Anyone who practices mental prayer for any length of time will reach a dry period. Why does this happen? What can we do about it?
Sometimes prayer is dry because we are sick, depressed, anxious, or over-tired. In such cases, dryness is usually very temporary. A little bit of reflection can point out the reason for it. But other times, life seems to be going fine until we get to prayer. Then everything seems to fall apart.
Dryness in prayer can indicate that we’re growing closer to God, or it can indicate the opposite. How do we know if our dryness is related to spiritual growth?
St. John of the Cross is the master teacher about darkness in the spiritual life. His classic works, The Ascent of Mt. Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul talk about two periods of darkness in particular. Many souls struggle with darkness or dryness when they are transitioning from the purgative way to the illuminative way–from St. Teresa of Avila’s third to fourth mansions. The second common darkness comes at the transition from the fifth to the sixth mansions.
The Dark Nights
These dark nights are signs that God is drawing the soul to Himself in a deeper way. Our soul is temporarily confused. It doesn’t understand what is happening. It has to learn to relate to God in a new manner.
John of the Cross speaks of the dark night in this way:
[T]he excessive light of faith bestowed on a soul is darkness for it; a brighter light will eclipse and suppress a dimmer one. The sun so obscures other lights that they do not seem to be lights at all when it is shining, and instead of affording vision to the eyes, it overwhelms, blinds, and deprives them of vision since its light is excessive and unproportioned to the visual faculty. Similarly the light of faith in its abundance overwhelms and suppresses the light of intellect. For the intellect, by its own power, extends only to natural knowledge, though it has the potency to be raised to a supernatural act whenever our Lord wishes. (The Ascent of Mt Carmel 3.1)
Gradually, the soul learns to see in this new light, which illumines so many things that were dark to it before.
Many people who have experienced consolations in prayer, especially in the affective prayer and acquired recollection of the third mansions, think something is wrong when prayer loses its savor for them. Since they no longer enjoy prayer, they fear they have turned away from God or grown cold. John of the Cross gives us three signs by which we can know that we are experiencing the dark night that is for many their first taste of infused contemplation (from Dark Night of the Soul, ch. 19):
1. Neither the things of God nor those of the world give the soul consolation.
If we only find dryness in prayer, but take delight in food, drink, TV, socializing, or other pursuits, our dryness is probably not the dark night. Teresa likened the soul in the dark night to someone who is suspended between heaven and earth, with no satisfaction in anything, no matter where it turns. The purpose of the first dark night is to cleanse us from our disordered attachment to things we experience through our senses. God’s “dark” action in the soul makes us lose our taste for everything that is not God.
2. The soul is careful about the things of God.
The dark night does not come to those who are lukewarm. A soul in this state is more careful than ever to do God’s will, even while finding no satisfaction in doing so. It fears that it has offended God in some way, and is deeply saddened or even anxious if a good friend or director cannot help the person see what God is doing.
3. The soul is unable to meditate.
Now, we have to be especially careful about this one. I have had someone who practices Centering Prayer tell me that he has no taste for meditation, so he is right to give it up for more passive prayer methods. Now, I cannot through the comments box on my blog discern where this reader is in his spiritual life. He may well be receiving the first taste of contemplation. But it’s also possible that his distaste for meditation is completely natural, tied to his temperament or life experiences. Notice that John of the Cross doesn’t say a distaste for meditation is a sign of the dark night, but an inability to practice it.
This inability is not absolute, however. Sometimes the soul can by sheer force practice a bit of meditation. But he encounters immense difficulties in doing what was recently easy for him.
If we have never tried to make a habit of meditating on Sacred Scripture, we may find it difficult, tedious, or dry. John assumes that we have made a habit of it and have been practicing it successfully for some time before suddenly we experience a mental block when we try to prayerfully ponder the Scriptures.
In the dark night, the soul also struggles when trying to practice affective prayer. The soul no longer receives any consolation from sitting quietly in God’s presence.
If you are experiencing all three of these signs, I encourage you to speak to a good spiritual director as soon as you can. Many people turn back or lose their way when they enter the dark night. Those who continue forward will eventually reach a state more delightful than any they have yet experienced, entering fully into the illuminative way.