I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog that I went through a period of desolation* a few years ago. I’ve vaguely written about how God’s presence seemed hidden from me during that time. But I’ve never gotten too deep into what exactly that looked like and how hard it actually was.
(*Disclaimer: I am no expert in the spiritual life. From what I have read in the book Temptation and Discernment by Segundo Galilea, I understand that a “desolation” is not the same as a “dark night of the soul” or “dark night of the senses.” A dark night of the soul or senses is a purifying experience from the hand of God, whereas a desolation is a temptation from Satan. I am not sure which of these, a dark night or a desolation, I went through. I am still trying to discern that, though since it’s over, I’m ultimately not sure if it matters. It remains a mystery to me, and perhaps it always will. For the sake of consistency and brevity, I will be referring to my experience as a “desolation.”)
During a routine chat with my spiritual mentor a few weeks ago, I told her that I was still struggling with certain aspects of that desolation—why it happened, the guilt I was feeling for not handling it better, the fear I felt at the thought that it could happen again. She encouraged me to revisit that time in my life in order to find healing. She wanted me to reflect on it, pray about it, receive mercy for it in the Eucharist and confession, and ultimately to offer my pain and confusion as redemptive suffering to God and to Mary. I’ve taken some of that advice to heart and I’m finding that the wounds that my desolation left me with are still so fresh, even though I’m back in a place of consolation (spiritual and sensible joy in one’s faith journey), even though I thought I had moved past that darkness. As part of that process of healing and self-forgiveness, I feel like now is a good time to share a bit more about my experience with desolation. It’s about to get real up in here.
Let me set the stage first. In 2008 I attended a retreat through a parish in my hometown that totally changed my life. Before, I was unsure of what role I wanted my faith to play in my life. I was curious about God and can honestly say that I wanted to love Him, but I didn’t know how, and I was scared of what I’d have to sacrifice in order to do so. This retreat made the love of Christ real to me for the first time. I saw and felt how deeply and personally He loved me, and that was the invitation I needed to take that leap into my Catholic faith. The retreat prompted me to go to Mass every Sunday. I started to pray regularly. I tried to live a more virtuous life. I read religious books and websites to feed my zeal. My faith life was very much rooted in the “warm fuzzies” that Jesus gave me. I was hopelessly in love with Him and did whatever I could to fan those flames and keep those feelings going.
One day in the summer of 2011, I was getting ready to do some reading on a website dedicated to mystics of the Church. As I read, I was overcome not by a sense of wonder and love, but by a chilling and unsettling sense of emptiness. I felt nothing as I read. I read it again and again, thinking maybe I was just having a day where my feelings were out of whack. But I still felt nothing. I turned to prayer. But that feeling of nothingness persisted. I begged God to let me feel even a shred of the passion I once did, but in the days that followed that first encounter with that feeling of nothingness, I began to think that nothing would bring that joy back. I was devastated and confused. What’s worse, I was preparing to go to a conference for young adults that were discerning a life of service to the Church, and I no longer felt that I was being led to ministry. I felt as if everything I thought I knew about myself, my calling, my faith, and my God had fallen out from under my feet, and I had no idea what to do other than panic and think that God was testing me, or punishing me for something I had done wrong. I felt as if I didn’t know who I was anymore, which is one of the most wrenching and confusing things I’ve ever felt.
I went back to college a few weeks later to continue working toward my religious studies degree, to complete an internship with the local archdiocesan offices, and to serve as a lector and Extraordinary Minister of Communion at Mass—all things that I felt I had lost my passion for. I felt like I was living a double life, being involved in campus ministry and earning my degree in religious studies for the sake of looking like a good Catholic student but feeling no passion and no love for those pursuits. I began to talk to the school’s campus ministry director about what I was going through and she thought that perhaps this loss of feeling for my faith meant that God wanted me to find passion and meaning elsewhere. I tried to heed her advice but nothing felt right. I wanted to move on from the way my life used to be and to embrace this new season of dryness, but whenever I tried, I was met with crippling anxiety, guilt, and the fear that I was doing something terribly wrong. I felt caught between the old and the new, one foot in both, unable to pick up one foot to plant it firmly with the other. I wanted the feelings and the passion and the joy. I wanted to feel something when I prayed and when I went to church. I wanted the conviction back. But all signs pointed to them not returning. And I had the hardest time accepting that, and the hardest time holding on to my faith as the feelings of dryness and emptiness and coldness persisted. After awhile, I lost heart. I stopped praying. When I was at home, I didn’t go to Mass. I tried to find happiness in other pursuits. I tried to define myself as a writer, as a concert-goer and music junkie. But nothing I tried brought me the same joy as my faith once did. All the searching felt fruitless and empty, but so did my faith. I felt stuck, quite simply.
After a little bit of wandering in the desert, I started to grow angry at God and frustrated with my faith. I began to view Catholicism as outdated and too conservative, and I entertained the notion of finding a new faith tradition. But I never truly left Catholicism. I became entrenched in moral relativism, and embraced a less orthodox expression of Catholicism, but I always identified myself as Catholic. I started to go to Mass again, even though I still felt nothing when I went. I attended purely out of a sense of guilty obligation. I didn’t want to go, but I felt I was doing something wrong by not going. I avoided praying, as it made me feel anxious and guilty.
I came upon the position for a missionary intern at Bishop Hodges in West Virginia in the spring of 2014, during some mindless searching on a Catholic job search site. I had no reason for wanting to look into the job. I still wasn’t comfortable with my faith. I had never worked in youth ministry. I had never been to West Virginia. But I felt inexplicably called to apply. So I did. I had my interview. And I was offered the position. I was nervous to start because of the crisis I was going through in my faith. I felt like a liar, like I did when I went to Mass in college and kept working toward my theology degree. But I kept following that call.
After a few weeks at Bishop Hodges, I felt like Jesus was calling me to re-enter into my former relationship with Him. I felt prompted to start praying. And my first few attempts at it felt painful, empty, and false. I’m not sure how, but my desolation had led me to adopt an angry, loose-cannon image of Jesus, where the sight of my smallest fault would send Him into a rage and lead Him to scold me. I had avoided talking to Him for a long time because of that image, and that anxiety persisted for my first few months at Bishop Hodges. I still prayed, but I felt like I had to tread lightly when I did.
I fought through that anxiety, though. I kept praying. I kept going to Mass. The process of healing from the wounds of that desolation was slow. It took awhile before I felt like I was finally free of the lies I had come to believe about Jesus—that He was angry, impatient, and demanded absolute perfection of me. But the process, as hard as it was, was also one of the most beautiful, breathtaking things I’ve ever gone through. It was learning Jesus and my faith all over again, from square one, like learning to see and walk again after spending years crawling and fumbling through the dark. Jesus astounded and continues to astound me with His patience, gentleness, love, and utter respect and care for my woundedness. He wasn’t frightened or disgusted by it. He never pushed me too hard too fast. He took His sweet time, revealing things to me exactly as I needed them. And He was generous in showing me that my fears about Him were unfounded and false. Recovering from that desolation and coming back into a place of consolation has been the greatest miracle I have ever witnessed. I am so, so humbled by the work that Jesus has done in me. I’ve also returned to greater orthodoxy in my own Catholic faith and beliefs. There are still some teachings I wrestle with, but I trust the Church’s claim to the Truth and am working on accepting those teachings. And I have embraced several more traditional practices that terrified me before I came to Bishop Hodges: praying the rosary, devotion to the saints and to Mary, and devotion to Divine Mercy.
But the full work of healing from that desolation isn’t over. A few months ago I was reading St. Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography, and one night I came upon her account of a darkness she was going through as she wrote. She described the darkness she saw and felt inside of her, and how the thoughts of heaven that once filled her with delight now left her feeling cold and even repulsed. But she considered it a great honor to undergo such trials for love of her Lord. As I read that, I was overcome by guilt and burst into tears. I felt like I had failed at my walk through my desolation. St. Therese had handled her darkness so heroically, and I let mine lead me away from Jesus and from my true faith. I didn’t persevere like she did. I gave up. And the shame of that knowledge crushed me. I began to grow angry again and just wanted to understand why I went through that darkness and how Jesus could let me fall so far from Him.
I am still working on reconciling what I went through during that desolation. I think I am moving toward greater acceptance of it, though. Last week, per the suggestion of my spiritual mentor, I prayed a full rosary (all four sets of mysteries) as an offering not just of the pain and wrongdoing that came with that desolation, but also of the confusion, regret, and guilt that I am facing now from it. I’ve been trying to pray the rosary every day for the last few months, but this was the first time that I saw my life reflected in the mysteries of the rosary. It was the first time I had ever thought to offer the pain of my desolation with the suffering of Christ while praying the sorrowful mysteries. And it was the first time I had ever seen myself caught up in the Paschal Mystery. Just as Christ lived, died, and rose again, I looked back on my faith journey so far and saw life, suffering and death, and then resurrection. I don’t know that I could ever pray that kind of rosary ever again, but it turned out to be a profoundly reflective and enlightening experience.
Healing from my desolation has been slow. I’ve cried, prayed, questioned, and asked for mercy, and I’m not sure how much closer I am to getting answers to all my remaining questions. I do think I am in a much better place than I was before I went through that darkness. Maybe my experience was meant to be purifying. Maybe God had to, in a way, withdraw from me so I could be ready to come even closer to Him. Like I said, I don’t know for sure, and maybe I never will. But I trust that if Jesus wants me to understand, He’ll make me understand in due time.
The only thing I know for sure is that sometimes you need the darkness to appreciate the light. Sometimes you need to walk through the valley to truly love the mountaintops. It doesn’t always make sense. It seems cruel, knowing that God would put us through that. But He does it because He loves us and He does it for our good. He would never let us suffer needlessly. There is always grace in darkness, if we are willing to look for it, or if we at least trust that it’s there.