According to the American author Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, “You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.” The end of October was a period of consolation in my spiritual journey. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same is true for the 11th month of the year.
November is a tough month for me personally. Three years ago, my wife and I suffered a miscarriage and all the horrifying feelings resurface during this time of the year. Along with the memory of our loss, the dimming of daylight [especially when we turned the clocks back an hour on November 5th!] provides the perfect recipe for despair and desolation. When it comes to spiritual attach by the Evil One there are generally two general methods to combat him: actively fight through prayer, good works, and reception of the sacraments or secondly retreat from the vices that tempts us.
Today I am going to reflect on the latter strategy. I feel like am called to retreat to my spiritual cave to try to eliminate opportunities for future temptation as to help me avoid further sliding into despair.
Throughout the Bible God calls individuals to experience a conversion in solitude and reflection before granting them power and authority to lead others to Him. For the purpose of eliciting imagery [as I am a visual learner and tend to like symbols] I will refer to such an experience as my “spiritual cave dwelling”!
- Exodus: Throughout the Book of Exodus God calls individuals and His people as a whole to conversation during a trip in the wilderness. Exodus 2-3 details Moses flight from Egypt to the rural land of Midian and his eventually encounter with the Divine presence under the form of the burning bush. God also utilizes a period of spiritual “dryness” to help transform the idol worship of the newly freed Israelites to trust in His Divine Providence. Over a period of forty years, the Israelites had to wander the wildness as reparation for violating the first commandment.
Perhaps, November is my own personal “time in the wilderness” to help me grow in virtue and eliminate bad habits.
- Jesus’ Fasting in the Wilderness: The Gospels placed Jesus’ forty day fast in the desert at the start of his public ministry. Along with calling to mind Moses’ and the Israelites period of conversion, Jesus fasts not because he needs it [because he is without sin!], but rather to be a model of the Christian spiritual life. Sometimes we need to practice self-denial to grow in holiness. While I usually associate fasting relating to physical items such as food or drink, I recently had a thought. What if God allows for consolation to be rescinded from us in order to permit authentic spiritual growth and trust in Him? In my youth I experienced growing pains. Why should be not be different when I grow in my spiritual life? St. Ignatius of Loyala addresses the same point in the Seventh Rule for Discernment of Spirits. He says,
Let him who is in desolation consider how the Lord has left him in trial in his natural powers, in order to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy; since he can with the Divine help, which always remains to him, though he does not clearly perceive it [my emphasis]: because the Lord has taken from him his great fervor, great love and intense grace, leaving him, however, grace enough for eternal salvation.
November 2017 could be a spiritual schooling from the Holy Spirit allowing me to wean off the need and desire for God’s spiritual candy of consolation that I too quickly “gobbled up” [along with physical candy 🙂 ] in October!
- Athanasius the Bold: During the 4th century A.D., the Catholic Church faced arguably its worst and most pervasive heresy in history—Arianism. Stemming from the false beliefs of the priest Arius, proponents of this belief denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. According to Arius, “There was a time when He [Jesus Christ] was not.” Confusion was so rampant that the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea was convened at 325 A.D. which pronounced Arianism as official heresy. While officially the matter was theologically solved, Arian agents still remained throughout the magisterial network for the remainder of the century.
To combat this heinous heresy, God sent St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, to champion authentic truth of the Holy Trinity. However, testifying to the truth came with a price—a bounty on Athanasius’ life not once but five times! As a result he went into hiding each time. He led his diocese clandestinely through the protections of monks. St. Athanasius stands as an exemplary model of obedience to God. He could have despaired and lamented his situation, but instead he remained steadfast to the truth!
The easier path this month would be for me to languish in my despair. Job promotion denials, stress at work, and daily anxiety abound. How did Athanasius prevail with his life on the line? Reading his work On the Incarnation provided me clarity. Athanasius states, “Anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.”
Periods of desolation are unavoidable on this side of eternity. Sometimes I feel like crawling into an actual cave to escape the entrapments laid out before me by the Devil. While going away on a sudden sabbatical would be irresponsible to my family duties as husband and father. Warding off vice through removing myself from opportunities to sin is not the same as skirting my vocational calling. Fasting and prayer will be powerful weapons for me the remainder of the month as I strive in my pursuit towards holiness.