My spiritual director once said to me after I complained of a vapid dryness in my prayer that made me want to cut my prayer time short as it felt like a total ‘waste’:
“Don’t quit! That can be your best prayer time if you sit still. Tom, I’ve eaten dust in prayer for twenty years. But for One you love, you’ll do anything for as long as is asked of you.
Here’s a secret — the gift of dry prayer is that it’s more selfless, more abandoned than sweet prayer. But it’s whatever God wants. Let St. John of the Cross remind you that the real work of God in your prayer is conversion, growth in virtue, dying to self, God-centered faith, hope and love; and that deeper work of God is often, or even mostly, inaccessible to your feelings. In prayer, it’s simply enough to sit before a hidden God and say ‘fiat,’ Thy will be done.”
(As an aside, it was this priest who caused me to fall in love with the works of St. John, especially when he shared with me one day that St. Thérèse said, “Oh! what insights I have gained from the works of our holy father, St. John of the Cross! When I was seventeen and eighteen, I had no other spiritual nourishment.”)
What stood out most in my spiritual director’s way of life, for any and all who knew him, was his almost otherworldly self-forgetfulness. He was a living demonstration of St. John’s teaching that fidelity to such dust-prayer, or to whichever deserts God might lead you, is the ideal “space” in which to learn love’s recipe for becoming a selfless fountain of life-giving water in the desert.
He gave me an excerpt from John’s Ascent to paperclip in my Breviary, in order to keep this truth before my dry eyes:
“If a soul becomes more patient in suffering and readier to endure lack of consolations, this is a sign that it is making greater progress in virtue.”
He also gave me a compaion text from St. Teresa of Avila:
“One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. If he is offering up his sufferings to God, many times he is praying much more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates intensely, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer.”
For me the lesson is holy indifference, not preferring one state of affairs to another, but finding in all things, in all circumstances a fresh and new graced opportunity to dismantle the mechanisms of sinful self-absorption and grow out of oneself toward God and the person right next to you. That is, in the final analysis, why we pray: to become capable of love. And for those like myself who find their daily prayer cycling in an endlessly oscillating pattern of dryness and sweetness, desert and oasis, it offers great hope to see that in all circumstances there’s an opportunity for those who love to see God making “all things work together for good.” (Rom. 8:28)