“He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.” – St. Gregory of Nyssa
I recently faced a bout of spiritual desolation that went beyond mere dryness in prayer. I felt not only apathy but also what amounted close to an aversion to all things spiritual. The idea of getting up early to pray seemed exhausting. The spiritual reading I usually found so stimulating was tedious. None of my customary devotions aroused any feeling in my heart.
The cause of this spiritual desolation was tied very closely to a physical desolation that I was simultaneously experiencing. In mid-Lent, I tore my ACL playing tennis. Suddenly, not only was I no longer able to pursue any of the physical activities I enjoyed, but even mundane household tasks became quite difficult. The week following the Octave of Easter, I underwent ACL reconstruction surgery, which rendered me even further incapable of accomplishing even the most basic chores. My sacramental life also suffered in this time as I was no longer able to attend daily Mass or make my weekly Holy Hour.
At first, I took on the pain, discomfort, and inconveniences with joy, offering them up for the conversion of several friends and family members. As the weeks wore on, however, I sank into a bout of depression that was no doubt exacerbated by the after-effects of anesthesia and the sedative effect of the prescribed pain medication. I didn’t feel up to getting out of bed, and I certainly didn’t feel up to my regular prayer routine.
It was at this time that a mentor shared with me a recent spiritual struggle of his own. This is man who has had a strong practice of daily mental prayer and evening examen for over a decade, a man who attends daily Mass and weekly confession, a man who has made his living forming others in the spiritual life, yet he too was nearly paralyzed by the darkness of spiritual desolation. Unable to pray with his usual focus and ardor, he instead paced round and round his home chapel. He blessed himself with Holy Water and forced himself to pray psalms of praise. The lyrics of a praise and worship song by Hillsong Worship called “So Will I” resounded in his head: “If the stars were made to worship so will I.” As he persisted, the desolation began to lift.
Encouraged by his experience, I got out my iPhone and played the song. As the lyrics washed over me, I began to sob. I clutched my crucifix, drenching it in my tears. “I can see Your heart in everything You’ve done. Every part designed in a work of art called love. If You gladly chose surrender so will I,” I cried, echoing the lyrics. The desolation began to lift, and when the song was over, I dried my face, got out my prayer books, and began anew.
The Catechism speaks of the spiritual life as a battle. Though original sin itself is washed away by our baptisms, “the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle” (CCC no. 405). Progress in the Christian life, then, requires us to wage “constant and sharp warfare against self,” as Lorenzo Scupoli puts it in his classic work, Spiritual Combat, for “[t]he way of perfection passes by way of the Cross” (CCC 2015).
It is critical that we build a strong sacramental life and discipline of spiritual exercises and prayer, personally, as spouses, and as a family. When we are in times of consolation, it is easy to love the Lord and promise to follow Him anywhere. “I will never betray you, Lord!” we declare. But then the times of desolation inevitably come, the cock crows, and we are left weeping, just as I was.
To avoid this, we must learn to love the battle more than the victory. “Take up your cross, and follow me,” Our Lord invites each of us. We must persevere each and every day, whether we are at the early stages of our spiritual life, battling against recurring mortal sins, or whether we are dwelling in the upper mansions of the interior castle, free from even habitual venial sin. As St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote: “He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.”
If we fail to build strong spiritual disciplines, however, then when the battle gets heated, we end up like Judas, crushed against the rocks of our own pride and despair. If we have been faithful and consistent in small matters, however, then we can imitate Peter in his filial boldness, throwing ourselves again at Our Master’s feet, crying, “Yes, Lord! You know that I love you!”
Our weapons in this spiritual battle, as outlined by Scupoli, are thus: distrust of self, trust in God, spiritual exercises, and prayer. We must keep our feebleness ever before our eyes, understanding that, as St. Faustina puts it, “I can do only one thing of myself, and that is to offend You, O my God, because misery can do no more of itself than offend You, O infinite Goodness!” The antidote, our only hope, lies in trusting in His unfailing goodness and mercy: “[I]f you are nothing, you must not forget that Jesus is All, so you must lose your little nothingness in His infinite All and think only of His uniquely loveable All,” counsels St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
A strong sacramental life consisting of frequent communion and confession, combined with regular habits of ascesis, mortification, and prayer are our remaining weapons in this spiritual battle. While faithfulness to these practices will never guarantee a life free from molestation by the enemy or the wounds inflicted by our own and other’s human frailty, a routine imbued with trustworthy spiritual methods will help ensure than when we inevitably fall, it is easier to get back up again.
If you find yourself struggling today, spiritually, physically, emotionally or otherwise, stay faithful. Pick up your cross. Reach for your Holy Water and force yourself to your prayer space. Grab your Bible and pray psalms of praise. Get to Mass, confession, or Adoration if you can. Keep fighting, and remember that you never fight alone.
Lauren is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of three, ages 7, 4, and 2. After practicing law for 7 years, she “retired” in March 2020 to become a full-time homemaker and homeschooler. She is also pursuing a master's in spiritual theology through the Avila Institute. In her spare time she enjoys coffee, running, and reading (though not necessarily all at the same time). You can find out more about Lauren at www.thecontemplativehomemaker.com.