More thoughts on spiritual dry spells

January 11, 2009 | 23 comments

After my last post highlighting a great email I got about dark nights of the soul and spiritual dry spells, I received this comment which I also thought was worth sharing since it offers another important perspective to consider. I had to smile when I read it, because these are definitely areas that I need to consider when evaluating the possible causes of my own recent spiritual dry spell:

I think a much safer and more useful approach to such dry periods is to take “the dark night of the soul” or “the dark night of the senses” as the least likely explanation of my predicament.

Before entertaining the notion that my condition is evidence that I am scaling the spiritual heights and that John of the Cross and I have much in common besides our communion in the Sacraments of the Church, it may be very helpful to consider other possibilities first:

  1. Have I fallen out of the will of God through some disobedience? Of course we are all sinners, but have I refused to follow His inspirations in a particular matter? Have I refused clear inspirations that I should cut down on my eating or drinking, that I should rid the house of television or be more faithful in tithing, etc.? Am I here and now in state of disobedience? If so, then God and I are simply not in the communion of wills that is the prerequisite for making great strides in the spiritual life such as entering on a way of passive purgation. Moreover, my lack of communion is causing me interior distress.
  2. Am I carrying a grudge against anyone for anything? My dad, my wife, the IRS, Muslims, other drivers, my boss, President Bush, my fifth grade teacher, God? My refusal to love is a barrier to grace — hence my inner emptiness and pain. My “dark night” is merely interior coldness.
  3. Am I allowing the gift of faith to be eroded by my immersion in the mass media and myriad activities? An unrecollected soul has no possibility of entering on the way of passive purgation.
  4. Do I have a substantial prayer life to sustain my life of faith and grace? If not, my “dark night of the soul” is a chimera. I am merely running on empty, really “out of grace.”

Personal experience and reflection…leads me to suspect that unless a person is something like a daily communicant and weekly penitent in the Confessional, and one way or another soaked in prayer, exposed daily to the word of God in the Scriptures, and the lives of the saints and their writings, the likelihood that his interior distress corresponds to “passive purification” is unlikely.

All things are possible with God, of course, including that he can take a disobedient, worldly, unloving and prayerless individual by the hair of the head and set him straight on the way to great sanctity, but all the more mundane possibilities ought to be considered first in my humble opinion.

This strikes me as good advice to use spiritual dry spells as an opportunity to take a basic inventory of our lives and see if there are any obvious ways in which we’ve distanced ourselves from God, in addition to learning about the topics discussed in the last post.


  1. Katy

    My dry spells have been plenty, but a lot of them were caused by clinical depression which was cyclical. I found that a combo of medication, sensibly eating real meals at the same time each day, and getting enough sleep made things MUCH better. Getting a little time away every day for creativity and/or outside time helped, too. But as a young mom with little kids with lots of health issues, the lifestyle basics are hard to achieve. Will the little girls you’ve befriended be old enough to mind little ones after school? Can you barter with a nice older girl to help you with the teensy people in exchange for help with algebra or some horrible project of doom? It did seem like having a little margin in my life improved everything from husband relationship to spirituality! What would I have done without little Mindy next door, I don’t know…I’ll pray for you!

  2. wulfine

    Last night I was thinking about this, and my thoughts drifted into prayer. “Why?” I called out to God. “Why do we have to go through things like this, living without feeling your presence in our lives at all?”

    Naturally, I heard only the proverbial crickets chirping in response. No voice of God booming in my ear … Just silence.

    ahhh ~ but, my friend, you did hear the voice of God … in the chirping crickets.

    ghandi said of prayer ‘its a longing of the soul’ … so true.

    its never that God abandons us … it that we do not know him, i think. i like the notion of interior coldness, darkness …

    there is painting that has always hung in my mother’s entrance hall. it depicts Jesus, in an outside setting, knocking on a wooden door. there being no doorknob on this particular door, he cannot let himself in … it was always explained to me that this is the way of God … its up to us to invite him in …

    this post makes me think of that, for some reason.

  3. Sara

    Your commenter makes an excellent point, and explains it very well. I had a priest tell me once in Confession that I must be experiencing the Dark Night because of what I had said, but I pretty much scoffed inwardly at that thought. I knew it was just lukewarmness.

  4. Will Duquette

    I can’t disagree with your commenter’s personal experience, of course. But he or she seems to setting up a dichotomy between a person’s being dry because they are on the road to sainthood, and being dry because they are objectively not right with God. I think that might be a false dichotomy.

    As C.S. Lewis points out in the Screwtape Letters, cycles of abundance and dryness are a perfectly natural human characteristic; they are certainly aren’t limited to matters of faith and devotion. Second, it’s clear the Lord gives consolation when He chooses, and takes it away when he chooses.

    I agree with your commenter that being in a dry spell doesn’t mean that you’re in one of St. John’s “Dark Nights”. But it also doesn’t mean that you’re in rebellion. You can be feeling dry and unenthusiastic even when you’re doing the things God wants of you at the moment.

  5. Will Duquette

    To put it in a nutshell: your commenter appears to be saying, “If you don’t feel close to God, it’s most likely your own fault.” At least, one could get that impression from the quoted passage.

    I don’t believe this to be true. God gives us consolation when He wills, for our joy and encouragement, and takes it away when He wills, for our growth and strengthening. I think it’s wrong to read too much into its presence or absence.

    That said, your commenter is absolutely right about the needs for examination of conscience, recollection, and the sacraments.

  6. Eliz

    Yeah. That’s more like it. I thought that previous post on dry spells was beautiful and certainly gave me something to think about, at least in my case, this post nailed it on the head. I have more than once caught myself railing at God that He’s just not there for me, not listening to me, not responding to me and then I realize, um, maybe skipping Mass last week wasn’t such a good idea. Or, how long has it been since I’ve been to confession? Or, perhaps picking a fight with my husband last night wasn’t exactly the Christlike thing to do. Knowing of God’s infinite love sometimes can tempt me to take advantage that it will always be there.

  7. Anonymous

    Once in a similar situation an older, wiser woman shared an analogy which has been very helpful to me.
    She said that communicating with God is like tuning into a radio station and sometimes He moves just a little, to cause us to seek Him by adjusting our “dial”. This seeking is often as simple as reading a little more scripture, or sitting in silence… something different. When He “moves” we are forced out of our “normal” and often see Him in a new way. This is a way of gently being shepherded, by the Lover of our Souls.

    I enjoy your blog very much. Thank you.


  8. Jen

    I read something similar to this in Fr. Dubay’s book The Fire Within. He says that even many spiritual directors can make the mistake of the “dark night”, when most likely it is due to a psychological or emotional reason. He lists, too, some of the signs that show a true dark night, and that of an emotional or mental issue. I do, however, that what you posted (or what you posted about what someone emailed you) puts a lot of the responsibility in our hands, and gives us a dose of humility. When you really read what a true dark night of the senses or spirit is, you can see that they don’t match up (our guessings and what a night really is). Okay, it’s late, and I’m starting to not make much sense…and my grammar stinks. 😉

  9. Jane @ What About Mom?

    I think this is a very humble (and right) way to look at this (at least at the beginning of a dry spell).

    It reminds me of something that happens often in my church. People become disenchanted over doctrinal issues, but later you find out that they had an affair or something.

    I’m sure God might test our faith sometimes by leaving us to ourselves or something for awhile, but it’s probably wise to search our lives and hearts first.

  10. Hannah

    As an agnostic, I don’t really understand how God works, but maybe this is some kind of space in which you’re meant to focus on some basic things – perhaps the problems you’ve talked about having with carbohydrates? – to allow you to stabilize yourself. If you’re reaching for the sky (somewhat literally perhaps in this case!) you need a firm base to stand on. Maybe this is His way of helping you to realize that you need to get rid of the little things that distract you before you can focus properly on bigger things, like Him?

    I’m not very good or regular at attempting to pray, but when I do, I’ll pray for you 🙂

    Good luck!

  11. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary

    Maybe this is His way of helping you to realize that you need to get rid of the little things that distract you before you can focus properly on bigger things, like Him?

    Wow, Hannah! Not a bad insight for an agnostic. 🙂

  12. wulfine

    The more i think of this … the more murky it becomes. I don’t believe that God ‘takes’ anything away from us … i think we just … lose track sometimes. and that darned free will … it plays a part.

    I do not see ‘Consolation from God’ as some sort of commodity that God uses to manipulate us into ‘doing His will’ … Consolation is a state of being … a symbolic place. It exists … always close at hand … we must open our eyes and see it, feel it …

    That said, I think God doesn’t mind when we cry out in abandoned exasperation … Jesus did this very same thing … yet he was without sin.

    Also, i think our material abundance blinds us … makes us poor of spirit.

  13. Chris

    “If you don’t feel close to God, it’s most likely your own fault.”

    I’m with Mr. Duquette on this one, but I’ve got a different take on the matter. I completely agree that this sort of thing comes about through our own fault. However, I don’t believe that feeling has anything to do with it — at least not on either the sensual or sentimental levels that we often mistake for true emotion of the heart. An analogy is perhaps in order: anyone with children does not necessarily feel inclined to be around them at times. Anyone with parents is occasionally dismissive, sometimes rude, and perhaps more often, indifferent to them. And we love our children, and we love our parents. As Christians, we are commanded to have children in marriage (unless natural infertility prevents this) and to educate them properly. This is often hard and boring work, and it entails lots of dark nights (even if it’s merely staying up with a frightened child through a real dark night). We are also commanded to honor our parents. But it is nevertheless true that we do not always feel like loving, honoring, or caring much for any of them.

    This is simply natural: A Thomist might observe that as fallen humans, we are subject to the vicissitudes of concupiscence, yielding to our unfettered passions and selfishness. I don’t want to change that diaper! And especially not at 3 o’clock in the morning! If this sort of thing goes on at whiles over the course of a few days, we can fall into simple drudgery. Interactions can become mechanical, and we can push the motivations for our actions – for our love – into the background. At this point, a disobedient child or a nagging parent can push us into different sorts of behavior. We might raise our voices when we don’t mean to. But there is another alternative that can occur: we might simply withdraw, at least partially, from the interaction and therefore (again at least partially) from the relationship. I might simply shake my head at my son and send him to his room. He might puzzle at this because he is used to getting a lecture or a time-out for disobedience.

    It is the latter that seems most analogous to the Dark Night. Love demands that even in those situations where we really don’t feel anything, we must nevertheless do right by our parents and by our childen. It is precisely when we don’t feel closenesss – or perhaps even anything – that Love truly manifests itself. Love is no mere emotion! It is mind and heart and soul and body. With parents and children, I think, that last one is the most significant: we must make ourselves physically available to parents and children even when we don’t want to (go to the store, go to the school play, sit down and talk, etc.) The rest flows from physical presence and not (I don’t think) the other way around. When we avoid the physical presence as a matter of course, we have entered into the Dark Night in our relationship with those whom we love.

    It is no different with God. Feeling close to God is not the point. It is precisely when we don’t feel like relating to God (in prayer, in adoration, at Mass, etc.) that we must make a greater effort to deepen our relationship anyway. One thing that makes this very clear is John of the Cross’s original Spanish translated (in the Carmelite translation) as “Oh, the sheer grace!” At least in modern English usage, this is not an accurate representation of the original Spanish: “¡O dichosa ventura! Dichosa represents that which brings us great happiness and joy, rather like a sea wind blowing over you at night when it’s 60 degrees out. But ventura is decidedly not the sort of thing which tends to bring about dichosas feelings. The best way to understand ventura is in the context of modern venture capitalism. Those who engage in it know that most of the time, they are going to lose every dime they invest. However, their hope is that the few times that an investment in a new company pans out, they will recoup all the other losses plus great gains besides. And no one can’t know which is which ahead of time. A ventura is always, always, always risky in the extreme. It is also adventuresome (the two words share a common Latin root), but not in the common sense of frolicking over the countryside in search of fun. Rather, it is adventuresome in the sense that you might lose your life, but the gains from the venture (another cognate) would be worth it. So you are really talking about the joyful happiness of risking your life in the hopes of gaining something of immense value. This reminds me immediately of the story in the Gospel of the man who found a pearl of great price buried in a plot of land and then sold all that he had in order to purchase the whole plot of land and thus gain the pearl. Everyone around him must have thought this man was crazy, but he knew what he sought and did what he had to gain the great pearl.

    So it is with John of the Cross’s poem (and his teaching). The Dark Night is what we endure for Love himself. We know from simple human experience that we may often be irritated with those we love, that they will anger us and deceive us and disillusion us and worse. With God, this is impossible, because God is always true to us. But we are not always true to God, and when we fail, it is not terribly uncommon for us to shift the blame. Enduring in our relationship with God even through these trials (which are trials of our own selves) is the actual act of passing through the Dark Night. It is no different from going on a venture into the desert and suffering hunger and thirst for the sake of finding the beauty of an oasis of which we may have only hear rumor. While suffering in the desert, we might blame those who told us of the oasis for putting us into such a dismal spot. We might wish to return to the comforts of the city. But in the middle of the desert, there are only two choices: to endure the desert long enough to reach the oasis, or to endure the desert long enough to get back to our easy chair. Those who never search for the oasis will never leave the easy chair, and those who turn back in the middle of the desert will have suffered long in vain. The joy and happiness can only come about by persevering in the desert until the suffering comes to an end in the oasis. And once there! Beauty himself walks with us. Nothing can compare. It is only on reaching the oasis that the translation, “Oh, the sheer grace!” begins to make sense – mostly because we have lost the sense of cross-plus-resurrection necessarily figuring into every experience of grace (the Carmelite translator who provided this translation, in contrast, had not lost that sense). John of the Cross’s original Spanish, however, continues to evoke the juxtaposition of cross and resurrection – of suffering for the sake of Love – into three simple words.

    And this is just one line of the poem.

  14. Tres Angelas

    Let’s see, perhaps in my case it’s… (5), all of the above.

    In other news, nice little bump in the Weblog Awards vote, which translates into… merely keeping pace with the others! Still, that’s excellent readership, and the competition is good, too (and aimed at wider audiences).

  15. SteveG

    I am more or less in agreement with Will Duquette on this.

    I think the commenter makes fantastic points about how we should view our dry spells, but I think he/she also makes a mistake in assuming that when we use the terms ‘darkness’, or ‘dry-spell’ colloquially, that we are necessarily diagnosing ourselves with what spiritual writers would call THE ‘dark night of the soul.’

    I suspect most of us mean it much more loosely than that.

    One of my favorite spiritual writers/speakers, Fr. Groeschel did an audio series called ‘The Mountains and Valleys of the Spiritual Life’. I think that title aptly captures what each of us experiences whether whether we are doing everything right or not.

    The spiritual journey is a series of ups in which we are reconverted (or more deeply converted to God), followed by downs in which we inevitably seem to be losing our grip on our faith and relationship with HIM.

    All the while, the slope of the entire journey is hopefully one of ascent, even when we might be in a particular dip in the road.

    Regardless of the distinction in terminology I mentioned above, as you have already noted, these comments are really good for doing a basic spiritual inventory when we do encounter those dry spells.

  16. Adoro

    I just have a comment on the idea of the “Dark Night of the Soul”.

    Unfortunately, that book is sold by itself, and because of that, it’s taken out of context. It MUST be read with Ascent to Carmel as it was intended; for the “Dark Night” isn’t a time of dryness or depression. In fact, the Dark Night involves great joy.

    A sense of feeling far from God or feeling depressed or sinful is actually not the Dark’s something entirely different.

    Thanks to a professor I had last semester, he lectured on St. John of the Cross and Ascent to Carmel/Dark night and pointed out this very important matter as far too many spritual writers or other people misinterpret the dark night, making it what it isn’t. And that can be very dangerous.

    Now, with regard to spiritual dryness…it’s a part of the spiritual life. It tests our love for God; do we pray and practice our faith because it feels good, or because we love God? Dryness is a necessary purification to teach us not to rely on feelings but on our intellect, will, and faith.

    Oh…this is a big topic, isn’t it? lol

  17. wulfine

    It is precisely when we don’t feel closeness – or perhaps even anything – that Love truly manifests itself.

    A brilliant thought!

    regarding the poem of St. John the Cross …

    to me, it expresses ambivalence.

    A sense of feeling far from God or feeling depressed or sinful is actually not the Dark’s something entirely different.

    I respectfully disagree. Each time I read the opening of this poem, I am struck by its mystical qualities. It describes a journey or process thru which a soul must travel that’s simultaneously illuminative and purgative. (That’s the ambivalence).

    In order to achieve a perfect union with God, A soul must lose itself. It sounds painful. Growing pains hurt, but we want to grow, right?

    That’s what i think.

  18. wulfine

    regarding reliance on intellect. not sure. its seems our own intellect and will become dark, arid. we feel empty.

    At this point, what have we remaining?

    Faith. And God’s will, which vastly differs from our own.

  19. Gregaria

    I’ve been reading these comments and it strikes me that people seem to have very different ideas of what the “Dark Night” actually means. Does St. John actually define the Dark Night anywhere? Does one have to read the book Dark Night of the Soul (along with Ascent of Mount Carmel as wulfine pointed out) to understand what it is? Does the book require clarification? Is there an expert? Does one have to take a class to really understand it?

    Another question: does it really matter whether or not you can say with absolute certainty that you are experiencing the dark night of the soul? Like, does the dark night of the soul require special care and direction that other kinds of darkness do not require? I have come to think that if one offers up one’s sufferings, asks God to bring good out of the suffering, keeps one’s eyes fixed on Christ, and asks God for help with those sufferings no matter what the darkness, God’s Will will be done and all will turn out better than one could have hoped. Is there any reason why this wouldn’t work with the dark night of the soul?

    As Adoro said, this is big topic!

  20. Gregaria

    Also, Hannah, that was an excellent insight. I really think you’re on to something. Did you used to be Catholic? Not to sound pushy or anything, but I really think you should think about becoming one. 🙂

  21. Will Duquette

    Everything serious I’ve read about the Dark Night of the Soul, et al, basically says, “Don’t try this at home!” Or, more precisely, don’t try to diagnose this on your own–you need to be working with an experienced spiritual director.

  22. Adoro

    Wulfine ~ You can feel free to disagree, but then you’re not disagreeing with me; you’re disagreeing with the Master, St. John of the Cross himself. You’re disagreeing with experienced theologians who have extensively studied his works in the proper context.

    We can take anything out of context and call it what we want; thus you are free to call your spiritual dryness a “dark night” according to your own understanding. However, you can’t inflict your understanding upon St. John of the Cross and call it the same thing.

    A VERY important part of the Dark Night is JOY! Not depression. It’s not based on “feeling”.

    The Dark Night, properly understood, means that it is a night in which one is “abandoned into the arms fo the Beloved”. It is a special wounding, a pierced soul which piercing isn’t really pain, but an amazing fire of love for God. It is secure, it is glad, and it is something that ONLY the advanced experience/endure.

    Most of us mere mortals will never experience it. And if we did, we likely wouldn’t call it that for we wouldn’t care about definitions or what other people thing about where we are. A spiritual director would recognize it and MAY point it out if the soul needed to know, but otherwise, it’s a state of such pure, joyful, secure abandonment with a joining of suffering and fiery love for the Lover who is God.

    Argue with me if you’d like, as I’m learning my info at the feet of incredible Theologians who know what they’re talking about. I can only refer you to them; I’ve not experienced the Dark Night and from what I’ve learned, I probably never will in this lifetime.

    I hope that you do and that you will and that you have already! If so…you’re well on your way to Sainthood, and yes, that’s possible and no, I’m not being snide!

    The Saints are wonderful, my only caution is to take them in the proper context and with the proper understanding before we start claiming their terms as our own and calling them the same thing.

    That’s why we need to take these things with spiritual direction…it’s really easy to deceive ourselves. And there are those who attain the heights by the Grace of God…and never know it, never having read what you and I have.

    I almost think holiness is harder the more we read about it. But then again…some of us are called to that study, according to God’s own will. Maybe we can’t live it, but we maybe are supposed to see what’s possible and live something less amazing.

    Sorry, rambling now, so I’ll stop.

    Jen, please tell me you miss my long rambling posts, this is my first one in a long time! lol

  23. Chris

    I think it’s critical to understand something of St. John’s own perspective on his poem before we go off saying this or that categorically must be done in order get it all right. John of the Cross wrote his poem, and then he wrote his explanatory book for fear that his poem might be taken out of context by those who read it. He wanted to ensure that his work was understood only within the context of the teaching of the Church. Given the sometimes violent Reformation of his times and his own personal history (he spent several months imprisoned in a convent before writing his poem), this is quite understandable. Thus, the real requirement for engaging St. John through his works is that your lens of interpretation be the orthodox teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Application of your study to your own personal situation may indeed be impossible without the aid of an orthodox spiritual director. But even when you have found an adequate spiritual director, it is necessary to study St. John’s works and the teaching of the Church before seeking spiritual direction — for how else would you have any starting place?

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