The phone rang in the parish office. Moments later, the call was transferred to Father Reed’s desk. He answered and said, “Hello, this is Father Reed.” His caller replied, “Good morning, Father. My name is Bob Johnson. You don’t know me, but my wife, Julie, made the retreat you gave three months ago. She loved the retreat and spoke well of you. I’m struggling with some things in my spiritual life, and I wondered if you’d be willing to meet with me.” They made an appointment for Saturday at one o’clock. Saturday arrived, and they sat in the rectory parlor. After their initial exchanges and a brief prayer, Father Reed settled himself to listen.
Bob began, “Maybe it’s best that I give a little background about the things I want to talk about.” Father Reed nodded his agreement. “I’ve been a Catholic all my life, and I go to Mass every Sunday with Julie and the children. Julie and I have been married for seventeen years. We’ve had our ups and downs, but I’ve always thought of it as a good marriage. Still, every so often I hurt Julie. I don’t mean to, and I realize it only after it’s happened. I see her withdraw, and I know she’s suffering. I did it again a few weeks ago when—with what I thought were good intentions—I raised questions about how she’s working with our youngest son, David, who is struggling at school. It really bothers me when I do this, and I try to make amends. It can get complicated. Usually, after some days, we resolve the tension. This time, though, it’s still there.” Father Reed nodded once more and continued to listen.
“Spiritually, things have been moving in a good direction over these last years. I’ve joined the Men’s Faith Formation Group in the parish, and we meet on first and third Fridays in the morning. It’s been good in many ways. I’ve made some good friends, I’ve learned more about prayer, and my faith seems more alive. That’s why it’s so discouraging when this tension with Julie happens again, and I recognize that I’m not treating her in the way she needs. It starts
to affect everything: my relationship with her and the children, my work, even my prayer. That’s why I’m here. I need help.”
“How does the discouragement affect you, Bob?” asked Father Reed. “I find myself thinking like this: ‘What kind of a husband are you? You hear talks about how married men grow in holiness by loving their wives and children. You want to be that kind of man. But look at the mess you make of your relationship with your wife. Don’t think you’ll ever be much of husband and not much of a father either. You can’t even agree with your wife about how to help your son. Make all the efforts you want. Maybe you’ll do better in this or that for a while. But you’ll never really change.’”
“That sounds pretty heavy,” Father Reed said.
“It is, and it doesn’t stop there. As I said, it spreads to everything.”
“Could you say more about that, Bob? What’s that like?”
“Well, for example, I mentioned the Men’s Faith Formation Group. Friday morning comes, and I find myself thinking, ‘What’s the point of going? You’ve been attending these meetings for two years, and where has it gotten you? Nothing has changed. Why bother going?’ To be honest, recently I have missed some of the meetings.
“One of the recommendations is to spend a few minutes daily with the readings from the day’s Mass. I subscribe to a monthly publication with the readings, and I pray with them in the evening. And the same thought comes: ‘Why bother? What good has it done? Go ahead, pray with the readings, but it won’t make any difference. You won’t change.’ Sometimes, I give in and just don’t do it.”
“That does sound difficult,” Father Reed agreed.
“I’ll add one more thing,” Bob continued, “and then I’ll have said all I need to say. I’ve been wondering about making a retreat. Julie made one, and I saw how it helped her. That got me thinking about doing the same. I know you’ll be doing another retreat two months from now, and I’ve considered signing up. But there it is: ‘What’s the point? Sign up, go, be a part of it. You’ll hear some good things, and you may make some good resolutions. It might even change things for a few weeks. But it won’t last. You’ll go back to being the same you. You’ll hurt your wife again, you’ll disappoint your children, you’ll pull out of the group, you’ll drop your prayer—just like you’re doing now.’ So, I haven’t registered for the retreat.”
Bob stopped speaking and looked at Father Reed. Father Reed was silent for a moment. Then he said, “Bob, I appreciate your honesty. I imagine that it was not easy to say the things you have. I’m so glad that you’ve been able to put that into words. Let me ask: As you hear yourself say all this, does anything strike you?”
“What do you mean, Father?” Bob asked.
“Well, you’ve spoken of your relationship with Julie, with your son David, your participation in the men’s group, your evening prayer, and the retreat. What do you see happening in these different areas?”
Now Bob was silent. Father Reed gave him the time he needed.
“I think,” Bob said slowly, “that there is something common to them all.”
“Can you say what it is?”
“Yes, I think so. The areas are different, but the thought is the same for each: make your efforts if you want, but nothing will really change. These efforts won’t last. You’ll always be the same mediocre—or worse—husband, father, member of the group, person of prayer that you are now.”
Father Reed nodded his agreement. “It’s good that you can see that,” he said. “What happens when you believe that thought?”
“What happens is what is happening: I lose hope. I give up hope of not hurting Julie, of ever being a better father. I stop going to the meetings on Fridays. I don’t pray in the evening. I decide not to make the retreat.”
“Yes, that’s what happens when you believe that thought. Bob, let me ask this: Do you love Julie?”
“Of course I do.”
“Do you think she knows that?”
“Yes, I know she does.”
“You said earlier that there are tensions from time to time, but you’ve always thought of your marriage as a good one. Do you continue to think that’s true?”
“Yes, I don’t doubt it.”
“Do you think Julie would say the same?”
“Yes, I’m sure she would.”
“Do you love your children? Do you want the best for David?”
“Are your children happy?”
“They have struggles, as we all do in growing up, but, yes, I think they are happy.”
“Bob,” Father Reed asked, “how does all that you’ve just said—and said with such sincerity and confidence—compare with the thought you’ve described, that you’re not a good husband, not a good father, that you never will be, that you’ll never be holy in this vocation, that there’s no point in going to the men’s group, in praying in the evening, or in making a retreat?”
For the first time, Bob smiled. “Well, when you put it like that,” he said, “it sounds like I’ve been giving these thoughts too much power. It sounds like they don’t correspond to reality and that things are not as dark as I’ve believed.”
“Yes, I’d say that’s right. Bob, let me ask you this: When you believe these thoughts, what happens?”
“That’s simple. I give up. I stop trying because there’s no point: nothing will change.”
Father Reed nodded. “Bob, there is a tempter who wants to discourage you, especially when both you and Julie are growing spiritually in such a wonderful way. It’s not surprising that you find these thoughts—these lies—presenting themselves, and there’s no shame in experiencing them. What matters is to identify them for the lies that they are, reject them, and stay firmly on track toward God. “I say ‘these lies’ because everything you say shows that you are a man of faith, that you love God, that you pray, that you want to grow spiritually, that you love your wife and your children, that you are a good husband and father and want to grow in this calling. This is who you are. Yes, certainly, like me, like all of us, you can grow and need to grow. But that does not change your identity. Reject the lies. Pray faithfully. Find ways to let Julie know that you love her, and do the same with your son. Just stay on track, Bob, and you’ll see that things will work out well.”
Bob looked at Father Reed. He was deeply moved. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am,” he said, “It’s like waking from a bad dream.”
With Father Reed’s help, Bob recognizes a tactic of the enemy, another form of spiritual desolation. Ignatius describes this as “lack of hope.” When we experience this form of desolation, our thoughts are like Bob’s: we lose hope of any real progress in loving God, in prayer, in holiness, and in living our vocation well. If we think like this, we will be tempted, like Bob, to give up—precisely the enemy’s goal.
All of this is a lie! If ever you feel “defeated before you begin” in your spiritual life, recognize the lie of the enemy and reject it. Do not relinquish your efforts to grow spiritually. God’s love and the power of his grace are with you in these efforts. Compared with this, the enemy’s lies are a very small thing. Further, we can prepare to reject such lies even before the enemy brings them (Ignatius’s rule 10). After this attack by the enemy, for example, Bob can prepare himself to reject similar lies should the enemy bring them again. Let us suppose that Bob, restored in peace, sits in his study or before the Blessed Sacrament, or in conversation with Julie, and reviews the experience of the past weeks. He notes, or he and Julie together note, the enemy’s discouraging lies and the vulnerability (their tension after speaking about David) that exposed him to them. Bob plans how he will resist these lies when, as is
likely—again, no shame!—they return: how he will not change his prayer, will not distance himself from the men’s group, will talk with Julie and seek her help, will perhaps meet with Father Reed, and the like. Bob and Julie resolve that if either experiences these lies, he or she will tell the other for mutual support in the struggle.
If they do this, they will be greatly strengthened to resist quickly and decisively when the enemy’s “lack of hope” presents itself again.
How might you be vulnerable to this lack of hope in your spiritual life?
Can you prepare ahead, prepare even now? If you do, like Bob and Julie, you will find future desolation easier to overcome. A final comment, and one of great importance: the enemy will try to convince you that what you experience in spiritual desolation is your identity: it is who you are spiritually. Do you feel far from God this evening (spiritual desolation)? This is who you are: a person far from God (spiritual identity). Do you feel little desire to pray today (spiritual desolation)? This is who you are: a person who does not love prayer (spiritual identity). Do you feel little energy today to attend daily Mass as usual (spiritual desolation)? This is who you are: a person who does not love the Eucharist (spiritual identity).
No! And again no! You are a person close to God, who loves prayer and who loves the Eucharist—this is why you have these practices!—but whom God, for reasons of a love we have already seen, is permitting to experience spiritual desolation.
Reject the enemy’s false equation between the spiritual desolation you experience and your spiritual identity. When you do, your struggles will lighten and your spiritual energy will increase.
Editor’s note: The above excerpt is taken from Struggles in the Spiritual Life: Their Nature and Their Remedies, available now from Sophia Institute Press.