No saint is more famous for her experience of dry prayer than St. Therese of Lisieux. The beloved Little Flower of Jesus definitely bloomed in the desert. During the nine years she spent in the convent, she experienced almost no consolations in prayer.
As Father Francois Jamart writes in The Complete Spiritual Doctrine of St. Therese of Lisieux, “She had scarcely entered the convent when her soul became parched by spiritual aridity and wrapped in darkness.”
So dull was her prayer, in fact, that she would often fall asleep. But this didn’t bother her. “What parent does not love their child as much asleep as when awake?” she once asked with her characteristic confidence in God.
But for those of us who have not yet reached that level of sainthood, dry prayer can be a painful and disturbing experience. We are assailed by all kinds of fears. Have we stopped loving God? Is He angry at us for something, perhaps some unconfessed sin?
Dryness is especially difficult to understand when it appears in the wake of prayer that used to be so full of joy and consolation. Time never passed so quickly as when we were alone with God. And then, all of a sudden, the pleasure disappears. Prayer becomes empty, dry, without even a drop of fervor.
The good news is that this is all part of the process of moving closer to God. Spiritual masters have written volumes about this very common spiritual malady. Difficult prayer distinguishes the spiritually mature from the beginner. Father Thomas Dubay writes in Fire Within, “Fidelity in the midst of aridity proves that we are seeking God and not merely our own satisfaction.”
Sooner or later, if we are to develop spiritually, we must learn to let go of pleasant feelings. This doesn’t mean we’ll never have them, but we can’t allow ourselves to become so attached to these feelings of joy and sweetness that we don’t want to pray without them. Our prayer life should become more and more focused on God and less on ourselves and our want of religious experiences, advanced favors, etc.
As Father Dubay advises, “the beginner needs to get on with solid virtue and generous suffering, for it is ‘rains manna’ later. The divine downpour can only occur when the way is cleared by the unspectacular practice of self-denial, obedience, humility, and patience.”
He calls empty prayer “indispensable” for burning away many imperfections such as impatience, worldly inclinations, vanities, and laxness.
The key is to stick to our prayer habits regardless of how dry or pleasing they may be. This is the mark of someone whose love for God is maturing.
However, there could be other causes of dryness, such as physical or emotional disturbances, illness, fatigue, depression, troublesome preoccupations or excessive work. Some of these conditions may last a long time.
Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen describes an even more serious cause of dryness in prayer. He writes in Divine Intimacy, “Sometimes it is the result of infidelity on the part of those who, little by little, have become lax, allowing themselves many slight satisfactions and pleasures and giving in to their curiosity, selfishness or pride.”
As St. Teresa so famously said, “Prayer cannot be accompanied by self-indulgence.”
If this is the case, we need to humble ourselves before God, pray for the grace to rise out of our spiritual laxity, and make a firm resolution to be more faithful to Him in the future.
Regardless of why our dryness is occurring, the “desert experience” in prayer can be a great opportunity to acquire humility. What a vivid experience of our ineptness!
“We learn concretely what we may have thus far understood only in theory, that without God we can do nothing. Thus we are grounded in a realistic humility so that later favors will not puff us up.”
For all of us who are struggling through periods of dryness in prayer, it will certainly help to keep these words of Father Gabriel in the forefront of our minds: “One who, in order to please God, persevered sin prayer although he finds no consolation in it, but rather even repugnance, gives Him a beautiful proof of true love.”
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This is just one of many aspects of prayer that will be covered in our webinar, Pray Like a Catholic. A five-week course that explores the four stages of prayer as taught by Teresa of Avila, it begins on Tuesday, August 7, at 8:00 p.m. EST. Click here for more information.