One of the most comforting feelings that we can experience is a sensation of peace, or even joy, when we pray. For many of us, this feeling was most pronounced at the time when we first made a decision to commit our lives to the Lord. Unfortunately, equally as common is the feeling of dryness that most of us have experienced at least once since that time. It is a sad reality that many people cease to pray once the good feelings disappear. Others question themselves when they don’t experience warmth or joy, especially after receiving Jesus in Holy Communion. Surely it must be a sign that our spirituality is lacking. Maybe we should pray harder, longer and more often so that the good feelings will return. In reality, this lack of feeling, known as aridity, is a normal part of our spiritual life and is something that has been experienced by numerous saints throughout the ages. Learning how to deal with it can actually draw us closer to the Lord and improve our spirituality.
As human beings, we are often guided by our emotions. We like to feel good and often pursue those activities that provide positive feelings. While this tendency can guide us to engage in beneficial activities, it can also cause us to fall into sin. As evidenced by the encounter between Eve and the serpent (Gen 3:1-6), sinful behavior is often caused by following those things that appear to be pleasurable. If we want to avoid straying from the path of goodness, we must learn to question our feelings and rely on our faith as a guide. While this can be difficult, mastering this technique will put us on the road to sanctity.
The season of Lent provides us with an excellent opportunity to identify our earthly pleasures and voluntarily forego them in order to focus on the things of Heaven. We often turn to the “things of the world” for satisfaction. Let’s face it…a big piece of cake, a delicious hamburger, some beer, wine, or a shopping spree can make us “feel good”, at least temporarily. When we are sad, we often turn to these things to “cheer us up”. While not inherently sinful, constantly relying on earthly pleasures for happiness can put us on the wrong path. If we only pursue those things or activities that are pleasurable, there is a strong likelihood that we will fall into sin. Why? Because, at least initially, sin feels good! If it didn’t, then it would be much easier to avoid. If we wish to steer clear of trouble, we must discover a more objective means for making moral decisions.
By turning to the Church as a moral compass, we have a reliable guide for making decisions. This guide is not based upon our feelings and is not subject to our emotional “ups and downs”. Even though excessive drinking, illegally copying software or music, cohabitation, contraception, or missing Sunday Mass may “feel good”, the Church tells us that these actions are sinful and should be avoided. While it may provide momentary satisfaction to “tell off” the incompetent store clerk or clueless coworker, the Church reminds us that we must “love thy neighbor”. Learning to trust in the Church’s wisdom over our own feelings will ensure that we remain on the right path.
Learning to question our feelings can also yield great results in our spiritual life. The Lord often removes some or all of our good feelings (consolations) for a period of time. We may be praying as much as before, but suddenly it no longer “feels good”. During these periods of dryness, we may be tempted to cease praying because of the absence of enjoyment. Before doing so, however, we should take a long, hard look at our motivation for praying. Are we doing it to please God and to enter into a relationship with Him or are we doing it because it “feels good”?
While not as serious as ceasing to pray, many Catholics torment themselves for not “feeling anything” when they receive Jesus in the Eucharist. When the expected feeling of euphoria is not experienced, they question their spirituality and seek ways to fix the problem. In reality, it is actually quite normal to experience nothing out of the ordinary after receiving Holy Communion. Although we may not enjoy the experience, this lack of feeling provides us with an opportunity to love Jesus unconditionally. Similar to the love that we give to an infant or a parent suffering from advanced dementia, we are blessed with an opportunity to express love for Jesus while expecting nothing tangible in return. In his Prayer After Communion, St. Padre Pio summed up his acceptance of this condition with the words, “Stay with me, Jesus. I do not ask for divine consolations because I do not deserve them, but I only ask for the gift of Your presence. Oh yes! I ask this of You!”
It’s important that you don’t panic when you feel a sense of spiritual dryness. The condition is usually temporary and enables us to gain better control over our actions. Persevering in prayer, despite a lack of feeling, will help us to become more detached from our emotions and will lessen the chance of falling into sin. Throughout the course of our lives, we can expect to go through many dry periods. I find that it’s best to look at these dry periods as a gift, an opportunity to express our love for the Lord without receiving any consolations in return. It’s easy to say “I love You, Jesus” when we get a warm feeling of peace in return. However, if we truly love Him, we should be just as willing to express those sentiments when “we don’t feel anything”!
(© 2011 Gary Zimak)