From the Psalter:
When my mind became embittered,
I was sorely wounded in my heart.
I was stupid and had no understanding;
I was like a brute beast in your presence.
Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You will guide me by your counsel,
and afterwards receive me with glory.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 73:21-24 (BCP Version) – February 7, 2014.)
Seldom has depression been so artfully described as in these few lines of Hebrew poetry. Translated in the Prayer Book as “embittered,” the Hebrew is chamets which refers to yeast. It means “to be leavened” or “to be sour.” Most versions of the Scriptures translate it with some version of “bitterness,” a few use “grieved,” and the Complete Jewish Bible renders the verse, “when I had a sour attitude.” I rather like that last one, closest to the Hebrew, best; it describes depression perfectly.
Several years ago, sixteen to be exact, I went through a severe depressive episode requiring treatment with medication and cognitive therapy. Both of those were helpful but of most value was my work was a spiritual director, really learning the discipline of daily prayer. In the course of that episode, I learned about psychological rumination, how to recognize its early stages, and how to get myself out of it.
The word rumination is borrowed by psychology from biology; it derives from the Latin ruminare meaning “to chew again.” It is the process by which ruminants (animals like cows, goats, sheep, giraffes, yaks, deer, and camels) digest their food. Having consumed and swallowed it, they regurgitate it together with digestive juices, chew it again to thoroughly mix it (“chewing the cud” we call that), and swallow it again.
In psychology, and especially with regard to depression, it refers to the process of returning again and again to replay in one’s mind, think over, regret, and obsess about some small but painful incident. It describes a useless but harmful feedback loop of negative emotion.
The Hebrew language’s and, thus, the psalm’s use of leavening to describe this process is nothing short of brilliant; it is wisdom. The process of rumination is exactly like the process of leavening. As the yeast fills the lump of bread dough, the negative emotions of rumination fill one’s every thought, every moment. The result, as the psalm says, is that one becomes “stupid” (ba`ar — ” brutish”) and “ignorant” (lo-yada — “lacking understanding”). In my own experience, when I would get stuck in a rumination cycle I simply became unable think outside of the feedback loop of negative thoughts; sometimes I couldn’t even think at all — I would simply “zone out.” Talk about “brutish” and “ignorant” — that was me in those ruminant moments!
But as the psalm suggests, there is a way out: God holds me by my right hand; God guides me by God’s counsel. For me, the structures of Prayer Book liturgy provided a way out of the cycle of rumination. If I could just get my hands on a Prayer Book and begin to read the Daily Office, or the prayers and thanksgivings section, the cadences of prayer would break through the obsessive replaying and over-thinking of whatever had triggered the cycle. I found, in fact, that the older language forms of the Rite One liturgies (or the 1928 Book of Common Prayer) were best for this purpose.
Depression is an awful thing. (As I contemplated it this morning — in a non-ruminative fashion — in light of the Hebrew linkage to leavening, I was tempted write something about a “yeast infection of the spirit” . . . but decided not to get there. I’ll just plant that image and leave it for later contemplation.) It is an awful thing, but there are ways to deal with it and ways to get out of it. I know, from personal experience. The best way is the one today’s psalm reminds us of — the guidance and counsel of God.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.