Spiritual Desolation and Humility
An advantage of spiritual desolation 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.
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.
There is also a divine richness in spiritual dryness that produces a marvelous transformation in the soul. 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. 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.
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.
This article is from a chapter in the book Worshipping a Hidden God by Archbishop Luis M. Martinez available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post on spiritual desolation and humility: View to night desert by Andrej Kuzniecyk, 25 Mary 2013, own work, CCA-SA 3.0 International, Wikimedia Commons. Cover of Worshipping a Hidden God, used with permission.