Jennifer is a convert to Catholicism. Until recently, she loved saying the Rosary and attending weekly Eucharistic Adoration. Lately, though, prayer has become dull. Jennifer feels antsy during Adoration. She’s wondering what happened.
Miguel is adjusting to a “new normal” after the death of his wife last year. He’s active at church, but his prayer life hasn’t bounced back. “I’m going through the motions,” he says, “but it’s like God isn’t there.”
Mark, a college freshman, “discovered Jesus” at a youth conference. At first, Mark says, he enthusiastically read his Bible and attended daily Mass. Now, in a whirl of campus activities, he has less time for Mass, and, he admits, less inclination.
What’s the Problem?
Spiritual dryness, or aridity, happens sooner or later to most believers. It means a loss or lessening of what spiritual experts call consolations — the things that make prayer satisfying, like a sense of God’s presence or feelings of joy, love, awe, or zeal. More cerebral individuals might receive intellectual satisfaction or certainty of the truth of their faith. When consolations fade and prayer seems tedious, motivation to pray fades too. Those who experience aridity often wonder if they are losing their faith.
Aridity can last days, weeks, months, or years. It can vary in intensity. Some saints experienced a sense of complete abandonment by God that challenged their faith in his very existence. Called the “dark night of the soul,” this is a more severe condition than the dryness most of us experience.
Why It Happens
Loss of consolation can stem from several sources. It could be a genuine challenge sent by God to help you grow. It could be caused by outside influences, or even by your own actions. Let’s examine these.
Body or Soul?
Before looking for a God-driven cause of dryness, it’s a good idea to rule out the mundane ones. Body and soul are bound together. One is going to impact the other. Illness, whether temporary or chronic, can have a big effect on our prayer. So can insufficient sleep, poor nutrition, or stress. Many people mistake depression for a spiritual problem. If there is a chance that your aridity has one of these physical sources, take steps to address it, whether that means getting more sleep, eating better, or seeing a doctor.
Physical well-being in order? Scrutinize your soul next. Sometimes we lose our joy in prayer due to unaddressed sinful habits. We should ask ourselves, “Am I still doing my part? Or has some unconfessed sin, subtle self-pity, or just plain laziness drained my efforts?”
If this seems to be the case, go to Confession and make a fresh start. Consider changing your prayer routines to help you get motivated. Buy a new prayer book, change the place where you pray, or switch the time of day.
The presence of mind needed for focused prayer is hard to come by in our hyperconnected culture. Sister Kathryn James Hermes, FSP, is the author of Beginning Contemplative Prayer. As digital publishing director for Pauline Media, she knows how our “e-life” can impact our prayer life.
“We’re the first people in history to be surrounded by gadgets and saturated with online relationships: Twitter, Facebook, email. That’s changed our ability to think and concentrate. This fragments our minds and hearts, making it difficult to be ready for prayer,” she explains. Sister Hermes recommends at least 15 minutes daily of quiet time accompanied by deep breathing and a short, repeated prayer to “focus your attention and rest in God.”
Gift In Disguise?
Genuine aridity is a dry season that can actually be good for you. Think of it as God challenging you to grow. He withdraws consolation because He wants you to learn to love Him, rather than to just feel nice feelings about God and prayer. Far from it being your “fault” that prayer has become so dry, it’s almost a reward: You’ve been faithful in small things and now are in training for the next level of holiness.
What To Do?
Just keep going. Counselors, confessors, and those who’ve lived through dryness agree: This is not the time to slack off on prayer.
Theresa is a busy mom and a secular Carmelite. For her, dryness is “a time to persevere and accept however long God wants to keep me in the ‘desert.’ Spiritual reading is a big help to me when I’m bored and distracted. I’ll pause during this to listen to God, but go back to the reading if I’m still distracted. A lit candle in front of a favorite icon helps me to focus.”
Jeanne learned a lesson from her husband when, despite distress over his prolonged unemployment, he persevered in prayer while she became too angry with God to do so. “I said, ‘How do you keep going when you don’t feel anything?’ and he said, ‘I just do.’ I figured if he could do it, so could I.”
Jeanne confessed her anger and returned to the prayers she had dropped. Although Jeanne’s husband is still unemployed, “I feel closer to God — convinced that He cares for me,” she says. “Faith that everything will work out has been renewed.”
Not only should you remain faithful to your spiritual commitments during aridity, you should consider ramping them up. Nissa, a writer from Massachusetts, says, “Dryness is awful, but for me it’s a signal to go deeper. Adoration, Mass at a new church, talking with a spiritual adviser, a retreat, or some adult catechism usually breaks through it for me.
When Bill, a graduate student, couldn’t shake a spell of aridity, his confessor had him add a nightly examination — not of conscience — but of all the day’s blessings for which to thank God. “I listed everything, from morning coffee to the stars at night to friends I’d seen. It brought a sense of God’s love for me back in force.”
It’s Not Just About Feelings
The most important lesson to learn during periods of aridity is that love is an act of the will: Feelings alone are not an indicator of our love for God, or his for us. Carolyn discussed her dryness with her confessor. “He told me to ‘walk the talk’ even if I don’t feel it, because our faith is by knowledge and reason, and not emotion,” she says. “I’ve also been encouraged to follow ‘Pascal’s Wager,’ which is a challenge to ‘Fake it ’til ya make it,’ by living and acting as a person of faith during times of spiritual dryness, until faith is renewed.”
Karen, a Maryland housewife, summed it up. “Dry prayer is fruitful. One day we’ll see what a gift it is to pray without ‘getting’ anything in return,” she says. “It’s a chance to consciously give our Heavenly Father something He can’t give to Himself — us.”
Mother Teresa’s Decades of Darkness
Even Mother Teresa Suffered Spiritual Dryness
As a young nun, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta had a deep and satisfying prayer life. She even experienced several years of visions and conversations with Jesus. But once she fulfilled his request to start serving the poorest of the poor, not only did these mystical experiences cease, but she was plunged into a profound spiritual darkness that lasted for almost all the remainder of her life. Despite this, she persevered in faith and love for Christ, accomplishing marvels of service to others. She embraced the darkness as a share in what Jesus experienced as He hung upon the Cross.
“If I ever become a saint — I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from heaven — to light the light of those in darkness on Earth.”
—Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Read more in Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk (RandomHouse).