Why does God allow us to have spiritual dry spells?

A few days ago I got an email from a kind reader named Matthew that I found so insightful and helpful that I asked for permission to re-post it here. This is one of the most clear, concise introductions to the topic of spiritual dry spells I’ve ever read. He writes:

I saw you mention a dry spell in prayer recently where you are no longer receiving the normal consolations that you did shortly after converting. This is actually quite common as you no doubt know. But what a lot of people don’t know is the theology behind it. I’ve recently finished reading Fr. Garrigou Lagrange’s Christian Perfection and Contemplation and this is one of the main topics covered in the 461 page book. Lagrange was professor of Dogmatic and Mystical theology at the Angelicum for fifty years so he knew what he was talking about!

What you are experiencing is what is known to mystical theologians as the passive purification of the senses. God deprives us of the consolations we used to obtain in prayer because ultimately he wants us to strive after him for His own sake and not for the joys we obtain from it. The passive purification of the senses is the entry point to the illuminative way from the way of beginners. Many beginners experience this but many give up at this point and continue to live lives of spiritual mediocrity instead of entering the illuminative way. [...]

Lagrange also wrote a shorter work called The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life using apostle Peter as his model example. Peter was a beginner when Our Lord called him. After repenting from his sin of denial he then entered a deeper union or the illuminative way and finally at Pentecost he experienced a third conversion which initiated him into the unitive way.

Lagrange’s books are based on the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas, St John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. St John of the Cross wrote the spiritual classic The Dark Night of the Soul which refers to the dark nights of the purifications of the senses and spirit which can be very painful.

Anyway, I strongly urge you to learn more on this as it will be of great value in understanding the spiritual trials a faithful Christian can expect.

Lots of food for thought there. Just thought I’d share in case anyone else finds that helpful!

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14 Responses to “Why does God allow us to have spiritual dry spells?”
  1. bearing says:

    Wow. That’s really an important insight.

    Combining it with your other topics, I can’t help but compare it to the idea that it’s good for us to eat healthy and get exercise for their own sakes, for several reasons, even if we don’t see the numbers on the scale go down. ;-)

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think of spiritual dry spells as an emptying out so that our souls can be filled again and made new. A painful process…. mostly b/c we have to allow it.

  3. Maggie says:

    That’s such a great comfort! Too often we can get caught up in a cause-effect mentality; ie, “if I pray this many hours or this many novenas or rosaries, God will comfort me and help me bear my cross.” But it’s not a scientific formula! A wise friend of mine once noted that we go through cycles of life, death, and resurrection in our spiritual and prayer lives, and keeping up with our devotions during dry cycles is important. Thanks for posting this!

  4. Kingdom Mama says:

    Beautiful!!

  5. Julie Anne Fidler says:

    Great thoughts. This is something I deal with on a regular basis, and it’s painful every time, but always produces amazing spiritual growth.

  6. Jenny says:

    I needed to read this today… along with the final paragraph from your previous post, which hit me like a ton of bricks:

    “I think the answer is: because I finally want God more than I want control.”

    Whoa.

  7. Kate Wicker says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve been dealing with a long spiritual dry spell and have been trying to make sense of it. This has offered me some perspective as well as some comfort.

    Blessings,
    Kate

  8. Lee Gilbert says:

    Well, frankly, I am impatient with this teaching- not that it isn’t true, but that it is often siezed upon as a working diagnosis by persons who are very far indeed from entering upon a period of passive purification. Myself, for example, over the many years of my life.

    I haven’t the slighest doubt that devout Catholics may encounter this passive purification from time to time. But I do think a much safer *and more useful* approach to such dry periods is to take “the dark night of the soul” or “the dark night of the senses” as the least likely explanation of my predicament.

    Before entertaining the notion that my condition is evidence that I am scaling the spiritual heights and that John of the Cross and I have much in common besides our communion in the Sacraments of the Church, it may be *very* helpful to consider other possibilities first:

    A. Have I fallen out of the will of God through some disobedience? Of course we are all sinners, but have I refused to follow His inspirations in a particular matter? Have I refused clear inspirations that I should cut down on my eating or drinking, that I should rid the house of television or be more faithful in tithing, etc? Am I here and now in state of disobedience? If so, then God and I are simply not in the communion of wills that is the prerequisite for making great strides in the spiritual life such as entering on a way of passive purgation. Moreover, my lack of communion is causing me interior distress.

    B. Am I carrying a grudge against anyone for anything? My dad, my wife, the IRS, Muslims, other drivers, my boss, President Bush, my fifth grade teacher, God?
    My refusal to love is a barrier to grace- hence my inner emptiness and pain. My “dark night” is merely interior coldness.

    C. Am I allowing the gift of faith to be eroded by my immersion in the mass media and myriad activities? An unrecollected soul has no possibility of entering on the way of passive purgation.

    D. Do I have a substantial prayer life to sustain my life of faith and grace? If not, my “dark night of the soul” is a chimera. I am merely running on empty, really “out of grace.”

    Personal experience and reflection- not that I have ever experienced the dark night of the soul- leads me to suspect that unless a person is something like a daily communicant and weekly penitent in the Confessional, and one way or another soaked in prayer, exposed daily to the word of God in the scriptures, and the lives of the saints and their writings, the likelihood that his interior distress corresponds to “passive purification” is extremely unlikely.

    All things are possible with God, of course, including that he can take a disobedient, worldly, unloving and prayerless individual by the hair of the head and set him straight on the way to great sanctity, but all the more mundane possibilities ought to be considered first in my humble opinion.

  9. Tess says:

    Because I agree with Lee’s comment, I’d caution self-diagnosis when it comes to serious eternal matters such as the state of your soul. Having a capable spiritual director or a priest you speak to regularly is essential for anyone who wants to grow in holiness, or to at least have some awareness of their spiritual condition.
    The Dark Night is nothing to be afraid of, and should not be deliberately avoided, but we can be deceived into complaisance or apathy and allow mediocrity free reign.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Some of Garrigou-Lagrange is online. I did a little hunting and if you follow this link

    http://www.christianperfection.info/tta27.php

    and countdown to paragraph 9 there’s a good explanation of the dark night of the senses (which is not the same as the dark night of the soul) but which is what Matthew is suggesting you may be encountering. (I think.)

    Pope John Paul II has a really simple description of the three stages of the spiritual life in one of his last books but I can’t find it. Maybe someone else can. He does it in two pages but he’s basically in agreement with Garrigou-Lagrange (who, himself, quotes the fathers of the church and describes the Apostles as going through these stages).

    Also Fr. Dubay’s book Fire Within has excellent descriptions of various spiritual situations of dryness which can help people distinguish what is happening. But I think Lee is a little severe when he demands daily communion and weekly confession before God will call him, or anyone, to greater perfection. Just my 2 cents.

    Jane M

  11. Anonymous says:

    Lee,

    Thanks for making me think. It is kind of amazing to think that normal every day people might actually enter into the passive purification… God is so merciful and gracious! You seem skeptical, though.

    What about this? Hopefully you’ll accept all of this as true: First, that the four different causes of spiritual dry spells that you outlined also cause suffering. Second, that God can bring good out of suffering if we ask Him to. Third, that one of the goods God can bring out of our suffering is the purification of our souls. Put it all together and this is the conclusion: whatever suffering we are undergoing, no matter what its cause, can lead to the purification of our souls if we ask God to do so.

    If you’re still skeptical about the third point (one of the goods God can bring out of our suffering is the purification of our souls), here is a quote from St. Maximilian Kolbe’s writings:

    “If a soul dedicates itself to the Immaculata, the devil will not be able to harm it in any way. And if it happens to fall, it will easily rise and the fall will become for it a stepping-stone to a still higher perfection.”
    -from the book “Aim Higher” by St. Maximilian Kolbe

    If you don’t know, St. Kolbe preached that we should consecrate ourselves without reserve to Our Lady and that we should offer everything (EVERYTHING, even our sins) to God through her. In this quote he is saying that, if we offer our sins and failings to God through her, He makes us more perfect (purifies us) through that offering. To clarify, its not the sin, but what God does with the sin that leads us closer to Him. He can bring good out of it. If He can do that with sin, why not with suffering?

  12. Jeannine says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I have been, as is my custom, trying to come up with a reading list for 2009 in the categories of heavy, moderate, and light. I think you have just provided me with my heavy reading goals for the year. Thanks and God bless you!

    Grace and peace…
    Jeannine

  13. Judy says:

    I’ve ordered both of these books. Can’t wait for them to arrive. I’m currently reading The Seven Storey Mountain.

  14. Lana says:

    Actually, my impressions after reading this were somewhat different from most who have commented.
    I came away feeling kind of bad about the ‘consolations’ I have experienced in recent months. As if there is something lacking in my faith because I experience great joy.
    I’m not sure of the reason, just the Source, and I have been able to accept that if there is “something lacking,” the joy has brought me great hope and comfort and led me toward a desire for greater holiness.