Sometimes we feel God’s presence. Other times, though, it seems God has completely disappeared from our lives. Either way, I tend to find myself telling God: “Hey! Speak up! I know you’re there. But are you really listening to little old me?”
I took a class during my senior year of college called “Spiritual Theology.” We explored Church teaching and read spiritual reflections of influential saints. To be honest, since it was my final semester, I wasn’t putting in much effort; I spent most of the time on Pinterest, distracting my friends who were theology majors and who actually understood what was going on.
There was one particular day, though, when my professor’s words broke through my distractions and changed how I look at my faith life.
He told us there are two types of phases we can experience in our spiritual journeys: consolation and desolation. Simply put, consolation is when we hear God speaking to us or see his works clearly in our lives. We easily experience peace and joy. Desolation is when it’s difficult to hear God’s word or see his works in our lives. We can often feel anxiety, sadness or mistrust of God in these times.
I was definitely in a time of desolation. I didn’t doubt that God existed; I was just wondering where He’d gone. Trying to feel His presence in my life had become nearly impossible. I felt as if I were in a spiritual drought. It’s why I hadn’t bothered to pay much attention before in the course; I figured,why should I try to talk to someone who seems to have no interest in carrying a conversation with me?
But my perspective on this feeling changed during that lecture. Everyone at some point in his or her life, my professor explained, will go through a time of spiritual desolation. Some of our greatest saints experienced years of spiritual desolation and feeling distant from God.
Mother Teresa spent 40 years in spiritual darkness. Abraham, the father of our faith, spent 13 years without any communication from God — and his faith only grew stronger. St. Ignatius of Loyola experienced so much of this spiritual emptiness that he wrote the famous “Spiritual Exercises,” which give us rules about the two states and what to do during those times.
So why does God allow us to experience these times of struggle in prayer?
There can be a variety of reasons. It could be God’s way of alerting us to the realization that we’re trapped in a pattern of sin. It could be a way to test and strengthen our faith through trials. No matter the reason, desolate times are an opportunity for growth so we can learn how to find the light in our personal darkness.
Here are a few of the many blessings that come from times of spiritual desolation, which is actually a beautiful gift:
- It’s an opportunity to learn new ways to pray. Your old prayer habits aren’t drawing you closer to God, you say? There are a million ways to pray. Maybe this is God’s way of prompting you into finding something new. Here’s your chance to try a new form of prayer: meditation, the rosary, an examination of conscience, adoration….You can’t go wrong, so try spicing things up in your spiritual life to break out of the funk you’re in.
- It’s the perfect time to read (more) Scripture. God may seem quiet right now, but He’s already written a love story, just for you, in the Bible. I don’t care if you’ve heard a passage a hundred times before: He always has something new to show you. Read a little bit each day, or even join a Bible study to help guide you through the weird stuff (the Bible can be pretty weird if you don’t understand the context). Even when you can’t hear Him, God’s speaking to you through His word.
- It’s a chance to reach out for community. We are made for relationship with others. Especially during times when you feel lost and alone in your faith life, it’s important for you to reach out and let others love you.
- It makes times of consolation that much more valuable. When faith comes easy and God speaks to your heart, giving you moments where you couldn’t possibly doubt His existence, it’s special. But to be able to recognize and truly appreciate these close encounters with God, you have to know how it feels to experience the silence first.
- It gives us the opportunity to pursue the Pursuer. Our God is a jealous God. He is constantly pursuing us, but He also wants to be pursued as well. He desires a relationship with us, and a relationship is a two-way street. It’s just like in any friendship: If you’re the only one putting in any effort, or if you’re trying to see how strong the relationship really is, you pull back and wait for the other to show their true love. God wants to be loved back.
God wants to draw you out of the darkness. He desires to love you and desires good for you. We can only truly appreciate joy after going through difficulty. If you’re going through a time of spiritual desolation, I encourage you to look at it as a gift rather than a curse. Use it as an opportunity to show God how much you desire to be in relationship with him as well. Pursue the greatest Pursuer of your heart.
As St. Padre Pio said, “Everyday, when your heart especially feels the loneness of life, pray.”
Life is a battlefield. Have you prayed today?