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.
Today we celebrate the feast day of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, a wife, mother, and physician who gave the ultimate sacrifice of her life for her infant daughter. She is also one of my most trusted role models as a Christian, wife, and mother.
When I graduated with my master’s degree, my husband gave me a print of a quote of St. Gianna that reads, “Whatever God wants.” It hangs by my bedside table and is often my first short prayer as I get out of bed in the morning. It was very fitting for the journey that we had just begun: my husband and I had been married for almost an entire year and I had just finished a rigorous graduate program. Meanwhile, we were coping with the loss of my father, who had passed 6 months prior. With such joy, stress, and suffering, I often turned to this prayer of St. Gianna as a deep source of hope and consolation to remind me of God’s sovereign love and guidance in my life. I continue to turn to this prayer as God’s will for my life unfolds.
St. Gianna did not say “whatever God wants” with apathy but with joyful submission to Christ’s work in her life and confidence in God’s goodness. At her canonization, Pope St. John Paul II described her witness as a “significant messenger of divine love.” From her writings and letters, we know her love for God and her family was fervent and passionate. In a letter written to her future husband during their engagement, she said she would often pray, “Lord, you see my desire and my good will. Supply what is lacking and help me to become the wife and mother you desire.” Her letters to her husband often express their deep desire to raise a family that would love and serve the Lord with all of their hearts. They would soon have a son and three daughters.
During St. Gianna’s final pregnancy, doctors discovered a fibroid tumor in her uterus. St. Gianna’s life could be easily saved by an abortion or a hysterectomy, or she could undergo a risky operation to remove the tumor and save her baby. St. Gianna chose to save her baby. However, the impending birth could mean life or death for both St. Gianna and her unborn child. She consistently told her husband, “If you must decide between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose – I insist – the child.” And indeed, St. Gianna’s daughter who lived due to her mother’s sacrifice is a living testimony to her mother’s deep love for her children and her trust in God’s will.
Of her sacrifice, Pope St. John Paul II said this:
Following the example of Christ, who "having loved his own... loved them to the end" (Jn 13: 1), this holy mother of a family remained heroically faithful to the commitment she made on the day of her marriage. The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfill themselves.
It is clear that her courage and love did witness to her simple prayer, “whatever God wants.”
As life has continued to present new joys, stresses, and sufferings, my husband and I continue to reflect on St. Gianna’s prayer that hangs in our bedroom: “Whatever God wants.” In eagerly awaiting the birth of our unborn son, our hope, like St. Gianna and her husband’s, is that we can raise him and our future children with a deep love for the Lord and total trust in his providence as we pray in confidence, “Whatever God wants.” We hope that through living out our vocation of marriage amidst the ups and downs of life, our love is another witness to our children, family, and friends of God’s faithfulness as we pray, “Whatever God wants.”
“Whatever God wants” is not a prayer of defeat or carelessness. For St. Gianna, it was a prayer of courage, strength, and complete trust in the power of God. May we, too, come to find the joy of this submission and love for Christ.
St. Gianna, pray for us!
Alyce Shields is a teacher in Washington D.C
When the disciples saw [Jesus] walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear. At once [Jesus] spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I;* do not be afraid.” Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” -Mt. 14:26-31
I often close my eyes and am transported to the rough waters. I look down at my shaking feet and trembling hands. Only moments ago, I had boldly called out to my Master, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Mt. 14:28). My quick strides out of the boat are now feeble in the choppy waters. I begin to sink, “Lord, save me!” (Mt. 14:30).
I find myself reflecting on this passage in moments of confusion, storms, and desolation. Peter’s example gives me great consolation, for it reveals the rough fisherman’s humanity. Peter– the impetuous, bold, and quick-tempered disciple who often speaks too quickly or acts without thinking. He requests something impossible by human standards only to be affirmed to “come.” His pride must have crept up quickly as he began an endeavor worthy of bragging rights among the other disciples. It was a lack of faith in Christ, an over-estimation of his own abilities, and a doubt in Christ’s power that led to Peter’s downfall. He began to sink, crying out, “Lord, save me!”
Have you ever cried out these words from the depths of your heart?
I say those words repeatedly throughout my life whenever I’ve felt myself sinking in choppy waters. The entire Christian life a response to God’s invitation to step out of the boat. I have learned more deeply in this past year that this invitation is the only one that I need to respond to if I want to attain sanctity, if I want to walk on water. I, like Peter, am so human. And yet, Jesus beckons me, he beckons all of us, to walk on water. This gives us hope, for we do not need to be perfect to answer his invitation. We need only to have faith and to be willing to answer when he proposes something different than what we think we need.
The Lord never beckons us to impossible waters. While the journey towards sanctity would be impossible on our own, God gives us the grace, the sacraments, the Church, the community, in a word, the extended hand that we need to answer his invitation to “come” (Mt. 14:28). God knows we may never be fully ready to step out of the boat and complete the journey on water towards him. It is for this reason that Jesus calls us with an outstretched hand. Sometimes his hand seems further away than we can handle, but God is never out of our reach.
“Come,” Christ says to us all, “experience my glory. Come, live in my love. Come, be like me. Come, walk on water.”
Will you step out of the boat?
Each year, I look forward to attending Midnight Mass on Christmas. It is one of those Catholic "hallmarks" that helps us to ring in the celebration of Christmas. This year was no different, and I was able to assist at my Cathedral's celebration of Midnight Mass. As we continue on in the great octave of Christmas, I would like to look back on the readings and texts from the "Mass During the Night," more commonly known as Midnight Mass.
“O God, [you] have made this most sacred night radiant with the splendor of the true light…” (Collect, Christmas Mass During the Night). Sometimes I scratch my head trying to make sense of the Collect prayer, the “opening prayer,” used during the Mass. The Collect prayer that we prayed during Midnight Mass, though, is quite fitting for this particular celebration of the Eucharist, as the Church throughout the world gathered together in the quiet stillness of the night to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the “infant [found] wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). This “most sacred night” is indeed “radiant with the splendor of the true light," the light of Christ, the light that brightens not only the darkness of the night sky but also the darkness of our world, the darkness that often creeps its way into our own lives and our own hearts.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! When we find ourselves in a dark room, or when the sun begins to set at the end of the day, what do we do? We turn on a lamp; we turn on the lights. When we find ourselves in internal times of darkness, what do we do? We should turn to Jesus Christ, who, as we hear so beautifully articulated in the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ, is the “eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence…”
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! The words that the prophet Isaiah addressed to us in the first reading from this Mass are so filled with meaning for us, especially as we fumble and flounder in the darkness of our world and in our own lives. For upon us all, “a light has shone” (Is 9:1). We often walk in darkness: the darkness of our own worries and anxieties, the darkness of our own sins and shortcomings, the darkness of loneliness and isolation. Whatever burdens us, Isaiah invites us to be brought from darkness into God’s most marvelous light, which is found in the person of Jesus Christ.
Isaiah tells us that “upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is 9:1). The light that shone in the time of Isaiah is the same light that shone on the “shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Lk 2:8). As the shepherds were keeping watch, “the angel of the Lord appeared to them” (Lk 2:9). On that holy night in Bethlehem, only the humble shepherds were aware of the Word becoming flesh—of Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary. Today, the whole world knows of the Light of the World, Emmanuel—“God-is-with-us,” “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5)…our “savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness” (Ti 2:14), to deliver us and grant us peace and consolation from all that causes chaos or disorder or stress in our lives.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, reflecting on these beautiful words, talks about light—the permeating theme of the great solemnity that we celebrate at Christmas. Our Holy Father says, “The people who walked–caught up in their activities and routines, amid their successes and failures, their worries and expectations–have seen a great light. The people who walked–with all their joys and hopes, their disappointments and regrets–have seen a great light. In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light. … A light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives” (Homily of Pope Francis, 25 September 2015).
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! As we continue to celebrate the great Nativity of the Lord—Christmas—we rejoice with Isaiah: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5). The Psalmist invites us to “exult before the LORD, for he comes; for he comes to rule the earth. He shall rule the world with justice and the peoples with his constancy” (Ps 96: 13).
The Lord is forever faithful. We are called to “[proclaim] the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace” (Homily of Pope Francis, 25 September 2015). We do this by serving as beacons of light amidst the darkness of our world, radiating the light, the “abundant joy” (Is 9:2), the love, the “blessed hope” (Ti 2:13) of Jesus Christ, proclaiming with “great rejoicing” (Is 9:2) the “good news of great joy” (Lk 2:10). “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! “Let us all rejoice in the Lord, for our Savior has been born in the world. Today true peace has come down to us from heaven” (Entrance Antiphon). Let us join our hearts and voices this Christmas night and proclaim: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk 2:14).
“Silent night, holy night, wondrous star, lend thy light; with the angels let us sing, Alleluia to our King; Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born!” (Stille Nacht, Fr. Joseph Mohr)