Spiritual Dryness: Renewing the Listless Heart

Spiritual Dryness

Your favor, O Lord, made me as secure as a mountain. Then you turned away from me, and I was shattered. [Psalm 30:7 ].

I am sick at heart. How long, O Lord, until you restore me? Return, O Lord, and rescue me. Save me because of your unfailing love. [Psalm 6:3-4].

As believers, we all suffer from periods of low spiritual energy. Mystical moments may provide great joy at their onset, but they can produce agony and grief upon departure, sometimes failing to reappear during long periods of spiritual dryness.

…  [fears] become almost unbearable. Especially is this the case when such spiritual dryness ensues that the mind feels as if it never had thought of God nor ever will be able to do so. When men speak of Him, they seem to be talking of some person heard of long ago. [St. Teresa of  Avila, Interior Castle or The Mansions, Ch. I:17].

Spiritual Dryness: Definition

Spiritual dryness is a lack of consolation, comfort or relief in our spiritual life. It is a sense of desolation experienced in separation from God. Our prayers, worship and devotions no longer provide the sweet consciousness of the Divine Presence.

Al-Haakim reported in al-Mustadrak, and al-Tabaraani reported in al-Mu’jam, that the Prophet (pbuh) said: “Faith wears out in the heart of any one of you just as clothes wear out, so ask Allaah [God] to renew the faith in your hearts.” [Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid, Weakness of Iman (Faith)].

Our anxiety grows as God’s presence remains distant. Unable to do anything to restore it, our longing approaches despair. Spiritless, we lack energy and enthusiasm and are unable to exert ourselves as we wish. We lack the Divine vigor that gives life to our words and our actions.

Deprived of our spiritual connection, we experience symptoms of withdrawal. We feel emasculated of devotional desires, and are unable to find solace in sacred rituals.

The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “It [the heart] changes more than a pot of rapidly boiling water.” (Reported by Ahmad, 6/4; al-Haakim, 2/289; al-Silsilat al-Saheehah, 1772). The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “The heart (qalb) takes its name from its constant changes (taqallub). The likeness of the heart is that of a feather at the root of a tree, being turned over and over by the wind. [Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid, Weakness of Iman (Faith)].

Spiritual Vicissitudes

No one is immune from this spiritual malaise. Changes are inherent to our natural condition. Our spiritual state can fluctuate from bliss to despair in an instance, without notice.

Spiritual dryness can plunge us into periods of sorrow and anxiety. When this happens, our devotional life becomes mired in inactivity and our worship becomes languid.

. . . the whole course of a spiritual life consists of perpetual changes, of elevations and depressions, and an extraordinary consolation is usually attended by succeeding anguish and desertion, so above all other times this so supereminent and so comfortable a divine visitation is commonly followed by a most terrible unexpected desolation, a desolation so insupportable to souls unprovided or unaware of it, that many not enabled or not well-instructed how to behave themselves in it have lost all heart to prosecute internal ways, and so bereaving themselves of the benefit of all their former exercises and, divine passive inactions, have returned to a common extroverted life. [Augustine  Baker, Holy Wisdom].

Rx for Spiritual Dryness

So, what is our remedy when we are suffering from a listless spirit? We may not be able to control the reversals that beset us, but we can anticipate them, always prepared to take refuge in remembrance of the unchanging mercy of God.

When I am in this state of spiritual dryness, unable to pray or to practice virtue, I look for little opportunities for the smallest trifles to please Jesus, such as a smile, a kindly word when I would rather be silent. . . . If no such occasion offers itself, I try at least to say over and over again that I love Him. [St. Therese of Lisieux].

Let the mind fluctuate in its cognition and rationality, but keep the soul centered on the Divine

My life is in many ways simple, but it is also a mystery which I do not attempt to really  understand, as though I were led by the hand in a night where I see nothing, but can fully depend on the Love and Protection of Him who guides me. [Thomas Merton, Hidden Ground of Love].

Throughout our periods of spiritual dryness we must stay conscious of God. Our frail and vacillating fervor may not perceive the Divine Presence, but our faith and trust in God should not waver.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. [Proverbs 3:5-8].

Patience and Perseverance

The mystical experience does not result in our shunning of physical reality or escaping into solitary isolation. Consciousness of the Divine prods the soul into immersion in works of righteousness.

The Servant.— But, Lord, if a man …  is often visited by spiritual dryness, how should he then behave himself?

Eternal Wisdom.—A man, provided only he does his part, should not withdraw himself because of spiritual dryness. For the salvation of that soul which by God’s will suffers from spiritual dryness is often accomplished as nobly in the light of pure faith alone, as in great sweetness. I am a boon which, turned to account, increases, but which, saved up, wastes away. [Henry Suso, Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, Ch. XIII].

Having experienced Divine comfort, the attraction of physical desires should be dim. Earthly pleasures should become expendable, happily exchanged as a ransom for ending our spiritual dryness.

Awareness of our dependence, of our frailty and of our limited understanding leave us without any intellectual support. Nor can our physical efforts offer a crutch. Spiritual dryness thus produces profound humility and self-reproach.

.. in the glowing springtide of spiritual consolations, the soul spends so much time in storing them up, that amid such abundance it performs fewer good works; while, on the contrary, when amid spiritual dryness and bitterness, and devoid of all that is attractive in devotion, it multiplies its substantial good works, and abounds in the hidden virtues of patience, humility, self-abnegation, resignation and unselfishness. [St. Francis of Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life].

We develop an  aversion to wrongdoing and flee from attachments that distract from remembrance of God. The spirit sheds sinful emotions such as pride, greed and animosity, and we devote ourselves to righteous deeds.

 … good works also, wrought in the season of spiritual dryness and hardness; this is the freshness of the winter morning, and what we then do for God in dryness of spirit is most precious in His eyes. Then it is that we acquire virtues and graces abundantly; and what we then acquire with toil and labor is for the most part better, more perfect and lasting than what we acquire in comfort and spiritual sweetness … [St. John of the Cross].

Seeking to regain spiritual zeal during periods of dryness, the believer can resort to ascetic practices, increase devotional rituals, and engage in charitable works. However, our ultimate refuge is patience and perseverance.

AND IF My servants ask thee about Me – behold, I am very near; I respond to the call of him who calls, whenever he calls unto Me: let them, then, respond unto Me, and believe in Me, so that they might be led aright. [Qur’an 2:186].

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