By Windy Day.
A few years ago I went for a surprising bike ride. It was a sunny and beautiful day and I set off recognizing that it was a bit breezy. My hat was slightly blowing around but I didn’t think about the direction of the wind. I thought I’d go for a 20 minute bike ride; 10 minutes one way and 10 minutes back.
When I turned around to return, I had a rude awakening. Unbeknownst to me, I had been riding with the wind all along. Now I was going straight into it.
And it was strong. Very strong.
Because I was in the country, the wind cut across the fields and hit me with great force. I felt as though I could hardly move forward. I had gone up and down a few hills on my way there and now I realized that I would have to tackle those hills against this wind. This daunting prospect discouraged me. But I realized that I needed to go. I had no other way of getting home.
So I pedaled and I pedaled and I crept back. The wind was so strong that even when I was trying to coast downhill I was losing speed. It was stunning.
Eventually I made it home and I was rather proud of myself. And exhausted.
I found it to be a great analogy for the spiritual life. The entire time I felt like I wasn’t making progress because I was going about half the speed that I was when I left. It was frustrating to suddenly slow down that much. I wasn’t accomplishing what I thought I would. The expectations I had for the bike ride flew out the window. My hands were cold, my ears were ringing and I was exasperated.
I felt similarly when I returned to lay life. I had grown accustomed to the graces and beautiful gifts the Lord had been giving me during my time of discernment. It was a bright period filled with consolation.
But my time in religious life and the period afterwards were in stark contrast to this peace. I felt as though I was not making any progress at all as I plunged into spiritual darkness. As a matter of fact, it felt like I was going backwards.
As we all know, our feelings about our prayer life and the spiritual life are often inaccurate. We don’t have a precise way to gauge our progress. Saints like Alphonsus, Aquinas and Francis de Sales say that a prayer time which feels distracted and pathetic is the best for you. This is because you persevered and exercised your will! In contrast, when I was riding my bike, even though it did not feel like I was going forward, I could assess my progress by seeing the landscape pass by … just verrrrry slowly.
Often we simply have to trust that we are moving in the direction that God wants, even if it doesn’t feel that way. I encourage you to keep fighting and moving forward even if you want to quit. As the saying goes, “God can’t steer a parked car.” If I have momentum while biking, it’s easier to change direction as opposed to starting from being “parked.” Even if you’re slightly off-course, God will have an easier time reorienting you if you are moving.
But how can you fight discouragement, frustration and powerlessness?
First, remind yourself that you can choose. On my bike ride, a part of me felt I had no choice – I had to get home! But I did have a choice. I could have stopped and collapsed on the road. I could have walked my bike all the way back. I could have waited for a car to come by and tried to hitchhike. And I could have kept riding. We always have a choice. If nothing else, we can choose how to respond internally.
Second, you can do a self-assessment and/or ask for feedback from others. A daily Examen helps but often we don’t have the best perspective on our own spiritual life. Try to check in with family, friends, a spiritual director, etc. to help you get a more accurate perception of your spiritual condition. Just because it doesn’t “feel” that you are changing or growing doesn’t mean that is actually the case.
Next, the sacraments are powerful and provide us with grace beyond measure. Reconciliation and Eucharist both provide much-needed healing and they can be regularly accessed by the faithful. During confession the priest might even offer advice and words of encouragement.
Finally, remember that strength comes from pushing yourself reasonably. If you exercise and only do things you find easy, you won’t get stronger. But, if you do too much, you will hurt yourself. Finding that balance is the key, but it is SO DIFFICULT. If you’re recovering from a physical injury, it’s understandable that you may be afraid to be hurt again. It’s possible that you have experienced hurts, wounds and injury during and/or after your time in religious life. As a result, it can be scary to keep up with prayer, consider discerning with another community or be open to marriage, for example. Be honest with yourself and with God about these fears and allow yourself to be “coached” when you are discerning your next steps. Ask Mary to help you discern when to push forward and when to change course.
Times of desolation and spiritual combat are incredibly challenging. But they can be less difficult if we anticipate them and have tools ready to address them.
If you’re not currently struggling in this way, think about what you will do when you are in this situation. Also, please pray for others who are having a hard time.
If you have experienced this before, please share your tips and strategies in the comments below.
If you are grappling with discouragement, please try the suggestions listed here and keep pedaling! Most of all, be assured of our prayers.