Behold what you are
How depression and chronic headaches taught me to pray
This is my eighth month of severe chronic headaches and my forty-first month since being diagnosed with major depressive disorder.
You can probably imagine that this has not been very pleasant. I won’t dwell too much on the details, but I want to write about what this whole mess has taught me about prayer and that story begins with what’s been difficult.
I get headaches pretty much every day, for the majority of each day, which come with a combination of pain and brain fog and dizziness. During depressive episodes I find myself fighting a combination of sadness, fatigue, and spiraling thoughts to retain some sort of focus. I am genuinely fortunate that I’ve spared enough to retain a reasonable level of productivity, but the result has still been real and frustrating stretches of time without meaningful access to my own thoughts and feelings.
This (of course) has impacted my human relationships to an extent. But there are lots of things I can do with my friends regardless of how I’m feeling.
It’s a bit harder with God. For a long time my idea of prayer has focused on reading the bible, saying words to him, and cultivating a sense of his presence — all of which are wonderful things, and all of which become a thousand times more difficult with a bad headache.
How do you spend time with someone you can’t see when you also can’t properly think about them?
One of the biggest temptations in modern Christianity is to forget that we are physical creatures, not free-floating spirits but embodied souls. We start with the promise of a God who’s coming to redeem the entire universe and cut and cut and cut until all that’s left is an anemic story where the goal is just to believe the right set of abstract statements.
But Jesus doesn’t just love some poorly-defined abstraction of my consciousness.
Jesus loves my body.
Jesus loves my eyes and my shoulders and my size fifteen feet. He loves my skin and my bones and my brain’s wonky serotonin. He loves the pecs and triceps that appear every December during the Barr family pushup challenge and the chest scar the doctors once used to un-collapse my lung. He loves every part of me from the brain that thinks and feels to the legs that walk and squeeze into airplane seats to the spleen I’m sure is important, whatever it does.
I have known for a long time that God loves other people’s bodies — and, by extension, cares about their physical needs. There is a reason that Jesus commanded his followers to feed the hungry and house the homeless, not only to preach his words. But somehow when it comes time to apply this to my own body it feels more difficult, like God’s love is something just for other people.
Moreover I have known at least since the beginning of the pandemic how important it is that my human friendships are embodied. There is something about hugs and hands on shoulders and the beautiful experience of a shared in-person laugh that’s lost when we only see each other through a computer screen.
That’s what I’ve been learning to look for in the nights when my head is conked out. A tangible, physical way of communing with the God who thought it was worth coming to earth to walk and to touch and to feed people with real, physical bread.
It started with the sign of the cross.
If you aren’t familiar with it, “crossing yourself” is a simple Christian gesture where you touch your forehead, your chest, and then each shoulder to make the shape of a cross.
The simplicity of the gesture hides a deep fount of symbolism.
The cross itself, of course, represents what Christians believe to be one of the most important things that has ever happened. In Christ’s crucifixion we see a God who reveals his nature not as an aloof God to be feared from afar, but a humble and self-sacrificial God who loves us enough to get his hands dirty and his wrists bloody. We see a fallen humanity whose broken desires for power and self-importance led us to kill the very author of life himself. And we see proof that all the forces of darkness could not ultimately defeat the God who promises to make all things new, through which we see that the current reign of sin and oppression is ultimately finite, and that no matter how painful things get they will ultimately be made right.
But there’s more. The four points of the gesture correspond to the words “father”, “son”, and “holy spirit” — the three persons in the Christian God. In a single motion we can recognize God’s presence and complexity, grant the reverence and gratitude we owe to all three persons, and ask for the deepest parts of God’s holiness and power.
In the cross we see the whole gospel: our weakness and smallness in the presence of God’s overwhelming glory. The exaltation of the marginalized and the poor and the decentering (and occasional humiliation) of the powerful and the wealthy. The death blow Christ’s resurrection struck against the present evil age and the secure hope that creation will one day be made right. The total reordering of priorities and of values that we’ve barely begun to understand.
And all this meaning — sublime, magnificent, fearful meaning I don’t think I could ever find the words to capture — flows out of a single two-second action you can do as many times as you like.
I am not trying to say that I see God every time I cross myself. It’s possible for a gesture to just be a gesture, just like it’s possible for words to just be words.
But when I cross myself in the fullness of this — knowing every ounce of meaning I’m putting into it, knowing how central the crucifixion is to everything that I am — I experience God’s presence and his power in a way that’s difficult for me to describe. I experience the hope of redemption physically and tangibly.
And the symbolism works even when my head doesn’t. Even on nights where prayer just means naming people I care about and frantically crossing myself and hoping God figures out the rest.
I’ve been taking communion with an Episcopalian group on campus recently, and each time at the high point of the service the priest will say:
“The gifts of God for the people of God. Behold what you are. Become what you receive.”
I grew up in a church that taught that the bread and wine of communion were merely symbols of Christ’s sacrifice rather than sacraments. We believed that the act of communion was primarily a way of reaffirming what you believe and what you stand for in community with your fellow Christians, rather than a site for the action of God’s grace.
I’ve slowly been coming around to the sacramental view, at least in liturgical settings. I’m starting to believe that Christ really is present in the bread and the wine — not in a sense I think it’s useful to perfectly formalize (sorry Catholic friends), but in a sense that I really do feel that the sensation of chewing the wafer and the physical taste of the wine are a tangible way of interacting with Jesus and receiving his mercy. I don’t have a full philosophical explanation, but something beautiful and genuinely relational happens when I take the Eucharist.
Behold what you are.
I have never felt my need for a savior so acutely as during a mid-headache depressive spiral. The ooze of self-hatred layered upon pain and nausea proves to my addled brain that God doesn’t love me and I’m not even sure I want him to.
The priest could stand up and say “look at yourself, you piece of shit” and in the moment I don’t think I’d feel she was wrong at all.
But she doesn’t. And she doesn’t say “condemn who you are” or “run through a list of your sins” or “suck yourself into a spiral labelling everything in your life.”
Just Behold what you are.
And I do.
On days when the headaches are incapacitating, I behold my physical limitations. On days I’m feeling sad or happy or angry, I behold my emotions. I behold my successes and my failures and things that are my fault and things that aren’t and parts of myself I love and parts I wish were different and everything I am and everything I’ve done all at the same time.
And I don’t feel the need to comment on it all because the things I behold just are.
This is who I am. And this is who God is.
I see myself, and I see the God who is bigger and holier and happier and sadder and angrier and has the power to do what I cannot.
It’s simple. And it’s honest. And it’s redemptive. And it leads to the best part.
Become what you receive.
What am I receiving? A little bit of his presence in food form — Jesus I can bend with my tongue and crunch between my teeth and feel as he slides down my throat into my stomach. In the sacrament and the ritual I receive a sort of physical intimacy with the creator of the very universe.
When my brain works I can struggle with trying to put myself in the “right” frame of mind for communion, convinced that to truly understand my need for a savior I need to consume myself with hatred for the parts of me I don’t like.
But somehow when my brain is foggy I can start to see things more clearly. I see who I am before God in all my weakness — the sins that are my fault and the pain that isn’t — and I don’t have to convince myself I need a savior because it’s obvious. The myriad of emotions I feel around not being “good enough” give way to a plain and immediate recognition that I am too weak and frail to save myself from much of anything and a clear-headed gratitude that there’s a God strong and loving enough to do it for me.
And I don’t have to worry if I’m “feeling God’s presence” sufficiently because emotionally I’m not feeling anything at all. But I’m chewing the wafer and tasting the wine and the Lord of the universe and I share a moment of physical connection together.
As I digest the bread and wine and their ingredients literally become a part of my body, I trust and pray that the experience will make me the tiniest bit more patient, the tiniest bit more loving, the tiniest bit more like him.
And that’ll stay with me long after the headaches are gone.
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