A Feature Review of
Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints Who Struggled with Depression and Doubt
Paperback: IVP Books, 2020.
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Reviewed by Stephen Kamm
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with Diana Gruver and Laura Fabricky
Sometime between 1885 and 1886 Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote six sonnets often referred to as “The Terrible Sonnets” or “Sonnets of Desolation.” In a letter to his friend Robert Bridges, Hopkins suggested that the sonnets came to him “unbidden and against my will,” as he lived with “a continually jaded and harassed mind.” Indeed, they reveal a mind unrested and unresting, “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day / What hours, O what black hours we have spent / This night.” In another he cries out, “Comforter, where, where is your comforting? / Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?”
Was Hopkins depressed? The question is unanswerable absent a definitive clinical diagnosis. But fans of Hopkins and academics alike can’t help but ask. Despair pervades the sonnets; they writhe with anguish. Yet they are not nihilistic. Rather, Hopkins, who has known the light (“Glory be to God for dappled things”) now wrestles with deep darkness (“With this tormented mind tormenting yet / I cast for comfort”). In and through the terrible sonnets Hopkins asks: how does a person of faith live in an experience that appears to deny faith? Or more directly, is faith absent in despair and doubt? Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints Who Struggled with Depression and Doubt, an earnest and beautiful book by Diana Gruver, addresses these questions.
Gruver, a writer and speaker on discipleship and a graduate of Gordon Conwell Seminary with a degree in spiritual formation, does not deny the biological realities of depression. She encourages medical intervention as needed. Companions in the Darkness has a different purpose. Through the lives of seven saints, she sketches what faith looks like in depression’s dark shadow. Readers will be familiar with some of those profiled: Martin Luther and Mother Teresa. Some perhaps less so: Hannah Allen (author of Narrative of God’s Gracious Dealings) and William Cowper (18th century poet and hymnodist). Each saint receives a chapter. Each chapter opens with a first-person fictional account of a depressive episode.
As short narratives, they are immediately accessible and at times deeply affecting. Gruver paints a picture and draws the reader in. For example, of David Brainerd’s journey into the wilderness, she writes, “Creation seemed dead, caught in late winter purgatory, the trees towering skeletons.” This evocative scene, like many others, anchors what follows by giving shape and color to the particular imprint depression left on the individual. Gruver spends the remainder of the chapter weaving together biographical information and additional glimpses into the saint’s struggles with depression. Throughout, she ruminates on how faith may, or may not, be found in depression.
It is a tricky tension, this may or may not. On the one hand, Gruver accurately represents the experience of each saint with open eyes, refusing to squint or turn away. Such honesty requires her to reflect the moments in which faith is, at best, a word remembered rather than an active impulse. Spurgeon says that, in depression, one may “as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet, all-beclouding hopelessness.” And more starkly, William Cowper writes that he felt “a wish that I had never been, a wonder that I am, and an ardent but hopeless desire not to be.” For some, depression is a short season, but others are haunted—indeed crippled—by depression throughout their lives.
It is also true that, for some of Gruver’s subjects, depression forms their faith. They wrestled with depression as Jacob wrestled the angel, finding blessing in the battle, even as they limped away. William Cowper wrote, “My affliction has taught me a road to happiness which, without it, I should never have found.” Mother Teresa responded to God’s years-long silence with the observation: “I have come to love the darkness.” In this, Gruver suggests, “suffering birthed love.” These are, to be sure, hard won lessons. And Gruver studiously avoids a treacly, bumper sticker conclusion to wrap up each chapter.
Because she fairly represents both faith’s absence and its painstaking growth in depression—the two inextricably linked— Companions in the Darkness is not a simple Christian “how to” book for mental health. Readers will not find triumphant stories of healing. Rather, they will hear of battles long fought, seasons of life weighed down by depression’s heavy mantle, the fog of doubt clouding vision. Only then does Gruver begin to offer “lessons,” chief among them being that faith need not look like Julie Andrews spinning joyfully across alpine meadows.
Rather, faith may look like one small step on a path of hope in which the end is unclear, the way ahead murky with shadow and the footing unsure. Writing of William Brainerd, Gruver says, “There is something in his faithful weakness that inspires. It is a story of the steady, sustaining, unseen work of God—even in one who was convinced God had left him. . . . It’s a story of faith with no sight.” Later, in a particularly poetic passage, she concludes, “Even if you can’t see it yet, even if you don’t feel it—whisper the Truth to yourself.”
In these moments, Companions in the Darkness seems to shimmer with transparency. Rather than merely engaging with historical figures, readers stand on the edge of a deeper well, hearing echoes of Gruver’s own history of depression and the lessons she has taken from it. Here Gruver strikes a rich vein, one she could mine to even greater effect, perhaps in the form of a memoir. She has a faithful voice and the hard wrought experience of a story worth telling.
Companions in the Darkness is an honest and brave book. Gruver grapples with depression and, after a long battle, wrestles faith from it. In Bruce Cockburn’s words, she “kicks the darkness until it bleeds daylight,” without minimizing the presence of darkness in the least. Her words will ring true for those who suffer from depression in all its myriad and acute forms. More broadly, her words will resonate with those who hear depression’s dark whisper as they face each day’s tasks and wonder, “Does any of this matter?” The saints within her pages become companions for such times. They don’t provide easy answers, but they are welcome guides along the narrow way.
Stephen Kamm is a writer living in Sammamish, Washington. You can read more of his writing at WordsMatterSRK.com. Find him on Twitter: @stephenkamm