In the early years of the journey of my Christian life, I learned to read the mountaintops as signs of the blessings and presence of God and the valleys as signs of his absence.
It seemed my bible reading, prayer, devotions, time in corporate worship and in Christian community were rewarded with a sense of God’s presence. When my efforts waned, I sensed God’s absence. This feeling of absence wasn’t really a cause for alarm. The solution was straightforward. It had to do with repentance and/or recovering a lapsed spiritual habit. If I did my best to repent of my sin and incorporate routine spiritual practices, this felt sense of God’s presence returned.
Although it had its highs and lows, my life with God felt like a well-oiled machine. By the age of 25 I had discovered the ebb and flow of God’s relational logic. I had all but mastered God…but then things slowly began to change.
02. Bitter: the Consolations of God
It felt as if God were pulling further and further away from me and no amount of prayer, spiritual discipline, sin management, life change or circumstances could change it.
I wondered why it was happening to me. I felt shame and guilt that I must have done something wrong for God to have withdrawn his presence. I worried, was I falling away, faithless, not doing enough, did I have some secret sin in my life?
I was hesitant to tell others. I sensed the experience I was having was not welcome. Indeed, I had only heard it couched negatively. It was a sure sign I was headed in the wrong direction. When I did take the risk of being honest about what was happening, the concerned and confused looks and unhelpful suggestions only reaffirmed my concerns and drove me further into isolation. My honesty was disturbing the peace.
As the chasm grew between my past and present spiritual realities so did the sense of isolation from others. To avoid this sense of isolation, I felt had no choice but to live an inauthentic existence. So, for a while I kept things under wraps by uttering dishonest cliches that I no longer believed and maintaining a socially acceptable outward appearance, in hopes that eventually things would return to normal. But they never did…
03. Sweet: the God of Consolations
Over time I began to see that God wanted to put to rest some unhealthy relational dynamics I established with Him. I began to see my struggle not as something I did wrong, but as God’s way of redefining my “transactional” or “merit based” relationship with Him.
God withheld mountain top experiences (often referred to as “consolations” in the Christian tradition) not because I did something wrong or had not done enough to earn them, but to teach me that his love is unconditional. I learned that I could trust Him with everything, regardless of feelings, outcomes, and/or circumstances.
I found solace and sustenance in some new companions. The spiritual experiences of the mothers and fathers of the church seemed a lot like my own. Figures such as St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and St. Ignatius of Loyola not only put words to my experience but taught me how to hold on during this harrowing process.
I was so relieved that there were saints (literally) whose spiritual experiences resembled mine. Their experiences and insights gave meaning and purpose to my spiritual wanderings. It felt as if I was no longer alone in the dark wood.
Moreover, these new friends seemed to know the love of God and trust Him far more deeply than anyone else I had previously encountered in person or in writing. There was an obvious correlation between the agony of their experiences and their deep love and affection for God. My wandering in the darkness became the site of an ever-deepening relationship with the God of unconditional love.
One key witness to my spiritual condition was a 16th century Spanish Catholic mystic, Teresa of Avila. Among the many spiritual realizations I gleaned from Teresa, four stand out:
- Teresa notes that God’s actual presence and the feeling or sense of his presence (consolations) are two different things. Sometimes God dulls our senses of him in order that we may seek him and know him more deeply. Just because we don’t sense him does not mean he is not there.
- Teresa says that when God withdraws consolations this is not necessarily a sign that we’ve done something wrong or that God is distant. In fact, the withdrawal of consolations could be an invitation to know God’s love more deeply, namely, that his love is unconditional. It is a gift that cannot be earned.
- In Teresa’s seven “mansions” of the spiritual life, the withdrawal of consolations often occurs at the midpoint of the journey. This is a developmental phase in which we learn to trust and love God for who he is, regardless of what we get in return. This is a very disorienting time when we learn to let go of past perceptions of God, what we think we need from God, and surrender fully to his good and perfect will (“Thy will be done”).
- Teresa indicates that consolations are no indication of our spiritual health, progress in the spiritual life, or the nearness of God (again they are merely senses, which can be dulled by us or God). We must be careful to discern the difference between actual Godly consolations that lead to virtue and ungodly consolations that lead to vice, the fleeting highs we get in satisfying the desires of our own flesh. For this reason, Teresa says that spiritual progress can only really be measured by spiritual fruit, i.e., the presence of the virtues in our life. She says that in the later stages of the spiritual journey we learn that the mark of God’s work in our life is not consolations but the sort of person we are becoming. And it is often the dark wood, wherein we find little consolation, that produces much fruit (1 Pet 5:10).
Teresa taught me that my earlier relationship with God was a necessary stage in my spiritual growth. As a child I was rewarded for good behavior and not for bad. While every child needs time to learn right from wrong, God desired that I move beyond this transactional space to glimpse the gift of love. In Teresa’s words, I was learning to love “not the consolations of God, but the God of consolations.”
Teresa helped me see that the darkness I experienced was and shall be part of an ever-deepening embrace of God’s unconditional love. It is a necessary part of the spiritual life. As such, it should be welcomed, not suppressed, ignored, or denied.
I have since discovered spiritual friendships with a few kindred souls who’ve bravely walked this journey, the fruit of which is a shared vulnerability, humility, and authenticity that cannot be had otherwise. As time passes the bitter experiences of the dark wood are transformed into bittersweet reminders that God is always with me, forming me even when I’m least aware.
04. Suggested Reading
- Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, Chapter 32.
- Thomas H. Green, When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings.
- Gerald May, The Dark Night of the Soul: a Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth.
05. Suggested Practices
- Foster Soul Friendships. Find a spiritual director and spiritual friendships with whom you can be open and honest and who have no agenda. A spiritual director is a seasoned guide who has traversed a dark wood of their own and is committed to prayer for you and helping you see God at work in your life. Spiritual friendships are time-tested sojourners who find, or have found, themselves in similar spaces and are willing to also share vulnerably.
- Pray the Hours or Daily Office. The rhythms and structures of the hours provide a scaffold in times when old habits and failed attempts at prayer seem to fall on deaf ears. You may not sense God in this season, but in time the daily prayers have a way of getting through to us. Daily Office: https://www.dailyoffice2019.com
- Be honest before God. Pray like David prayed: https://conversatio.org/classroom/the-practice-of-lament/
Michael Di Fuccia, PhD, is the Director of the Cultura Initiative and Theologian-in-Residence at the Martin Institute for Christianity & Culture.