One of the most common and deplorable illusions consists in judging of our prayer by the consolation or dryness we meet with therein. In thinking it good because accompanied by consolation, bad, if chilled by desolation. No, no, such is not the case. The best prayer, were it ever so dry, is that which leaves us more humble, more disposed to renounce ourselves, to practice obedience, to live the life of dependence which our state requires, to bear with our brethren, and never to be a burden to others. In a word, to do in all things the will of God. On the other hand, our prayer, were it an ocean of sweetness, is barren and even baneful when it leaves us more full of ourselves, more attached to our consolations. For our end here below is not enjoyment, but ever to tend to perfection.
Since consolations and aridities may serve or injure us according to the use we make of them, let us examine then what they are, whence they come, whither they tend, and how we are to make use of them. We will here speak chiefly of the consolations and aridities which are met with in ordinary prayer, as we mean to give later on an explanation of the passive purifications and the joys of mystical contemplation.
Devotion is the promptitude with which the will tends to the service of God, to prayer as well as to other duties. The whole substance and marrow of devotion consists in this promptitude, quickness, agility, holy ardour, generosity, and devotedness of the will. With this disposition of souls we possess the essence of devotion. Without it we have only its phantom and this is why this readiness of will is called substantial devotion.
Generally speaking, it is seasoned with a certain charm and sweetness. We tend with love and keen relish to the things of God. We are well with Him. The soul is at peace, the heart joyful, and duty is easy. This sweetness is not devotion; for, without it, the will may be prompt in the service of God; but being superadded to devotion as accident to substance, it is called accidental devotion.
If it remain in the soul without passing into the senses, we have accidental spiritual devotion. If it spread from the soul to the senses like the overflow of a vessel which is too full, we then have accidental sensible devotion, or, to express it more concisely, sensible devotion. Then the heart is dilated with joy, and beats with more life, the eyes glisten and moisten with tears, the face is radiant, the voice full of emotion, all the senses filled with sweet impressions. And this sometimes reaches even to a kind of transport and of spiritual inebriation.
Sometimes, on the other hand, although the will does its duty with generosity, the senses are not affected. The soul is not pervaded by this sweetness. It feels itself abandoned. The mind is empty and has no ideas, the heart is cold and conceives only affections without relish, and the will remains without energy. This is aridity, dryness, abandonment, desolation.
According to St. Liguori, says Fr. Desurmont:
“There are three kinds of ordinary mental prayer. The first is easy prayer, in which the soul, aided by grace, produces (at least with ease, and sometimes with sweetness) the various acts peculiar to conversation with God. The second is dry prayer, during which the soul can only make petitions, and humble and resign itself. The third is the prayer of desolation, in which the soul can hardly do more than utter a cry of alarm.”
According to this teaching, then, consolations are not devotion. For the prompt will, which is the essence of devotion, may very well subsist without consolations, or be altogether wanting in spite of their presence.
St. Francis of Sales gives as an example a child who weeps tenderly on seeing its mother bled, but none the less refuses to give her the apple it holds in its hand. So some souls experience great tenderness of heart, utter sighs, and shed tears when meditating on the Passion, but will not sacrifice to Our Lord some trifling affection, delight, or satisfaction, which He wishes to take from them.
Such persons have, indeed, some feelings, but they have no devotedness. Their sensibility alone is touched, their will is not devoted to God.
“Ah! All that is only children’s friendship, tender indeed, but weak, fanciful and without effect. Devotion, therefore, does not consist in these tender feelings and sensible affections.”
On the other hand, dryness does not always prove a want of devotion. Certainly, if the will faces its duty feebly, if it has become cowardly and without energy with regard to obedience, mutual forbearance, humiliations, etc. If in time of prayer it makes hardly any effort against distractions, and does itself no violence to keep united to God, the soul has lost not only the sweetness of devotion but devotion itself. But if the will remains prompt and generous in fulfilling its duties, if, in prayer, it does what it can to remain united to God, even though it may hardly succeed in so doing, the soul has lost only sensible devotion, but has preserved substantial devotion, and has not ceased to belong to God and to please Him.
The Origin and Tendency of Consolations and Desolations
Consolations and desolations may come from God, from nature, or from the demon.
In order to attract the soul to spiritual goods, God at first feeds it with the milk of interior consolations, with an abundance of happy tears. This is not a proof that the soul is strong and devout, but rather that it is weak, since God treats it as a child. It is God, who is good, and not ourselves. He lavished upon us His consolations and caresses us to the end that those higher joys may banish from our mind the coarse delights of this earth, that our heart may be won by His goodness, and that we may lovingly embrace His will by our obedience and fidelity.
But, alas! These bounties of God inspire us with a secret self-complacency, which is displeasing to Him, and we seize upon these spiritual sweets with a greediness which St. John of the Cross calls spiritual gluttony, so that “we seek the consolations of God as much and perhaps more than we do the God of consolations. And, if this sweetness were separable from love, we would abandon love to keep the sweetness.”
Hence it is that, as soon as we are capable of supporting the withdrawal of these consolations, without abandoning virtue, God takes them from us, because we make a bad use of them.
He withdraws them, because we have been negligent in receiving them, and so when we get up to gather the manna, behold, it is melted away!
He withdraws them because we cannot at the same time enjoy earthly and heavenly delights. The seeking of our own satisfaction, disorderly attachment to creatures, deliberate venial sin, and especially a habit of such sins, effectually dry up devotion.
He withdraws then, adds St. Bernard, on account of our pride. Whether it be that we have already fallen into this vice, or that we should, without this withdrawal, fall into it.
“The taking away of grace, is a proof of pride….Pride, either already existing in the soul, or to be apprehended in the future, is always a cause of the withdrawal of grace” (St. Bernard, In Cant. Serm., 54, no. 10).
According to Fr. Faber:
“The time of prayer is God’s time for punishing us for our faults. Then it is that our venial sins, our slight infidelities, our inordinate friendships, our worldly attachments rise up against us, and we must pay the penalty of them.”
It would perhaps be more exact to say that God awaits us there in order to admonish us of our faults, to correct us like a father, and to bring us back to our duty.
In short, then, by sending us dryness, God means to humble us. To detach us from creatures, to complete the purification of our soul, to lead us to a better appreciation of His gifts, to a more ardent desire for them, and to a greater readiness to make sacrifices in order to seek them. It is one of the ways, one of the artifices of God’s love to make Himself loved, to unite Himself more closely with a soul hungering and panting with the desire of Him, and to make it, in the meantime, practice more heroic and more meritorious acts of virtue.
The demon has no power to enter directly into our intellect and will, but he can exert a great influence over the blood, the humours, the nerves, the imagination, and the senses. Sometimes he excited in us feelings of sweetness and consolation; he thus urges the soul to indiscretion in austere practices, in order to render it useless by ruining its health, or to drive it later on into discouragement, by the fatigue caused by a burden which is too heavy. He entices it to take a secret complacence in its own virtue, or to conceive an inordinate love of these spiritual sweets.
Whilst engaging the soul in this treacherous game, he hides from the soul defects and faults which stand in much need of correction. He tries to persuade the soul that it is remarked and admired. He urges it to desire supernatural favours that may set it on a pedestal of honor. He seeks, in a word, to throw it into pride and sentimentalism, at the expense of true spiritual progress, which is ever solidly based on humility and abnegation.
Sometimes again the demons creates dryness in the soul to cause disunion between it and God, and that too, in prayer itself, whose end is to foster divine union. He fatigues the mind by a multitude of impertinent thoughts. He aggravates the apparent sterility of its prayer by temptations of all sorts; he overwhelms the sufferer with sleep, sadness, vexation. He suggests abominable thoughts. He hopes that the soul will be lost by consenting to evil, or at least be discouraged. Can God hear a prayer so ill made? Is it not a mockery to multiply acts of faith, love, and such like, when it seems to us that we believe in nothing, and that our heart is frozen?
Instead of accepting our prayer shall not God be rather offended by it? Is it worth while taking so much trouble to arrive at nothing but committing sins even in prayer? Then, if God sends us neither light nor devotion, is it not because he is indifferent, irritated, implacable? We serve Him so ill! We don’t even know how to pray! In short, the demons wish to make us abandon prayer, or to render it sterile. And for this object the attraction of pleasure, the fear of difficulties, presumption, or despair – anything at all will suit his purpose – provided only that he can separate the soul from God and make us partakers of his own lot, which is banishment from heaven and eternal torments.
This article is taken from a chapter in The Ways of Mental Prayer by Rt. Rev. Dom Vitalis Lehodey which is available from TAN Books.