We all have periods in our spiritual lives when praying is difficult, boring, or unfulfilling; we feel as if we’re just going through the motions, we have no sense of God’s presence, and we wonder whether we’re just wasting our time. Our efforts to find God seem like a failure, and we’re certainly not aware of His running after us. It seems as if the Lord has withdrawn from us and that the religious devotions and forms of prayer that we used to find helpful or engaging are no longer so.
This experience of spiritual dryness doesn’t indicate any sort of failure on our part; it doesn’t mean we’ve offended God and caused Him to turn away from us, or that our previous religious highs were imaginary and that we’ve finally discovered the normal, unchanging reality of prayer.
No, spiritual dryness — because of our imperfect human nature and the lingering effects of Original Sin — is the almost inevitable experience of those who persevere in their efforts to grow closer to God. St. Philip Neri advises, “As a rule, people who aim at a spiritual life begin with the sweet and afterward pass on to the bitter. So now, away with all tepidity, off with that mask of yours, carry your cross, don’t leave it to carry you.”
God allows us to undergo this period of testing and growth so that we may progress in our spiritual lives. St. Paul writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13:11) His example of growing and developing as a person applies here: quite possibly the reason our previously satisfying experiences of prayer no longer appeal to us is that the Lord is calling us to a more mature faith, one requiring a deeper foundation.
This experience may be compared to moving from one community to another, which is often difficult; we have to leave behind places and experiences that we enjoyed, in exchange for a setting that’s unfamiliar and probably uncomfortable at first. This sort of move, however, might be necessary or beneficial for our career or for other important considerations, and if we give it a chance, it can prove to be a great blessing.
God often calls us in the same way. Sometimes the transition from one stage to another is uncomfortable and confusing; we can experience this process as one of spiritual dryness, but if we persevere, our efforts will be rewarded and our relationship with God will be renewed and enriched.
The saints were no strangers to spiritual dryness. We might assume that, because they were so holy and because they had completely dedicated themselves to God, they must have been constantly aware of His presence. In fact, many times this wasn’t the case; they had some of the same spiritual struggles we do. They became saints, however, by radically abandoning themselves to God’s will in an act of profound trust and by persevering in what they knew to be pleasing to Him — prayer and obedience — even though they found it difficult and lacking in all satisfaction.
St. Ignatius of Loyola speaks of times of consolation, when prayer is easy, joyful, and satisfying, and times of desolation, when prayer is dry, uncomfortable, and unfulfilling. God gives us consolation to renew us and to reward us for our spiritual fidelity; He allows desolation to purify us from our attachments and to remind us of our utter dependence on Him.
Consolation is valuable in that it encourages us to continue our prayers and devotions, but it’s our faithfulness in times of desolation that allows us to make great spiritual progress. To pray when praying is easy is a good thing, but it doesn’t prove that we’re not just fair-weather friends to God. To pray when praying is hard greatly pleases the Lord, for it shows that our desire to know Him is deep and genuine. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and He orders all things for our benefit. St. Augustine exclaimed, “O God, You seek those who hide from You, and hide from those who seek You!” If we persevere in this spiritual hide-and-seek, we’ll be the winners.
A wonderful description of spiritual dryness, or desolation, and the proper response to it, is given in The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She writes,
“I must tell you about my retreat for [religious] profession. Far from experiencing any consolation, complete aridity — desolation, almost — was my lot. Jesus was asleep in my little boat as usual. How rarely souls let Him sleep peacefully within them. Their agitation and all their requests have so tired out the Good Master that He is only too glad to enjoy the rest I offer Him. I do not suppose He will wake up until my eternal retreat, but instead of making me sad, it makes me very happy. Such an attitude of mind proves that I am far from being a saint. I should not rejoice in my aridity, but rather consider it as the result of lack of fervor and fidelity, while the fact that I often fall asleep during meditation or while making my thanksgiving should appall me. Well, I am not appalled; I bear in mind that little children are just as pleasing to their parents asleep as awake, that doctors put their patients to sleep while they perform operations, and that after all, ‘the Lord knoweth our frame. He remembereth that we are but dust.’ ”
Many of the saints underwent prolonged periods of spiritual dryness, including St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, whose five years of dryness included violent temptations and much physical pain; St. Joseph of Cupertino, who was afflicted with a severe melancholy that lasted almost thirteen years; St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, who especially experienced desolation as he became older; St. John of the Cross, whose profound writings on the Dark Night of the Soul were based on his own intense suffering; St. Anthony Claret, who at times was unable to pray in any manner other than the recitation of vocal prayers; St. Louise de Marillac, whose fears that her sins had caused her husband’s illness led to long spells of aridity and doubt; St. Hilarion, who responded with earnest perseverance when oppressed by anguish because his prayers were seemingly unanswered; and St. Josepha Rossello, who — in spite of depression and the fear that she was damned — held on to her faith, telling the sisters of her religious community, “Cling to Jesus. There are God, the soul, eternity; the rest is nothing.”
Based on their hard-won spiritual victories, the saints have valuable advice for us on how to persevere when prayer seems difficult and unsatisfying. First, St. Jane Frances de Chantal assures us, “The great method of prayer is to have none. If, in going to prayer, one can form in oneself a pure capacity for receiving the Spirit of God, that will suffice for all method.” Thus, we shouldn’t be unduly worried over how to pray, but should focus on why — and St. Alphonsus Liguori reminds us of the reason: “This, then, is your answer whenever you feel tempted to stop praying because it seems to be a waste of time: ‘I am here to please God.’ ” The measure of prayer isn’t whether it pleases us, but whether it pleases God; and our willingness to persevere for His glory will, in turn, aid our own spiritual growth. As St. John Eudes notes, “You can advance farther in grace in one hour during this time of affliction than in many days during a time of consolation.”
In terms of specific responses to spiritual dryness, St. John Vianney tells us that our Lord, although invisible to human eyes, is always present in the tabernacle. Therefore, silently sitting or kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in church can be a valuable and effective way of praying, even if nothing seems to be happening. The saint also suggests, “If you find it impossible to pray, hide behind your good angel, and charge him to pray in your stead.”
A somewhat different, but complementary, approach is offered by St. Paul of the Cross, who writes, “When you are dry as dust in prayer, don’t quit, but keep going. Use little short prayers, especially acts of acceptance of the Most Holy Will of God. For example: ‘O dear Will of my God, may You be blessed forever! O most Gentle Will! May You be always fulfilled by all.’” Short prayers of this sort follow our Lord’s teaching on the need to keep our prayers simple and sincere.
Fidelity in the face of spiritual dryness—whether in our prayers or in our efforts to perform good deeds — is of far more value than commonly supposed. According to St. Francis de Sales, “Our actions are like roses, which when fresh have more beauty but when dry have more strength and sweetness. In like manner, our works performed with tenderness of heart are more agreeable to ourselves — to ourselves, I say, who regard only our own satisfaction. Yet when performed in times of dryness, they possess more sweetness and become more precious in the sight of God.”
The saints took this lesson to heart and persevered; they didn’t give up either on themselves or on God. In so doing, they show us the proper course through our own troubled spiritual waters. If we can’t pray, we can offer God our inability to pray; if we can’t sense God’s presence, we can make an act of trust that He nevertheless hears us; if we don’t feel loved or loving, we can choose to love God (for love is not primarily a feeling, but an act of the will). Consolations will return if we hold on long enough. Heaven awaits those who hold fast in faith. Jesus never abandons us; rather, He blesses those who trust completely in Him.
Fr. Joseph Esper studied at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1982. He has lectured at Marian conferences, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic, Pastoral Review, and other publications. From his experience as a parish priest, Fr. Esper offers today’s readers practical, encouraging, and inspiring wisdom.