As the days get shorter, do you find it’s kind of comforting to have Christmas lights going up around town? They are a reminder of what the Gospel of John tells us: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
But maybe in your own spiritual life it seems that there is no light. You went into Advent with the best of intentions, but so far your prayer life feels dull, dry, and dark. The Christmas lights might be shining, but it’s hard to find the light amid your own spiritual darkness.
If you are experiencing spiritual dryness or darkness, it’s no reason to despair. In fact, Father Albert Haase, a Franciscan priest and chaplain at Cedarbrake Catholic Retreat Center in Temple, Texas, recently stopped by The Inner Life™ to share why spiritual darkness can actually be God’s way of helping us grow in our relationship with Him.
Fr. Haase explained, “For anybody who makes the commitment to daily prayer, St. Theresa of Avila says that within three months you’re going to begin to experience spiritual dryness. And basically that’s what that is. During my prayer life I feel bored, I feel disinterested, it’s monotonous. My prayer is flat, it’s uninviting, it’s weird.”
And while this experience causes many people to feel as though they are doing something wrong, Fr. Haase said that it’s often just the opposite.
“You’re not doing anything wrong,” he assured. “It is natural. It’s a natural development in our prayer life. Always think of our prayer life as a relationship. And, you know, in the early days of a relationship you’ve got the fireworks, you’ve got the spark, you’ve got all the passion. And then, gradually as you settle into the relationship, the sparks and all of that stuff, they might be there but they’re not there in the same way. And it’s the same thing in our prayer life. As we go through these periods of spiritual dryness, it’s always important to remember that we remain faithful to our spiritual practice.”
Spiritual darkness and dryness may be natural, but it can be disorienting and painful if we are used to knowing and feeling our connection with the Lord and then all of a sudden that is gone. What is natural about that?
Fr. Haase pointed out, “During that period of dryness, really what’s going on is God is trying to wean us off of us being in control of our prayer, so that the Spirit can begin to get a foothold into our life of prayer. So you’re not doing anything wrong. It’s a perfectly natural thing.”
While in the moment it often feels as though we are moving backward in our spiritual life, these times of desolation can actually be times of transition into a deeper, more intimate relationship with the Lord.
“When we first make that daily commitment to prayer, it’s like our prayer is filled with popcorn, balloons, and roses,” Fr. Haase said. “We get all these wonderful feelings in our prayer, and then as God has kind of gotten us addicted to those feelings He gradually withdraws them. And I think part of the reason for that is because we don’t want the feelings. We don’t want the gift, we want the Giver.”
Though it may seem as though God is taking something away, the reality is that, recognizing our weakness, He is giving us the opportunity to strengthen our faith and mature in the spiritual life.
“I think what happens is God sees that we’re becoming addicted to these feelings of peace and joy – what I like to call the popcorn, balloons, and roses in prayer. When God sees us getting kind of comfortable and even addicted to those, He begins to withdraw them to keep us aware of what we really want. In the spiritual life it’s the presence of God. We don’t want the gifts, we want the Giver.”
Often in times of spiritual darkness it is tempting to think we need to take a vacation from prayer. We think that if we take a break and then come back we will experience that freshness in our prayer life once again.
“That’s really not what you want to do,” Fr. Haase advised. “You really want to remain faithful. You want to remain faithful to your practice, you want to remain persistent, because, you know, all of us need to work through these feelings of dryness. And the only way you work through them is by going through them. So there is no way around them, nor do you want to find a way around them. Because this is all part of a natural, deepening and maturing of our prayer life.”