O God, Thou art my God, I seek Thee, my soul thirsts for Thee; my flesh faints for Thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is. -Psalm 63:1
There are seasons in the spiritual life in which you feel parched, as if you’re wandering the desert without refreshment. Silent reflection is filled with distraction. Prayer seems awkward, difficult, or boring. Your heart feels lifeless.
Lately, despite my attempts to find escape, this sums up my prayer experience. It doesn’t matter that I infuse my days with the Mass readings, a Rosary, Catholic podcasts, or spiritual books. Right now, it seems so much easier to turn on a show or scroll through social media than to pray. Any time I resolve to do the latter, all the things I need to do bombard my mind, or the texts and notifications come in streaming. At Mass, I hear the beautiful words of Scripture and the homily but feel hollow in the pew.
Am I a bad Catholic? Is something wrong?
During times like these, many people of faith get disheartened. They think they have done something wrong in the spiritual life, that God has abandoned them, or that their faith must not be relevant anymore. But all people of faith will experience this to some degree at one point or another! It is often hard to trudge through when warm feelings are absent and prayer requires intentionality and effort, but these times in the spiritual life can be the most fruitful of all.
Our hearts can grow cold and tepid for two reasons: either we’ve slackened in the spiritual life and slowly let the cares of the world take over – like the weeds that choke out the good seed in the parable – or God is calling us to deeper faith and growth. If it’s the latter, this is often a time of spiritual maturation that deepens our faith and love. We choose to cry out to God in prayer not because it makes us feel good or holy or satisfied, but because we trust in God and love him despite how we might feel. We’ve often heard that love is a choice, not a feeling. Therefore, when feelings are absent, God is inviting us to choose him with a love that is selfless and trusting. The feelings that are lukewarm, indifferent, or distracted are part of the spiritual dryness St. Ignatius of Loyola called “desolation.”
According to St. Ignatius, there are moments in the spiritual life of both consolation and desolation. In times of consolation, we feel especially close to God, find prayer easy, fulfilling, and natural, and have peace and joy. I remember one time talking to a priest in spiritual direction who asked how things were going spiritually. I told him I almost felt guilty because all was going smoothly. He chuckled and told me to enjoy this time of consolation because it wouldn’t last forever—advising me to write down my feelings and spiritual observations as something to look back on in times of dryness or sorrow. A quote attributed to St. Philip Neri sums up this ebb and flow: “As a rule, people who aim at a spiritual life begin with the sweet and afterward pass on to the bitter. So now, away with all tepidity, off with that mask of yours, carry your cross, don’t leave it to carry you.”
How can you carry your cross during this time? Below are some tips to reinvigorate your faith and get you through this time of spiritual dryness.
It is important if you feel indifferent to your faith right now not to give up. I encourage you to re-double your efforts in prayer, seek help from your community and the saints, and persevere. Know that this is a completely normal phase of the spiritual life, that even the saints felt arid at times, and that you are not alone.
This Sunday the Church celebrates the Feast of Divine Mercy, a fairly new feast day in the Church. Pope St. John Paul II, who declared Divine Mercy Sunday formally in 2000, stated that, “This [day] is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity.” I never understood that phrase more than when I went on pilgrimage to Poland.
In the summer of 2016, I had the privilege of going to Krakow for World Youth Day. The pilgrimage was filled with many graces that I am still unpacking today. 2016 was declared an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy by Pope Francis, and World Youth Day was held in the country where the Divine Mercy devotion was birthed. Mercy and grace surely abounded that year.
Early in the trip, we experienced a day that weighed heavy on our hearts. Our group leader announced that we would make a morning trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp Memorial and Museum. As a group we made the decision that, as a sign of respect for the more than one million people who lost their lives at that dark place, we would not speak while we were on the grounds. The silent walk through the memorial shook me to the core. The sadness was hard to comprehend, and the absence of God felt real. As we were nearing the end of the memorial, we came upon a tablet that read the same quote in different languages from all over the world. The quote began like this, “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity…” That was my experience of the memorial: a cry of despair.
After we returned to the bus, we departed for the Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy, where St. Maria Faustina Kowalska lived and is now buried. A basilica has been built as a shrine for Divine Mercy at the Sanctuary and was named “the Capitol of the Divine Mercy devotion” by St. John Paul II. The juxtaposition between Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Divine Mercy Shrine were too extreme for my heart. I was unprepared for the transition from a witness of utter despair to complete hope.
Still in agony over our morning visit, I waited in line to get into the chapel where St. Faustina was laid to rest. In the chapel, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was also taking place. I was apprehensive to sit in the quiet with Our Lord and at the same time ready for some answers from Him. I walked into the chapel and received my answer from a familiar image hanging inside. In the chapel where St. Faustina is buried was a huge image that seemed to be made exactly for my desolate heart: the image of Divine Mercy; the image which came to St. Faustina in an apparition. It displays Christ in his glory blessing the world with one hand and touching his heart with the other. Two large rays beam out from his heart: one red and one white.
There was Jesus with His open hands and open heart, summoning me. Jesus looked as if He was walking towards me, coming to me with His merciful love. The rays of red and white, representing the blood and water that come from His wounds, revealed His heart that desires to reach all of His children and reached me in that moment. Flowing from the heart of Jesus was the hope that was seemingly lost at Auschwitz and in the hearts of millions during WWII. For me, this was the answer to despair.
At that moment I realized that although I have never experienced—and could never fathom—the suffering within the walls of that concentration camp, I could see that Christ’s mercy triumphs over all despair. It was triumphant during His perfect sacrifice on the Cross, and three days later at His Resurrection. Christ’s mercy does not hesitate to pierce our hearts, especially during times of suffering or despair in our lives. He only asks us to trust in that perfect mercy.
Jesus asked St. Faustina to share with the leaders of the Church his desire that the first Sunday after Easter be declared and celebrated as the Feast of Mercy. It is no coincidence that St. Faustina died less than one year prior to the Nazi invasion of Poland. Perhaps Jesus appeared to her when He did because he anticipated the great need for mercy to flow over the world. Christ knows us, and longs to let His love and mercy pierce our hearts. He only asks us to trust in His sacrifice, His love, and His desire to know us and to be known by us deeply and intimately. When Christ revealed the image of Divine Mercy to Faustina, He asked for the image to be inscribed with three words: “Jezu, ufam Tobie” – “Jesus, I Trust in You.” As we celebrate the Feast of Divine Mercy this Sunday, let us trust in His infinite mercy and in His infinite love.
Question for Reflection: How do you see God’s mercy alive in Scripture, history, or everyday life?
To learn more about the Jubilee Year of Mercy, please click here.
This past Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, my home parish of St. Francis Xavier marked a big milestone in its history – we have just concluded much needed renovations to the church building. The event was commemorated with a special Mass celebrated by our archbishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, along with many concelebrating priests and assisting deacons who have been assigned to the parish over the years. It was also my first “official” trip home to the parish since entering seminary this past summer. This was a happy and exciting day for the entire parish and was a great way to usher in this season of Advent, this season of hopeful anticipation of the coming of Jesus Christ.
These renovations to the parish have been in progress for many years, ever since I was a little kid serving Mass. One might say that the community has endured a long season of Advent – a long time of patiently awaiting this rejuvenation of our sacred space, our spiritual home. And the patience definitely paid off! We now have a more beautiful place to pray, to celebrate the sacraments, and to gather as a parish community to worship God.
This visit home moved me to consider how St. Francis Xavier, the namesake and patron of the parish, would have approached such an extended season of Advent. Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit saint, brought the message of Christ to the people of Asia through his devoted missionary endeavors. Being sent on mission was not the way Francis had envisioned his priesthood, for he was preparing to dedicate his life to the intellectual pursuits of the faith and the fostering of the newly formed Society of Jesus. But, Francis Xavier was called to become a missionary priest and, obediently, he went.
Francis most certainly had many gifts and received many graces in order to accomplish his evangelizing activity in a far corner of the world with few companions. Of course, he had great faith in God and in the Church. Francis Xavier would have been a man with patience, endurance, and courage, for these are necessary to persevere through the difficult trials that come with priesthood and religious life, evangelization, and mission in foreign countries. He must have had great trust in the Lord and trust that his efforts to bring Christ to the people of Asia would indeed bear much fruit. Francis Xavier must have been a joyful man, one who attracted others to become followers of Jesus Christ. Most importantly, Francis Xavier must have been a filled with hope – hope for all of those people he evangelized, hope in the Society of Jesus, and hope in the Christian message of salvation. This, it seems, is the greatest virtue that we can learn from Francis Xavier as we enter into this Advent season – hope.
The sense of hope that undoubtedly carried Francis Xavier through his missions is similar to what helped the parishioners at St. Francis Xavier Church endure the long journey toward a renovation of their sacred space – the hope that our efforts and sacrifices may lead others to find Christ, and that one day we might all be united with him in Heaven. Though we are not necessarily called to be great missionary saints, we can certainly evangelize within our families and communities as we gather to celebrate the birth of the Lord. May St. Francis Xavier be a guide for us this Advent, as we try to “renovate” our lives to become more joyful, courageous, and hopeful witnesses to the wonderful Gospel message with the hope of bringing others to Christ.
Joe Hubbard is a Collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a Seminarian for the Archdiocese of Boston.