Spiritual dryness happens to all of us, but there are ways of dealing with it. (Submitted photo)
We all know what spiritual dryness is, even if we don’t know it by that name. It is an experience universal to Christians, at one point or another: a weariness deep in the soul which groans at the thought of prayer and recoils at the suggestion of spiritual devotion or pious exercises. It comes without warning and often leaves in the same way, but while it endures the sufferer feels cut off from her experience of the divine in any meaningful, tangible way.
It’s an affliction experienced by everyone, but mothers can be especially vulnerable to spiritual dryness.
“I believe moms are prone to spiritual dryness because we’re always in demand, especially when our children are young,” said Marge Steinhage Fenelon, award-winning author, speaker and Catholic radio personality. “When we’re constantly answering the needs of others, we have little time or energy to answer our own needs. We’re so busy being the parent that we let go of being the child in relation to the heavenly Father. It’s a bit like working out. The longer we let it lapse, the harder it is to get back into it.”
“In my long experience with spiritual dryness, I’ve come to appreciate its function, which is to invite me into a kind of spiritual childhood,” said Grace Urbanski, author of “Pray With Me: Seven Simple Ways to Pray With Your Children.” “Those dry, lonesome desert places test my willingness to trust in God’s providence. Without obvious emotional, spiritual, and material supports to sustain and delight me, I have to give what I do not have and expect God to make up the deficit.”
What is spiritual dryness?
“In my experience, ‘dryness’ refers to a lack of inspirational and vivid sense experiences,” said Urbanski. “In times of dryness, nearly everything I encounter either discourages me or leaves me flat and uninterested. I am tempted to neglect my daily work, and even to justify that neglect as a way of preserving my limited energy.”
Fenelon said that she also has encountered dryness from time to time, to varying degrees. “Sometimes it’s brief and other times it’s long-term,” she said. “During spiritual dryness, my prayer life becomes dull and more like a chore than a respite. My head knows God is there, but my heart doesn’t quite feel it.”
Why does this happen?
“Well, we live in a fallen human world where life is just plain difficult,” Urbanski said. “Deserts are everywhere. We can’t really be that surprised when suffering comes our way. In the desert, God may be calling us to a new level of humility or using our dogged faithfulness as a model for others.”
Spiritual dryness can certainly feel like punishment, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sinfulness, and has been known to be experienced by some of history’s holiest saints.
“Spiritual dryness isn’t about being distanced from God because in reality, that’s impossible. God is always near, whether we sense his presence or not,” said Fenelon. “It’s also not a form of punishment although God may allow it to wake us up, help us realize our need for him, and nudge us to seek him more avidly.”
Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church said that dryness in prayer “is the moment of sheer faith clinging faithfully to Jesus in his agony and in his tomb.” (CCC, 2731)
What can we do about it (and what should we not do?)
As with all of life’s difficult questions, the answer isn’t easy, and it isn’t always welcome, either. Spiritual dryness can feel like a dark tunnel that has no end — but the only way to step into the light again is to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
“For me, there is only one way to live in the desert: sort out my priorities and humbly commit myself to the daily discipline of tending to my duties. These duties can be as trivial and routine as washing dishes or as critical and demanding as potty-training a toddler or submitting a document on time to a committee at work,” said Urbanski, who echoed the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, “Age quod agis: do what you are doing.”
“Do it,” said Urbanski. “I have to pay attention to the work right in front of me and stop pining for some glorious mystical experience or a chorus of cheers from grateful loved ones. I have to become like a little child who has tedious chores to do. And I must chip away at these chores, minute after minute, hour after hour, without really knowing why these particular chores have been assigned to me right now.”
“I think it’s vital to never stop praying, even if all we can manage are brief spontaneous prayers that seem more like a cry for help than fruitful devotion,” agreed Fenelon. “Especially when we’re in spiritual dryness, we need to ask God to somehow reveal himself to us and help us to be patient until the dryness lifts. For me, beautiful sacred music and uplifting Catholic podcasts help tremendously during spiritual dryness.”