orthodox spirituality

Spiritual Dryness: The Symptoms, the Struggle and the Light at the End

I’m writing this blog about being vulnerable to spiritual dryness. I’m sharing my thoughts not because I have permanently overcome this but rather from my own spiritual struggle and from the struggle of others that I come across. If anything, this blog is an expression of my own wounds, failings and things that I’ve learned by His grace. I believe that our wounds during our spiritual battles are not only for us but to be shared to shed light on the spiritual path to others. I’m also writing from my understanding of the lives of the saints and those who walked the spiritual path before us: Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conductHebrews 13:7. Everyone has probably gone through a period of spiritual dryness. These spiritually dry periods could be only a couple of days or could last a very long period of time, leaving us feeling alone, unarmed and in despair in the wilderness of our spiritual battle. 

Description of Spiritual Dryness
Spiritual dryness is a period where one doesn’t recognize the presence of God in his/her spiritual practices, losing the joy of His presence or the conviction of His Spirit. It’s a period in which the sweet taste of God’s presence is squeezed out of the heart. It’s a period of confusion and sometimes thinking that there is something wrong with us spiritually that we can’t define. We lose the consolation, joy and the feeling of God’s presence to comfort our hearts, which we usually receive during our spiritual practices. We become fruitless in our prayer life and fruitless in scriptural reading. We lack conviction when hearing sermons, fasting becomes only a change of diet and liturgical prayers are not penetrating our heart. Sometimes we can’t find words in prayers. We seek them and they are not there, and we attempt to be creative to no avail. Our spiritual practices are only mere acts out of duty, and our prayer rules are only rules empty from prayers.

Before we go any further, let’s distinguish between spiritual dryness and lukewarmness. Spiritual dryness is marked by the feeling of God’s absence as we continue in our spiritual practices. Lukewarmness is mainly a lack of desire or zeal in the spiritual life and its practices and is usually marked by laziness and carelessness. Spiritual dryness could be described by I sought him, but I did not find him Song of Solomon 3:1; while lukewarmness is shown by a lack of response from us expressed in the Lord saying, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” Revelations 3:20.  
Our Expectations from God
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, And from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; And in the night season, and am not silent” Psalms 22:1 This is probably the best description of spiritual dryness. The psalmist knows and understands the correct theology. He knows God, he knows he is heard, but he feels as if he isn’t. After many prayers, the psalmist says, “You answered me” Psalms 22:21. Reading the psalm carefully, we don’t really know how God answered him because we find no answer to the psalmist’s specific prayers, but it seems that He answered him by His presence. It is as if He was absent then He revealed Himself. It seems that Jeremiah expressed the same. He knew the truth about God but was unable to reconcile the truth with his personal experience, so he cried out saying, “You have heard my voice. Do not hide Your ear from my sighing, from my cry for help” Lamentations 3:56.

Spiritual dryness might not be due to any fault or shortcoming on our behalf, but the divine grace might allow it for our benefit. In spiritual dryness we have the possibility to grow spiritually through waiting on God to come again and bless us with His presence: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you Matthew 7:7. This period of waiting is important for us to grow in our relationship with Him. Through it, God may be leading us to a different form of prayer or to a totally different type of relationship with Him. It’s an opportunity to grow in our love for God without the immediate rewards. It’s important to empty our love for God from every immediate gratification or reward. On this, Father Matthew the Poor writes, “It is a food that is somewhat hard to digest yet it’s very nourishing to the soul”. The expectation that we will feel/experience God’s presence in every prayer, Bible reading and liturgy isn’t realistic: “You have covered Yourself with a cloud, that prayer should not pass through” Lamentations 3:44. Our expectation that God will be present in a certain way is also inaccurate, for Elijah expected God to be in the wind, the earthquake and the fire, but He was in the small voice. We expect God to operate in a certain way, and we box Him in a place called our minds and want Him to operate based on our limited understanding of who He is. It is in these period where we can express our greatest love for God. We pray, read, fast and attend liturgical service, and we don’t know if we are even heard. To clarify, let’s assume that a husband stopped expressing his love to his wife, yet she as a faithful wife continued loving him, offering him all that a wife can offer in love and care. We would call this a highly selfless love. This wife might not have discovered the extent of her love to her husband until she continued in her love despite receiving nothing in return. This my brother and sister is the work of spiritual dryness. Here we express our love for Him without receiving anything immediately. Not knowing it, we become a drink offering poured out before God. However, God in His grace will surely reward us a hundred fold if we are patient.
How to Deal with Spiritual Dryness
Well, we mentioned above that spiritual dryness might come not due to any fault on our behalf but by divine permission. However, we need to find a way to deal with it.
Let’s be comforted that God will not leave us in this phase beyond our ability. For sure, He will make His presence clear and obvious before we give up: I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard my cry. He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my steps” Psalms 40:1-2. However, we shouldn’t give up on our spiritual practices because if we do, we will lose any forward steps we have taken in our spiritual walk, and we will slide back to our early stages. If we give up, then we didn’t benefit from our dry period. If we say “My master is delaying his coming… and begins…to eat and drink and be drunk”, then we will lose it all. But if we say, “He should come in the second watch, or come in the third watch” and continue on, the Master will come and gird himself and have us sit down to eat and will come and serve us out of His goodness (Luke 12:35-40). It’s imperative that we continue in our prayer rules, scriptural reading and all our spiritual practices. It’s important that we seek our spiritual father as soon as we can to guide us through this period.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in his book Beginning to Pray shares a story about a woman who struggled with prayers then decided to speak to him. He recommended for her to sit every day quietly in her room and knit. To her surprise, in this quiet calm while her mind was simply focusing on nothing but knitting, she came to peace and felt the presence of the Lord in her heart. Going along with this thought, and based on the experience of others, a visit to a local quiet monastery, a simple walk in a quiet park, a hike, a visit to the beach or even staying silent emptying the mind might help: “You lead me besides quiet waters, you restore my soul for your name’s sake” Psalms 23. This isn’t a recipe to get out of spiritual dryness, because it wasn’t our fault to get in, but this might give you peace, which comes with the presence of the Lord. However, it’s very important to mention here that Father Matthew the Poor in his book Orthodox Prayer Life in the chapter about spiritual aridity says that all attempts to get rid of it will not work and will even extend the period of dryness. The Holy Father advises us to accept it, carry our cross through it and continue on our spiritual practices.

If we are struggling with prayers because it’s dry, chant the Psalter if we are used to reading them. Let’s attend a liturgy in a different church or maybe pick up a spiritual book or go to a spiritual retreat. Spiritual dryness might be an expression of our selfless love that continues on the relationship while expecting nothing in return.

Before we close this post, our hope is that we are able to accept it, walk through it and carry our cross. We lift up our eyes to heaven and beg that He might come in the next watch. Let’s continue our love for God, offering worship with all diligence knowing that He will shine His face upon us in due time. 

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