Inhale, exhale

For the past couple of months or so, I’ve been in a spiritual dry spell. I’ve mentioned before that my conversion basically started in a spiritual dry spell since I came to believe in God after a life of atheism, without ever having “felt” his presence. But shortly after my husband and I began receiving the sacraments after Easter Vigil last year, I was flooded with what they call “consolation,” a great awareness of God’s presence and the unmistakable feeling of his work in my life. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola referred to consolation as “when some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord,” and that’s exactly what it felt like. I was on fire with love of God.

And now…well, I’m not.

I don’t mean that I don’t love God, but that I’m not on fire about it. I’m in the place where love goes from being a sensation to an action. Until this spiritual dry spell began, living the Christian life to the best of my ability was almost easy (almost). I was so filled with the pure warmth and love of God’s presence that it wasn’t all that painful to, say, forgive someone who wronged me or offer up my little daily sufferings instead of whining about them. Now, without all those nice feelings, it’s a whole lot more difficult to stay on the right path. Now that I have experienced what I suppose you could call a “relationship” with God, this spiritual dry spell has allowed me to experience for the first time the feelings of being abandoned by God.

Last night I was thinking about this, and my thoughts drifted into prayer. “Why?” I called out to God. “Why do we have to go through things like this, living without feeling your presence in our lives at all?” Naturally, I heard only the proverbial crickets chirping in response. No voice of God booming in my ear to explain it all to me, no thunder-and-lightning vision to console me with a glimpse of God’s unfathomable majesty. Just silence.

Frustrated, I rolled over to go to sleep. As I was about to drift off, I was suddenly very aware of my breathing, and felt strongly drawn to think about it. I inhaled, and my blood stream was flooded with oxygen to nourish my body. I let go, exhaled, and my body was purified of deadly carbon dioxide.

I realized that a similar process happens with the soul.

It’s interesting to note that a technical term of inhaling is inspiration. And purification does not happen during inspiration. In breathing, the toxins are collected when we inhale, but they are not released until we exhale. In the spiritual life, at least in my experience, a similar mechanism is at work. Periods of inspiration have nourished my soul, strengthening and fortifying it; and this spiritual dry spell has worked to purify it. Without the nice consolations, the inspirations, it is nothing but a conscious choice, a sheer exercise of free will, to attempt to imitate Christ in all my words and deeds. There is nothing in it for me in terms of surface-level pleasure or fun emotions.

Though it’s not a perfect analogy in that the inspirations and purifications of the spiritual life are not as perfectly rhythmic as the breathing process, the analogy has helped me gain a new perspective on this difficult time. I had a year of drawing in a long, deep breath; and now it’s time to exhale.

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46 Responses to “Inhale, exhale”
  1. beez says:

    I think a good explanation of dry spells is a parable of a sort told to me by a priest.

    When a child is learning to walk, the parents want nothing more than for him to succeed. So, as he makes his first cautious steps, they hold his hands (usually over his head) and steady him.

    As time passes, he gets better at walking, then they hold only one hand, or steady his hips, they’re right there, still supporting him.

    Eventually, however, they realize that he needs to walk on his own, so they stand a few steps away, beckoning him toward them, but no longer holding his hand. They are still there, and they still love him, but instead of holding him, they step back and call to him.

    So it is with us and God. When we’re first living the Christian life, the life of prayer, we’re not very good, so God holds our hands. Eventually, however, He insists on us taking charge and walking on our own, so He steps back and draws us toward Him. He never stops calling, but the time for hand holding is over.

  2. Amy says:

    First time commenter here. I’ll try to avoid gushing, but I love your blog.
    You’ve made an excellent analogy here. Thank you for sharing.

  3. SuburbanCorrespondent says:

    Cool analogy. Hang in there! And keep breathing.

  4. Jack says:

    By definition, you can’t inhale without exhaling. You can’t have sadness without happiness. Congrats on the exhale. Let’s see where it leads you.

    J

    http://adventuresinvoluntarysimplicity.blogspot.com/

  5. Christine says:

    I love your analogy. I have been through a dry spell this past year and am just coming back to the period of “inspiration”. This was the mosts significant draught in my spiritual life in my 15 years of being a Christian and on this side of it I can see (of course) God’s mighty work in my life and my circumstances when, at the time, all I felt was alone. God is good to allow these times of exhalation to keep us from the sin of complacency.

  6. Mibsy says:

    In Genesis 2:7 it says, “the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” After your prayer of “why?” you heard crickets but not God’s voice, then you rolled over to go to sleep…and suddenly you were aware of your breathing. God is with us, always, and you had the ears (and loving heart) to hear His answer in your breathing, seems to me, anyway.

  7. Flexo says:

    beez beat me to it.

    Yes, every now and then every daddy is going to let go of his little girl’s hand, no matter how precious she is. But he is there, nonetheless.

    I, for one, have never been much for that “Footprints” story. It is OK, I suppose, if you never go past the surface, but when you get deeper, it is not as comforting as it is meant to be.

    I like C.S. Lewis’ take better in the Screwtape Letters where the single set of footprints in the sand are not Jesus carrying us, but our footprints continuing on the path toward Him:

    You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot “tempt” to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
    –Screwtape Letters, Chapter 8

  8. Veronica @Toddled Dredge says:

    One of the important lessons I’ve learned as an adult is that God values faithfulness far more than he values epiphanies. Some of the most certain, passionate believers I’ve known have ended up abandoning their faith. The unexciting folks in it for the long haul have the right idea.

  9. RJW says:

    On the contrary. Your breathing analogy was wonderful.

  10. La gallina says:

    Maybe you’re pregnant:)! During the first trimester of my last two pregnancies, I wanted nothing to do with religion! It was weird and quite disturbing.

    That’s one of the things that I love about being Catholic. I can continue to pray my rosary, venerate the Blessed Mother, receive Holy Communion etc. I can continue to seek solace in the physical aspect of my faith. So even when the feelings aren’t there, the physical acts are. And eventually the feelings come back.

    In the protestant world that I grew up in (but never felt a part of) people were required to be
    “on fire” for God at all times. If they weren’t, they were criticized for just hypocritically going through the motions. In Catholicism it is understood and expected that we will go through dry times. But we can just keep praying, keep receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, and that’s okay.

    God knew (obviously, since He made us) that we need the physical. We need bells, and smells, and beauty. That physical brings us back to the spiritual.

  11. Melanie B says:

    Jen I love the metaphor of breathing. Especially the idea of purification in the exhalation. I’d never thought of it that way before.

    beez,

    That’s one of my favorite analogies. C.S. Lewis uses it in his novel Perelandra.

  12. Cindy says:

    Your analogy resonates with me–I’ve not heard the spiritual dry season explained quite like that before. It helps keep those inevitable seasons in perspective. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Davin says:

    I really enjoyed your analogy. You seemed to have expressed it much better than I tried to a while back.

    http://dwinger.wordpress.com/2007/12/17/spiritually-dry/

  14. Sara says:

    These dry spells have away of stripping away any preconceptions we have about who God is who we think He should be. Sometimes I become complacent in my prayer without realizing it. I begin to see God as a spiritual gumball machine – I put this prayer in, this consolation comes out. When I put in my quarter and don’t get the candy, my perspective quickly changes. Have you read “Come Be My Light?”

  15. Lauren says:

    And just remember that by sharing these insights, you are providing spiritual food for others. It’s like your story about the tow truck driver- maybe it isn’t always going to be about your spiritual journey today, but someone else’s.

  16. Shannon says:

    Jen, one of my most-often used tools working with people is “square breathing.”

    Draw a square. (see, easy, right?) Start with one corner and write, “Inhale for 4 counts.” At the next corner, “Hold for 4 counts.” Next one, “Exhale for 4 counts.” And the last, “Hold for 4 counts.”

    You can use words on the inhale and exhale portions. I usually suggest “Jesus/Christ.”

    The prayer/breathing does several things: it focuses on breathing and less on whatever else may be around causing distress; it puts more oxygen into the body; it slows down hyper-ventilating and panic.

    You can increase the numbers as your body adjusts to taking in the oxygen, but it isn’t a contest to see how big the numbers can be.

    In prison, where there is little quiet, either internally or externally, square breathing provides some space, room for Holy Spirit to breathe in us.

  17. SteveG says:

    Christine said:
    God is good to allow these times of exhalation to keep us from the sin of complacency.

    Amen. Somehow, it all seems so much more ‘serious’ when the consolations are missing.

    When we are ‘on fire’, it’s all so easy, and we can begin to think that it’s actually us doing the work.

    When they are removed, and we begin to fumble around in the Dark, sometimes shocked at how far off the narrow road we’ve veered, it makes us look so much harder for the light.

    It begins to purge us of all those sins we were holding onto as if this was all a game.

    As we begin to desperately long for his presence again, we seem to begin to drop all that baggage and cry out for Him who is love and consolation itself.

  18. Laura says:

    Hang in there. Those dry spells can be brutal at times. One thing that I have recently found that helps is to focus totally on the moment at hand. If you spend too much time thinking about the past or future during a time like this you are likely to continue to be frustrated and upset. I have found that doing that (although at times I really have to force myself to do it) helps a lot to get through a particularly difficult dry spell. Now would be a great time to read the book on Living in the Present Moment (can’t think of the authors name at the moment, but I know that you have referred to it before). God Bless.

  19. n.o.e says:

    And Jen, looking at the events of your life recently (I’m thinking especially of the experiences you’ve had with the young neighbor girls) it’s clear that God is present and continuing to work in your life!

  20. jill says:

    Let me toss out another analogy… having been married to the same man for 24 years, I sometimes feel the same passion I had for him as a woman in my early 20′s.

    Day to day our relationship has more of a comfortable, kind feeling to it. Yet at times I feel a sense of abandonment. Usually when we are growing individually or the relationship is growing into another phase.

    The moments of puppy love are still sublime.

  21. www.antiquemommy.com says:

    Exquisite analogy and beautifully stated. My spiritual walk seems to be one of mostly dry seasons punctuated by brief and sparkling moments of feeling the warmth of God’s presence (usually on the heels of something awful). And one of the things I struggle with in terms of “church ladies” if you will is their perpetual state of euphorically “feeling it”. I mostly just don’t feel it, but I know God is near and I believe it whether I feel it or not.

  22. Anonymous says:

    St. Thérèse says that, “although I had not the consolation of faith, I forced myself to act as if I had.I have made more acts of faith in the last year than in the whole of my life.”6 She then says, “If you think of the poems I have written, . . . I must have seemed overwhelmed with spiritual consolation and like a child for whom the veil of faith is almost torn apart. But there is no veil, but instead a wall which towers to the sky and hides the stars.” 7 Thérèse suggests that when Jesus speaks about faith the size of a mustard seed moving mountains, He means that miracles are worked for those who need them. The more faithful a Christian is (or claims to be), the less she needs a miracle, however much she wants one. Thérèse points out that the miracles Jesus worked for those closest to Him always came after a delay or a refusal–a small test to see if they really believed without the miracle. He tests the faith of Mary and Martha by letting Lazarus die, and works the miracle once they’ve proven themselves.

  23. The Razzler says:

    This is a wonderful analogy. I am in a dry spell myself just now. Thank you for this lesson which I will try to learn.

  24. Carrien says:

    I’ve not thought of it like that before.

    I like this thought.

    I shall be pondering it the rest of the day.

  25. Donna says:

    Great analogy- really great. I heard someone once say that when we serve God without “feelings” we are entering the battlefield without the armour and God is that much more pleased by our service.

  26. Dave says:

    Man, I know exactly how you feel.

    *beat*

    Or at least, what you described sounds exactly how I feel.

    I have no advice of any sort, but I’ll fire off a couple prayers on your behalf. :) Starting with:

    God bless.

  27. Alexandra says:

    And that base of inspiration will sustain you. Even when I had fallen away a bit in my younger years, God never left me. I felt his presence deep down; I was never really alone. I realize now that I hadn’t strayed that far, and it was my foundation of faith that keep me close to God.

    Anyway, dry spells only fortify your faith if you persevere. It’s good for ya’…toughens you up. ;) He’s still there; He’s always there. God’s version of tough love.

  28. Tune says:

    Awesomeness!

    There are times when spiritual dry spells invaded my life and nowadays is one of them.

    What I usually ended up doing was to find that “inspirational message” or “signs from God” saying that I’ll be alright and He will take care all of them.

    Yet, after hearing about Mother Theresa’s dark night of the soul, it occur to me that love is not a feeling, it’s an action. And that loving a person, in season or out of season, is the key to that everlasting relationship.

    I didn’t claim that I master this technique. Far be it from that. This is more of a lesson for me and a gentle reminder from God during this season where things in my family is not going so well.

    All in all, thanks for the inspiring analogy!

  29. Chloe says:

    Have you read St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue? She writes about why God seemingly withdraws from us, why we all seem to go through dry spells. Its a very dense, but very worth while read.

    Have a great day!
    Chloe

  30. Whimsy says:

    I once heard a priest say that the fruit of prayer is not feelings of consolation, but growth in virtue.

    It sounds like you already knew that.

  31. Can I Change A Life? says:

    I think this is the only blog where I learn so much from both the posts and the input of readers. Thank you Jennifer, and thank you all who have posted.

    I’m working through a long, long dry spell. Blogs like this encourage me, and reader comments like this encourage me.

  32. Val says:

    I am no position to advise, but I have found reading a huge help to get me through those ‘dark nights’. You have quoted from Saint Francis De Sales before, so you know his writings. I’m currently reading a book by Benedict Groeschel about the Eucharist that has moved me to tears multiple times during my reading. And he has a lot to say (as does St. Francis De Sales) on the subject of the presence of God. Keep it up! You have been an inpspiration to me!

  33. Jennifer says:

    In teaching acting–movement, technique, and voice, I always spend a great deal of time talking about breath and focus a great deal on the roots of the word inspire. Our creative life–which I believe is a branch of our spiritual life–is entirely dependent on breath.

    I loved this post.

  34. Rocks In My Dryer says:

    You’re right on target here. My dad always told me, “if it weren’t for the valleys, we wouldn’t appreciate the view from the top of the mountain.” While there are many reasons I think God lets us wander through the dry spells, one of the surest is that the next “mountain” will be that much sweeter.

  35. Literacy-chic says:

    Apologies for not reading all comments before posting, but I want to say THANK YOU FOR THIS POST!!!

    As a convert myself, I completely know where you’re coming from. There’s a spiritual HIGH that comes after the Sacraments of Initiation that stays with you, but somewhere along the line it fades into everyday life. If “fades” is the right word. The beliefs are still there, the motivation is still there, but it’s just not so easy to, well, stay on task, in a way! Because of the nature of your blog, writing about spiritual conversion, spiritual pursuits, well, I sometimes feel like, “Well, Jen wouldn’t quite get what I’m feeling…” It’s nice to have it confirmed that, yes, everyone does have times like this, even after a life-altering, world-shifting conversion experience.

  36. Meta says:

    Dry spells bring a whole new understanding to “running with perseverance the race that is set before us.” It’s like we want the big, impressive challenge of running through the Rockies, but sometimes you have to run through Kansas instaed.

  37. Jennifer says:

    I only have a quick second to leave this comment, so I don’t have time to sit and read the comments posted before mine–Sorry if I repeat something that someone else already said—I had a horrible, unbearable “dry spell”–I think it was even more than a dry spell…Anyways, several people recommended me to read Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross and then when I was done with that, to read the book with Mother Teresa’s letters. I did it and it changed my perspective immediately. If you haven’t read these (esp. the first one), you should. St. John makes so many clever analogies that help you understand these dark nights/dry spells. It doesn’t make them any easier, but it sure helps! I am going through a dark night, right now, myself–It HAPPENS to happen when I am sick with something we can’t figure out–Terrible timing (plenty of asking “why?”–Maybe similar to what happened when you had the DVT???) Pray for me if you think about it and have time. And I’ll be sure to send some up for you! about it

  38. Anonymous says:

    All believers go through these dry times. The thing I have to keep myself aware of is not to trust my feelings as the Word says, but to trust the Bible and his word. We need to trust the Lords promises and not our feelings. I know from experience this is not easy, but it’s a must. He will never leave us or forsake us.

    http://www.universe-with-no-creator.org

  39. Bender says:

    No voice of God booming in my ear to explain it all to me, no thunder-and-lightning vision to console me with a glimpse of God’s unfathomable majesty. Just silence.

    Then again . . .

    I’m amazed at all the times, when I’m trying to figure some problem out, that some particular reading will present itself (lately, however, it has been Pope Benedict reading my mind and speaking directly to the issue at hand). So I was not totally shocked at today’s (Sunday) first reading

    At the mountain of God, Horeb,
    Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
    Then the LORD said to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.”
    A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD —- but the LORD was not in the wind.
    After the wind there was an earthquake —- but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
    After the earthquake there was fire —- but the LORD was not in the fire.
    After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
    When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

    –1 Kgs 19:9a, 11-13a

  40. MightyMom says:

    fabulous post!

    remember, all things cycle like the tide. listen, pray, and wait for the next time the tide is in. In the meantime live in the moment that God has given you for right now.

    For it is after our most trying times that we have to most growth.

    God Bless

  41. Esther says:

    Oh yes, you’ve got it! Thank you for your beautiful expression of this.

    I take heart in David’s expression of offering a “sacrifice of praise” in difficult times.

    Pax,

    Esther

  42. Jess says:

    I feel like my quest to figure out spirituality, religion and grow a relationship with God has been a total failure and “dry spell”. No matter what I do I just don’t feel much of anything. It is hard to truly believe in any religion without some sort of guiding feeling, that knowing in the pit of your heart that God is there and that your efforts to know, honor, love and serve Him are bearing fruit, so to speak.

    I had that warm, fuzzy, genuinely sure feeling about God when I was saved at 17 and somehow it faded away probably due to laziness on my part. I didn’t realize how special it was when I had it. I’ve explored other religions trying to find that confidence and security in God and still haven’t felt that spark.

    I have been progressively MORE active in the last year trying to find my way back, realizing that whatever is missing is probably due to myself and my lack of faith. I came to the conclusion a few months ago that I just need to go back to Christianity and try and find what is missing there. That is the religion in which I first found God and it is my best chance at finding him again. I have questions and even doubts about a lot of Christian doctrine. It is very humbling to shelve my own opinions about many issues and leave them behind for awhile to try and be more submissive in the HOPE that this will help me find my way back. Pride, I’ve decided, is the number one stumbling block for me.

    I was raised a Protestant but I’ve been attending Mass with my children. I plan on doing the Inquiry portion of RCIA this fall. I have no idea where this is going but I really believe doing something tangible and productive, going through the motions, trying it another way than what I’ve been doing that hasn’t been working, is the best idea right now. Catholicism has some sort of strangely weird appeal to me, the beauty and reverence of the liturgy of the Eucharist is compelling and there is something so alluring about Mary, I see images of her and I almost want to cry. It is so odd to say but that is the truth. She seems to soften Christianity in a way for me that I need, that was lacking in the fundamental evangelical Christianity of my childhood. And I like that there is a roadmap of sorts (the Rosary for instance) given to Catholics to keep them on their way even when they don’t feel inspired.

    I give huge credit to Mother Teresa for sticking with it all those long years when she didn’t feel a thing. God bless her.

  43. Esther says:

    Jess, I will pray for your journey. God calls us so gently; your very desire to seek Him is the Holy Spirit. Our Mother Mary must also be saying prayers for you, knowing you are drawn to her.

  44. Laura says:

    I just came across a meditation on spiritual dryness that I put up on my blog today. It is very helpful and I thought you might find it full of words of wisdom.
    God Bless!

  45. Misty says:

    I love the analogy! I’d like to add that if you ask any asthmatic (like myself) who suffer not from too little inspiration but actually of too little purification we would say what a RELIEF it is to exhale, it isn’t breathing without it.

    Having gone through the dark night of the soul a few times, you are right on. God Bless!

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