Anyone who is seriously pursuing progress in the spiritual life knows that there are ups and downs along the way. We go through periods of great joy and consolation, and we go through periods of great dryness and desolation. Even the lives and writings of the saints attest to this. Anyone with even an introductory knowledge of saints such as Therese of Lisieux or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta know the great trials that the saints have endured in order to achieve the highest goals of the spiritual life. The question becomes, therefore, not whether or not we ourselves will experience these ups and downs, but why do we experience them and how do we deal with them. As always, turning to the wisdom and experience found in the lives and writings of the saints is the best way to find our answers.
Here I would like to turn to the homilies of St. Isaac of Nineveh (a.k.a. "the Syrian") for a little illumination. In his homily "On the Different Ways of Wise Guidance for the Instruction of Disciples" (homily 29 according to A.J. Wensinck, or 30 according to Holy Transfiguration Monastery), St. Isaac reminds us that a loving father does not always deal in the same ways with his child, but adjust his actions and behavior towards his child so as to instruct the child and to teach him right and wrong. St. Isaac says:
"Now the Father of truth deals with His sons in different ways. For the profit of His sons He restrains Himself from uniformity that consists in always showing to them the same face. Nay rather, to discipline them, He secretly withdraws His love. Thus He displays the appearance of a state that does not really exist; but that which He is, He restrains."
Certainly this does not mean that our loving Father, our Abba, withholds His love from us at any given time. But He does manifest His love in different ways so as to help us grow to maturity in the spiritual life. We may experience times of trial and hardship, times of spiritual dryness, times of great suffering, as a withdrawal of God's love, but we must acknowledge that such is not the case. Our heavenly Father's love remains constant. But just as a child must be weened from its mother's breast so as to receive the nourishment of solid food in order to grow to physical maturity, so too must we be weened from the milk of spiritual consolation in order to grow to spiritual maturity through the solid food of pure prayer. And, again, just as the infant experiences this as a painful separation from its mother, so too we will feel this growth as being an absence of God's presence with us along the journey.
St. Isaac reminds us:
"A wise son recognizes his father's care for him as well as his discerning love in the changes of his behavior toward him. The activity of true love, when rightly understood, will appear twofold: in what causes joy but also in what causes sorrow."
Being "wise sons/daughters" of our heavenly Father, we must learn to see our Father's loving care for us in all the joys and sorrows of this life. We are being taught to "love the Giver, not the gift." Our Father gives us good things, but He desires the best for us. And the best gift that He could possibly give us is the gift of Himself. How can we receive such a gift if our attention is focused on these lesser gifts that He bestows upon us? And so, in His love, He must teach us to turn from these lesser gifts - which are still, in fact, very good - so as to turn to the greater Gift. We must learn to be detached from the gifts of this life - including the spiritual gifts that are bestowed on us in this life for our instruction - in order to attach ourselves more fully to the one Gift that truly matters.
But still there is the temptation to view the periods of suffering and dryness as acts of cruelty from our Father. We today have such a low image of fatherhood. Blame it on the culture, blame it on society, blame it on the media, blame it on whoever you want, but our culture teaches us that fathers, if they are not complete buffoons, are little more than cruel tyrants dominating and suppressing those under them in order to maintain some semblance of power over another. How often we carry this skewed image over into our view of God, our loving Abba! And so when sufferings come upon us, when times of spiritual dryness dominate our spiritual life, we receive this as validating our view of our Father as tyrannically exercising arbitrary power over us. It's as if we hear Him say, "Okay, I've given you enough happiness for awhile. It's time for you to suffer." We then completely misunderstand the writings of the saints when they tell us that it is God's good pleasure that we should experience suffering. God doesn't take some sort of sick pleasure in watching us suffer. No parent, seeing their child severely ill, stands by and takes delight in their child's illness. As parents, our first instinct in seeing our child suffer is to work to relieve that suffering. What makes us think that our Abba is not the same? As Christ tells us, "If you who are evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more your Father Who is in heaven" (I may be paraphrasing here, of course)?"
Turning again to St. Isaac, listen to what he has to tell us about our Abba's love:
"Love is constantly ready to give pleasure to its beloved; yet sometimes it causes its beloved to suffer for the very reason that it loves much, and it suffers with its beloved even as it causes suffering. It firmly resists the stirrings of natural compassion, fearing lest its beloved should be harmed afterward."
There is the love of our Abba! In order that we might grow to spiritual maturity, our Abba instructs us and allows us to experience difficulties and hardships, as well as joys in our spiritual life. But, as any good parent, when our Abba sees us struggling and suffering His "natural urge," if you will, is to compassion. As we suffer He suffers with us because He doesn't want to see us suffer. He allows the difficulties and the sufferings because He knows that they are for our own good and that, once we have borne them, we will be closer to Him in the end. And yet we can say that our Father suffers with us because what parent doesn't suffer when their child is struggling! At the same time, what parent hasn't restrained themselves from that natural urge, those "stirrings of natural compassion," to intervene in their child's life when they see their beloved one suffering.
Allow me to give a personal example. My son loves chocolate. I know, I know. You may be thinking, "Everyone loves chocolate." No. My son LOVES chocolate. He loves it to the point that we use it as a motivator for potty training, and he is horrified of the toilette for some reason. But if I let my boy eat chocolate whenever he wanted, then he'd develop a whole host of health issues. He wouldn't live a long and healthy life, but would most likely develop some form of diabetes or cancer or heart disease at a very young age. So what do I do as a father who loves his son more than anything? I tell him "no, you cannot have chocolate right now." He can't wake up in the morning and start chowing down on a candy bar. Of course, being two years old, he throws a fit and cries, throwing himself around on the floor. In my heart I don't want him to be so upset and I don't want to see him "suffer" like that. He doesn't understand that too much chocolate isn't good for him. He just knows that chocolate is really REALLY tasty. It's my job, as his father, to teach him what is good for him and what will allow him to lead a long and healthy life. It is my job to help him develop good habits and to avoid or uproot bad habits. It is my job to help him to become the "best-version-of-himself," as the author and speaker Matthew Kelly would say. But that doesn't change the fact that I suffer with my child even when I am, for lack of a better term, causing him suffering by denying him certain things that may not be good for him at the time.
It may seem like such a silly analogy, but it is apt. Remember, we are children in the spiritual life. We like to think of ourselves as mature adults, but really when was the last time you joyfully bore a suffering, a trial, some difficulty, or a setback in your life? When was the last time that you endured suffering without kicking and screaming the whole time? "God, why are you doing this to me?" "God, where are you? Why aren't you helping me?" "Lord, why don't you fix this?" I know nine times out of ten these are my first reactions upon entering into some sort of hardship. So often we like to quote Christ on the cross saying, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me," but then we forget that that Psalm in particular is a Psalm of hope and joyful expectation, not a Psalm of abandonment. If we stick through to the end and endure with patient endurance, we will see the hand of love and the compassion of our Abba even in the midst of our suffering.
There is a famous saying among Eastern Christians that "The Church is a hospital, not a courtroom." Bearing this image in mind, listen to these final words from St. Isaac:
"It is unbecoming to the wisdom of love to give the identical kind of sustenance to its beloved in times of both health and sickness... The man who kills his son by feeding him honey does not differ from the man who kills him with a dagger."
So what are we to take from this? We need to bear in mind always, in times of joy and in times of sorrow, that God is our loving Abba. As the Church prays in the Maronite tradition, we must keep our minds focused on the love of our Abba. In order to mature in the spiritual life we must see our Abba's love for us even in the midst of severe difficulties and sufferings, just as we see and experience His love for us in times of great joy and consolation. God doesn't delight in our sufferings, but He allows them because He knows, as any good father knows, that through trials and difficulties come growth and ultimate victory. May heaven consume us!
God is our Abba, and we keep our minds focused on His love.