When was the last time you really felt close to God?
If you’d asked me that question a year or so ago, I would have struggled to answer. The truth is, for almost three-and-a-half years my spiritual life felt very dry, and there were many times when I wondered if I was losing the faith I’d had since I was a child.
From the outside, nothing was particularly different. But on the inside, I felt like I was talking to a brick wall when I prayed — as though God had just disappeared all of a sudden.
The only thing that gave me any sense of connection with God was being in the presence of the Eucharist in adoration and during Mass. But even then, when I knew He was with me, He felt silent and distant.
Things began to change when I used a devotional journal to pray through the days following Easter and leading up to Pentecost. Perhaps it’s because I’m a writer, but with a pen in my hand, I suddenly felt free to tell God how frustrated, angry, empty, and alone I felt; writing unblocked something inside me. Why didn’t you give us any consolation or relief when Dad was dying? Why couldn’t I feel your presence with us when I needed you most? I felt a great sense of relief as I talked to God more honestly than I had for years.
Little by little over the next year, I felt my spiritual life start to revive and flourish. I felt the Holy Spirit moving in my heart as I walked outside on a glorious autumn day, heard the Lord calling me to a deeper union with Him in the sacraments, and found great joy and new depths of meaning in my spiritual reading. I even felt God give me little nudges in my daily life to make more loving and healthy decisions. I felt the evidence of His tender love everywhere I turned.
The period following my father’s death may have been the longest spiritual dry spell I’ve experienced, but it definitely wasn’t the first. Throughout my life, I’ve found that while my intellectual faith has remained pretty steady, my feelings ebb and flow. Sometimes, I’m so overcome with a sense of God’s presence that I can hardly remember what it’s like not to feel close to Him; and at other times I feel completely numb, as though I’m just going through the motions, hanging on to my faith by a thread.
Whenever we feel this way, though, we can take comfort in the knowledge that we’re in good company: some of the greatest saints of history suffered through long periods of spiritual darkness. St. John of the Cross described it as the “dark night of the soul.” St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote that she felt as though she was in a dark tunnel without any consolation or comfort from God as she approached death. And St. Mother Teresa spent almost 50 years of her ministry serving the poor and sick with the Missionaries of Charity feeling (in her own words) a “terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting [her], of God not being God, of God not really existing.”
Our experience won’t always be quite as dramatic as this, but by their example, the saints show us how to cope with these dry — even dark — phases of our spiritual life. We, like them, have to make an active choice to keep going, even when we just aren’t feeling it. As Father Josh Johnson shared on a recent podcast, “Sometimes we can’t see the grace that God has given us in prayer, but we just have to believe that’s He’s giving it, even if we don’t know what He’s doing — we have to keep showing up.”
If we only exercised, brushed our teeth, or showered when we felt like it, only practiced a craft or sport on the days when it felt good to do so, we wouldn’t be able to stay healthy and happy or to grow and develop our skills. Remaining constant in our habits and consistent in our outward actions can help carry our faith through tough times, as our feelings come and go.
In some ways, being in a relationship with God is just like being in any other kind of relationship; we don’t always feel like showing up or doing the hard work of relationships with our friends, spouses, children, or families. Opening up and sharing our hearts, serving, and loving others is often far from easy or joyful, but we still have to stick with it through tough times to keep those relationships healthy.
In fact, it’s during the tough times that we need the grace of the sacraments the most. Mass, confession, adoration, spiritual reading, journaling, and prayer are all good habits that strengthen our spiritual muscles for those times when our faith seems distant. St. Paul talks about a life of faith being like a race, but I don’t think he means that we have to rush — rather, that we need to approach our faith as seriously as an athlete approaches training: with dedication and commitment, even when it doesn’t feel good.
Grounding our faith in strong habits can be a source of great consolation to us in times of crisis, explains Lisa Brenninkmeyer, founder of Walking With Purpose, a ministry designed to encourage women to read more Scripture. As she shared on The Gathering Place podcast, when we practice our faith without the discipline of habit, we run the risk of “riding the wave of our emotion rather than being grounded in something that’s beyond us.”
It can be totally devastating to feel distant from God. During tough times, I’ve found myself thinking, if my faith is based on the idea that I am in a relationship with God, surely I should be able to feel that He is there, in my heart, right? Looking back now, I can see that during those years of spiritual dryness, when I was haunted by a sense of loss and absence, my faith was like a seed underground. God was there, working in my heart the whole time — I just couldn’t see what He was doing.
I don’t have any easy answers for why God sometimes allows us to feel abandoned and alone, especially during tough times, but I do know this: our feelings may be inconsistent and fickle, but God’s love for us isn’t.