"The Dark Night of the Soul: Spiritual Consolation and Desolation"
It is not uncommon for the devout to experience dryness, aridity, and doubts about God’s existence. It can happen to lay men and women as well as those in clerical and consecrated life. One feels cut off from God, as though God is far off, distant, disinterested, and even dead. One lives by sheer conviction and not with feeling. We all experience this: some days it’s so difficult to face life that we would rather stay in bed.
In consolation, prayer is easy, everything is easy, and all obstacles are removed to help the soul to continue in virtue. It feels so good to practice one’s Catholic faith even though daily struggles are always there to deal with.
Spiritual distress is “darkness of soul, disquiet of mind, an attraction to what is coarse and earthly, all restlessness proceeding from different temptations and disturbances that challenge one’s faith. The soul finds itself listless, apathetic, like one cut off from God.” Thus writes Thomas Corbishley, S.J. in his translation of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, #315). Spiritual distress differs from external concerns. It affects the soul deep down, separate and distinct from material struggles.
There are three reasons why we experience desolation: (a) It is our fault because we’re careless in our own spiritual exercises; (b) To test the resolve of our faith; (c) To show us that, of ourselves, we are powerless to bring about spiritual comfort, but that this is all a gratuitous gift of God. (The Spiritual Exercises, #322)
Surely Thérèse was not lax in her spiritual duties. In prayer however, instead of a garden, she found herself in a desert. Yet, she went to prayer, even though God seemed far away. Pray she did—through long periods of spiritual emptiness without feeling. Years later, Mother Teresa of Calcutta would reveal that she too had lived in this ‘dark night of the soul’ for some fifty years. Let us not forget that Jesus was tempted in the desert for forty days. There he encountered physical stripping and a naked landscape. He encountered psychological struggle against the devil, plus fatigue, discomfort, thirst, loneliness, and hunger.
What to Do in the Spiritual Desert?
When you encounter a spiritual desert, find some scripture verses or psalms that you can pray again and again. Make them your own. Remain convinced that you are in God’s presence. God is at work in your soul despite your negative feelings. Stay the course, and try to be patient with yourself. God sees the heart and its intentions and will not be outdone in generosity. Eventually distress and doubt about God’s existence will be transformed into a place of wonder. Out of the desert will come something beautiful: a new attitude, a new vision, a new mandate, a new mission, and new service.
Thérèse’s ‘Little Way,’ Little No More
Thérèse saw in Carmel an apostolically-fruitful life, a life lived in the heart of the Church. She abandoned the notion of priesthood and embraced the vocation of a missionary like that of St. Francis Xavier. He had spent his life as the itinerant apostle to the Indies, but she spent hers as a cloistered missionary. With him, she has been named “Co-Patron of the Missions.”
“Thérèse’s ‘little way’ is little no more. She knew what was at the heart of everything. More love” (Stephanie Paulsell, “Reading St. Thérèse,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Summer/Autumn, 2010, 74). Perhaps this is what prompted Pius X to call her the greatest saint of our time.
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