Sometimes we have the idea that any kind of spiritual life is filled with consolations and sweetnesses of every sort, that it is always wonderful and leaves us experiencing a warm glow. In reality, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
Certainly, there are particular moments at which the Lord – for reasons best known to Him – allows us some sensible consolation in our prayers and devotions; these moments are, however, generally fairly brief and they are always time-limited. I wonder if part of the reason for this is that knowing we are creatures of the senses – He created us as such , after all – He understand that at times we need a little encouragement. But this is all such moments are – encouragement. We should never consider these to be the experience of the spiritual life, to be the ‘usual’ way of things, for they are not.
Conversely, there are other moments when our spiritual lives undergo the trial of dryness; and those moments, in my experience, tend to last somewhat longer as a general rule. I have often heard people speaking of such an experience in their own lives, and there are those around them who will immediately describe those times as “the dark night of the soul”. They are quite wrong in this – the dark night of the soul is something very specific, given to certain souls at certain points and for reasons which, likes the other moments, are best known to the Lord. They often last much, much longer than a ‘night’ and to refer to them as ‘dark’ is to greatly underestimate both the experience and its effect, which is especially intense. St John of the Cross describes the true dark night well – and it is not, I don’t think, the common experience we might imagine it to be.
For the more routine moments of dryness, that relatively common spiritual experience, that is precisely what they are – dryness, nothing more; although there are times when they might deepen into a sense of interior desolation, it is true.
How should we respond to such moments of dryness? The answer to that question is straight-forward – we should respond to them as we do to every other moment; that is, with perseverance and with consistency in our spiritual lives. The exact way in which we respond and the precise things we seek of the Lord in those moments, will give us some clues about where we are on the spiritual path. If our immediate response is to become despondent, bemoaning the loss of the sensual, this generally offers us a clue about how far we yet have to go upon this path. And if we respond with equanimity and trust in the Lord, ignoring the sensual, then that, too, gives us some clues.
My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish?
My God, I call by day but You do not answer;
by night, but I have no relief.
It is said that for several decades, Saint Teresa of Kolkata experienced a sense of deep dryness, even of desolation, in her prayer life; she felt ‘disconnected’ from the Lord, convinced He was not listening to her prayers. But despite this, she continued to pray with great devotion, consistency and perseverance. What we ‘feel’ is often not the reality of what ‘is’. Saint Teresa’s experience is a salutary reminder to all of us about what matters and what does not.
When we feel that our prayers and devotions have crashed upon the rocks of spiritual dryness hiding just beneath the surface of the waters, we keep going, as the Lord expects us to do. In this regard, simple feelings do not enter into it – they are not what the spiritual life is about at all, and so we need to move beyond any expectation of sensible consolations.
Take as your example the Lord, who called out to God in anguish upon the Cross and, like Him, keep going.