I have a shelf beside my desk where I keep a pile of papers that contain information and ideas that I don’t want to forget. A couple times a year I go through it and toss out anything that has become irrelevant to my life. A few weeks ago I was sorting through the pile and found a paper I had written five years ago for a friend, to give them a synopsis of an excellent book on prayer: When the Well Runs Dry by Thomas H. Green, S.J., who is the Spiritual Director of San Jose Seminary in Manila and a professor of Philosophy and Theology. He has written a thoughtful book dealing with the stages of growth in our prayer life, spiritual dryness, and the dark night of the soul. He shares many insights from the writings of St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and The Cloud of Unknowing.
He has also written an excellent sequel to this book entitled Drinking from a Dry Well, published more than decade after the first one. In it he takes up where he left off, sharing what he had learned since the first book, and moving on to teaching us how to be at home and LIVE by “drinking from dry wells”. I’m not sure how much justice I can do the books, but I hope you get enough from this article to want to read them for yourself. Thomas Green has many helpful insights on dealing with dryness in our prayer life that would be of benefit to many people. So, here’s what I wrote after reading his books.
“Love God, then do as you will.” – St. Augustine
“Nothing is bad in and of itself, but only that which comes between us and God. God’s ultimate goal is for us to obtain perfect union with Himself. Anything that comes between us and God is wrong. This cannot only be the commonly agreed upon “bad things”, but also “good things” (such as church, Bible devotions, simplicity, unworldliness, poverty, prayer, etc). Are we attached to THEM for comfort, or God?
Do we base how “good” we are before God on how well we are doing or achieving these “good things”? God wants us only, not our activities. Do not seek a revelation from God, seek Him only; then He will show you what to do. He is more pleased with one act of true charity (I Cor. 13) than with many spiritual activities.
To draw our dependence away from these activities, God will lead us to the desert, to the dry well, to the dark night of the soul. He begins by removing all that we have depended on for comfort that is not Him. All seems forsaken, all seems lost, all seems dry, all seems but darkness. It is a night for our “senses”; we don’t “feel” God’s presence.
Be of good courage, He is closer than ever; leading us, drawing us closer to Him. God does this by removing all that is “not Him”. We cooperate by letting go – letting go of our expectations, desires, and concepts. By relaxing and letting Him act through us. By “floating” rather than “swimming”. Let us embrace Him in the darkness.”
Now here is an actual section from Thomas Green’s second book (slightly edited).
“In the third stage, however, when the darkness becomes dry – that is, when God seems to be absent – how can we be “loving attentive” to Him? This question long tormented me in my own prayer life. St. John of the Cross gives the same advice (“be content simply with a loving peaceful attentiveness to God”) when speaking of the aridity of the dry well. To me at that time such advice seemed like a cruel joke. How could I be loving attentive to Someone who seemed to be completely absent?
How do you attend, lovingly or otherwise, to a spiritual black hole? Over the years I think I have found the answer. It seems to me now that what the pray-er must do is to attend lovingly to the darkness itself, convinced in faith that this darkness is the very presence of God. It is difficult to put into words, but it somehow involves gazing steadily into the darkness, not allowing our attention to be distracted by the thousand points of created light that seek to divert us from the darkness, hoping (sometimes against hope) that the very darkness will someday reveal itself as radiant life.
If the darkness is really blinding light, could we not get water – the only true water – from a dry well? Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Darkness that is really light; dryness that is living water – our natural way of seeing and experiencing fails us here. We are left only with faith and hope and love. But gradually, mysteriously and incredibly, we come to discover even in this life that this darkness is the only true light, that only the apparently dry well can really slake our thirst.”
May the peace of Christ be with you,