In 2014, I knelt in the pew at the Easter Vigil Mass having just been confirmed in the Church moments before. Many months of prayer, study, and conversion culminated at that moment, and my heart fluttered with excitement at the thought of receiving the Eucharist for the first time.
The emotions I experienced during this Mass were intense. Despite my deep-seated fear of discerning my vocation, the rush of devotion I felt made me pray more sincerely than I ever have, “Lord, I will do whatever you want me to do, even if it means the religious life or married life or being a missionary. I’ll do it.”
For the first few years after becoming Catholic, my new faith stirred my emotions almost constantly. At Mass, singing “Lamb of God” brought me to tears every week. Once, while praying at Eucharistic Adoration, I suddenly experienced a very real, overwhelming sense of being embraced by Jesus as he welcomed me home. And when I went to Confession, if acknowledging where I’ve fallen short of God’s hopes for me didn’t make me feel loved by a merciful God, then the priest’s beautiful prayer of absolution certainly did.
I not only believed and appreciated the beauty of my new faith, but I also felt the beauty of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church deeply in my soul.
But a few years after my initial conversion, I began to notice a gradual, creeping spiritual desolation — a sense of abandonment and darkness and a loss of the strong feelings of love and devotion I’d had early in my conversion. I still loved God, of course, perhaps even more than in years prior, but I felt less emotionally moved by that love. I left the confessional feeling hollow — like I’d heard the words of absolution with my ears, but not with my heart. In fact, I quite literally felt nothing, no matter the Sacrament, prayer, or devotion.
I became frustrated and confused, thinking this was some fault of my own. But my spiritual director reassured me that faith is not about our feelings, but about fidelity. He likened my relationship with Christ to a human relationship: We “fall in love,” and the beloved is all we can think about. We’re walking on air whenever we’re around them. But after a few months or years, those feelings subside, and then the real work of love begins: loving even when we don’t feel the emotional consolation of that love.
Thankfully, the truth of our faith isn’t contingent on our emotions. Still, experiencing this spiritual desolation can be a bit unnerving and confusing. Accepting spiritual low points as opportunities for growth is the first step; but once you’ve done that, there are a few helpful ways to keep your faith when you’re just not feeling it:
Pray (even when you don’t want to)
Once, I confessed to a priest that “I didn’t feel like praying.” He responded, “But did you pray anyway?” I told him yes, I did, and he assured me that praying, even when you don’t feel like it, is actually quite virtuous.
When prayer feels especially difficult, I take the opportunity to pray in ways I haven’t tried before, like the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Divine Office, or a novena to a particular saint. More devotions won’t necessarily help you recapture spiritual joy — and you shouldn’t pray more for that purpose! — but prayer is essentially extending your heart to God. He reaches back for you, even if you can’t feel it at the moment.
Grow in knowledge, grow in love
After losing a close family member, I struggled with understanding and believing what happens to a soul after death. This struggle made me feel farther from God than I’d ever been.
Along with honest prayer, learning what the Church teaches on this matter by consulting the Catechism, Scripture, and Catholic writers helped me grow in knowledge of God. Specifically, I read articles by Tim Staples and Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers during this struggle. Their theological explanations of the great love God has in preparing a place for us in Heaven and giving us the grace here on Earth to get there helped me come to love God more. In times of spiritual drought, focus on the intellectual side of faith by reading the Bible, studying the Catechism, consulting with priests, and reading helpful articles.
Turn your faith into action
Though you may not feel the presence of Christ emotionally, you can find him in serving others — whether that means volunteering at a soup kitchen, serving at a parish event, or doing something selfless for your family or spouse. For me, making dinner for my parents on the weekends and doing an extra chore or two around the house to lessen the burden on my husband really helped me to stop focusing so much on myself, and instead, focus on loving those closest to me.
Continue to make the Sacraments
Even if you don’t feel the consolation you once did when going to Mass or Confession, keep going anyway. Just because you don’t feel a rush of love and devotion when receiving the Eucharist or deeply sense God’s mercy after Confession doesn’t mean that sacramental grace isn’t working within you.
When I started focusing more on the different parts of the Mass and truth of the Eucharist and less on how going to Mass made me feel, I actually experienced even more awe of the Sacrament. I came to realize that the truth of Christ’s presence remained even when my emotions didn’t reassure me.
Times of spiritual desolation are actually a great grace because they allow us to come to love Jesus for his own sake — not for the warm, fuzzy feelings we get when we go to Mass. Learning to embrace spiritual low points and make them fruitful not only benefits our souls immensely but can make times of spiritual consolation even sweeter.
Originally published September 19, 2018.