Our awareness of God grows in the context of human experience, and as our understanding of ourselves deepens, so does our spiritual life. We don’t live faith backwards: God always takes us forward to a larger place.
We can look back on our lives and see times when we were very aware of the Sacred in us and around us. There were special grace-filled moments, some big, some small, when we knew we were held by a loving Presence. We also realised that Spirituality is not a static state. It’s about movement. We can use the metaphors of growth or journey or talk about unwrapping the truth. It is a slow but constant process of transformation and it is what we are born for.
The movement is one of love.
But we all have, desert experiences, times when our spiritual well seems bone dry. The writers of the Psalms knew these. ‘I cry to you, God, do not be silent…’. ‘It is you God who are my shelter: why do you abandon me?’ Sometimes the Psalmists were desperate: in Psalm 102 we have these vivid images:
‘My days are vanishing like smoke, my bones smouldering like logs, my heart shrivelling like scorched grass and my appetite is gone. Whenever I heave a sigh, my bones stick through my skin. I live in a desert like the pelican, in a ruin like a screeching owl, I stay away lamenting like a lone bird on a roof.’
When our well feels empty, we may be like that psalmist, but more often than not we simply have a feeling of dryness. Worship, once important to us, loses its meaning. God seems distant.
Let’s look at some of the situations that have us feeling our well is empty.
1. Dryness from Pain and Loss
There is very little comfort in severe suffering. Even Jesus cried out on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!’ I know that scholars tell us he was simply quoting from a psalm, but this was not a time for quotation. He was in agony. And that’s the kind of thing we might say when we are suffering. God seems far, far away!
At times of severe loss, I’ve had no words for prayer but when the pain of grief was severe, I would imagine myself in a great sandstorm, my arms wrapped around the base of the cross. That stopped me from being swept away. That visual prayer was a metaphor for something very real. It’s what the cross is all about, a reminder that God is with us in our pain, and that there will always be a time of resurrection.
If I can change the metaphor, we can in a spiritual sense, see pain as birthing experience. Something new will come of this, but in the meantime, we need to be midwives for each other. Men and women alike, we all go through these spiritual birthings, and men and women alike, are midwives accompanying someone through what seems to be lonely and pointless suffering.
2. Dryness at a Distance from Rain
The second type of dryness usually comes from busyness that doesn’t allow time for spiritual awareness and practice. It’s an easy dryness to fix because once we recognise it, we know how to fill the well.
There is an old saying, ‘The iron grows cold away from the fire.’
We might say, ‘The well is dry away from the rain.’ We all know how this works. We need prayer.
Busyness though, is a problem. It seems that there is a host of demands keeping us on the surface of life and preventing us from reconnecting with the depths of God’s grace. What do we do about that?
Sometimes, when my diary gets full, my well gets empty and I have to change my prayer schedule. Instead of starting a day with a whole hour of scripture and contemplative prayer, I try to punctuate a busy day with one minute prayers. This is easily done. I pause for a minute, see beauty in something and go further to see God in that beauty. Just 60 seconds – and it works! A one minute prayer six or seven times during a busy day keeps our well filled.
3. Dryness from a Need to Move
This too, is something we recognise and can do something about. It is not so much a feeling of dryness as of stagnation, and it is probably caused because we are not moving in our faith. It comes when God is prompting us to a larger place. But in our minds, there are old voices that tell us doubt is a sin and certainty is a virtue. Actually, it’s the other way around.
Certainty keeps us stuck in one place. Doubt invites us to grow. Whether we use the metaphors of growth or journey, our faith needs movement. Always that movement is to a wider and deeper place that brings us closer to God.
What do we do when we have the dryness of stagnation? We need to fill our well with freshness. We read books in our own traditions, texts written by people of mature faith. They will help us let go of ideas that are no longer meaningful for us. We can read books by other religious traditions. That is hugely reassuring, because we find that every religion, at a mature level, says the same thing – God is in all things, and God’s presence is light and love. We do all this reading and exploring with prayer and in the company of Jesus, who will guide us to truth in whatever we read.
4. The dryness of Kenosis
There will be times in our lives when we feel the dryness of emptiness. Perhaps there is some change. Something we relied on, has been taken away and we don’t know what will replace it. This can be a dead feeling and if we relate it to Jesus; crucifixion and resurrection, we call it the time in the tomb. It is difficult to accept that empty feeling, and the risk is that we’ll get stuck with anger, resentment, bitterness. But so often, that emptying is preparation for a larger gift. After all, nothing can be poured into a cup that is already full. This is a time when we take no action but hold the emptiness in prayer, knowing that like winter trees, we are being prepared for the season of growth.
Times of dryness come to us all. No matter how we see it at the time, a season of dryness serves spiritual growth. It’s what Jesus meant by ‘Take up your cross and follow me.’