One of the things about a leafless tree that is so striking to me is how much sunlight makes it through to places that likely haven’t seen the sun, or at least not much of it, for months.
A while back I wrote about leaves gathering energy from the sun, which at the time had turned my thoughts toward being still in the presence of God. The felt presence of God feels so good. It’s life-giving and affirming. It encourages us when we’ve lost heart. It eases our troubled minds.
But what about when we can’t feel the presence of God? We may have become accustomed to knowing God in a particular way – and then suddenly, it doesn’t work anymore. What does this mean? Have we made God angry? Does God not care about us anymore? Have we been forgotten or abandoned?
Contemplatives like St. John of the Cross have written about these experiences, calling them the Dark Night of Sense, which Thomas Keating defines as a “period of spiritual dryness and purification of one’s motivation initiated by the Holy Spirit, hence also called passive purification.” (Intimacy with God, 191). In other words, our motivation toward spiritual exercises or experiences can often be clouded or mixed. Sometimes we may desire “a touch” from God, not out of a desire for a deeper connection or relationship, but simply to feel better. The same need to feel good might just as well be met by a compliment from someone or a by bowl of ice cream.
But what do we do if our go-to praise song or prayer routine doesn’t work? What if it doesn’t make us feel good? Will we keep on singing? Will we keep on praying? The decision to keep going even without the reward of feeling good is part of the process of purification.
In the spiritual life, as in the created and natural world, there are seasons. And what is good and fitting in one season, might not always carry over into the next season. Perhaps the next time we find ourselves in a period of dryness and darkness, we might consider what we’re being invited to shed, to prune, and to leave behind. The irony is that in these times that seem so dark, the most light is able to shine through.