Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cool Off, Heat Up!

Throughout my own spiritual journey I've noticed that there have been times where I have been on fire for the Lord. With prayer comes great consolations, insights, revelations, etc. Spiritual reading is alive and I see where it applies in my life. The Scriptures leap to life. The Liturgy reduces me to tears with the insight of the love of God that is literally given over to us in Communion. And like the pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim, all of creation seems to spring to life and speak of God's love, power, beauty, etc.

But then there are times where all that fades away. Prayer is simply going through the motions. The Liturgy becomes a burden of obligation rather than an occasion of joy. Read the Scriptures or any spiritual writings is dry and they might as well be in a foreign language. And even the joy that I find in creation seems to fade. The birds continue to sing, but I no longer hear them. The sun shines, but I am not illumined. The rain falls, but I don't feel the cooling drops on my face. The snow falls and all I can think of is slick roads and potential car accidents (and all the stupid drivers out there who don't know how to handle snow).

This "heating and cooling" is something that has bothered me for some time. Is it my own lack of true zeal that causes the fire of God's love to cool within me? Have I ever really had zeal for God? Have I ever truly loved God? Does God really love me? Why do I not feel this love constantly? Doubts begin to creep into my mind and I am tempted to just give up on the whole venture.

But I have come to find that these feelings are rather normal in the spiritual life. In fact, St. Theophan the Recluse dealt with these very issues in his correspondence with a young noblewoman who was seeking to live a truly spiritual life. It seems that she noticed such tendencies within her, and that these tendencies caused her no little amount of fear concerning her growth in the spiritual life. St. Theophan's response to her, like his writings in general, is so simple and so beautiful, but so deep and powerful at the same time.

In dealing with the tendency towards spiritual "heating" and "cooling" St. Theophan gives us three reasons that we might experience the (shorter or longer) periods of cooling. I'm going to start with the second one that he mentions. We may experience cooling because of physical illness. It is obviously difficult to maintain zeal for anything when one is ill. I would presume that this is so especially when one has a prolonged illness. That is one reason I admire so much the people who are ill for long periods of time and yet still maintain that zeal for the love of God. When my own mother was dying of cancer the fire of God's love seemed all the more alive in her. I'm sure we all have memories of folks who struggled through a prolonged illness and yet maintained that love of God. As for myself, if I even get the slightest fever I can't even think about uttering a single prayer, let alone maintain the fire of zeal for God.

So with the cooling caused by illness aside, let's move on to the other two reasons for spiritual cooling. The last reason that St. Theophan mentions in the letter is sin. This should be obvious to all of us. Sin - and in particular the habitual and deliberate sin to which St. Theophan refers - causes us to slowly stop listening to God's voice speaking within us. Little by little sin causes us to turn from the face of God and towards the things of the world. Sin causes us to slowly replace God and erect our own idols in His stead. Through sin we gradually deaden our conscience and reason within us and start living according to the passions. Sin really does cause us to become little more than animals, allowing ourselves to be controlled by any impulse that comes up. I'm reminded of the creation story in the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan gives certain animals the ability to talk, but warns them that they can lose this ability and become like all the rest of the animals if they abuse the gift that he has given them.

Although in the letter St. Theophan doesn't really address the remedy for cooling caused by sin, I believe the answer is obvious. We need to confess our sins, receive absolution, and then go out and do penance. In the East (at least among the Byzantines) it is not the norm for the priest to prescribe some sort of penance after giving absolution; and in the West "penance" has become little more than a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys said immediately after Confession. But the best penances I have ever received have been ones that directly addressed the most common themes of my confession - themes that were noticed after going to the same priest numerous times to confess. The penance assigned becomes a sort of remedy against the sinful habit. That should be the ideal of a penance. In the East this "medicine" would be prescribed by one's spiritual father/mother, not necessarily the one to whom you made your confession. But East and West the concept is the same, prescribe some sort of antidote to the sickness of the sin.

The most common source of cooling among those who actively strive along the path of the spiritual life, according to St. Theophan, is "as a result of excessive tension of the soul's strength." This is quite humbling (and perhaps that's why God allows it). It's as if God is telling us that we are not yet strong enough to handle what He has in store for us. So, in His wisdom, He eases the tension of zeal and forces the soul to rest even if the soul doesn't want it. Perhaps it can be compared to a parent making their young child take a nap in the middle of the day even when the child doesn't think he needs the nap (yes, I'm thinking of my son right now). There will come a time when we will be able to stay awake through the entire day, but for the time being we need our "nap" in order to carry the burden of the rest of the day.

I sort of mentioned that analogy of the child taking a nap as a half-joke. But the more I think of it, the more apt it seems. I know so often in my own journey when these periods of "coolness," "aridity," "spiritual dryness," or whatever you want to call it have come up, I have complained to God - gone to my nap kicking and screaming. "Where are you, God?" "Why are you allowing this?" "Why can't I be on fire with love for you like everyone else?" "Why won't you answer me?" "Why won't you help me?" etc., etc., etc. So often I forget that God is a loving Father, and what He does isn't for my punishment, but for my own good. If we progress too quickly in the spiritual life (or perceive that we are progressing quickly), then we run the risk of falling into spiritual pride. We are unable to bear the burden of the day, maintain that spiritual tension, and so, like the child, we crash. Have you ever witnessed or experienced a crash brought about by spiritual pride because the tension of holy zeal was maintained for too long by someone (perhaps yourself) who was not yet strong enough to maintain it? God knows that we need rest. He knows that we are children and we need a break every now and then.

So what, then, is the advice of the wise St. Theophan to those who are going through this form of spiritual "cooling" brought about by too much tension? Patience!

Patience. I love this word. It reminds me so of my own spiritual father. "Calm down, Phillip." "Be patient, Phillip." "Don't worry, Phillip." How many times he repeated those lines to me. "Settle down, Phillip. It's going to be just fine." Reading the words of St. Theophan, I can hear my spiritual father's voice behind them, as if he himself is saying them to me. "Be patient. Hold fast. Don't fear. Don't fret. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well." Patience is so important in the spiritual life. Steadfast endurance! Patience is what allows us to look beyond the struggles of the moment and gaze into the future with hope. There is a wonderful line in Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice (yes, I have read it and seen almost every version put to film) uttered by the father of the heroine's family: "I'm not afraid of being overcome by the emotion. It will pass soon enough." Although he utters the line with an almost phlegmatic apathy, it can be applied to the natural cooling periods of the spiritual life. Don't be overcome by the feeling of spiritual coolness. Be patient. It will pass.

What are we to do in the meantime? How ought we to behave during these periods of spiritual cooling? Simple. Just do what you have been doing! St. Theophan tells us:

"Concerning the unintentional, inadvertent coolings that are the result of fatigue and sickness, there is one rule: Be patient and do not violate any established and pious ways, although in carrying them out, you may just be going through the motions. The cooling will quickly depart from whoever endures this patiently, and the usual warmth and sincere zeal will return... You should keep persisting in your established ways with the conviction that this routine execution of things will soon bring back the liveliness and warmth of diligence."
So first and foremost we are to be patient. St. Theophan really hammers this home by insisting explicitly twice that we must be patient, and then by also mentioning the patience of persistence. But then we are to continue in our spiritual rule - which includes our prayer rule(s) as well as our rule of living - even if that means just going through the motions for the time being. We must learn to "fake it 'til you make it." Keep to your routine. If you wake up early to pray in the morning, then continue to do so. If you have time set aside in the evening for prayer, then don't abandon that time. Don't abandon your daily spiritual reading. And definitely don't abandon your participation in the Liturgy. Keep to this even if it takes years before the fire of zeal is rekindled. Mother Teresa is known to have struggled through this spiritual coolness for the greater part of her life. Now she is considered one of the holiest women of the past century. So be patient. Be persistent. Hold steady, and be steadfast in your endurance. May heaven consume us.
(As an aside it seems very apt that as I'm writing this I'm gazing out my window at the first "major" snowfall this winter in the Greater Cincinnati area. I love the winter because it seems to quiet all the noise, the hustle and the bustle of the spring and summer. With the snow comes a certain silence that seems to deaden or dull noises that seem to echo in the summer. Even the train that passes through the valley below my apartment seems quieter at the moment. Perhaps sometimes this silence, even silence from God, can be refreshing. Have you ever sat silently at your dining room table in the morning with a loved one, just sipping coffee and reading the paper? Even though neither person seems to notice it, the presence is there and one can be refreshed and feel closer to another just by sitting in their company without words).

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