How to Navigate through Spiritual Deserts You are Guaranteed to Encounter

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Saint Pope Pius V once declared, “All the evil in the world is due to lukewarm Catholics.”  Definitely a strong statement made by a leader of the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation Pius V’s reflect his historical context. The 16th century includes fiery religious debates and heresies running amok. Although Pius V lived over 500 years ago, his claim that lukewarmness is connected to evil remain ever relevant.

Arguably no more climate on earth is more deadly than a desert. Dictionaries define a desert as “arid land with usually sparse vegetation especially such land having a very warm climate and receiving less than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of sporadic rainfall annually”. While technically cold deserts exist in the Arctic and Antarctic, the commonality for all deserts is the existence of little rainfall. I got the inspiration for writing on the topic of deserts and spiritual dryness during Sunday Mass. In his homily, the priest spoke of the need to trust in the Lord always. He referred to the intense cold temperatures and lack of hope in the season of winter and that while Easter will come that we have to go through the season of Lent first. 

Just as a physical desert lacks the comforts of water so too a depletion of spiritual consolation exists during periods of spiritual aridity. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2728,

Finally, our battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness; sadness that, because we have “great possessions,”15 we have not given all to the Lord; disappointment over not being heard according to our own will; wounded pride, stiffened by the indignity that is ours as sinners; our resistance to the idea that prayer is a free and unmerited gift; and so forth. The conclusion is always the same: what good does it do to pray? To overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance.

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Being stuck in a spiritual “rut” feels hopeless. The monotony of the spiritual desert presents problems that the Enemy utilizes to trap humans. Dryness in the spiritual life is still a blessing from God. However, how you react to existing in a spiritual dry spell may be a greater blessing or lead to great decay. I wish to expand on the three “travel tips” presented by the Catechism and how to traverse the metaphysical monotony.

  1. Humility: According to St. Vincent de Paul, “The most powerful weapon to conquer the devil is humility. For, as he does not know at all how to employ it, neither does he know how to defend himself from it.” Satan knows well that prayer leads to a deeper connection with God and that when spiritual comforts cease [for a period of time] that is the prime time for him to sow and later reap doubts in us. Along with humility being able to fend off the Devil, it is a vital virtue that allows us to recognize that we do not have all the answers [or the complete set of directions] in life. Be humble enough to continue to ask God for help during spiritual dryness!

2. Trust: The Catechism wisely listed trust after humility as a means to overcome spiritual aridity. Without the gift of the virtue of humility trust in someone other than ourselves would not be possible. Being stuck in a particular stage in life, especially the spiritual life, appears to be hopeless. It is easy to rely solely on emotions and feel like you want to give up prayer, sacrifice, good works, etc. Surfing my Facebook newsfeed I came across the following meme that relates to self-doubt amid trials:

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While this refers specifically to the most “difficult” days, I would add to be mindful to remind yourself that even on the most ‘boring, mundane, and uninteresting’ of days, weeks, or months to keep the faith and trust “that all things work for good for those who love God,* who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

3. Perseverance: The third way to combat monotony in the spiritual desert is to persist. Keep up your daily prayers even when you do not feel any comfort, presence, or joy from God. According to St. John of the Cross, “The endurance of darkness is the preparation for great light.” Sojourning through the dryness of the spiritual may seem like you lack the ability to gain any insight about God, but realize persisting when all seems ordinary and arid will only serve to guide you through that spiritual desolation.

St. Padre Pio famously quipped, “Pray, hope, and don’t worry!” Be humble enough to trust that the Lord will guide your through times of current and future spiritual deserts.

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Re-Gaining a Sense of Voyage in Life

As a child I had a fascination with maps, geography, and the idea of being on a quest. My favorite books to read as a kid included the famous Greek epic The Odyssey and the Redwall Series by English author Brian Jacques. Both included a sense of adventure whereby the main character(s) trekked across dangerous terrain and met obstacles to overcome (external and internal struggles) before eventually arriving at their destination at the end of the story. The word odyssey actually means journey, pilgrimage, or trek.

As a father of four [one is in utero!], I am able to reacquaint myself with the sense of life as a voyage. Frequently, I lose sight of reality as the flood of daily temptations, confusion, and struggles assail me. My 5 year old daughter definitely got her penchant for atlases from me. Almost every day, she asks me, “Daddy! Can you please get me paper and markers for me to make a map?!”  Cartography reigns supreme in my household—especially on rainy days!

The other day I read an article online that referenced the importance of returning to a sense of voyage. A quote from St. Thérèse of Lisieux stuck in my mind after I went on with the rest of my day. The Doctor of the Church wrote, “The symbol of a ship always delights me and helps me to bear the exile of this life.” Her words convey a truth that I always wanted to communicate but was not able to fully articulate—something about sea travel points to a higher reality. Perhaps it is because we named our child Noah, named after the Old Testament figure who crafted the ark, that I tend to have boats on the mind—at least subconsciously. Or maybe, there is something innate in each of us that desires the continual movement that travel affords us. St. Augustine famously declared, “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you [God].”

Here is a well-written and easy to understand article on the connection between Noah’s Ark and its prefiguring of the Catholic Church: https://catholicexchange.com/ten-ways-noahs-ark-prefigured-church. Some highlights include that just as the giant boat housed the holy individuals of Noah and his family, so too, does the Catholic Church safeguard individuals striving for holiness against the dangers of the deluge of temptations!

Another important point that stands out regarding the maritime theme is that life is bearable when we look to the Promised Land—Heaven—as our destination. When times get tough, during the turbulence of life we look beyond our vehicle, and outside of ourselves toward the horizon—toward the rising of the Sun [Son]!

Every quest involves dead-ends, treacherous terrain, and wild beasts [physical and/or spiritual]. Fellowship is essential for any journey—just ask Frodo the Hobbit!

Reacquainting myself with the fact that life is truly a voyage helps to remind me that I am not only in the journey. God provided helpmates along the way, namely my wife, children, and the saints such as St. Thérèse. When life gets your down and despair sets in please be reminded that you still have a road ahead. You have the ability to pick the road on this pilgrimage of life—make life more joyful by following the witness of the holy ones before us!

Thank you for sharing!