Elizabeth Reardon offers advice on persevering through times of spiritual dryness.
I call upon you; answer me, O God. Turn your ear to me; hear my speech. (Psalm 17:6)
From the outside, the prayer life of a Christian, particularly those in ministry, may incorrectly be assumed perfect, and yet how could it ever be? For, if it depends wholly on us, broken and fallible as we are, alas our words and petition will always be lacking. And yet, God yearns to meet us where we are, making up for the host of imperfections and sinful ways we have become accustomed to. So then, prayer cannot begin from a self-assured position of deservedness but with a humble desire to seek. There need not even be a multitude of words (Matthew 6:7).
Dryness in prayer
There are, however, times we cannot seem to hear God's answer amidst the din around us, the circumstance itself, or even over our own continuous cries for help. We may very well ask ourselves, just where has our heavenly Father gone? Or better still, what has been done or not done to cause Him to withdraw his favor and presence?
"Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort. The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints, and he himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God. We pray as we live, because we live as we pray ... The "spiritual battle" of the Christian's new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer." CCC 2725
Digging deep and reaching out
Remaining centered on Christ when our prayer is arid can be difficult at best. Yet, if we do not then everything else that we do, while perhaps humanitarian, is insufficient and even fruitless for we are lacking our source for wisdom, strength and guidance. It is like a tree with a great expansive reach but very shallow roots. This tree cannot weather the storms that blow us this way and that, or seasons of dryness where showers of blessings seem scarce. Conversely, deep roots sourced in Christ guide us to where we can find new strength and grace when the world around us has changed.
When prayer is difficult ... pray more.
St. Ignatius does not provide easy words for us here and yet it is the very thing we are being asked to do. The sadness, and longing we feel is what St. Ignatius calls spiritual desolation. It can appear at times as boredom, dissatisfaction, frustration or as complete abandonment. While it is often said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, for the prayer seeker it is not only an undesired course but therein can lie a fear that it may never be found again. For, intimacy in prayer is such an priceless treasure, that once experienced and lost even in the smallest way or for the shortest time is deeply missed. These are the moments we long to return to when we suddenly become aware of our distance from God or sense that we are seemingly grappling about in the dark.
We cannot, however, begin to pridefully think that we were deserving through our own efforts. And still, it is not solely the journey of the forlorn disciple as the saints too walked this arid desert path of prayer on occasion. What most assuredly is the defining factor is our resolve to trust in God's will and perseverance in the struggle.
St. Teresa of Calcutta expressed in her private letters, published in Come Be My Light, her own spiritual desert that lasted over half a century. 50 years of coming to prayer waiting to hear God's voice, yet instead experiencing silence and solitude. Many a would-be follower of Christ might have considered giving up by this time. But this, as she grew to realize, would be her cross -- one that would help her begin to glimpse the suffering that Christ endured Himself. And while His voice was quieted, God met St. Teresa in the faces of the poor and marginalized in the streets of Calcutta. Her work would, as she noted, allow the graced opportunity with the daily interaction with the Christ before her.
In Ordinary Time
We can learn much from the remedy that St. Teresa exemplifies through her time of spiritual emptiness and darkness. The "light" that she would find would not be found in lofty highs of prayer but in the everyday moments of ordinary time. Time spent with a priority of making space for God through devotion with the Blessed Sacrament and the prayers of the Rosary became the guide for her work and the source of strength and encouragement to continue on.
“Where will you get the joy of loving? -- in the Eucharist, Holy Communion. Jesus has made Himself the Bread of Life to give us life. Night and day, He is there. If you really want to grow in love, come back to the Eucharist, come back to that adoration.”
In this meditative stillness, we may also more readily discover the invitation to better discern our own spiritual inclinations and motives. Ask yourself:
- What is it that is occupying my head and heart space these days? Have I invited God into these instances or sought to limit his presence in my life to where I would like him to be?
- How do I receive this time of testing? Am I seeking only that the pain be taken away or am I trusting that though I cannot see the purpose or way forward that God does?
- Even in this time of dryness, what do I have to offer through my daily interactions with others that I perhaps have not considered before?
"Teach my heart Lord to pray as you would have me pray. Let me not seek merely the consolation and intimacy of your love. Yet knowing that you work all things for good, and according to your purpose let me rest assured in your will and presence in my life. And when I cannot feel you near and am tempted to despair, let me trust in the unseen."
Copyright 2020 Elizabeth Reardon
Image: Pixabay (2019)
About the Author
Elizabeth Reardon is Director of Parish Ministries and Pastoral Associate for the Collaborative Parishes of Resurrection & St. Paul in Hingham, Massachusetts; a wife and mother of three, and writer at TheologyIsAVerb.com. Her writing is an invitation to seek and create space for God in the midst of the busyness of everyday life.