Dark night or depression?
Q: Dear Sister Carmen, I am struggling with prayer – it is very dry and I feel very alone but I have not given up. I believe I am in the dark night but I am also melancholy by temperament. How can I discern what I am experiencing? I don’t have access to a spiritual director because of my remote location. Am I depressed or in the dark night or both? I know you can’t know everything about my situation via this simple question – can you point me in the right direction?
A: Dear Friend, You are right in saying that I can’t know everything about your situation. Each of us is an unrepeatable individual unique among all persons living today, those who have lived before us and those yet to come. God has created us and in so doing has a plan for each of us. We want to live our lives in accordance with that plan and thus seek to discern how the Holy Spirit is leading us. A good spiritual director, if available, can be of invaluable help in this.
I can only give you the signposts that are general standards for growth in the spiritual life and there are many variations in these in the way that God chooses to work in the individual soul.
Before discussing dryness in prayer let us back up a little and summarize some of what has already been said. We have been dealing with the beginning mansions of the Interior Castle of which the first three Mansions form a special grouping. These three are a preparation for entrance into the Fourth Mansion in which one experiences the Prayer of Quiet. Teresa provides us with visual images to describe the work to be done either actively or passively as one journeys toward union with God. She applies a universal image in trying to express her thoughts, that of “water”. What she terms the First Water is applied to the first three Mansions. She compares the work done here to one who obtains water from the well by means of lowering and pulling up the bucket – hard work – but in Teresa’s day necessary if that was the only means at hand to obtain the precious water. How important was the water to the individual? Certainly a matter of life and death!
Thus in the spiritual life how important is our union with God to exercise the labor needed to reach our goal? The grace of God is there for us just as the water is in the depth of the well. Are we willing to use the means at hand to draw it up? Such means are: overcoming patterns of sin, practice of prayer, strengthening our sacramental life, practicing the Presence of God, cultivation of the virtues, bringing our wills into conformity with the will of Christ, detachment from worldly desires, practice of charity, etc. All of these are within the aid of ordinary grace. Much of the work here is “active work”, work we must do, with the help of God’s grace. And it is often slow work for growth takes time.
While all of us at one time or another may have experienced some form of consolation in prayer, however fleeting, the spiritual life is of too great a value to be an easy road. There is much hard work to be done especially in the first three mansions. It is here where we test the honesty and validity of our desire for a deeper relationship with God. Any relationship that is worthwhile takes profound commitment and arduous work on our part.
Now to get to the crux of your question! Why does wanting a deeper prayer life mean that often my prayer will be dry? And how do I determine whether this dryness is a result of spiritual growth or an effect of my melancholic temperament?
Can someone be going through the Dark Night and be experiencing melancholy at the same time? After all, many saints had a melancholic temperament. Regardless of our temperament each type has both strengths and weaknesses and of itself temperament does not stand in the way of spiritual growth. It is a part of what makes us the person we are. What we are referring to here is not our temperament but a form of melancholia or depression which can affect someone regardless of their temperament type. Yes, it is possible for someone to be going through both at the same time but it is not the usual case. Difficulties may be a source of suffering for us but not every suffering is the Dark Night.
If dryness is the result of one’s spiritual growth in prayer, the person will still have that strong desire to give him/her self totally to God through perseverance in prayer even when the senses feel no delight. Joy can also be experienced in suffering. On the other hand, melancholy closes the person in on self so that rather than seeking solitude to be alone with God in a loving relationship the person develops an unhealthy separation from others.
Generosity becomes a key word here. The one growing in prayer may not have a sense perception of the graces being received because the body is not perfectly conformed to the spirit and these graces are often very gentle and subtle, but the person is moved outwardly toward God and in service to others. Even if the person feels no delight in prayer the habitual attitude is to “give” rather than to “receive”, a characteristic quality of love. On the other hand, dryness which results from melancholy turns the person inward on self suffocating the spiritual life.
Consolations may seem more pleasurable and are sometimes given by God because of our weakness. We give a small reward to a child to help them persevere in reaching their goal. It takes humility to walk in dryness recognizing our human frailty. But the strength we gain in the practice of fortitude draws us into closer conformity with Christ. If our path were to be strewn with consolations, what might be the deceptions that would assail us? The example of St. Bernadette is helpful here. Although the apparent rejection of her Novice Mistress was painful to her, she recognized that had she been treated as a favored one, it might have stunted her spiritual growth. The lack of human consolation enabled her to identify more closely with Christ Crucified. If God leads us by the road of dryness it is because He knows what is best for us. We must have confidence that He seeks our happiness even more than we do ourselves.
In union of prayer,
Sister Carmen Laudis, O.C.D.
PS: To learn more about the Carmelite Sisters visit our web site: www.carmelitesistersocd.com and for more information please contact the sisters at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 626-289-1353 Ext. 246, 920 East Alhambra Road, Alhambra, California 91801.
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