Dryness in Prayer – Part III – God’s Part in the Struggle
Q: Dear Father John, I have been praying (mental prayer) for a long time. But lately I seem to be experiencing dryness in my prayer – I just don’t seem to get as much out of it as I used to. Is this the “dark night of the soul”? If not, what’s going on, and what should I do?
Lack of consolation in prayer (also known as dryness) may be a result of un-confessed and un-repented sin, or it may come from sloppiness or laziness in our effort to pray. But if we are making a reasonable effort to do our part, and yet we still don’t experience (or stop experiencing) consolation, it’s probably God’s fault, not ours.
God is not a vending machine; he doesn’t have to reveal himself to us in a tangible way every time we try to press his buttons. This is one of the big differences between Christianity and many other religions. In pagan religions, for example, the gods were obliged to respond to worshippers in a certain way, if the worshipper performed a specific ritual, likewise in Satan worship. But Christ isn’t like that. We can’t control him. He can hold us back from feeling his presence in our souls, even when we are sincerely and conscientiously doing our part.
Why? Why would he allow us to experience dryness in prayer? Because he wants our love for him to mature. At times, we can become subtly attached to our experience of God in prayer – to the consolations that we feel as we gaze upon his beauty or taste his goodness. Subconsciously, we can begin to seek those consolations even more than their source. We begin to value the gifts of God more than the God who gives them, like the little child who enjoys Uncle Ernie’s company because Uncle Ernie always gives out candy. Candy is a good sign of Uncle Ernie’s goodness and love for a child, but getting to know Uncle Ernie better and developing a more mature relationship with him means learning to go beyond the gum-drops.
When God withholds consolations, he is purifying us of this subtle attachment to our feelings, so that our faith can grow and mature. To become mature Christians, we must learn more and more to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). In this context of spiritual growth, dryness in prayer is an opportunity to truly adore God himself, regardless of personal preferences and satisfactions. The mature love is the love that “lays down its life for the beloved” (John 15:13), not the love that “has no root deep down and does not last, should some trial come…” (Mark 4:17). Dryness is an invitation to give ourselves to God, putting aside our desire to get things from him.
Doing Our Part Amid Dryness
When God sends us this kind of purification, our reaction should be like a patient on an operating table. We must not try to avoid the often painful dryness, nor panic in the midst of it. Rather, we should persevere in our good efforts, trusting that the wise doctor of our souls is hard at work in ways that we cannot see or feel, healing us of spiritual cancers that we may not even know we have. (St. Ignatius of Loyola used to advise keeping to the exact minute of the time reserved to meditation whether we experience immense consolation or immense desolation.) This is what spiritual writers call “passive purification.” Active purification is when we consciously deny our natural inclinations in order to follow Christ more closely (see our blog posts on mortification). Passive purification is when God puts us into the fire in order to burn away impurities that are beyond our reach. The result is marvelous: purified silver is more fully itself after being put through the fire; we become more fully what God made us to be after he purifies us. But the process is often painful.
When this dryness occurs for long periods of time on the level of emotions or imagination, it is sometimes referred as the “dark night of the senses.” The “dark night” is an image that St. John of the Cross used to sum up the whole phenomenon of dryness and passive purification. When this dryness occurs for long periods of time on the level of intellect and will (see part I of these posts on dryness in prayer for an explanation of these different faculties), it is sometimes referred to as the “dark night of the soul,” since these two faculties are the superior, spiritual faculties of the human soul.
St. John of the Cross went into great detail about the signs by which authentic dark nights can be distinguished from dryness that comes from other sources. In summary, they are as follows: 1) we find no consolation in the things of God, but neither do we find any in the things of the world; 2) we find ourselves still attending very carefully to our prayer commitments, and our anxiety comes because we fear we are not serving him well; 3) we find ourselves unable (at least for unusually long periods of time) to make reflections and considerations when we go to mental prayer, as if our minds were somehow paralyzed. In these three areas, however, it is difficult for us to diagnose ourselves; it’s like trying to look at our backs in a mirror.
Two more observations are needed before leaving this topic. First, those who are taking their spiritual lives seriously and striving to grow in prayer can sometimes be distracted by trying to figure out exactly where they are in the various stages of spiritual growth. It’s as if they think that having the perfect label will make their efforts more fruitful and helpful. This can be a pitfall. Because we are all individuals, and God leads us through unique paths of spiritual growth, it is not always easy to fit our real experience perfectly into the abstract categories that theology has to use to reflect systematically on these issues. We can become obsessed with finding the right label, instead of staying focused on loving God through prayer and action in obedience to his will. It is helpful to understand more and more the principles in the spiritual life, because then we can understand ourselves better as we begin to identify how those principles are at work in our experience. Yet, spiritual naval-gazing is unhelpful. This is one reason why spiritual direction is such a useful tool. It helps keeps us objective and balanced in our efforts to discern how God is acting in our lives.
Second, those Christians who are living out their vocation to holiness as lay men and women often receive their purification in ways other than the “dark nights” of the senses and the soul. The suffering and the struggles for fidelity to Christ that come with the vocation to marriage can be acute. The suffering and struggles that come in one’s effort to build Christ’s Kingdom through work, community, and professional activities can also be acute. God can use those struggles and that suffering to perform his purification-operations. He is not limited to using dryness in prayer. This is one more reason why we should be wary of spiritual naval-gazing. The key to spiritual growth is accepting, embracing, and fulfilling God’s will moment by moment, not anticipating how God will work in us and then forcing him to follow our expectations. We must let the Doctor do his work, without demanding that he first teach us the whole science of medicine.
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC
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