On Trials and Spiritual Abandonment

My dearly loved sister in Christ,

I look upon the special regard for your soul with which God inspires me, as a sign of His favor, for not only does the law of charity require this sympathy from me, but I hope that my compassion for your sorrows will ensure me a share in the joy you are one day to receive from our Lord’s hands. May the Almighty be blessed in all things, and may His judgments be adored, for His infinite wisdom knows how to turn to our advantage what seems to us the loss of all things. This He does to teach us our ignorance and insufficiency, so that with full confidence, we may abandon ourselves utterly to His care, trusting that, although we know not how, He will find a remedy for all our ills.

You will have much to struggle against, and your soul will often be perturbed. Your past life will appear to you to merit punishment, and when you think how little you profited by the consolations God sent, you will fear lest they, also, may increase your guilt. Scruples will molest you and make you think yourself to blame for all you suffer. The sadness that afflicts you at the present time, the troubles that beset you on every side, together with the ills you fear in the future, will unite to crush your soul. You will feel like the people of Israel felt, after they had left Egypt, when they found themselves hemmed in by high mountains, with the sea before them, and their enemy in pursuit. Often you will feel like David, when he cried: “I said in the excess of my mind: I am cast away from before thy eyes.”

St. John of Avila On Trials and Spiritual Abandonment

This article is from the letters of St. John of Avila, Finding Confidence in Times of Trial.

The devils will say to you, as they did to him: “There is no salvation for you in your God.” You will be brought to such a pass that you will seem to taste the anguish of death, although death itself would appear less horrible, for you will be terrified by a secret dread that God has abandoned you. These trials will make your soul so dry and hard that it will seem as dead and as perverse as that of the wicked in hell. You will cry and not be heard, that in which you sought and hoped to find relief will only make you more disconsolate. God will show you no sign of love, but will seem to turn from you in disdain. These and other trials, which are usually suffered in this affliction, will make you so disgusted with yourself, that you would welcome death as a gain.

What then, ought you to do in such a case? Ought you to give up that hope which Christ has so often bidden you hold fast? Should you give way to that despair to which nature and the temptations of the Devil would lead you? Or ought you not rather to find consolation in the loving kindness of Him who, when He is angry, is mindful of His mercies?

There is no need, my dear sister, for any great deliberation on this subject, but there is much for you to do; there is nothing at which to be dismayed, but great need of courage. Do not feel miserable about the state you are in, but rather, rejoice in God’s love for you, although you may not realize it at the time. Do not depend upon your feelings; they are often both misled and deceiving. Neither our confidence in our justification, nor our doubts about it affect the reality. “I do not judge myself,” said St. Paul. “He that judgeth me is the Lord.” Our folly is so great that it is often best for our souls to think that God loves us but little, or not at all. When we feel dry, sad, despondent, and afflicted, so that we seem to suffer the torments of Hell, our foolishness is more easily kept within bounds than when we are made presumptuous by the freedom and happiness that God’s consolations are wont to bring.

Like a loving Father, lest his children fall into negligence and false security, He hides the love He bears them, so that they may always preserve some holy fear to keep them from becoming negligent and so losing the inheritance he is keeping for them in the kingdom of Heaven. God knows how it torments these souls to feel that He is dissatisfied with them, how they are tempted when they think that He turns away from them; yet it is His wish that they should pass through this trial. Watching them and loving them as He does, He dissimulates His tenderness and keeps them safe by teaching them this painful lesson. He is the Father of all mercies, whose love for His children surpasses that of all earthly parents; He alone knows the full meaning of fatherhood, and in comparison with Him, other fathers can hardly be said to love or protect their children; so that He has bidden us call no man on earth our father but Him, our only refuge. So strong is His affection, and so watchful His care for our needs, that His paternity cannot be described in words. Yet this Father, ever anxious for our good, allows us to suffer persecutions from the Devil and from other sources, and not only watches in silence, but Himself sends us more trials and temptations.

After some great sorrow, God usually grants us happiness, as to Abraham He gave “Isaac, the desired,” whose name signifies “laughter.” After a while, the Almighty plunged the patriarch into grief again by commanding him to kill the son He had bestowed for his consolation. So does God often deprive His children of their happiness, bidding them sacrifice it and live in sadness. The Apostles felt perfectly safe and confident as they embarked with Christ in their boat, yet they were terrified when the storm arose which seemed likely to drown them, while He, on whose protection they depended, slept and appeared to have forgotten them. But our Lord had not forgotten them; it was His command that raised the tempest, and He was as watchful to deliver them as to place them in danger. Why, then, should you be troubled by the trials your Savior sends you? Why should you dislike the medicine which has come from the hands of your tender Father? Do you think He is austere enough to grieve you, and too weak to deliver you from the afflictions sent by Him? Does He lack mercy, that He will not pardon you and grant you greater graces than ever? Have a strong faith in God’s goodness, although to your weak under­standing, He seems severe. For your soul, confidence in His mercy is as far superior to distrust as the certainty of faith surpasses the ignorance of human reason.

God gives you these sufferings here to save you from those of eternity. He says of His vineyard: “I keep it night and day, there is no indignation in me against it.” He does not permit the sun to injure it by day, nor the moon by night: whether He consoles or afflicts us, He keeps His holy watch over us, and never so faith­fully as when we think He has abandoned us.

Trust in God’s judgment, dear sister, and not in your own, since He understands what is best for you and knows the present and future state of your soul. Do not weary yourself to death with anxiety, for, as the Gospel says: “You cannot with all your taking thought and caring add one cubit to your stature.” Why, then, rely so much on yourself; since God bids you confide in Him? Why struggle so to work out your salvation in your own way, while, after all, God’s abundant mercy will avail us far more than our imagined righteousness, when at the last we stand before His judgment.

Close your eyes to all that affrights you and trust in the wounds of Christ, who received them for your sake, and you will find rest. Until the horse ceases looking at the well, for fear of falling in, it will draw no water from it; and so, the more hopeless you feel of a remedy for your troubles, because you know not where to look nor what to do for one, the more hopeful is your state. This is because when human counsel and strength fail, God stretches forth His hand, and that is the hour He was waiting for, in which best to show His mercy. This is to show us that the remedy comes not from our own power, but from the loving and gracious will of God. Therefore, the more our misfortunes accumulate, the more ready and prepared our souls are to receive God’s mercy, for the greatness of our misery moves His compassion and causes Him to show the more pity for us.

“He raises up the needy from the earth and lifts up the poor out of the dunghill.” He will take from them the sackcloth of affliction and clothe them with the robe of gladness, so that they may confess His loving kindness and mercy. Thus, those who live desolate will praise Him, which greatly pleases Him, as He says: “Call on me in the day of tribulation and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt honor me.” Do not be disturbed if that time seems long in coming, for delay is not refusal, especially when the promise has been given by the Truth Himself. Your ears will surely one day hear the words: “Arise, make haste, my love, and come, for winter is now past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers are appearing” — flowers instead of thorns, and your soul shall cast away its mournfulness and bring forth the fruit of love.

Remember that on the eve of their deliverance, God’s chosen people were afflicted more than they had ever been; burden after burden was laid upon their shoulders, and they were cruelly scourged. So it is that after a night of tempest, the day dawns brightest; after the storm comes the fair weather, and when her travail is over, the mother rejoices in the birth of her child. You must believe that your trials are the heralds of great joy, for no soul deserves to possess peace and the delights of love, until it has been wearied in combat and tasted the bitterness of spiritual desolation.

God is proving you; be faithful to Him, and submit to all He sends you. Love Him, although He chastises you, and follow Him, although He turns away from you. If He answers not, never cease crying to Him, knowing that “you will not labor in vain, for He is faithful and cannot deny Himself and will not despise to the end the prayer of the poor.” He will rise and command the sea to be still, and He will give back the living Isaac to you. He will turn your mourning into joy and, after your many fights, will grant you abundance of peace. If your merits do not deserve all this, you will receive it from His bounty.

God asks you to learn to live among the thorns, where there is no place to lay your head; if you can do but little, you must compensate by suffering much. You must walk resolutely in the way of God, for the crown is lost only by those who go astray and renounce it. As for the remedy of your ills, God will give it; when and how you know not. For the afflictions you bear now you will have a fullness of joy, for which you must bless His Majesty both here and forever in heaven.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a letter in St. John of Avila’s Finding Confidence in Times of Trialwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press.

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St. John of Avila (1500-1569) led the authentic effort to reform the Church and Christian society during one of its darkest hours, largely through letters and meditations. Called a spiritual master by St. Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, and John Paul II, his writings are simple and profound.

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