Review: Companions in the Darkness

Companions in the Darkness, Diana Gruver (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Biographies of seven Christians in history who experienced depression and the hope we can embrace from how they lived through their struggle.

Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, David Brainerd, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. What these and two others in this book have in common is their struggles with depression. Diana Gruver, who has also experienced depression, has studied the lives of seven saints for what may be learned from their experience of depression. She writes:

Their stories bring me comfort, reassuring me that I am not alone. They remind me that I am not the only one to walk this road, that this experience is not an alien one. The lie that “surely no one else has felt this” is cut down by the truth that others, in fact, have, and their presence makes me feel less isolated. These fellow travelers are my companions in the darkness of night.

Diana Gruver, p. 13.

Gruver gracefully narrates the stories of these saints, weaving in insights from her own struggles with depression. One of the striking things I noticed was the differences in these stories and that depression had many faces. Some seemed to have family proclivities toward depression, others like Charles Spurgeon first encountered depression more or less out of the blue, resulting from a tragic event. Some like David Brainerd struggled with concurrent health issues while others faced pressures from tremendously challenging events.

One of the most interesting stories will probably be an unknown to most of us, Hannah Allen. Having struggled with depression during her husband’s absences at sea, she sinks into a deeper depression when he dies at sea. At one point she secrets herself under the floorboards where she is staying, determined to starve herself to death. With the help of relatives, she eventually agreed to medical treatment, improving to the point where she re-married. Gruver discusses how prayer and reasoning from scripture were not enough:

The cure for Hannah Allen wasn’t to drag her to church. It wasn’t to convince her to pray more. It wasn’t to quote Scripture at her until it removed her despair. Her caretakers sought for her the best medical care of the day. They changed her surroundings. They put her on what we would now call suicide watch. They kept showing up with compassion. They attended to her soul, yes, but they also attended to her body.

Diane Gruver, p. 47.

Hannah left a spiritual memoir of her life, which is the primary way we know of her struggle. She represents the many “ordinary Christians” who anonymously struggle, and the hope there is for them.

Gruver not only candidly describes the struggles of each figure she profiles, she shows the efforts employed by each, all but Martin Luther King, Jr., before modern medical treatments. King had been recommended for psychiatric treatment for depression by a doctor but refused because of the efforts to discredit him and the stigma mental illness incurred in his time. Luther fled solitude, married, and enjoyed drink and laughter at the table. William Cowper, who gave us great hymns and struggled through his life with depression, found respite in art and friendship. Mother Teresa, who once experienced a clear call of God lived in spiritual darkness where God was utterly absent and chose continued obedience to Jesus despite her feelings. King drew on reservoirs of humor, song, and prayer, the spirituality of the Black church, to lead resiliently under a continuous cloud of threats on his life, and during the desertion of friends when he stood against the Vietnam War.

Gruver includes an appendix with practical guidelines for helping a friend through depression. She sums up the message of this book, drawn from Pilgrim’s Progress as Christian and Hopeful cross the River of Death, as “the water is deep, but the bottom is good.” Depression is hard but God has not abandoned us, even if it feels that way.

We’re in especially dark times. One public health study reports that the incidence of symptoms associated with depression have more than tripled during the COVID pandemic. It’s likely that we, personally, or someone we care for, are one of these. Reading the stories of these “companions,” while not a substitute for professional care, may offer insight and hope to make it to the other side of these dark months. This book is a gift for our times as well as a glimpse of a side of people we thought we knew, enhancing our understanding of the quality of their faithfulness to God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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