There are many periods in our lives when we find ourselves in desolation. Rather than making progress, we wake up one morning and realize that we have once more tumbled back down the holy mountain and we must try to walk the terrain we thought had already covered. This desolation can come with darkness, spiritual warfare, numbness, spiritual blindness, and great difficulty with vice and sin.
A Confessor once told me that the spiritual life seems to be more like “peaks and deep valleys” than anything else. By God’s grace, we begin to make great progress in certain areas and our prayer life falls into a good rhythm. It may or may not be accompanied by consolations, but the progress God is working in us is more noticeable. Then—either over a period of time or suddenly—the storm clouds gather and the darkness settles in. Prayer becomes burdensome and difficult. Habitual sins we thought we had finally conquered begin to crop up. We can no longer see clearly.
What are we supposed to do when we find ourselves, once more, in a dark wood spiritually?
St. Therese of Lisieux’s spiritual wisdom can shed some light on the way forward in these periods of desolation. It is in these moments when we are incapable of making great leaps forward that we need to return to the Little Way. We must carry out small acts of love and seek to see the smallest of goods around us each day. It’s from this place of littleness that God can meet us in the darkness. In fact, desolation is meant to teach us littleness and radical dependence on His love for us.
“Because I was little and feeble, Our Lord stooped down to me and lovingly instructed me in the secrets of His love.”– St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul
God uses spiritual desolation to strengthen us in love and to empty us completely. It is when we come to a place of seeing our nothingness before God that He can begin to fill that nothingness with Himself alone. He comes to meet us in these difficult moments in a hidden way. We are called to rely more closely on faith and hope so that we can begin to grow in love.
He does not seek huge sacrifices from us in these moments; rather, He teaches us how to follow Him in humility through small sacrifices and labored steps forward. Desolation is humbling because it reminds us of our littleness before God. It shows us that any spiritual progress we make is ultimately up to God. It is especially in desolation when we learn how to depend completely on God.
For many of us, desolation occurs because we have stopped relying on God in some way, fall into patterns of sin, or we are confronted with suffering. It also occurs in those people who are progressing in prayer and God turns to allowing desolation as a way to deeper union with Him. In order to discern between the two, we must examine our consciences thoroughly and look at how we have been living our lives. When we do so, we may begin to see where certain sins have cropped up or how circumstances in our lives have made the spiritual life more of a struggle. An honest and humble Confession can help us to move forward when we have fallen through our own volition.
Desolation does not typically lift quickly and it is not something we can will our way out of through our own power. In fact, desolation should reveal to us that we have no power. These periods in our spiritual lives are up to God alone, which means that we must wait for when He wills this time to end. That doesn’t mean we should do nothing. It is during this time that we should be focusing on growing in love through small acts throughout our day. It is not the time for large spiritual projects. It is a time for quiet, stillness, pondering, and offering up the ordinary moments of our day.
St. Therese tells us that we must learn to do “small things with great love” in our ordinary daily activities. The greatest movement we can make forward is in seeking to do all things with love.
“You know that our Lord does not look at the greatness or the difficulty of an action but at the love with which you do it.”Ibid.
It is through these small acts of love that we can seek to serve God and others from the darkness we experience in desolation. Love is the light in the darkness that we need during these periods in our lives. It is through love that God provides us the peace we desire in time.
“How sweet is the way of love. Yes, one may fall or commit infidelities; but love, knowing how to draw profit from everything, quickly consumes whatever could displease Jesus, leaving at the bottom of the heart only a humble and profound peace.”Ibid.
It is the love we offer to God and to others that ultimately matters. The tiniest of gestures made in love can transform us and the world around us, even if we don’t feel that change in our desolation.
We should also seek to see the good, the beautiful, and the true in the people around us and in the world. Something as simple as stopping to watch the snow fall or to take the time to truly look into our children’s eyes while they talk to us—as opposed to hurrying—can lead us into small encounters with Christ. It’s these little moments that help us to arise once more and take each small step back up the path we already seem to know so well.
Desolation is a time of spiritual growth, but we may not be fully aware of any growth taking place because we are consumed by darkness or spiritual blindness. In His appointed time, we will once more see the sun shining on the valley below, but we must remember that those moments are meant to strengthen us for the inevitable hardships that are to come. Walking the Little Way, keeps us focused on the small tasks we are able to do for love of God and others whether we are in consolation or desolation.