One of the most common traits shared by the saints and by religious people, in general, is spiritual dryness. Many of the most significant Catholics in the tradition’s history – from John of the Cross to Mother Teresa – have experienced and written about encountering spiritual dryness.
In this article, I will discuss what spiritual dryness means, why it is experienced, and how many spiritual masters in the Catholic tradition have dealt with it. First, defining what Catholicism means by the spiritual life is beneficial.
What Is The Spiritual Life?
It must be admitted that any discussion on the spiritual life requires a certain amount of anthropology. In order to know what the spiritual life entails as it pertains to human beings, we must understand what a human being is.
Depending upon one’s purpose and perspective, a definition of a human being may take several forms. For the purpose of this paper, I will define a human being as a creature composed of a material body and a rational soul that is made in the image of God.
From the Catholic standpoint, spirituality can be traced back to the letters of Paul. Infused with God’s grace, the soul develops a desire and capacity for growing in union with the Triune God. It encompasses the dynamic character of human life lived in a conscious relationship with God in Christ through the spirit, as experienced within a community of believers. Therefore, Catholic spirituality is to attend to what is of God and to deepen in a life of conversion and discipleship.
As indicated above, human beings are composite creatures; made of a spiritual soul and a material body. The spiritual aspect of a person is those things that are over and above the physical body. For example, consciousness and prayer are not reducible to the physical body. This is not to discount the importance of the physical component of a person. The senses and the physical desires are all part of the human being.
Nevertheless, the spiritual soul, which is made in the image of God, must be given preeminence. Therefore, when a person is in the right relationship with God, the passions of the body are subordinated to the rationality of the soul.
Disturbingly, the Bible suggests that human beings are engaged in a kind of civil war, with the body and the spirit in conflict. Saint Paul writes, “For the flesh has desires against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.” (Galatians 5:17).
For this reason, the Bible often draws a stark distinction between the spiritual life and the life of the flesh. In John’s Gospel, we read, “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63).
Having now defined the spiritual life as one that is ordered to God and discipleship, we are in a position to understand what is meant by spiritual dryness.
Since spiritual dryness is the absence of spiritual consolations, it is helpful to understand dryness in relation to spiritual consolations.
Consolation occurs when the soul is moved by grace to become “Inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord; and when it can, in consequence, love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but in the Creator of them all.” (Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Discernment of Spirits).
In other words, spiritual consolation gives us an authentic experience of God’s love. Such an experience of God’s love causes the individual to desire even a greater union with God. God provides the individual with consolations to renew and reward one for spiritual fidelity.
Yet the rhythm of the spiritual life is such that consolations tend to ebb and flow. It is not uncommon for one to experience long periods without sensing or feeling the union with God that the soul desires. Such periods of time are what is referred to as spiritual dryness or desolation.
For Saint Ignatius and John of the Cross, the reason for spiritual dryness is owing to the fallen nature of mankind. Yet this is not the most important thing one should understand about dryness. Rather, one should see such a time as a period where God is purifying the soul.
John of the Cross identifies two types of spiritual dryness. The first type, which John calls the dark night of the senses, is intended to purge the senses of those things hindering spiritual progress. In addition, such a purification helps to order the body to the soul.
The second type of dryness, the dark night of the soul, affects the soul by purifying it so as to prepare the soul for union with God. Ultimately, these periods of spiritual desolation are intended to denude the soul of any attachments that hinder union with God while at the same time reminding the individual of his utter dependence on God.
Overcoming The Dark Night
As are many things in life, the advice of experts can be quite beneficial. So it is with matters spiritual. Since saints are, by definition, friends of God, learning how saints deal with spiritual desolation is invaluable.
The first piece of advice is simple, persevere. Saint Paul of the Cross writes, “Don’t quit, but keep going. Use little short prayers, especially acts of acceptance of the Most Holy Will of God. For example: ‘O dear Will of my God, may You be blessed forever! O most Gentle Will! May You be always fulfilled by all.”
Very often, spiritual desolation makes even prayer difficult. Because of this, Saint Francis de Sales suggests doing good works. Works performed “In times of dryness possess more sweetness and become more precious in the sight of God.”
The combination of perseverance in prayer, the sacramental life, and good works allows one to endure spiritual dryness. As always, one should have complete trust in God.
A life lived by faith can often involve periods where one feels spiritually alone. Both Saint Therese and John of the Cross often referred to this time as the dark night.
In the preceding work, I have sought to shed some light on this phenomenon. It is evident that, though unsettling, periods of spiritual desolation are common.
It is the advice of several saints that one endures the dark night through persistence in prayer and the sacramental life, as well as in engaging in good works.