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.
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?