A longtime topic of interest for me has been the concept of “spiritual dry spells,” when you can’t seem to feel God’s presence. I haven’t had a whole lot of emotional religious experiences, and when I was first in the conversion process, I had none. I felt like I was doing something wrong since so many other Christians seemed to have all these great, powerful experiences.
I’ve read a lot on the topic, and probably the best analysis I’ve heard comes from Peter Kreeft, in his excellent book Jesus-Shock. He writes:
What is precious in believing-without-seeing is not the not-seeing but the believing, the strengthening of the faith muscle when the crutches of seeing and feeling are removed. Seeing Him was not enough, for thousands saw Him yet turned away, and even shouted, “Crucify him!” Feeling Him in the heart is not enough either, for that is subjective, that is ours, that is fallible. Furthermore, we are self-centered experience addicts. We are so addicted to our own positive experiences of joy and happiness that if we experienced Christ more joyfully than we do, we would almost inevitably come to love our experience of Christ more than Christ Himself. We would come to worship our experience, that is, ourselves.
I’ve definitely been guilty of this. After I did have a few really powerful experiences where I felt overwhelmed with emotion, filled with happiness and joy, I would often go back to church seeking that — the experience. I can think of more than one occasion when I’d sit in the pew, staring at the crucifix with longing; but, unfortunately, not a longing for Jesus. I’d look right past the image of him on the cross, my desires fixated on those big emotions I felt last Sunday. It was as if I were a junkie, and Jesus was my dealer. I was happy to see him not for who he was, but for the “high” I wanted him to give me.
Kreeft points out that this is why the Eucharist is such a perfect way to encounter God: we get all of him, his full self, and our feelings about it are a completely optional part of the package. Kreeft writes:
We long for joy, and He tells us that He is our joy, and that He will be in us Himself, not that he gives us joy. (Jn 15:11) He is not a means, and our joy is not the end. That is idolatry. He is the end.
Kreeft then recounts a famous saying about Fact, Faith and Feeling walking along a wall. Fact goes first, then Faith, then Feeling. As long as Faith keeps his eyes on Fact, they all make steady progress. But Faith keeps turning around to see what’s going on with Feeling, and he gets unsteady. Faith and Feeling both end up tumbling off the wall, while Fact walks on alone.
Looking back, I now think that it was to my advantage that I felt nothing during the conversion process. Back when I had no emotional experiences, I had no temptation to make them idols. Since I didn’t have Feeling walking behind me, I just put one foot in front of the other, steadily following Fact.
It’s not as simple now that I do occasionally have those wonderful emotional experiences. I’m very tempted to make idols of them. But now, when I catch myself sitting in a pew, looking right past the Lord in search of a fleeting emotional high, I think of what Kreeft said. I remind myself to keep my eyes on the facts, to behold Jesus for who he is, to receive him in the Eucharist, and let that be enough. Because, as Kreeft so wisely reminds us, “He is not a means, and our joy in not the end.”