I take some comfort in the face that virtually all the masters of spiritually recount a dark night of the soul. Sometimes it passes quickly and sometimes it persists for months, even years. I have yet to find a single witness, though, who does not tell of going through a dry period. Teresa of Avila spent twenty years in a nearly prayer less state before breaking through to emerge as a master of prayer. William Cowper had prayer times in which he thought he would die from excess of joy; but later he described himself as “banished to a remoteness from God’s presence, in comparison with which the distance from the East to the West is vicinity.”
Religious radio and television, as well as certain books and magazines, say little of God’s silence. By their accounts God seems to speak volubly, commanding this minister to build a new sanctuary and that housewife to lunch a new Web-based company. God represents success, good feelings, a sense of peace, a warm glow. To an audience regaled by such inspiring stories, and encounter with the silence of God hits like a shocking exceptions and stirs up feelings of inadequacy.
The exception, in fact, is the cheery optimism of modern consumer-oriented faith. FOr centuries Christians learned what to except on the spiritual journey from the bumbling pilgrim in Pilgrim’s Progress, from John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, from Thomas a Kempis’s challenging Imitation of Christ. The one mentor who wrote most openly about the presence of God, brother Lawrence, composed his thoughts while washing dishes and cleaning toilets.
If I suffer a time of spiritual aridity, of darkness and blankness, should I stop praying until new life enters my prayer? Every one of the spiritual masters insists, No. If I stop praying, how will I know when prayer does become alive again? And, as many Christians have discovered, the habit of not praying is far more difficult to break than the habit of praying.