Joy Elusive: William Cowper and Me (Part One)

Spiritual depression has always been a part of the Christian experience. It seeks to overwhelm some more than others. I too, struggle with the dark cloud. Some call it depression, spiritual depression, or Acadia.

Whatever you want to call it, it feels horrible. It’s like that feeling you get right before you cry. But you can’t cry; no matter how hard you try. It lingers, it stays. It ebbs and flows. And when it flows, it flows. Sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks. When it is there, you wake up with it, and often go to bed with it. It affects your dreams and every waking hour.

The cloud tends to cover my being, at least, a couple times a week. And I have lived with these clouds in my atmosphere for a long time. It has been about 20 years now since I first remember feeling the drop of soul that I still experience on an ongoing basis. I remember that night in fourth grade when the darkness, as I know it today, first crept in. This may seem morbid, dark, and hidden for those who have not experienced the long lasting crush of the soul in such a way. But for those who of us who have dealt with the blackness there are points where you can look back and analyze with great lucidity the contours of this struggle. The nature and degree of this struggle has changed throughout my life. As best I can tell, the narrative of the darkness in my own life has passed through four distinct phases. From a psychological perspective, I guess I have plowed through all the stages of grief. The contours of grief change over time and what I currently experience on a weekly basis is more akin to sadness than bitterness or a desire to escape. And, yes, I have come to a few conclusions about some of the reasons for this deep seeded pain, but I will leave that discussion for another time.

I’m a Christian and have been taught in a myriad of ways, implicitly and explicitly, about the causes and roots of this malady of spirit. In the past, when I have become vulnerable with others about this issue, they are often quick to point out their understanding of the cause. I am often told it is probably due to a particular sin they suspect I am committing, or maybe because I listen to too much depressing music. Most of the Christians I talk too say that I am not trusting in God enough and living for “self”. Which is mostly true, but not always helpful. I can now say with confidence that happiness is not always a choice. The fact remains that this re-occurring dark cloud has been my experience for a long time, and finds me during times I have been particularly holy, sinful, giving, lonely, self-absorbed, zealous for good, or disconnected from the crowd. And it is my suspicion is that this type of long term pain is more common in my circles that many would like to admit. Just as gay sex is kept on the “down- low” in the African American church, so this kind of experience is quickly confined to the hush in Evangelical circles. Especially among males. But that too, is another discussion for another time.

I am using this Lenten season to look back. It is only through the stories of others like me that I find consolation. And ultimately it is only the stories of Jesus celebrated during Lent that keep me upright and still willing to bear with the clouds. With Christ as my companion I look around and see others. In keeping with the Lenten theme of darkness, I present to you an intriguing figure from the history of Christianity, whose musical and poetical talents are still with us today. William Cowper (pronounced ‘Cooper’) was a man familiar with the darkness. He is one of those saints who has come alongside me in the journey. I first discovered his legacy while flipping through an old hymn book. My eyes fell upon a hymn entitled “God moves in a mysterious way.” Finding the truth of this blunt observation convincing, I read and wanted more. I did some research (quite a lot of it really) and found the individual responsible for these words to be a kindred Christian soul.

We sing his hymns and recite his poetry, but rarely recognize his name. His contributions to evangelical hymnody are significant. Hymns like “O for a closer walk with God” and “There is a fountain filled with blood” dot the landscape of many classic, as well as current, hymn books. In addition to hymns, his poetry is widely recognized as some of the best verse written during his age. Some have gone as far as to call him the “great poet of the evangelical revival.” These revivals originated in Great Britain and would serve as a foundation for the many forms of evangelicalism that would come after it, including the American form. The theology and spirituality found in the hymnody of Cowper’s age continue to echo through the hearts of modern evangelicals. An experience of conversion, the atonement of the cross, and assurance of salvation all find their place in these songs. These are themes my soul is familiar with and hold in common with Cowper.

Many do not know these hymns were often written in the shadow of a personal struggle with spiritual depression and melancholy. This fact makes Cowper a difficult personality for some to deal with. How is it that a poet so adept at expressing a strong evangelical faith, rooted in the joy of salvation, could suffer from despair and could even attempt suicide? The hymns of William Cowper, set within the context of his struggle with spiritual depression, demonstrate an evangelical spirituality in tension with classic evangelicalism’s emphasis on assurance and joyful Christian experience. Cowper continued to express evangelical Christianity in his writings, even though he sometimes felt as if he was cursed by God. It is this aspect of the Cowper story that resonates with mine. Like Cowper, I had believed for a long time that my faith was based explicitly on my experience with Christ, and implicitly on my ability to live in holiness. I used to assume that my experience with Christ would result in a loving trust of God and emotional relief from the depression unnecessarily experienced by others. Some might say that if I believed the gospel enough, I could rise above the world and become detached from the pain around me? But this type of peace is often missing, and I have now come to understand this as normal for some of us. If Lent has anything to teach us, it is that authentic Christian faith is shaped by the Incarnation. We are reminded that the Incarnation of God came to suffer and die. In fact, our Lord Himself taught us to embody His life in our own types of suffering, and resist escape from the consequences of a fallen world. William Cowper was never able to escape the tension of the already, but not yet. Which is perhaps sadistically ironic; considering the way many of his hymns are used within the context of evangelical churches today.

In part two of this post I will share a brief overview of Cowper’s complex story. I hope this inspires you to find and consider the life of a saint that reflects your own journey. I promise you will fine one. We are not the first to walk with Jesus through the wilderness.

Part Two