Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House
In our spiritual life – particularly in our individual and interior relationship with God (which for shorthand we call prayer) – we often look for some kind of feeling or sense of connection in our emotions or even in our intellect. We feel that the soul (the anima) should in some way be animated. In evangelical spirituality this feeling or sense of connection is called ‘assurance’; in more catholic spirituality it is called ‘consolation’.
If you are a praying person you will have some inkling of what I am writing about. If you are a praying person you will also know that sometimes one can experience times of dryness and frigidity in prayer. Some people describe it as ‘a sense of nothing being there’ or ‘no response’. This is in contrast to earlier experiences.
In the vast majority of cases, individuals experience the ‘dry emptiness’ in contrast to times of assurance and consolation. Some, however, pursue a life of prayer without any such encouragement. These few are special indeed; most probably very special to God. Their prayer is near to being a pure self-giving to God.
To call these experiences ‘the dark night of the soul’ is a bit dramatic. To my mind they are something to be expected as a given in our relationship with God. In the end, and in the beginning, it is all the work of God’s grace and we should be thankful to him for what he gives. If we start from this point it is not such a shock when one day the Lord is not present to us in the same way. ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’
We must continue in the knowledge that Christ is in charge and that ‘our lives are hidden with Christ in God.’ Reflections on this experience are legion in the library of Christian spirituality and most witnesses agree that the prayer which is the naked act of will,
‘the longing dart into God’s love’, is one that God takes and uses for his own end.
This leads me to state another obvious point. Prayer is for God’s benefit and not ours. He takes it and uses it, as he wills, for the sake of his beloved creation. This goes against the contemporary grain. So much popular spirituality is little more than a course in self-development or self-fulfilment.
Anyone would think that the life of prayer should lead to something cosy and rewarding! Maybe it will – but not in this life! One of the roles of the spiritual director is to encourage others to keep going, to help them see that their desire to pray is the Holy Spirit powerfully at work in them. He helps them reflect on the bigger picture – which is beyond our imagining.
Two facts about God in his relationship with us should always be remembered. The first is that he knows our needs and will answer them when it is needful. The second is that ‘the one who calls you is faithful, and he will accomplish it.’ Thanks be to God for all his goodness to us.