I would tell him one truly important thing: Friend, you are not alone.
Editor’s note: Mike Eisenbath and his wife Donna host a website, “Offering Hope for the Journey,” where the subject of depression is treated in great depth, with compassion, and within a Christian worldview.