The last time I cried was when Patience died. My Carolina dog, my first baby, my friend. Her body, barely ten years old, so riddled with cancer, too weak to even lift her head. I sat with her on the cold white tile floor, her head cradled in my lap. I remembered her young, a puppy, bounding down the pebbled steps outside our apartment door every time I came home. The vet injected the fatal dose and I wept, no wailed, as the last bit of life heaved from her body.
That was a year and a half ago.
I don’t cry much from sorrow. I get bleary-eyed from Guinness commercials or pensive moments when I watch my daughters play. Happy things. But I face sorrows with a hard-won, flinty demeanor that once caused a German theologian to remark that I was “not sufficiently in touch” with my emotions. But here I was, crying in the bathroom stall at my gym. Maybe it was the 100th gray morning, the 100th day with no sun, nothing to distinguish the gray sky from the gray ground, that did me in. Winter is a fierce opponent.
But mostly, God just felt very far away.
Part of overcoming such periods is correctly diagnosing them—identifying your demons, as it were. St. Ignatius of Loyola described these states of mind as “spiritual desolation” in which a believer experiences “darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, inclination to low and earthly things, restlessness resulting from many disturbances and temptations which lead to loss of faith, loss of hope, and loss of love. It is also desolation when a soul finds itself completely apathetic, tepid, sad, and separated as it were, from its Creator and Lord.” During times of spiritual desolation, it feels as though God has forgotten us—or maybe was never truly with us in the first place. In times like this, we’re vulnerable to any number of lies. We think that nothing we do is good enough. Our sacrifices were in vain. Our life, in general, is a failure. We’re stuck in a rut we’ll never get out of. Our dreams have dissipated into thin air. Hope is dried up. God has turned his back to us. And once these lies slip into the cracks of our mind, we’re ushered fast in a downward spiral that’s difficult to escape from.
St. Ignatius says spiritual desolation has three causes: 1. When “we are tepid, slothful, or negligent in our spiritual exercises [or spiritual life] and so through our own fault the spiritual consolation is withdrawn from us”, 2. When “God may try to test our worth, and the progress that we have made in His service and praise when we are without such generous rewards of consolation and special graces”, 3. When God desires to give us “true knowledge and understanding, so that we may truly perceive that it is not within our power to acquire or retain great devotion, ardent love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation, but that all of this is a gift and grace of God our Lord.”
In my case, it was most likely rooted in the first reason. I’d been slacking off reading the Scriptures. (Why does it have to be so dull and dry at times?) My prayers were quick and hurried. Is it any wonder he felt so distant, when I was neglecting those methods by which he most often connects with us?
To get out of spiritual desolation, you have to fight your way out—a difficult thing to do when spiritual desolation, by its very nature, robs you of hope and motivation. St. Ignatius provides four ways to escape from spiritual desolation, four things to do even if—especially if—you don’t feel like it.
Prayer. One thing I’ve noticed in Protestant circles is that we often don’t know how to pray, and we end up using the same, tired cliches—especially when we pray aloud in groups. But I’ve caught myself doing it even during times of personal prayer. Two practices of deepening my own prayer life have been keeping a prayer journal and/or using a prayer book. Both of these cause us to think more deeply about what we are saying to God and what he may be saying to us. Some of the best prayer books I’ve found are the Book of Common Prayer, Phyllis Tickle’s Praying the Divine Hours, and Celtic Daily Prayer. You can also find apps for your phone that help you with prayer, such as iPray, PrayNow, and the Book of Common Prayer.
Meditation. Read, remember, and meditate on the Scriptures. When you find yourself dwelling on a particularly negative thought or lie, answer it with a Scripture. Feel like God has forgotten you? Answer it with Hebrews 6:10, “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.” Feel as though you’re not good enough? Unworthy? Answer it with Zephaniah 3:17, “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult.” Write down several verses that answer the negative thoughts and keep it with you.
Examination. One Catholic practice I’d love to see in Protestant circles is the practice of confession. Through the practice of confession, we examine our habits and actions to discern what may have moved us into a period of spiritual desolation. But we don’t have to go to a confessional to examine our soul and mind. Ask yourself what it was that brought on the desolation? Do you know what caused it? Ignatius proposes to examine oneself twice a day, a noontime and at evening, noting any particular sin or habit that may be causing the desolation. Pay attention to your thoughts, words, and actions. Do any weaken or disquiet your soul? Bring these to God in prayer.
Penance. Take decisive action against spiritual desolation. Give up bad habits or vices. Practice the spiritual disciplines with even more fervor.
The most important thing to do when dealing with spiritual desolation is to not give up, for spiritual desolation can be used as a tool to uproot the good God is doing is our lives. During spiritual desolation, we experience a decline in virtues such as love, hope, and faith and we may be tempted to give up on a particular path. Ignatius warns us to “never make a change; but be firm and constant in the resolutions” we made before we experienced the desolation.