Christ, The Catskill Eagle
I’ve never come to terms with my depression. Part of that is because I have failed to recognize that I do struggle with depression. I would shrug it off as a “funk” that I go through for periods of time, but I would never say that I was depressed. No one wants to be depressed, and no one wants to talk about being depressed.
I think the depression began my senior year of high school. Like many high school students today I was dealing with life-changing decisions and issues but had not the mental capacity nor maturity to properly handle what was going on. A weight is on my heart burdened for high school students today for that very reason. They are dealing with adult matters and have to make adult decisions quickly, which will have long-term effects. High school is tough. How easy it is for high school students to see those little four years as a microcosm of the world at large.
I had made poor choices my senior year, and like every poor choice, I began to deal with the consequences of those decisions. I was hurt, and like a wounded animal who wanted others to notice my pain, I recklessly hurt others in the process of trying to understand myself.
God truly got ahold of my heart and began the slow and tedious process of restoration. I am so thankful he intervened and showered me with love and grace. His grace is an indomitable force, and it’s the only thing he will not restrain in order that you may be overcome by it.
In my early years of high school I was an extreme extrovert; I was a bubbly person who always loved to be in the center of a crowd. I still enjoy moments of audaciousness, but nowadays I retreat to the sides and corners of a room in a large crowd. Maybe it is part of maturing and maybe our personalities do change, but I think this was much deeper than that. I believe that because of all the weight I had on my shoulders I began to bout with depression. As I said before, I called them “funks.” I did seem to lose a lot of my joy. People would ask if I was okay and I would give them the typical, “I’m tired,” or whatever other phony excuse for my melancholy nature. Nothing in particular would trigger these “funks,” but when they rolled in they would linger for months at a time. My heart was especially drawn to movies, books and music of a more melancholy tone because there was some ambiguity inside them that my heart was drawn to. I retreated to the internal sanctuary of my being. I withdrew to my inner thought life. I did experience laughter, fun, and joy through those “funks”—it’s a misunderstanding of depression if you think those things don’t ever exist. Overwhelmingly though, I struggled with feeling completely alone as if I had no friends, even though I was surrounded by a large support group of people who were sharing life with me openly.
Recently, (and by that I mean the past year) I have experienced the joy of Christ like never before. I am a new creation. He has been patient in walking with me and helping me embrace my new identity and understand who I am as a man created in the image of God, designed to bear his image.
I say all of this to serve as a preface for what resonated with my soul as I read in “Moby-Dick.” You must understand that little bit of background to understand why I felt so attuned with Melville. He was a melancholy man, and the passage that I’m about to share resonated so deeply because it is a melancholy passage. What’s amazing is that something so melancholy can uplift my spirit in a tremendous way. That’s because there is truth in melancholy. I’m getting ahead of myself. Melville will get to that.
In chapter 96, Ishmael describes the crew’s furious workings amid the ship’s try-works. He finds himself daydreaming at the helm, and when he awakes he gives one of the most beautiful and enigmatic pieces of prose in all of American literature.
“Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. Tomorrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp—all others but liars!
Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp, nor Rome’s accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” ALL. This willful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing grave-yards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils of all sick men; and therefore jolly;--not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.
But even Solomon, he says, “the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain” (i.e. even while living) “in the congregation of the dead.” Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.”
It’s tough—I know, but bear with me. I read that passage and had to read it again. Then I read it again and again because slowly I began to peel back the layers and began to grasp in the slightest way what Melville was getting at. The beauty of such a passage as this is that it can speak so much, but it cannot be explained in an elegant manner.
He begins with basically reciting Lamentations 3:22-23, “his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” Don’t look at the face of evil too long because your soul will become inverted and thrown out of balance. The evils of this world are but a shadow and the rising sun will chase them away. But even in this truth Melville reveals another truth; that even in the brightest sunlight, evil persists.
It’s part of the ongoing question of why God would allow suffering in this world if he were a loving and merciful God. Melville says the sun hides not the ocean, and the ocean is two thirds of this world. God hides not the darkness, the darkness that is so prevalent in the world. No truer man existed than the Man of Sorrows. Jesus, the one who fills us with all hope, joy and peace that surpasses all understanding was a man of sorrows. Think of Jesus’ description as the suffered Savior in Isaiah 53 and the Apostle Paul’s call for each and every one of us that if we are to be like Jesus we must share in his sufferings. This is the wisdom he is getting at. There is wisdom that understands and contemplates the darkness in this world—a wisdom that sees the necessity of darkness and suffering and evil in the world. We do ourselves a disservice if we dodge topics of weighty matters. There is wisdom that embraces woe, but the balancing of wise woe and woe that is madness cannot be explained. It’s almost as if Melville is saying, “Let your soul feel and contemplate despair, but be not overcome by those contemplations.”
Melville recognizes a hidden joy that makes one feel alive. There can be joy within one’s heart even in the darkest of times. That is why the last paragraph is so encouraging to me. I have within me an eagle. An eagle which makes me immediately think of Isaiah 40:31, “but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” This eagle descends into the black gorge within my heart; but that gorge is in the mountains, so even as the eagle flies in dark despair, it’s soaring among the mountains, which is higher than the other birds soaring upon the plain. It’s how we can feel joy and not necessarily feel happiness. It’s a joy that’s invisible in the sunny places at times.
This passage resonated so deeply and lifted my spirit because it is filled with truth. Christ’s peace is like that Catskill eagle. Things are not easy. Problems do not go away. Sometimes the thick clouds of darkness linger over our soul too long, but Christ is that eagle within our heart soaring in the mountains. We can embrace the call of sharing in his sufferings, and this is how we are able to have peace even in the darkest of times.
May these jumbled reflections fill your heart with joy, and may your spirit soar!