A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul

A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul

by Tim Farrington
A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul

A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul

by Tim Farrington



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n this unflinching look at depression and the human struggle to find hope in its midst, acclaimed author Tim Farrington writes with heartrending honesty of his lifelong struggle with the condition he calls "a hell of mercy." With both wry humor and poignancy, he unravels the profound connection between depression and the spiritual path, the infamous dark night of the soul made popular by mystic John of the Cross. While depression can be a heartbreaking time of isolation and lethargy, it can also provide powerful spiritual insights and healing times of surrender. When doctors prescribe medication, patients are often left feeling as if part of their very selves has been numbed in order to become what some might call "normal." Farrington wrestles with profound questions, such as: When is depression a part of your identity, and when does it hold you back from realizing your potential?

In the tradition of Darkness Visible and An Unquiet Mind, A Hell of Mercy is both a much needed companion for those walking this difficult terrain as well as a guide for anyone who has watched a loved one grapple with this inner emotional darkness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061972911
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 10/06/2009
Format: eBook
Pages: 128
File size: 445 KB

About the Author

Tim Farrington is the author of Lizzie's War, The Monk Downstairs,—a New York Times Notable Book—and The Monk Upstairs, as well as the critically acclaimed novels The California Book of the Dead and Blues for Hannah.

Read an Excerpt

A Hell of Mercy
A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul

Chapter One

The house of my soul is too small for You;
may You enlarge it.
It is in ruins; may You restore it. . . .
I am but dust and ashes:
yet suffer me to speak, through Your mercy.
—Augustine, The Confessions, Chap. 1

Depression began to weave itself into my life when I was seventeen: a classic "onset in late adolescence," I would learn years later, when I finally fell into professional hands. With neat soul logic, this was also the period in which I discovered Zen meditation. I spent my senior year of high school in Honolulu listening to the darker songs of the early Elton John, cutting calculus class to read D. T. Suzuki, slipping away to the Buddhist temple halfway up the Pali, and in general letting the warp and woof of my tidy American future unravel.

The depression was not incapacitating. It made it hard to take a lot of my suburban life seriously, but that was inextricably mingled with a growing consciousness of the larger brutalities of the world. Ethiopian children were starving on the evening news and genocide was mushrooming in Cambodia. Was I truly depressed or just awakening to the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, the insight that samsaric life is misery? My melancholy seemed like simple realism; if you weren't depressed, you obviously didn't know what was going on. I was becoming conscious of what Gurdjieff called "the horror of the situation." And so I took long walks and thought about death and the suffering of innocents. I wrote bad poetry. I did not goto Stanford.

"A deeper enlightenment and wider experience than mine is necessary," the sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite monk John of the Cross tells us in the prologue to his Ascent of Mount Carmel, "to explain the dark night through which a soul journeys toward God." He adds, "I am not undertaking this task because of any particular confidence in my own abilities. Rather, I am confident that the Lord will help me explain this matter, because it is necessary to so many souls."

It takes a certain kind of nerve to write a book like this. I am by no means an expert on either depression or what John called the dark night of the soul. I'm not a scholar, not a psychiatric professional, and certainly not a theologian. I'm more like a veteran, I suppose: a guy whose ass has been on the line, just one more guy with some stories from the front, someone who kept his head down as best he could and did what he had to when the shit hit the fan. It is certainly not my intention here to construct a simplistic one-to-one equation between what is called the dark night of the soul and what is called depression. That would be worse than foolish. The Ascent of Mount Carmel and its companion work, The Dark Night of the Soul, were originally written by John of the Cross for an audience that consisted solely of cloistered Carmelite nuns and monks. The books were the fruit of centuries of a rich and very specific Chris-tian contemplative tradition. Moreover, coming as they did at the watershed made by the Protestant Reform-ation and the violent reaction of the Catholic Church's Counter-Reformation—and the consequent, even for a time potentially fatal, suspicion of mystical and contemplative experience that permeated both camps and ultimately the secular paradigms as well—John's writings on the dark night would remain the state-of-the-art articulation of the condition through the succeeding centuries. They also remained until very recently the province of a select few, if not an elite.

In our own day the concept of the dark night of the soul has come into a much broader use. There is a marked tendency, in this period of (for better and for worse) mystical-contemplative revival and the popularization of spiritualities that were once the concern only of a highly dedicated minority, to make "the dark night" an easy label for anything ranging from a few bad days in a row to the death of a loved one. People now say they are going through a dark night in circumstances that used to be described merely as miserable, and we are beginning to hear the chorus of reaction as well, as various experts weigh in and bemoan the cheapening of the term.

Clearly, the danger of diluting a highly specific spiritual notion is real and present. Even in his own time John of the Cross himself was at great pains to distinguish the various nights of the soul from mere melancholia and what were then seen as bad humors. As "the dark night" gains increasing currency, the words, like any much-used coin, are rubbed smooth by rough usage and come to mean many things to many people. But this is true of any abstraction, from "the soul" to that ultimate Rorschach of a word, "God." It is true as well for "depression." The imprecision comes with the territory; and the vast country of human suffering remains what it has always been, the wilderness in which the soul must travel, whatever words we use for it. But I'm not writing this, in any case, for those looking to have their path precisely delineated; I'm writing for those whose maps have given out, as mine did along the way. God help me do it truly.

My spiritual naïveté at the age of eighteen was spectacular. I had the vaguest of adolescent notions that my elders had screwed up the world and that it was up to me to fix it. I had no humility whatsoever. I was a golden boy, a beloved oldest son, and I had never encountered any serious misery in my entire bright American life. My grandparents were all still alive and in good health. My father had survived Vietnam, and my parents' marriage had survived the sixties. Paula McCutchon breaking my heart in junior high was about as far as my experience of suffering reached.

A Hell of Mercy
A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul
. Copyright © by Tim Farrington. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Julia Cameron

“With a poet’s eye and a seeker’s heart, Tim Farrington explores the often-interwoven threads of spirituality and depression. Farrington is both a guide and a muse: his honesty invites introspection and hope.”

Eric Wilson

“This book, as lyrical as it is profound, is a brilliant testament to that most enduring of hopes—out of death grows life. For all of us craving salvation, this is essential reading, a mysterious atlas of the sacred.”

Kathleen Norris

“{A} welcome addition to the conversation about the thorny relationship between faith, depression and mental illness...appealingly modest and practical, relying not on intractable ideologies but on shared stories and voices of experience.”

Richard Lewis

“So many of the passages and insights written by Tim Farrington in his astonishing work so surpassed my own writing on the same subject, that it catapulted me into the darkest depression of my life. Fortunately, I quickly reread his book and saw the light.”

Darcey Steinke

“These days that there is meaning in suffering is not a particularly popular position. But Tim Farrington with intellectual rigor and great candor lays out his relationship to both religious suffering and clinical solutions. A Hell of Mercy is an important book.”

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