Among the devoutly religious — fervently pious Catholics, fundamentalist Protestants, Salafist Muslims, ultra-orthodox Jews — you'll sometimes hear it said that the rampant anxiety, depression, and other forms of emotional suffering in modernity are a product of the decline of faith.
"You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." That's how St. Augustine famously put it: we want, we crave, we long for God, with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. When we find him, we rejoice, at last feeling at home in the comforting arms of a father who will guide us, protect us, decide for us; who will relieve us of the crushing burden of groping our way through life, lost, aimless, confronted by endless choices.
But what if we never find God?
Or worse: What if we lose him?
These melancholy questions came to mind as I read a remarkable essay by critic George Scialabba in the current issue of The Baffler. Actually, "The Endlessly Examined Life" isn't an essay. Though it begins and ends with Scialabba writing in his own voice about his four-decade-long struggle with severe depression, the bulk of the piece consists of lightly edited excerpts of intake reports and other notes from a wide range of psychologists and psychiatrists who have treated him over the years.
It makes for depressing reading, in several senses. Psychodynamic psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, a grab bag of old-school to cutting-edge pharmaceuticals, electroshock treatments — Scialabba has tried them all. Most accomplish nothing; some help a bit. But still the depression recurs, over and over again, leaving him unable to focus on work or career, to give attention to friends and lovers, to prevent the sensation of crawling out of his own skin, to relieve the desire for death as the only sure way to end the suffering.
The empathetic reader cannot help but be moved by the ordeal Scialabba endures just by living.
But what I found especially noteworthy about the essay is the role that Opus Dei, the ultra-orthodox Catholic religious order, plays in the story of Scialabba's depression. As he recounts it to several medical practitioners over the years, Scialabba began to suffer from "incapacitating anxiety" at the age of 17. When he went to a priest to discuss the symptoms, they subsided. Shortly after that, he joined Opus Dei.
Throughout his undergraduate years at Harvard, Scialabba "felt a missionary zeal about converting others and involving them in Opus Dei." It was also "the most intensely meaningful, exciting time in his life, when he felt that all of life and intellectual and philosophical pursuits were open to him."
He was also blissfully free of anxiety.
Until 1969, that is, when after four years of college and about to pursue a graduate degree in European intellectual history at Columbia University, he "lost all belief in Catholicism." To say the process of de-conversion was difficult would be an understatement. He became "agitated," embroiled in a "confusion" from which he "never recovered."
He attempted graduate school at Columbia...as well as Harvard Law School, but he dropped out of both because whenever he attempted to do serious work in philosophy or intellectual history, he would become unbearably agitated and have to stop. [The Baffler]
That's how he conveyed the story in 1987, 18 years after losing his faith, in the depths of the latest in a string of depressive episodes. Nine years after that, another psychologist reported that after leaving Opus Dei and the Catholic Church, "the pieces of his life never came back together."
Now, it's a good idea to treat such a self-interpretations with a dose of skepticism. The initial anxiety attack that led the 17-year-old Scialabba to visit a priest and ultimately join Opus Dei may well have indicated a predisposition toward depression and other forms of mental illness that would have plagued him later in life regardless of his religious experiences.
Still, there is something striking — and perhaps importantly revealing — about the role that a particularly stringent form of Catholicism seems to have played in Scialabba's life and spiritual suffering.
Catholicism is a remarkably totalistic religion. In addition to the Bible and the creeds and the liturgy, there are papal encyclicals and other authoritative pronouncements of the magisterium, not to mention the Catechism, which in its Pope John Paul II–approved second edition contains 2,865 heavily footnoted paragraphs cross-referencing each other and covering every conceivable aspect of human life. For a person who craves an answer to the question, "How should I live?", the Catholic Church provides an astonishingly comprehensive answer. (As do, in certain strands of their respective traditions, Judaism and Islam.)
Opus Dei then takes this imposing edifice of dogmas and doctrines and transforms it into a holistic way of life that for many members of the order includes communal living arrangements, daily prayer and mass attendance, celibacy, and even "corporal mortification," or the deliberate infliction of pain on oneself in order to allow the believer to take some small part in the passion and suffering of Jesus Christ.
When secularists look at an organization like Opus Dei, many of them see a cult actively engaged in brainwashing its members, enslaving them to superstitions that seem designed to make them miserable. Much better is a life of freedom from dogma and doctrine, breathing the bracing air of reason and science.
The experience of devout faith is naturally very different from the inside. Relieved of the lonely burden of individual choice and decision, shielded from anxiety and ambivalence, released from the need to reflect from scratch on every moral quandary, confidently oriented in all aspects of life toward steadfast, clearly enumerated metaphysical truths — living and thinking and acting from such a standpoint can feel like its own form of liberation.
But what about a third group — the one in which George Scialabba is an unhappy member?
This group is filled with people who are unceasingly restless for God, whose deepest and highest hopes point toward transcendence of the merely mortal world, but who either never manage to acquire faith — or, perhaps even worse, enjoy it for time but then lose it.
They, too, are secular — but secularists haunted by the shadow of the absent God who once made life fully comprehensible and worth living.
"The pieces of his life never came back together," reported the doctor. Because pieces were all Scialabba had left when the perfectly beautiful whole revealed by Opus Dei Catholicism was shattered by his loss of faith.
For someone like that, unable to reconcile himself to the disenchantment of his own world, faith — its promise, its withdrawal, its absence — can become a source of the purest misery. Even a curse.
Worse, a curse backed up by a taunt, echoing continually in the former believer's mind: "You've seen the Truth. If you now reject it and turn your back on God, the fault is yours alone, and you will suffer for your sins. Indeed, your depression is merely a finite taste of the agony you will reap in a hellish afterlife of eternal punishment."
Against these existential-spiritual agonies, modern medicine deploys talk therapy and Prozac. No wonder the results are mixed.
As for the rest of us, secularists seemingly so much more content than George Scialabba with our lack of faith, we are left with a puzzle worth pondering: Was Augustine deluded about the ultimate source and aim of our unceasing, anxious restlessness?
Or are we?