There are times in life when everything in the spiritual realm can seem impossible, that what is being asked of us is simply not achievable nor ever attainable. It can appear, at such moments, that our only option is to give up – or, at the very least, to just stop where we are and not move any further forward; the danger then, is that we begin to move backwards and lose whatever has already been achieved.
The particular reasons for such moments occurring are as many and as varied as the people who experience them – there is no single reason; but they all share a sense of what can ultimately feel like spiritual desperation for the person involved. A better and more accurate word might be ‘desolation’.
Although you might be thinking – “ah, it’s the dark night of the soul”, I would say that what I am referring to is not that. The dark night is a very specific experience and it occurs for an equally specific reason, even though it is one which is greatly misunderstood by many and the phrase is too often used where it ought not to be. I am referring here to something quite different to that.
This spiritual desolation is a place where souls find themselves for many reasons, often – but by no means always – because they have placed themselves there by what they have done or what they have failed to do. For some, this placing of self into a state of spiritual desolation comes about as the result of deliberate intention, of the soul thinking this is where they wish to be – and realising all too late just how very wrong they were. For others, that placing there results not from deliberate intent but from a wilful blindness to the path upon which the soul has embarked. And for others still, it come about through the foolishness of following what should not be followed.
It can, therefore, occur as a consequence of sin in particular forms – but it may also occur for reasons never known to us, but only to the Lord, Who permits it for His own good reasons., reasons which we may well never know in this present life. And it can happen to anyone – it is not a decisive mark of innate sinfulness nor even a lack of goodness. Remember – the rain falls on the good and the bad alike.
Out of the depths I cry to You, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice!
The opening lines of Psalm 130 express something of the dawning sense of realisation for those who find themselves in such a position and who are not thrilled to do so and to be there. This Psalm, so often used at funeral services, speaks to the sense of loss in those moments following a death – that singular event which marks an ending, an event we were forced to encounter no matter how greatly we wished not to do so. In desolation, we find ourselves facing such an event, such a moment, and can do nothing else except cry out to the Lord in desperation.
Yet this Psalm expresses something else, too. It declares a sense of hope, even in the midst of desolation – “Hope in the Lord! For with the Lord, there is steadfast love, and with Him is plentiful redemption”, the Psalmist assures us.
This hopefulness is expressed very explicitly in Psalm 91, another very popular and well-known Psalm, and this one often used as part of the rite of exorcism. It is an exceptionally powerful Psalm, one which achieves precisely what it describes. It begins –
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord – ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in Whom I trust’.
Wherever spiritual desolation exists, there is a very real danger of it’s culminating in final despair, a despair from which the soul can never recover because it involves a choice that cannot – because of it’s finality – be unmade. This is the moment when the Deceiver will deliver his greatest attack, to ensure that there is no going back from this choice of despair. “All is hopeless”, he whispers to that soul, “Give up”.
It is perhaps for this reason that as Catholics, we make a spiritual preparation for this eventuality – a preparation we have become so accustomed to, so long have we done it, that we no longer even think about it. This preparation is expressed every single time we pray the prayer of the ‘Hail Mary’. In that Biblical prayer, we ask the Mother of God to “pray for us now and at the hour of our death”. Those are the two moments which matter most of all – ‘now’ and ‘at the hour of our death’.
The danger for souls is not that they live a good life and then, in that final moment, make a disastrous one; on the contrary, our choices in life are often incremental. You might even think of them as being ‘architectural’. We build a foundation, and from this the walls slowly take shape before we finally put the roof on. Depending on which particular choices we make, we can find ourselves, at the end of the day, living within a building – that is, a life lived out – in which our choices have been foolhardy, wayward, selfish or even just negligent; our final destination is not, then, determined by one terrible final choice – but by a life filled with much smaller choices, each of them the wrong ones.
And it is the very realisation of this which is the spiritual desolation to which I am referring.
Saint Paul tells us that where sin is, grace abounds – and he is absolutely right. Grace is offered liberally to us in those moments where it is most gravely needed, including those experiences of spiritual desolation. The Divine Mercy devotion also makes this abundantly clear; this sublime devotion is designed for our times and for the evils with which it is filled. The devotion is given most especially for sinners – and in a particular way for those “whose sins are as scarlet”.
Although there are those who may read all this and find it obtuse and clouded in a mist, still there are others who will immediately recognise within it the message that is intended for them. To those souls, I say this – do not give up. Do not stop hoping, because there is always hope. Hope dies only when we do – and even then, mercy extends out even beyond the reach of the grace we can take hold of only in life. There is only one Voice to listen to – that Voice is gentle, compassionate and is speaking in your heart and in your conscience. You will recognise that Voice; listen to It. And when you do so, here is what to do next – start to pray and keep on praying, and all the while keep hoping, and trust throughout, even if that seems absolutely impossible.
Psalm 91 ends with a promise from the Lord –
Because he holds fast to Me in love, I will deliver Him; I will protect him, because he knows My Name.
When he calls to Me, I will answer him. I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him..
For those in need, may that promise of the Lord be fulfilled perfectly.