Monday, October 10, 2011

Spiritual Dry Spells, Part 2

I think the introduction to Part 1 was long enough, so without further ado, here are the next five things I've learned from my spiritual dry spell.

6. Seek out the advice of a spiritual director

Jesus, the first spiritual director, with Peter!
I have a confession to make. A few Many of these oh-so-helpful tips have been pointed out to me by my spiritual director over the past few months. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on these suggestions (even if I'm not so good at putting them into action), but he should get some of the credit (I'm a chemist, I love to cite my sources). 
But in all seriousness, while I  may not always like to hear what my spiritual director has to say, he is almost always spot on with pointing out the "obvious" things I have failed to see in my blindness. Having a person who knows you and your spiritual life, who is also close to the Lord, will help your spiritual life improve by leaps and bounds. A spiritual director is able to be objective where you are not, but he can also be subjective. Often, your spiritual director has gone through similar trials in his own life, which means that he can give advice based on experience. Especially if you're having trouble hearing God in the "usual" places, letting God speak to you through a spiritual director can greatly improve your spiritual life, and it sometimes even causes the spiritual lightbulb to start to flicker a little bit brighter.
7. Say, "Thank You."

Heavenly Father, thank you for cranberry sauce.
The day that we gather with family and friends and eat turkey and that delicious cranberry sauce (the kind from the can) is not the only day that we should be thankful for all the great things in our lives. We should be thankful for the wonderful creation of cranberry sauce every day!

When we take a moment to give thanks, we begin to realize the little things in life that get us through day-to-day life, especially when life seems pretty rough. So, each day, think about five things for which you can be thankful. While you can be thankful for material things - such as a roof over your head, air conditioning in your room, food in your refrigerator, a can of cranberry sauce on the shelf, a laptop on which to blog, etc. - it is also good to recognize the non-materials things in your life that you are grateful to have. It can be a myriad of things, but here a few examples that I may or may not have experienced in the past few months:
  • The grace to be able to focus on work or school during a time of high stress, especially during crunch time.
  • An unexpected message from a friend that makes you laugh when you were on the verge of tears.
  • A big, toothless smile from a sweet baby (especially when the baby doesn't smile at anyone else!)
  • Delicious home-cooked meals from friends when you wouldn't have had any food to eat at home.
  • A surprise gift card from a friend, and when you ask why, she responds it's because "you have so much to celebrate this year."
  • The cool fall breeze that allows you to roll the windows down in the car and blast some good music.
  • The out-of-the-blue realization that you are appreciated and loved by others.
The list could go on and on. During a dry spell, it can be easy to fall into the trap of "Woe is me, my life is so awful blah blah blah." In taking the time to stop and say thank you to God for the gifts He has given to you, it is easier to not fall into this state of despair, which keeps you further away from the temptation to fall into sin as well.

So, next time you're feeling down, stop and say a prayer of thanksgiving to God, even if it is for the simple gift of a can of cranberry sauce. Actually, I don't have any cranberry sauce on my shelf. Next time I'm at the grocery, I'll have to grab a can, and then I can add that of my list of "thank you"s for the day.
8. Remember that it's not all about feelings

Have you ever been/remained in a relationship with someone because you liked how he or she made you feel more than you actually liked the person? Maybe you didn't realize it at the time, but I think many people can relate to this situation.
So gloriously in love, I was swinging around
on lamp posts, just singing in the rain!

When I first started to feel spiritually dry, I didn't understand what had happened. I had been so vibrantly alive with my faith! I described the feeling to everyone as being in love with Christ and in love with the Catholic faith. When I went to Mass, I felt good. When I prayed, I felt His presence. When I served others, I felt that warm happiness inside. In my daily life, I felt filled with joy. I felt loved and so I easily loved in return.
Then it all went away. I only noticed the spiritual dryness because I noticed the lack of the feelings I once had. I didn't feel in love anymore. So I started to sink in deeper, because I relied on those feelings so much. As my spiritual director has said many times (it took many times for it to start to sink in!), we live in a culture that is all about emotion. “Do what 'feels' right” is the mantra of our society. We become so focused on how something makes us feel that we don’t always think about why we are doing it. While human emotions can be a beautiful and wonderful thing, when we use them as reasoning for what we do and do not do, we tread into very dangerous waters. By letting my emotions guide me, I had come to the point spiritually where I was more in love with the feelings I had from worshipping God, and not focused on actually loving and worshipping God. Instead of loving God because I felt loved by Him, I should have been loving God no matter what.

One of my good friends made the following analogy. When you first start dating someone, you have butterflies in your stomach and you enjoy being around this person as you first get to know each other. Yet, as the relationship develops and advances to the point where you love the person more deeply, you don't always have those feelings you had in the beginning because you don't need them anymore. Your love for that person is what sustains you, not the feelings you have when you're around him. A relationship with God can be very similar - sometimes, when we first start "dating" God, we are filled with these feelings from the overwhelming power of the Holy Spirit's presence in our lives. But we have to let this relationship develop into a stronger and deeper and unconditional love - a love that doesn't rely on feelings - but yet, a love that will always remain.
When she shared this analogy, it made me start to see my spiritual dry spell in a new light. Don't get me wrong - I would still like to have the lights turned back on - but I began to see this dryness as a gift, in a way. A gift calling me to a deeper relationship with God, calling me to love Him more deeply because He is God, not because of the feelings I get from loving Him.
9. Realize that you're not alone

Being in a vibrant faith community can be extremely beneficial to your spiritual growth, but when you're in a spiritual dry spell, it can also be very lonely. How is it that every one else so on fire for their faith, and I'm the only one floundering around in the darkness?

Chances are, you're not the only one that feels dryness in their spiritual life, but especially in an active faith community, you don't want people to think that there is something wrong with you, so you keep it a secret. While I don't recommend shouting out to the whole world - "Hey, y'all, I'm experiencing a spiritual dry spell over here!" (whoops, did I just do that?) - I think it is important to discuss what you are going through with people you trust who are firm in the faith. This can be a spiritual director, but also a trusted family member and/or friend might be able to help you row through the storm. In doing this, I think it will be easier to realize that you are not alone. You might discover in sharing with a trusted friend that they have experienced a similar dry spell or are feeling dryness along with you!

Suffering Saints: John of the Cross,
Teresa of Lisieux, Mother Teresa, and Padre Pio
Everyone goes through rough patches, even the saints - and their rough patches are often darker than most. Pick a saint, any saint. Read about his or her life. You will discover that the saints, most of all, have experienced dryness in prayer and spiritual attack. It makes sense. Satan wants to tear down the holiest followers of Christ - it's a bigger "win" for him if he successfully tempts someone so holy away from God. Yet, it also makes sense that the deeper we grow in our relationship to God, the more He wants us to continue to mature in that relationship. Often, this means wandering through the arid desert - as Christ did - rejecting temptation, and continuing to call upon the Lord.

My spiritual director has pointed out to me multiple times that while suffering is not something to which we look forward or seek out, it shows us how much God loves us, by allowing His holiness to shine even brighter in our lives. Living the Catholic faith and following Christ means taking up his cross, which is all about suffering, but we have confidence in the fact that we are joined with him in this suffering. Therefore, we are most definitely not alone, because Christ is carrying the burden of our dryness right alongside us.

10. Ask God for help
Hey, is God available?
Psalm 145 sings that "the Lord is near to all who call upon him." Maybe I've been dialing the wrong number, but especially in a dry spell, it doesn't always seem like He is near, even when you cry out for His help.
However, it is important to never stop asking God for help. Not sure where to even begin? Sometimes just trying simple prayers can be a good starting point. I know that I spent months where my daily prayer consisted of "Thy will be done" or "I'm not sure what plans you have for me, but please keep leading me down your path." Constantly repeating these, while feeling them with your heart, will help you continue to seek God in everything you do, even if you don't feel His presence.
It is just important to ask God for help. You can even beg and plead if you have to - we've all been there! Have open and frank conversations with God, just like you would with a person sitting right in front of you (although I recommend having these conversations in your head if you are in the presence of other human beings). It's even alright sometimes to question God - as in "What are you doing?!?!" - when things get really rough. However, as my spiritual director advised me recently, while it is okay to question and "raise your voice" with God, it's important to always be respectful. We may not always understand what He's doing or why He's not answering in a way we can comprehend, but we still must give Him the reverence that He deserves.
Asking God for help may seem like a silly tip, but it has helped me in little ways through these past few months. Sometimes, God is just waiting right around the corner, waiting for you to ask Him in again when you've pushed Him away. Like the parable of the lost sheep, God will come searching for us, but we also have to make the choice to ask Him to carry us back home to the flock.

Have you ever been in what seems like a never-ending dry spell in your spiritual life? How did you eventually pull through?

For other great blog posts about spiritual dryness, check out these great series by Julie at The Corner with a View and Jen at Conversion Diary.

1 comment:

  1. #8 is SO IMPORTANT!!

    Hahahaha Heavenly Father, thank you for cranberry sauce.

    I need to stop trying to fix everything myself and follow this advice... thanks for the great post!!


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