Near the end of Ingmar Bergman’s classic Winter Light, the troubled minister who is the film’s main character, can’t decide whether to hold the 3 o’clock service or not. His day has been especially depressing because he gave counseling to a parishioner who subsequently committed suicide that very afternoon, he fought with his mistress, and he has the flu. The church sexton, a disabled survivor of a railroad accident, talks to him about the part of the Gospels which he has been reading, the Passion.
Jesus, the sexton reasons, didn’t suffer all that much on the cross. Why, the janitor goes on, he personally suffered more pain in his life than the four hours that afflicted Jesus and his pain was probably much worse. No, the crucifixion is not the most important segment of the Passion. Think of the Garden of Gethsemane, he says. The Last Supper is done. The disciples who have accompanied him have no clue about what is about to happen, so they go to sleep. Jesus is all alone, so he kneels down to pray. And what does God the Father say to him? Nothing. God is silent. And that, the sexton reasons, is the most terrible ordeal that Jesus endures.
Agnostic that I am, I still value the Gospels as a guide for understanding the suffering that is happening in my life. But what I would give for a silent God at times! In the void, my depressions fill the emptiness with the voice that is the worst of the Old Testament combined with Catholic guilt. I call this my inner god — a false god to be certain — because its primary purpose is to torment me. My illness exists, according to this voice, for the purpose of punishing me. But therapist after therapist has asked me What have I done that is so terrible that I deserve this constant hammering at my self-esteem? I can throw out a number of things, but they are all trivial compared to the actions of some of my peers who feel no shame for what they wreak against others. Surely there should come a place where my penance is over? But no matter what amends I make, the god inside me continues to berate me and declare me worthless.
One reason why I value my manias is that they shut down this voice entirely. Only my own ideations occupy me — obsessively. My thoughts race from project to project, propounding desperate philosophies that enthrall me more than methamphetamine. The evil god, the blasphemer against my happiness is put to death and does not rise again until I crash. Then for more than forty days at a stretch, the god assaults me with shame.
For the depressed and the anxious, the silence of God is a scream.