Then the mortal coldness of the soul like death itself comes down…
(from “Youth and Age”, George Gordon, Lord Byron)
In the pilgrimage of our lives, there comes a time when spirituality seems to have died, where the vastness of the universe seems empty of the God who made it, when God seems to have left us. This feeling of disconnection from God is known as a spiritual dryness or desert, a wilderness experience, a dark night of the soul, a time of crisis and distress. How can we cope, and find water in our desert?
The words from Byron that I quoted above are not about spirituality, of course. He writes from his terror of ageing, as he often did, but his description of a “mortal coldness of the soul” describes ‘spiritual dryness’ quite well. It is a common – I’d even say universal – experience in the life of a believer.
One day, you are filled with the presence of God, feeling that he is close to you, guiding, directing, and teaching you. The next – all is emptiness. God seems to have disappeared, and your prayers and worship seem dead. This spiritual wilderness can last for just a short time, or for many years, and it is not a pleasant experience.
Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa of Calcutta) was a familiar figure to many of us. She was known for her untiring work with the Missionaries of Charity among the poorest of the poor in India. She was a woman of faith, widely admired, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. She also experienced a nearly fifty year long period of spiritual dryness, lasting until her death. The depth of her desert experience only became known after her death, when her letters were published. “The Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain…she bemoans the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she is undergoing” and reveals that “for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever…’neither in her heart or in the eucharist.’” (TIME Magazine)
“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love–and now become as the most hated one–the one–You have thrown away as unwanted–unloved. I call, I cling, I want–and there is no One to answer–no One on Whom I can cling–no, No One.–Alone … Where is my Faith–even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain–I have no Faith–I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart–& make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them–because of the blasphemy–If there be God –please forgive me–When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven–there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.–I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”
(Mother Teresa, in a letter addressed to Jesus)
Mother Teresa had many confessors during her lifetime, many people to whom to turn to for help in her darkness. As well as their prayers, they gave her advice: that she had not caused this dryness, that feeling Jesus’ presence is not the only proof he is there; and his absence in her life was part of her work for him. Mother Teresa felt she shared in Christ’s Passion by the suffering her ‘dark night of the soul’ gave her, participating in Christ’s words from the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Though the darkness lifted from her only once in those fifty years, she was able to accept it, and to serve Christ even though she could not feel him. She doubted God’s existence from time to time, but, ultimately, remained faithful to death, saying of her beliefs:
“I accept not in my feelings–but with my will, the Will of God–I accept His will.”
Few of us have to endure such a long ‘dark night’ as did Mother Teresa, but it is never a pleasant experience for anyone. It is described as dryness, desert, wilderness and darkness, a feeling of being separated and disconnected from God, no matter how long or short a period it lasts.
The language we use draws upon Scripture. Deserts and wildernesses (and they are often the same thing, in biblical terms) play a big role in the story of the people of Israel and, later, of the Christian Church. The Hebrews fled from slavery under Pharaoh into the Wilderness of Sin, wandering there for forty years, and Jesus spent forty days and nights in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan.
The wilderness is a strange place, biblically speaking. It is a ‘howling waste’ (Deut 32:10), a ‘terrible land’ (Is 21:1) “of deserts and pits…a land of drought and deep darkness…a land that none passes through, where no man dwells” (Jer 2:6), a great and terrible place (Deut 1:19), and a bad place to get lost (Ps 107:4-9). The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness being humbled by God (Deut 8:2) and it was to the wilderness that Elijah fled in despair, hoping he might die (1 Kings 19:4). Jesus spent forty days and nights being tempted there (Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-13). It is a place to be feared, somewhere to be avoided, a place of danger.
And yet, there is grace in the wilderness (Jer 31:2-3). The promise of God includes not only a joyful healing of those who are blind, deaf, and dumb, but a healing of the land itself, for “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom… waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert” (Is 35:1a, 6b cf Is 43:19-20), the wilderness is also a place where a punished people will return to God (Hos 2:14-19). When the prophets looked back on Israel’s time in the desert, it was seen as a time of faithfulness, being led by God (Jer 2:2-3, 6). It was in the wilderness that John the Baptist gave the call to Israel to repent and be baptised (Mt 3:1-2; Mt 1:4; Lk 3:2-3; John 1:23ff) and it was to the wilderness that Jesus withdrew to pray (Lk 5:16), and where he miraculously fed the 4,000 (Mt 15:32-29; Mk 8:1-10) and where the faith of the Israelite saints was made known (Heb 11:28).
Grace in the Wilderness
There were no lies here. All fancies fled away. That’s what happened in all deserts. It was just you, and what you believed.
(Terry Pratchett, Small Gods)
Where we see periods of spiritual dryness as purely negative, many spiritual writers have seen them as periods of growth, or purification. During these times of disconnection from God we are confronted by what we believe, and are forced to examine who we are and what we really believe. It is a trial by fire, and we will hopefully emerge purified.
The poem “Footprints” has been so overused that I often see it as mawkishly sentimental, but I have to admit that it applies to my own periods of spiritual dryness. Only after the dryness has passed can I see that God was with me throughout, and only when my eyes are clearer can I see grace in the desert.
I began my life of faith in a spiritual desert. I was deeply depressed, and felt like I would never get better. I had gained an intellectual appreciation for Christianity, longed to be a believer, but felt unable to believe. Back then, I could say with the Psalmist,
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Ps 31:1)
But I felt nothing whatsoever. I prayed for faith, but it felt like talking to myself. I longed for the presence of God – but sensed nothing. I read books of testimonies where people experienced the voice of God, angels singing, miraculous healing and divine visions, but none of that was true for me. When I felt nothing at all when calling out to God, I decided I couldn’t become a believer, couldn’t become a Christian – there was something so wrong with me that God would never accept me.
Despite this, I became a believer during the darkness. I became a believer when I realised that that longing to believe was, in itself, an expression of belief. I realised that I did believe in God, and what I was longing for was not faith, but to feel faith, to feel the presence of God.
It took a long time of struggling before I accepted that I believed, because I thought that belief must be confirmed by feelings. Amidst that confusion – not just spiritually but in every part of life, for I was, as I said, deeply depressed – I made a decision. I decided that, even if I didn’t ‘believe’, and even if God wouldn’t accept me, I was going to follow Jesus anyway. Despite doubt, and despite feeling nothing, I wanted to follow Jesus and I was going to. (I’ve always been a bit mulish). Later, I came across this quote from CS Lewis which expressed my feelings at the time:
“Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
(CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)
Emotions and Faith
As I’ve mentioned before, I have bipolar disorder. It is a mood disorder which has led me into the deepest of depressions, and into hypomania. Hypomania is a milder form of mania, and means that at times I have felt euphoric and joyful, full of energy and creativity, confident and talkative – unconnected to events in my life. It has at times felt like my head would burst with all the ideas tumbling around in it, and like I might explode for sheer joy. It has its darker side – it can make me irritating to be around, I can spend too much on quite random things, and, for me, hypomania has more often produced an intense restlessness and insomnia combined with a sometimes suicidal depression that is quite dangerous. It is also invariably followed by a nasty crash into depression.
My illness, in other words, is one that creates inappropriate, intense emotions unconnected to how things actually are. Some of those emotions feel nice (euphoria) while some feel very unpleasant (depression) but none of them are connected to the reality of my life or who I am.
I have been asymptomatic for a decade now, but my experience has taught me the worth of emotions. I don’t despise, ignore, or repress my feelings, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all of my life, and I know that they don’t necessarily reflect reality. Ultimately, I believe, and am a follower of Christ, and it is that that is important, not my feelings. I welcome the feeling of God’s presence when I pray and worship, but I will continue to pray and worship even if that feeling is not there. As the old hymn says,
I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.
The world behind me, the cross before me;
No turning back, no turning back.
(Sundar Singh, I have decided to follow Jesus)
My counsel (should anyone ask it!) during periods of spiritual dryness is to remember that emotions are not everything. Look at Elijah, who fled into the wilderness, depressed and wanting to die (1 Kgs 19:4) just after he had performed a mighty work of God (1 Kgs 18:20-40) – his emotions were out of sync with reality, and God ministered to him (1 Kgs 19:5-8) and challenged him in the desert (1 Kgs 19:9-18).
Coping with dry spells
Consider emotions: As above – consider your feelings, and how important they are, or should be in your faith.
Be stubborn: I can be very stubborn, once convinced, and this has helped me through many a dry spell or period of doubt. Like Mother Teresa, or in the CS Lewis quote above, In will not turn from faith. Imagine yourself as a toddler stamping its feet, and be stubborn. This will pass – even for Mother Teresa it is now passed, and what she did for Christ is even more valuable because she did so from obedience, not emotion.
Pray and worship: prayer, worship and the Sacrament are the bedrock of the Christian life. You could describe them as “the routine”, but they are more than that – they are the means by which we encounter God, whether we feel his presence or not.
Read: The scriptures are a good source of comfort, particularly the Psalms. Even if we cannot feel God’s presence in our lives at the moment, we can read the records of his intervention in the lives of others – and recognise ourselves in the sometimes anguished writings of the Psalms. There are other spiritual writings, too, like that of Mother Teresa, St John of the Cross, or many others we might find helpful.
Community: We are not a solitary people, but are a people-in-community. There are times when our faith is low, and we must be carried by the faith of others (and vice versa) and when others can give comfort, advice, and a sense of perspective.
Learn: You might be surprised at what you might learn in the desert. It was during the hard times in the desert that the Israelites learned to lean upon God, and perhaps we too might emerge from the wilderness closer to God, having been tested, and grown in the meantime.
Hope: Remember that God is with us, even if we can only see that with hindsight. “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:20) Remember, in this ‘dark night’, that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Ps 30:5b) There will be an end to the desert.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, fear not!…
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water…
The ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
(Isaiah 35:3-4a, 6b-7a, 10)