I continue to take classes in Pastoral Counseling, and am learning a lot.
One thing I’d like to share with you is some thinking about the difference between the Dark Night of the Soul and clinical depression.
A lot of times, the two are mixed up in conversation, but really, the two are quite different.
Probably it would be best to start by describing the difference between the two.
Depression is a syndrome marked by the following characteristics, taken from the DSM-IV-TR (the Bible of psychotherapists in terms of diagnosing mental illness and substance abuse):
Criteria describing a Major Depressive Episode
A. Five (or more) of the following symptoms have been present during the same 2-week period and represent a change from previous functioning; at least one of the symptoms is either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure.
Note: Do note include symptoms that are clearly due to a general medical condition, or mood-incongruent delusions or hallucinations.
(1) depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day, as indicated by either subjective report (e.g., feels sad or empty) or observation made by others (e.g., appears tearful). Note: In children and adolescents, can be irritable mood.
(2) markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day (as indicated by either subjective account or observation made by others)
(3) significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day. Note: In children, consider failure to make expected weight gains.
(4) insomnia or hypersomnia nearly every day
(5) psychomotor agitation or retardation nearly every day (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down)
(6) fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day
(7) feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt (which may be delusional) nearly every day (not merely self-reproach or guilt about being sick)
(8) diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day (either by subjective account or as observed by others)
(9) recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide
B. The symptoms do not meet criteria for a Mixed Episode.
C. The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
D. The symptoms are not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance (e.g., a drug of abuse, a medication) or a general medical condition (e.g., hypothyroidism).
E. The symptoms are not better accounted for by Bereavement, i.e., after the loss of a loved one, the symptoms persist for longer than 2 months or are characterized by marked functional impairment, morbid preoccupation with worthlessness, suicidal ideation, psychotic symptoms, or psychomotor retardation.
When one experiences the Dark Night, it is a time when one is purged for a closer relationship with God. Pertinent signs include:
- “The first is that these souls do not get satisfaction or consolation from the things of God, they do not get any out of creatures either” (Dark Night, Book I, 9:1). “Creatures” refers to objects in life with which one has a relationship.
- “The second sign for the discernment of this purgation is that the memory ordinarily turns to God solicitously and with painful care, and the soul thinks it is not serving God but turning back, because it is aware of this distaste for the things of God.” (9:3).
- “The third sign for the discernment of this purgation of the senses is the powerlessness, in spite of one’s efforts, to meditate and make use of the imagination, the interior sense, as was one’s previous custom.” (9:8).
Both are characterized by feelings of listlessness and aridity, with a lack of pleasure. However, the key difference can be found in Sign #2 of the Dark Night. Essentially what that states is that one is still focused on God. One is still feeling that God is up to something, but one is not sure what. The Dark Night is dry, but filled with an underlying energy and hope–one is still able to do day to day things. Depression is when everything altogether seems to shut down. The key set of questions to ask to discern between the two is: do you still feel energetic and do you feel God is still up to something good?
If you feel you have depression, talk to a competent psychotherapist. If you feel you have the Dark Night, talk to a competent pastoral counselor or spiritual director.