Dear Daughters of St. Philip Neri,
One again we turn to Archbishop L. Martinez to consider one of the realities of the spiritual life that is deeply challenging - the experience of Desolation. He understands that we have preconceived notions about this reality as we do with so many other things. Therefore, in this rather lengthy reflection he seeks to unpack this experience and reveal to us the many facets of spiritual desolation so that we might see them with the eyes of faith.
Such a reality is hard to describe because to experience and pass through desolation we are often incapable of having a good thought or pious affection about it. We feel our miserable state in an unvarnished way. We cannot romanticize or idealize it. We feel we have perhaps been deceiving ourselves all along and what we perceived to be virtue was a best a mere shadow and that disappeared in the bright light of the Truth that the trial exposes.
Throughout such times we must have patience as we find ourselves in the hands of the Divine Physician, allowing Him to operate upon us. It is this patience that is itself perfected as we, at times, must endure month or even years of darkness and helplessness of soul.
We feel and say to ourselves at such times: "I do not love." Of course, we are mistaken for love like any other virtue needs purification and this takes place by passing through the crucible of desolation. Prayer offers no consolation but one learns that they must go to it not to please oneself but God. Martinez tells us: "the one thing God asks of us is that we do not hinder Him. And in order that we do not impede Him, He gives us a spiritual anesthetic — that is, desolation, since it is a kind of paralysis of the spirit which renders us helpless." That we do not hinder Him! What faith is required at those moments - trusting that God knows what He is about. We must come to understand that in the spiritual life that we do not come to perfection by gradually making our way up a mountain or through the constant practice of virtue. God Himself alone can save us and raise us up!
Thus, Martinez concludes, we must choose - transformation and the desolation through which it comes about or "dragging out our life in a common mediocrity." He calls us to a humble boldness in the face of the cross of desolation: "Let us open our arms to it, then, and salute it with the same cry as the Church uses: `Hail, O Cross, our only hope!' In this way, by reason of all that has been said concerning spiritual afflictions, this truth is once more established: God’s ways are not our ways."
Another advantage of spiritual dryness is that it produces a deep and true humility in us. When we hear a sermon on humility, or read a spiritual treatise, or meditate seriously, we come to the conclusion that we are very miserable beings. But this conviction is no more than theoretical. When we are told that there are torrid regions in Africa, and that the temperature is oppressive, and that traveling is difficult and painful in those desert areas, we form some idea of those torrid climates. But what a difference there is in hearing about all this and in going there and suffering from the heat and feeling all its effects in our body!
The same thing occurs with humility. To be given theoretical knowledge of our misery is quite different from feeling it, coming in contact with it, and knowing it by experience. And in desolations, we feel our helplessness and misery in such a way that when we have thus perceived it, we never forget it.
When peace returns to souls that have passed through desolation, and when our Lord pours out special graces upon them, they receive them with gratitude and love, but they do not raise their head. They are mindful of their misery; it remains pressed upon them to such an extent that there is no fear that they will become proud over divine favors. This is true because in time of trial, we feel our misery; in that period, we know by experience that we are not capable of a good thought. When we read about this in St. Paul, we are inclined to think that it is an exaggeration of the saint. But no; desolation shows us truly that we are incapable of having a good thought or a pious affection; and thus we understand the truth of what the apostle says.
Ordinarily we give vent to sentiments like this: “If love is to our soul what air is to our lungs, what can be easier than to love our Lord?” But in time of trial, we are not capable of making an act of love, no matter how hard we wish to. Then there is so much dissipation of mind that even the most insignificant thing distracts, no matter how serious our nature may be: the slightest noise, a fly that swirls around, the opening of a door, a person passing by — anything whatever distracts us as though we were children. Is not this to feel our own miserable state?
Furthermore, with desolation come struggles and temptations; and the worst feelings well up in our heart. At such a time, the soul thinks, “My life has been a deception. I thought I had achieved some virtue; I thought I knew how to pray. But I have accomplished nothing. All is a deception. For me, all is lost.” Is not this to realize our miserable condition? What a difference between describing it and feeling it! In this way, desolations exercise us in the life of faith; they detach us from the spiritual gifts of God, and they produce in us a deep understanding of ourselves, a great fund of humility. Are not these great advantages enough for us to come to an appreciation of desolation? How could we ever obtain them by means of consolations in that pleasant and easy life we dreamed of? So let us be reconciled to trials, for they are a most important factor in the spiritual life: they have their beauty, they are fruitful, and they possess incomparable advantages. Ordinarily, we should not pray for them, because perhaps this would be asking amiss, but we surely should accept them with gratitude when God sends them to us.
Practice patience in times of desolation
Spiritual dryness also exercises us in another important virtue: patience. Whoever has felt desolation knows to what an extent it makes us practice this virtue. Patience is of three types: patience with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbor. Of these three classes of patience, the first two are the hardest and precisely the ones that are exercised in time of trial. In it, our Lord is the one who immolates us, and we need much patience so that we may submit to being treated as He wills with us. And much patience with ourselves is also needed to remain faithful and firm in a period of desolation.
It is no little advantage to us to be exercised in patience in this way, for sacred Scripture says that patience produces a perfect work: “My brethren, count it all joy when you shall fall into diverse temptations; knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience. And patience hath a perfect work.” All this is applied in a special way to desolation, which is one of the greatest trials we can undergo. And in the Beatitudes that our Lord teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount, the eighth, which is the consummation and the epitome of all the others, is the beatitude of patience. Hence, patience, which is nothing else than tenacious perseverance in good, is what takes us to the height of perfection, the supreme happiness of earth and the prelude to the blessedness of Heaven.
To pass months and years with dryness of spirit, with helplessness of soul, with turbulence of passions, in continual darkness, and still to remain generously faithful to God: this is something heroic that greatly pleases our Lord and effects the perfect work in our souls. We cannot arrive at perfection if we do not pass through tribulations.
Desolations refine your love
There are still other and more important advantages than the foregoing ones. Desolations refine the love that is within us. When dryness comes to us, we immediately believe we are losing love, since, with our narrow outlook, we reason as follows: “I do not feel that I love. Therefore, I do not love.” And then we yearn for the days of consolation when we fancied that the sun of love truly lighted up the heaven of our soul. And if desolation grows stronger, we arrive at the stage where we perceive, not only that we do not feel love, but also that we are annoyed and disgusted by all spiritual things. How are we going to believe that we love when our heart is agitated by such feelings?
But we are mistaken. Love, like gold, needs purification, and this is what is going on within us. A thing is said to be pure when it contains no admixture of any other thing. That is pure water which is not mixed with anything else, which contains nothing that is foreign to the nature of water. That is pure love which contains no foreign element. And that foreign element can be nothing else than self-love. To purify love, then, is to remove from it all self-love. Various methods are used to purify substances: some are passed through a filter, others are distilled, and still others, such as gold, are purified by fire. Love is purified by making it pass through the crucible of desolation.
In times of consolation, when we go to prayer with pleasure, when we place ourselves immediately in the presence of God, and when everything goes smoothly, there is no question about our seeking Him and about our giving pleasure to Him. But we cannot deny that we also are going to give pleasure to ourselves. It is so sweet to be with Jesus in the hours of consolation. Such is the delight suffusing our soul that we could spend hours in His presence, most assuredly because we love Him, but also because we are receiving delight. That love is not entirely pure.
In times of trial, a soul who is faithful to God makes the same prayer as when he is enjoying consolation. Why does he do so? Does he go to it to seek self? Or what does he seek if he encounters nothing? The soul well knows that the prayer period is a time of torture, and yet he goes to it, as St. Lawrence went to the grill, in order that the fire of desolation might consume him. His only reason for going could be to please God. He is like St. Thérèse, the Little Flower, who did not worry about her dryness in prayer, considering that she did not go to it to please herself, but only God. Behold the purity of love that is achieved only in affliction.
Spiritual dryness allows God to transform your soul
But all this is nothing more than the surface. There is a divine richness in spiritual dryness that produces a marvelous transformation in the soul. St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus tells us of it in her autobiography, but with such ingenuousness that she disconcerts us, and we do not suspect that she encloses so profound a teaching in such simple words.
A case in point is that in which the saint tells us that she did not grow alarmed when she drowsed after Holy Communion, since she reflected that children are just as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as when they are awake. Moreover, as she adds, doctors induce sleep in their patients for certain operations. How true it is that in the spiritual order, there are certain operations for which it is necessary to anesthetize souls! Why is it necessary to give an anesthetic to sick people? Without doubt, it is in order that they may not suffer, but above everything else, it is so that they may not cause trouble.
There are people of great endurance who would be able to undergo an operation without an anesthetic. Nevertheless the surgeon anesthetizes them, since every movement of a patient, even though involuntary, can ruin certain very delicate operations.
Similarly there are operations in the supernatural order in which we work with our Lord and cooperate with Him in them. But there are others of a very intimate nature in which the one thing He asks of us is that we do not hinder Him. And in order that we do not impede Him, He gives us a spiritual anesthetic — that is, desolation, since it is a kind of paralysis of the spirit which renders us helpless.
In time of spiritual dryness, souls often think as follows: “I go to prayer, and I do nothing, absolutely nothing.” The soul does nothing, but God does a great deal, although the soul may not be aware of His secret and mysterious operations. But when the period of trial passes, we find that we are different. Without our knowing how or when, a profound change was wrought in us: our love is more solid; our virtue has become stronger. According to the familiar expression, we have come out of the trial “as new.” What does it matter that those afflictions may endure for years on end, if finally the soul emerges as new, fit to be united with God and to realize fully the role it was destined to fill on earth?
Desolation, then, is the indispensable means whereby the soul attains its transformation in Jesus, the supreme goal and the perfection of holiness.
We think, perhaps, that transformation in Jesus is something that we can achieve with God’s help. But no. Simply having God’s help is not sufficient. God alone can accomplish it, and the only help that we can give Him is to allow Him a free hand, not to impede Him.
We could conceive that the method for transforming us in Jesus would be this: the Gospel has left us a perfect representation of Jesus, precise indications of His moral makeup; hence, I need do nothing more than continue imitating Him little by little. I have so many years to become meek, so many to become humble, so many to become obedient, and so on. Thus, I need only continue imitating Him, virtue by virtue, availing myself of ascetical helps such as the particular examination, meditation, and spiritual reading. When, in this way, after much time and labor, I have copied the lineaments of Jesus, I shall be but a sketch, an outline; I shall possess something similar to Him, but I shall not be that living representation that is necessary for transformation. Transformation requires that God Himself come to work in the soul and, so to speak, make us anew. Hence in Ezekiel, God says that He will take away from us our stony heart and give us a new heart and a new spirit.
Do not think that these are hyperboles, divine exaggerations. On the contrary, the reality goes much beyond symbols. Truly, when a soul has been transformed, it has a new way of seeing, feeling, and operating. Hence, this transformation cannot be achieved by our poor human efforts. God must come and work in the deepest recesses of our being, and, in order that we may not hinder Him, He anesthetizes us by means of spiritual desolation. Therefore, when a soul has passed through the great trials of the spiritual life, it stands on the threshold of union, of transformation in Jesus.
We appreciate, then, the value of spiritual affliction. It will be painful and hard, but it is of the utmost value and altogether necessary for arriving at sanctity. I know of only one exception: the Blessed Virgin. Since she was perfect from the moment of her Immaculate Conception, she had no need of desolations to attain sanctity. Nevertheless, no one has suffered more terrible afflictions than she did in the years of her exile after the death and Ascension of her Son.
But there is this difference: she did not need those desolations for her sanctification, although through them she grew in holiness. By them, in union with her Son, she procured graces for us and fulfilled her role of co-redeemer and mother of all men.
We must make our choice: either we choose transformation, and then we also accept the desolation without which it cannot be arrived at; or we refuse desolation, and then we must also reject transformation and thus give ourselves over to dragging out our life in a common mediocrity.
Desolation is a cross, but one of the most precious, one of the most divine. It is not wrought by the hand of men, but by God Himself. It is a work of the Holy Spirit. The trial, therefore, is made in accordance with the measure of each soul, perfectly fitted to its circumstances, requirements, and mission, and to the degree of perfection to which God has destined it. Hence, trial possesses an eminently sanctifying power.
Let us open our arms to it, then, and salute it with the same cry as the Church uses: “Hail, O Cross, our only hope!” In this way, by reason of all that has been said concerning spiritual afflictions, this truth is once more established: God’s ways are not our ways.
Archbishop Luiz Martinez
Worshipping the Hidden God