When Faith Falters

The essayist and critic George Scialabba has produced an absorbing account of his long struggle with severe depression – simply by reproducing selected intake reports and treatment notes from four decades of therapy and medication, adorned only with a very short introduction. It’s a granular, intimate look at what it is like to live with depression, made all the more notable by the place of religious faith in his story. As one psychologist put it, after Scialabba lost his faith as a young man, “the pieces of his life never came back together.” Here’s an excerpt from a 1987 entry from the document:

Mr. Scialabba dates his psychiatric symptoms back to age 17 when he developed incapacitating anxiety when he had any sexual impulse and he would have guilty ruminations that disrupted his usual activities.

He went to a priest who told him he would be responsible to God for the patient’s sexual impulses, and the anxiety episodes stopped. Mr. Scialabba also joined a very devout all-male Catholic organization called Opus Dei, and he became very involved in that organization during his undergraduate years at Harvard. He felt a missionary zeal about converting others and involving them in Opus Dei. Mr. Scialabba describes his commitment as “intense, demanding, and lifelong.” After four years of college he “lost all belief in Catholicism.”

Mr. Scialabba describes his leaving the church and Opus Dei as extremely difficult, and he described an episode of confusion and perhaps of depersonalization in which he didn’t know what he was going to do, but he went into a meeting of Opus Dei and tried to speak about his loss of faith. Instead he became agitated and had to be led from the room. Mr. Scialabba feels he has never recovered from this emotional upset. He describes the time leading up to his departure from Opus Dei as 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.

Damon Linker riffs on Scialabba’s story, thinking through what faith can mean for a person – and what happens when that faith is lost. The despair Scialabba endures seems to complicate our secular-religious divide, drawing attention to those “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”:

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?