Flying over India last night, I found that every time I lifted my heart to God, I was given tremendous peace and consolation, especially when I thought of St. Francis Xavier bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to that land 37,000 feet below me, dark at 3am and barely alit with the poor lights of over a billion people. I wondered why this joy didn’t happen every time I prayed! That is what this post is about: Why we enjoy God in prayer some days, and then fear our time in prayer on other days.
I just finished offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at the tomb of Mother Teresa here in Kolkata, India, as you can see in the picture above. Again, I was given tremendous joy, peace and consolation while praying the Mass. I have to wonder: Why doesn’t God shower me with more joy and peace when I pray?
We got good news and then bad news.
I like the bad news first. Many times, young Catholics rightly recognize that Mother Teresa had a 60 year lack of joy while thinking about the things of heaven. This is true. However, we young Catholics erroneously ascribe Mother Teresa’s dark night to our laziness. I am not Mother Teresa. The simple truth is that God wants to shower me with joy and some consolation in prayer, but I choose lukewarmness or sin instead…a laziness that God can not reward with an increase of the infused gifts of supernatural faith, hope and charity without denying Himself.
I frequently hear young Catholics tell me that their lack of joy in prayer is due to their “dark night of the soul” or even that their clinical depression is the “dark night of the soul.” Although God is very compassionate in these days of Divine Mercy to the weight we all carry, St. John of the Cross teaches that depression is not the dark night of the soul. Let me summarize the 300 pages I’ve read of his writings in a few sentences: The person living in sanctifying grace begins his or her journey in the purgative way of prayer, meaning that he or she loses unhealthy attachments to physical pleasures (sinful and sometimes even licit) so as to attach oneself more closely to God. After an intense period of detachment, called “the dark night of the senses,” the person begins the illuminative stage of prayer. After this, a few people experience “the dark night of the soul,” a period of intense detachment even from spiritual joys, where Christ makes the soul lose the good feelings of prayer, so as to enter into love God for Himself, more than the reward. Thus begins the unitive way of prayer.
I would imagine that less that 1 percent of all the priests and nuns of the world have ever made it to the unitive stage of prayer, meaning that those currently alive on earth who have gone through St. John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul” probably consist of 0.000001% of the Catholic population. I am 100% sure that I have not reached the true dark night of the soul or the unitive stage of prayer, despite suffering a bit and even a few hours of prayer a day. Thus, for people to throw around the term “dark night of the soul” as a diagnosis for their simple depression reveals a lack of any study of ascetical theology.
Thus, we can not ascribe our lack of joy in prayer as something akin to Mother Teresa’s 60 years of lack of consolation in prayer. You eating too many twinkies instead of going to adoration does not make you Mother Teresa. My lack of joy in prayer is simply laziness. Thus begins the good news:
God really, really, really wants to give us joy, peace and consolation in prayer. As the Father runs to the prodigal son (Luke 15) to embrace him and cover his shame, so also God wants to make us lovers of Him and lovers of prayer. How do I get it? The initial grace of a conversion is usually unmerited, hence the Apostle Paul persecuting Christians, or you, for example, if you have ever felt the Holy Spirit do incredible things in your soul while you were in sin.
But after we return to the Father’s house, the reality is that “we live by the Spirit the more we renounce ourselves.”–CCC 736. In fact, I could summarize all of St. John of the Cross’s ascetical theology on a youth bulletin board I once saw at Nativity parish in Colorado: “The more we pour out, the more God pours in.”
That’s not to say I can earn the Father’s love, but I can indeed remove blocks to His love and approach Him in the sincerity of repentance. St. Ignatius of Loyola teaches me in his spiritual exercises that when I am in desolation or darkness in prayer, it is one of three things. I’ll paraphrase:
1) God is humbling me, so that I rely on Him alone, instead of believing good-feelings in prayer make me a saint.
2) God is testing me, so as to make me stronger in the fight for my soul.
3) I am sinful or at least lazy.
The first acid test of this is “Am I willing to get rid of serious sin?” St. Ignatius of Loyola even proposes coming out of the stupor of laziness by taking on some physical penance.
St. John of the Cross gives us even more detailed criteria for figuring out if my desolation in prayer is God’s gift of humility or too many video games. They can all be boiled down to one phrase: Do I actually like to be alone in the silence of prayer with God?
That’s not to say I can always be alone with God when I want to. Nor does it mean that a housewife should sneak away to prayer as much as a cloistered Carmelite. But even the housewife can say: Were I alone, would I rather meditate or check Facebook?
Too often, we who are busy like to excuse ourselves from silent meditation by saying 1970s phrases such as “My work is my prayer.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church answers this error of the ascetical life:
“Prayer is the life of the new heart. It ought to animate us at every moment. But we tend to forget Him who is our life and our all. This is why the Fathers of the spiritual life in the Deuteronomic and prophetic traditions insist that prayer is a remembrance of God often awakened by the memory of the heart ‘We must remember God more often than we draw breath.’ But we cannot pray ‘at all times’ if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it. These are the special times of Christian prayer, both in intensity and duration.”–CCC 2697, emphasis mine.
To begin this way of prayer, I know of no better book that Conversation with Christ by Fr. Rohrbach, as he explains the way of St. Teresa of Avila for the mere hobbits of the spiritual life like me.
If you don’t have time to read it, know this: The solution to all of the above spiritual theology is very simple: Begin with concrete resolutions of silent, scriptural meditations. The Rosary is great, and I try to pray several Rosaries a day, and I can’t live without Mary and her motherly love…but St. Frances De Sales and St. Alphonsus Liguori teach that the relationship with Jesus Christ (and Mary) are primarily fueled by beginning in the silence of meditation, especially with the Gospels. The doctors of the Church stress this even more than the Liturgy of the Hours for the layman. Even the priest, obliged to the Psalms, can himself not come to any fruitful apostolate without real, silent meditation time.
Start with 10 minutes of silence a day. Put your iPhone on airplane mode and set the stopwatch for 10 minutes so you won’t be tempted to drop it to 9 minutes. If you can do 10 minutes, get up to 20 minutes a day. If you can do 20 minutes a day, you’ll get yourself up to the full 30 minutes a day, setting that iPhone countdown to a full 30 minutes. St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Teresa of Avila both teach that for the soul truly committed (by concrete resolution!) to 30 minutes of silent meditation, even the devil knows he has lost such a soul to the Kingdom of Christ forever.