Sign Up for our Free Daily Email Updates
SpiritualDirection.com / Catholic Spiritual Direction

Dryness in Prayer – God’s Part in the Struggle (Part III of III)

April 14, 2014 by  
Filed under Aridity or Dryness, Fr. Bartunek, Prayer

Dryness in Prayer – God's Part in the Struggle (Part III of III)

Editor's Note: In Part I, we talked about what is going on with dryness in prayer. In the second installment of this series, we addressed our part in the struggle. Today, we will look at God's part in the struggle.

A reader asks: Dear Father John, I have been praying (mental prayer) for a long time. But lately I seem to be experiencing dryness in my prayer – I just don't seem to get as much out of it as I used to. Is this the “dark night of the soul”? If not, what's going on, and what should I do?

Lack of consolation in prayer (also known as dryness) may be a result of un-confessed and un-repented sin, or it may come from sloppiness or laziness in our effort to pray. But if we are making a reasonable effort to do our part, and yet we still don't experience (or stop experiencing) consolation, it's probably God's fault, not ours.

God is not a vending machine; he doesn't have to reveal himself to us in a tangible way every time we try to press his buttons. This is one of the big differences between Christianity and many other religions. In pagan religions, for example, the gods were obliged to respond to worshippers in a certain way, if the worshipper performed a specific ritual, likewise in Satan worship. But Christ isn't like that. We can't control him. He can hold us back from feeling his presence in our souls, even when we are sincerely and conscientiously doing our part.

Why? Why would he allow us to experience dryness in prayer? Because he wants our love for him to mature. At times, we can become subtly attached to our experience of God in prayer – to the consolations that we feel as we gaze upon his beauty or taste his goodness. Subconsciously, we can begin to seek those consolations even more than their source. We begin to value the gifts of God more than the God who gives them, like the little child who enjoys Uncle Ernie's company because Uncle Ernie always gives out candy. Candy is a good sign of Uncle Ernie's goodness and love for a child, but getting to know Uncle Ernie better and developing a more mature relationship with him means learning to go beyond the gum-drops.

When God withholds consolations, he is purifying us of this subtle attachment to our feelings, so that our faith can grow and mature. To become mature Christians, we must learn more and more to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). In this context of spiritual growth, dryness in prayer is an opportunity to truly adore God himself, regardless of personal preferences and satisfactions. The mature love is the love that “lays down its life for the beloved” (John 15:13), not the love that “has no root deep down and does not last, should some trial come…” (Mark 4:17). Dryness is an invitation to give ourselves to God, putting aside our desire to get things from him.

Doing Our Part Amid Dryness

When God sends us this kind of purification, our reaction should be like a patient on an operating table. We must not try to avoid the often painful dryness, nor panic in the midst of it. Rather, we should persevere in our good efforts, trusting that the wise doctor of our souls is hard at work in ways that we cannot see or feel, healing us of spiritual cancers that we may not even know we have. (St. Ignatius of Loyola used to advise keeping to the exact minute of the time reserved to meditation whether we experience immense consolation or immense desolation.) This is what spiritual writers call “passive purification.” Active purification is when we consciously deny our natural inclinations in order to follow Christ more closely (see our blog posts on mortification). Passive purification is when God puts us into the fire in order to burn away impurities that are beyond our reach. The result is marvelous: purified silver is more fully itself after being put through the fire; we become more fully what God made us to be after he purifies us. But the process is often painful.

When this dryness occurs for long periods of time on the level of emotions or imagination, it is sometimes referred as the “dark night of the senses.” The “dark night” is an image that St. John of the Cross used to sum up the whole phenomenon of dryness and passive purification. When this dryness occurs for long periods of time on the level of intellect and will (see part I of these posts on dryness in prayer for an explanation of these different faculties), it is sometimes referred to as the “dark night of the soul,” since these two faculties are the superior, spiritual faculties of the human soul.

St. John of the Cross went into great detail about the signs by which authentic dark nights can be distinguished from dryness that comes from other sources. In summary, they are as follows: 1) we find no consolation in the things of God, but neither do we find any in the things of the world; 2) we find ourselves still attending very carefully to our prayer commitments, and our anxiety comes because we fear we are not serving him well; 3) we find ourselves unable (at least for unusually long periods of time) to make reflections and considerations when we go to mental prayer, as if our minds were somehow paralyzed. In these three areas, however, it is difficult for us to diagnose ourselves; it's like trying to look at our backs in a mirror.

Two Tangents

Two more observations are needed before leaving this topic. First, those who are taking their spiritual lives seriously and striving to grow in prayer can sometimes be distracted by trying to figure out exactly where they are in the various stages of spiritual growth. It's as if they think that having the perfect label will make their efforts more fruitful and helpful. This can be a pitfall. Because we are all individuals, and God leads us through unique paths of spiritual growth, it is not always easy to fit our real experience perfectly into the abstract categories that theology has to use to reflect systematically on these issues. We can become obsessed with finding the right label, instead of staying focused on loving God through prayer and action in obedience to his will. It is helpful to understand more and more the principles in the spiritual life, because then we can understand ourselves better as we begin to identify how those principles are at work in our experience. Yet, spiritual naval-gazing is unhelpful. This is one reason why spiritual direction is such a useful tool. It helps keeps us objective and balanced in our efforts to discern how God is acting in our lives.

Second, those Christians who are living out their vocation to holiness as lay men and women often receive their purification in ways other than the “dark nights” of the senses and the soul. The suffering and the struggles for fidelity to Christ that come with the vocation to marriage can be acute. The suffering and struggles that come in one's effort to build Christ's Kingdom through work, community, and professional activities can also be acute. God can use those struggles and that suffering to perform his purification-operations. He is not limited to using dryness in prayer. This is one more reason why we should be wary of spiritual naval-gazing. The key to spiritual growth is accepting, embracing, and fulfilling God's will moment by moment, not anticipating how God will work in us and then forcing him to follow our expectations. We must let the Doctor do his work, without demanding that he first teach us the whole science of medicine.

Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC

 

Art: Saguaro Hill, Scottsdale, Arizona, 16 October 2006, own work, Dmcdevit, PD-Worldwide, Wikimedia Commons.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

please consider supporting our mission with a donation!

  • Dolores Castro

    This is a very important information about prayer meditation, which I am strugle with, I had a Spirital Director that helped me imensely but before I relized that in this world everyting is transictory, I lost him he was promoted to a better position to work with the Archbishop of our Diociese. I keep praying for him that he will grow in holiness and help other people in the jorney of life.
    your website is wonderful an countain so much good information please keep up your good work.
    God Bess your work and make it very fruitful.

    • Mary

      This is just a general response. There has been dismay about the bedtime children’s prayer. After praying, this is what Jesus responded with–
      “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
      Please peep at me as I lay to rest, So I can wake at my best.”
      Mary

  • Mary Macharia

    Fr. John, God has surely led me to this posting to-day because I had not read it before. In your 3rd paragraph, Point No.2 therein, sent me to Confession this evening. I have been under stressful anxiety these few weeks fearing that I am not serving God well.I was so disturbed because I believed my motives and the intentions which govern my prayer life and the practice of my Faith may are not sincere but a manifestation of my self-love and pride and,therefore I have been offending God, hence my feelings of desolation. I am always praying to God to grant me the Virture of humility. Your article has consoled me and confirmed the encouragement Jesus gave me at the Confessional that He understands my limitations and He is pleased by my efforts and determination not to give up even when I am desolate. God bless you Father

  • This series on dryness in prayer has been a wonderful consolation to me. Thank you so very much!

    • Mary

      Jeff,
      Maybe God’s reaction in the dryness of prayer is that He wants us to give our love to Him, rather than making requests of Him. Discussing our emotions with Him, praising Him for everything, even the trials in life. Why, we can even praise Him for our dryness in prayer. Remember also-the Devil is in the details.

  • Timkavalakat

    This is a very powerful line-
    Why would he allow us to experience dryness in prayer?  
    Because he wants our love for him to mature…….
    Its been very useful to me thanksTim

  • Lisa

    I can’t find the words to express how thankful I am for these post, Father. So I will only say a simple “Thank you” to you and give thanks and praise to Almighty God for his wondrous works.

  • ed mays

    Wonderful…a grateful explanation for me as I wander in the wilderness. Now I can pass it along to others like me also. Thank you.

Skip to toolbar