The Dark Night and Spiritual Desolation

How Do We Emerge from Periods of Spiritual Dryness, Desolation and Darkness? This is Part-1 of a Series to Guide You Through This Common Spiritual Trial.

“Oh God, you are my God—
It is you I seek!
For my body years;
For you, my soul thirsts,
In a land parched and lifeless
Where there is no water.”
-Psalm 63

Spiritual dryness or interior darkness can be scary and painful. It leaves us disoriented and confused—as darkness usually does. It often feels like a betrayal by God. What is this darkness of the spirit and soul? Why does it seem that God abandons us? What kind of a good and loving God would let someone go through that? And how do we overcome it?

This series of articles will involve some theology, but it won’t be heavily theological. I want this to serve as a guide or manual for those suffering in what I call “the dark.” In this first article, I’ll talk about two forms of spiritual dryness to familiarize you with this fairly normal experience in the spiritual life. Later, I’ll talk about what I call “the dark”—a third form of spiritual dryness in between the first two.

Nothing to See Here!

It may surprise you, but this spiritual dryness that people experience is normal. Many of the saints experienced it much more intensely, but the ordinary faithful, who actively live the spiritual life, also experience periods of consolation and desolation (St. Ignatius Loyola). These cycles of spiritual highs and lows are the normal rhythm of the spiritual life. If our spiritual lives were filled with consolation, we would never grow. We would always pursue God for the sake of that consolation, rather than for his own sake or for the sake of holiness.

Mother Theresa experienced spiritual desolation for years. It was revealed after her death that she struggled in the period of “untold darkness” for a decade and had a “continual longing for God,” according to her spiritual director (Amazon: Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta

St. John of the Cross is well known for writing about his own period of darkness, which he called “The dark night of the soul” (You can get it on Amazon). He wasn’t the only saint to experience the dark night. Other saints include St. Faustina, Theresa of Avila, and, as mentioned earlier, Mother Theresa. The dark nightIt is a time of purging, a step along the way to spiritual ascent. Though this “dark night” can happen in different degrees, it is probably the more intense of the spiritual dry spells. Most people are not brought through this dark night unless they are called to great holiness. For most people the more common is a rhythm of highs and lows in the spiritual life is what St. Ignatius called consolation and desolation.

St. Ignatius describes interior desolation as a state brought on by “the evil spirit” (the devil, demons, our sinfulness) who try to increase anxiety and lose a sense of God’s presence. In desolation it becomes harder to feel God’s presence, it becomes harder to pray, and exercising the virtues of faith, hope, and love becomes difficult.  It’s like the spirit is in a vice that gets tighter and tighter, leaving the person to wonder why they even bother trying anymore.

“In desolation our mettle is truly tested, and by resisting it we grow in strength…”

It’s important to understand that God allows “the evil spirit” to bring us into desolation. Not to punish us but to make us holier. Because in periods of desolation we are forged by fire—by the spiritual pain and difficulty of the experience. Periods of desolation, if they are lived well, gradually purge us of vice and strengthen virtue. Periods of desolation also have the potential to reveal something about God, or about ourselves that we’ve been overlooking, or understood incorrectly. In desolation our mettle is truly tested, and by resisting it we grow in strength tremendously. Even if we don’t feel strong when it’s happening.

The low of desolation is followed by the high of consolation. This is a gift from God through the “good spirit” (The Holy Spirit, good angels). Consolation gives us peace and builds us up by growth of faith, hope, and love. It gives us a stronger sense of God’s abiding presence in our lives and makes it easier to pray and overcome sin.

So are you experiencing the dark night of the soul? Are you experiencing the less intense but also difficult period of desolation? I think many people are experiencing something in between those two. I call it “the dark,” and it’s a pretty scary place. What that is and how we overcome it is for a later article. But here are some pointers I can offer right now, regardless of the type of spiritual dryness you’re in.

  1. Don’t freak out. What you’re experiencing is normal
  2. Pay attention to what’s going on in your heart! God is trying to teach you something. Some of it may be hard, ugly, or surprising. That’s normal.
  3. You can’t pray your way out of desolation. The only way out of it is to go through it. Don’t stop praying, but it is also ill-advised to intensify your prayer life during desolation and darkness.
  4. Don’t stop praying. If you stop praying, you will lose your spiritual/prayer discipline, and it is extremely difficult to rebuild it. 
  5. Talk to God plainly throughout the day. That’s prayer, too! Tell him what you’re thinking and feeling, even if it seems insignificant. Go through the process with him even if he seems absent. He’s not absent. Every time we pray, even if it’s “just” talking to God plainly, we come into contact with God, with divine power, with Eternal Truth and Love. These are like mile markers, and rest stops along the highway in the middle of the night.
  6. Stay close to the Blessed Mother. She is close to her children, especially when they call out to her.

Ave Maria, Virgo Fidelis!

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