Sadness and the return of the black dog

Wine makes me melancholic, but I haven’t needed alcohol to feel melancholic these days. The black dog has been nibbling at my feet all week, and the only escape is the sanctuary of sleep. Thankfully, I have had only the occasional confrontation with the black dog in the last year or so, but he has pinned me against the wall right now.
While he can appear without warning, several factors facilitate his appearance. When they coalesce, I am trapped. For how long I never know. Fortunately, it is usually a relatively quick visit, and I can scramble towards the light again.
The first Christmas without my parents left me feeling orphaned. Being a bachelor with no family of my own, my Christmas always revolved around my parents – enjoying their cosy fireside presence, being entertained by my father’s annual indictment of the appalling rubbish on the telly, taking them on mandatory visits around the family circle, the long, lazy, chocolate-fuelled days lapping up their unconditional love.
Many times this lonely festive season, I have heard my mother’s voice call out in my dreams, pictured her sitting across from me at mealtimes policing my use of the salt cellar. I have smiled at the memory of my father surreptitiously slipping sugar in his tea when her back was turned.
In the four Christmases since my father’s passing, the time spent with my mother became even more significant. She missed him as only a true lover can, her tender heartbroken, and she missed her sisters who had always come home for Christmas but were now going home to God. Though children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren surrounded her, she missed the company and companionship and connection that her life partner had brought her and I missed it too. My first Christmas without both of them was as bad as I had feared.
The dawn of a new decade inevitably induces nostalgia. I have been thinking of the fine Redemptorists who died in the last ten years and of those who have left. When I joined four decades ago, I saw life and vibrancy and young seminarians with long hair strumming on guitars. I smelled excitement and possibility. I saw my future mapped out; I’d be one of a merry band of brothers crisscrossing the country filling churches with good news.
Now I see change and decay and good men in obvious physical decline, and the black dog sneering at me about a futureless future and a life misled. I look at a clerical church that is 200 years behind the times and wonder if the changes that are needed will ever come about. I despair that the entrenched culture of clericalism and careerism that facilitated the abuse of the most vulnerable and the misuse of power and money can ever be destroyed.
I look at flames devouring Australia and waters inundating Venice and wonder whether puny politicians and myopic vested interests will ever begin to take climate catastrophe seriously. I scan social media and online comments pages and weep at the hatred and racism and sexism and homophobia and abuse that little people hurl at others and how, for all our technical and scientific progress, tribalism and fear and misogyny and insecurity continue to drive wedges between individuals and peoples and nations.
I preach all the time about the importance of practising present moment awareness, of living each day in the now, of appreciating every moment. But when my chronic pain spikes and the black dog appears, I want to flee from the present moment; I withdraw to my room. I stop reading. Even my wit dries up. I just want to disappear. I seek solace in slumber.
As long as the black dog lingers, each day is a going through the motions. I fulfil my duties as well as I can; I continue to preach to the best of my ability; I pray and place my melancholia before the God of compassion and love, and I know that any day now the black dog will scuttle away defeated and I’ll be back to myself, and those living with me will be obliged to endure my remarkable wit once again.

Author: frommypulpit

I'm a Redemptorist preacher and writer, with an interest in history, politics, and sport, who is living with chronic back pain.

4 thoughts on “Sadness and the return of the black dog”

  1. Dear Gerry, your post made me cry. The black dog is indeed something we all want to run from. Thankfully, though iI have experienced it, I rarely do these days. I feel for you. I know how you fight it and I know how you suffer from it. I hope that this understandable episode will pass quickly. Losing both parents is incredibly hard – even if it is something most of us face. You will come through because they are up there willing you to do so. They won’t want you to be sad and bereft. Take heart and hold firm. You will be okay. Ths spring will come and the sun will shine again and you will be okay!. Much love and prayer, Sarah

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  2. The richness of your reflection, Gerry! The probing mind and heart, the sensitivity to everything around you ( reminds me of the dramatic opening line of Gaudium et Spes) , even the “casual racism” in society, the searing honesty about your connection to family and intimacy, your dedication to sport, so utterly you, and its mountains and valleys! You. Thank you.

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  3. Gerry I was thinking a lot about you during my morning prayer time today. It has not been an easy Christmas for me either. I did my sister’s funeral in the afternoon of Christmas Eve and then went back to do the Christmas Mass in the home of another sister with congregation of grand-nephews and nieces. We had done it last year as my brother in law was in the advanced stages of motor neuron and could not get to Mass. The kids wanted a repeat this year and we had hoped Ann would be able to join us this year but God had other plans. Tough Christmas for all of us really – one of those Christmases when a broken toy seems like the end of the world. I have Brendan’s first annivesary and Ann’s month’s mind over the next couple of weeks.
    I am also reflecting on the future of the Reds – in ways I have a bit more invested in it than you as I am older and bought more deeply into the mythology! Like St Peter, all I can say is “Lord to whom can we go?” – to put it another way, who would take me! The arthritis has been painful and I have another condition known as acid reflux that makes me a bad guest at a dinner partyso I have been canceling! My consolation has been reading the long readings from Third Isaiah inoffice of readings these days that hold out hope of renewal of Jerusalem. My passion for Catholic history reminds me that Notre Dame was turned into a temple of reason in the French revolution but lived to be restored: this year it has met another death this year but there is also hope of restoration. My generation had an affair with the goddess of reason so to speak but in our advancing years, have discovered how fickle she has been! I cannot foresee the future of the Reds. We might be like the Crutched Friars or Brigidine monks and disappear from the face of the earth, or we might be like the Dominicans and Benedictines who had also virtually disappeared at the French revolution only to be revived into even greater life by daring – possibly even eccentric – men like Lacordaire or Prosper Gueranger. Is there one of them waiting for us? What Alphonsus founded would probably have gone the way of a lot of Italian priestly congregations of the 18th century had it not been for two (eccentric?) young pilgrims drawn to the hermit life- Clement Hofbauer and Thaddeus Hubl who were sent back across the Alps with no money, little formation but some kind of a story. In Clement’s bi-centenary, let’s hope for the best!

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    1. I know it’s been a terrible time for you and I have been conscious of that. It’s the back pain that compounds things for me. When it’s bad, I say how can I keep going for years more like this, but then I look back and see that I’ve done five years already. I was reading about Vatican I yesterday and Prosper Gueranger came up! Hopefully, as the days begin to brighten, we will also. At least Liverpool are making me happy.

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