Spiritual Desolation | spiritual desolation


One of the most common traits shared by saints and by religious in general is spiritual dryness. Many of the most important Catholics in the history of the tradition – from John of the Cross to Mother Teresa – have lived and written about encountering spiritual dryness.

In this article, I will discuss what spiritual dryness means, why it is experienced, and how many spiritual teachers in the Catholic tradition have dealt with it. First, defining what Catholicism means by spiritual life is beneficial.

What is spiritual life?

Admittedly, any discussion of the spiritual life requires a certain amount of anthropology. In order to know what the spiritual life entails with respect to human beings, we must understand what a human being is.

Depending on its purpose and perspective, a definition of a human being can take many forms. For the purposes of this article, I will define a human being as a creature composed of a material body and a rational soul that is made in the image of God.

From the Catholic point of view, spirituality goes back to the letters of Paul. Imbued with the grace of God, the soul develops the desire and the capacity to grow in union with the triune God. It encompasses the dynamic character of human life lived in conscious relationship with God in Christ by spirit, as lived within a community of believers. Therefore, Catholic spirituality is about attending to what is of God and going deeper into a life of conversion and discipleship.

As stated above, human beings are composite creatures; made of a spiritual soul and a material body. The spiritual aspect of a person is that which is beyond the physical body. For example, conscience and prayer are not reducible to the physical body. This is not to overlook the importance of a person’s physical component. The physical senses and desires are all part of being human.

Nevertheless, the spiritual soul, which is made in the image of God, must have preeminence. Therefore, when a person is in the right relationship with God, the passions of the body are subordinated to the rationality of the soul.

Disturbingly, the Bible suggests that human beings are engaged in a kind of civil war, with body and mind in conflict. Saint Paul writes: “For the flesh hath lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; they are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. (Galatians 5:17).

For this reason, the Bible often makes a clear distinction between the spiritual life and the carnal life. In the Gospel of John, we read: “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh avails nothing. The words I spoke to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63).

Having now defined the spiritual life as that which is ordained to God and to discipleship, we are able to understand what is meant by spiritual dryness.

Meet the drought

Since spiritual dryness is the absence of spiritual consolations, it is helpful to understand dryness in relation to spiritual consolations.

Consolation occurs when the soul is moved by grace to become “Inflamed with love for its Creator and Lord; and when he can, therefore, love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but in the Creator of all. (Saint Ignatius of Loyola, discernment of spirits).

In other words, spiritual consolation gives us an authentic experience of God’s love. Such an experience of God’s love causes the individual to desire an even greater union with God. God provides the individual with consolations to renew and reward his spiritual faithfulness.

Yet the pace of spiritual life is such that consolations tend to come and go. It is not uncommon for one to experience long periods of time without feeling or sensing the union with God that the soul desires. These periods of time are called spiritual drought or desolation.

For Saint Ignatius and John of the Cross, the reason for spiritual dryness is due to the fallen nature of humanity. Still, that’s not the most important thing to understand about drought. On the contrary, such a time should be seen as a time when God purifies the soul.

John of the Cross identifies two types of spiritual dryness. The first type, which John calls the dark night of the senses, is meant to purge the senses of those things that hinder spiritual progress. In addition, such purification helps to order the body to the soul.

The second type of dryness, the dark night of the soul, affects the soul by purifying it in order to prepare it for union with God. Ultimately, these times of spiritual desolation are meant to strip the soul of any attachment that hinders union with God while reminding the individual of their total dependence on God.

overcome the dark night

Like many things in life, expert advice can be very beneficial. So it is with spiritual matters. Since saints are, by definition, friends of God, learning how saints deal with spiritual desolation is invaluable.

The first advice is simple, persevere. Saint Paul of the Cross writes: “Don’t give up, but keep going. Use small, short prayers, especially acts of acceptance of the Most Holy Will of God. For example: “O dear Will of my God, be blessed forever! O most sweet Will! May You always be fulfilled by all.

Very often spiritual desolation makes even prayer difficult. This is why Saint Francis de Sales suggests doing good works. Works done “In times of drought possess more sweetness and become more precious in the eyes of God.”

The combination of perseverance in prayer, sacramental life and good works makes it possible to endure spiritual dryness. As always, one should have complete trust in God.


A life lived by faith can often involve times of feeling spiritually alone. Saint Thérèse and John of the Cross often described this period as black night.

In the previous book, I sought to shed light on this phenomenon. It is obvious that, although disturbing, periods of spiritual desolation are frequent.

It is the advice of many saints that one endures the dark night by persevering in prayer and the sacramental life, as well as engaging in good works.

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