Further instructions on spiritual dryness

August 10, 2021 • 8 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 256
By St. Francis de Sales

To make the whole of this instruction the more evident, I will here relate an excellent passage from the history of St. Bernard, as it has been related by a learned and judicious writer. It is an ordinary thing, he says, with all that serve God, and are not as yet experienced in the vicissitudes of spiritual life, to lose breath and fall into pusillanimity and sadness when the sweetness of sensible devotion, together with that agreeable light which invites them to run forward in the way of God, is withdrawn from them.

Persons of understanding assign the following reason for this, that man’s nature cannot hold out for any length of time without some kind of delight, either heavenly or earthly.

Now, as souls that are elevated above themselves by striving after spiritual pleasure easily renounce visible objects, so when, by the divine disposition, spiritual joy is withdrawn from them, whilst they find themselves at the same time deprived of corporal consolations, and are not as yet accustomed to wait with patience for the return of the true sun, it seems to them as if they were neither in heaven nor on earth, and that they shall remain buried in perpetual night; so that like a little infant deprived of its mother’s breast, they languish and moan, and become uneasy and troublesome to everyone, more especially to themselves.

This then happened, in the journey of St. Bernard, to Geoffry of Perrone, who had lately dedicated himself to the service of God. Having suddenly become quite deprived of consolations and filled with interior darkness, he began to remember his worldly friends, his kindred, and the riches he had lately forsaken; by which he was assaulted with so strong a temptation, that, not being able to conceal it in his behaviour, one of his greatest confidants perceived it, and having taken an opportunity, he accosted him with mildness, and said to him in private: What means this, Geoffry? Whence comes it to pass that, contrary to custom, you are so pensive and melancholy? Ah, brother! answered Geoffry, with a deep sigh, I shall never more be joyful whilst I live.

The other, moved to pity by these words, went at once with brotherly zeal, and told it to their common father, St. Bernard, who, perceiving the danger, went into the church to pray to God for him: whilst Geoffry in the meantime, being overwhelmed with sadness, and resting his head upon a stone, fell asleep.

Shortly after both of them arose, the one from prayer, having obtained the favour he asked for, and the other from sleep, but with so pleasant and serene a countenance, that his friend, surprised at so great and sudden a change, could not refrain from reproaching him in a good-natured manner with the answer he had a little before given him. To this Geoffry replied: If I told you before, that I should never more be joyful, I now assure you that I shall never more be sorrowful.

Such was the result of the temptation of that devout person. But observe in this relation, Philothea:

  1. That God commonly gives a foretaste of heavenly delight to such as enter into his service, in order to withdraw them from earthly pleasures, and encourage them in the pursuit of his love, asa mother who to allure her infant to her breast puts honey upon it.

  2. That, according to the secret design of his providence, He is pleased to withhold from us the milk and honey of his consolation, that, by weaning us in this manner, we may learn to feed on the more dry and solid bread of vigorous devotion, exercised under the trial of distaste and spiritual dryness.

  3. That as violent temptations frequently arise amidst these desolating drynesses, we must resolutely fight against them, since they do not proceed from God; but nevertheless, we must patiently suffer them, since God has ordained them for our exercise.

  4. That we must never lose courage amidst those interior pains and conflicts, nor say with the good Geoffry, “I shall never more be joyful;” for in the midst of the darkness of the night we must look for the return of the brightness of day; and again, in the fairest spiritual weather, we must not say, I shall never more be sorrowful: for as the wise man says, “In the day of good things we must not be unmindful of evil things” (Eccles. xi. 27.) We must hope in the midst of afflictions, and fear in the midst of prosperity; and under both circumstances we must always humble ourselves.

  5. That it is a sovereign remedy to discover [confide] our miseries to some spiritual friend, who may be able to give us comfort.

I think it necessary to observe, Philothea, that in these conflicts, God and our spiritual enemy have contrary designs. God seeks to conduct us to perfect purity of heart, to an entire renunciation of self-interest in what relates to his service, and to an absolute self-denial; whereas the enemy of our souls endeavours, by these severe conflicts, to discourage us from the practice of prayer, and entice us back to sensual pleasures, that, by thus making us troublesome to ourselves as to our neighbours, he may scandalise and disgrace holy devotion.

But, provided you observe the lessons I have given you, you shall, amidst these interior afflictions, greatly advance on the way to perfection. I cannot, however, dismiss this important subject without saying a few words more.

It sometimes happens that spiritual dryness proceeds from the indisposition of body, as when, through an excess of watching, labour, or fasting, we find ourselves oppressed by fatigue, drowsiness, lassitude, and such like infirmities, which, though they depend on the body, yet are apt to incommode the spirit also, on account of the intimate connexion that subsists between both.

Now, on such occasions, we must never omit to perform several acts of virtue, by using, as much as possible, our spirit and superior will. For although our whole soul seems to be asleep, and overwhelmed with drowsiness and fatigue, yet the actions of our spirit do not cease to be very acceptable to God; and we may say at the same time with the sacred Spouse, “I sleep, but my heart watcheth.” (Cant. v. 2).

For, as I have observed before, if there is less relish in this manner of performing our spiritual exercises, there is, on the other hand, more merit and virtue. Now, the remedy on such occasions is to recruit the strength and vigour of our body by some kind of lawful recreation. For this reason St. Francis ordained that his religious should use moderation in their labours, so as not to oppress the fervour of their spirits.

As I am speaking of this glorious father, I must not forget to tell you he himself was once assaulted and perplexed with so deep a melancholy of spirit, that he could not help showing it in his behaviour; for if he was disposed to converse with his religious, he was unable; if he withdrew himself from them it was worse; abstinence and corporal mortification oppressed him, and prayer gave him no relief.

He continued two years in this state, so that he seemed to be quite abandoned by God; but at length, after he had humbly suffered this violent storm, our Saviour, in an instant, restored him to a happy tranquillity. If, therefore, the greatest servants of God are subject to these shocks, how can we be astonished if they sometimes happen to us?

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