Thursday, October 27, 2011

Time for God?

Expecting to get by spiritually without prayer is like planting a tree in your cellar and expecting it to survive without light or water. Prayer provides the sun and rain that our souls absolutely need to live and grow. While artificial light and watering by hand might work with a plant, there are no real substitutes for prayer with the soul. Of course, we try all kinds of substitutes—entertainment, food, romance, vacations, etc.—all good things, but merely gifts and no replacement for the Giver. The soul can't  thrive being stored away in the basement of our being: it needs to be exposed to the Son.
    What keeps many of us from praying is how hard it is. Sometimes, especially when people first discover God, He blesses their prayer time abundantly, and they are filled with joy and even excitement. But we don’t always experience that, and it can be discouraging. It’s imperative to know what’s going on there. It’s not that we’ve failed, that we don’t have enough faith, that God isn’t real, or that He doesn’t hear us or care about us. Granted, sometimes someone’s prayer can falter because that person has put something ahead of God and is denying it or pretending that it doesn’t matter. But prayer can be and often is a difficult thing to do even when that is not the case.
    This is where the images of sun and rain can help again. We have sunny prayer times and rainy prayer times. Traditionally, in spiritual writings, the former have been called “consolations” and the latter “desolations.” (Desolation has since taken on a more dire connotation, calling to mind a condition near despair. That is not what is meant here, but something closer to “deprivation.”) Their Latin origins are helpful: consolation is the act of comforting, of being with someone; desolation is the condition of being deserted, abandoned. (Note, however, that with spiritual desolation, the Lord has not actually abandoned the soul; it only feels that way.)
    Of course, just as many times we prefer a sunny day to a rainy one, so also we much prefer consolations in prayer to desolations. However, just as the plant needs both, so do our souls. A plant that received only the sun and no rain would wither up and die. A soul that received only consolations would also get “burnt”: would likely become complacent, would fail to grow, and might even die through falling into spiritual pride, the worst sin. Too much rain, on the other hand, would drown both the plant and the soul, while total deprivation from the sun would prevent any growth. So the Lord wisely sends us both sun and rain.
    We can see why He sends us the sunny times. During them, we feel encouraged and eager to do His will and help our neighbor. We have new insights into the spiritual life and are on fire with love for Him. But why do we need those rainy desolations? Because they too are critical to our growth. 
     It is during times of desolation that we discover or re-discover how much we need God and how little really we can do on our own. Thus we have the chance to deepen our humility and our dependence on God. And it is while we are enduring desolation that we can really grow in virtue—especially the three biggies: faith, hope, and charity. Do we build muscle when we’re being carted around? No. We build muscle when our muscles work, when they are challenged, even resisted (hence, resistance exercises' popularity nowadays). Similarly, our faith grows when it has to work, when it’s challenged, even resisted; so too with hope and love. 
     We don’t know all the ways that God is working in us when we are faithful to prayer in times of desolation. Just as the rain is sinking into the earth to reach the plant’s roots, desolations are feeding our souls in unseen ways.

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