Today, we’re going to answer the question of why God allows spiritual desolation, something we all experience, especially this year. By spiritual desolation we mean feeling far from God, not feeling His love, not wanting to pray, and everything spiritual is hard. In talking to people, I’ve noticed that some of us are experiencing this, not feeling close to God, not praying daily, not eager to serve and learn about our faith, nor happy to evangelize.
[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]
Now, if you’re still participating at Mass at this moment, that’s because you still have a great spiritual foundation. But our goal is to get you back to where you were and beyond that! If we can understand why God allows spiritual desolation then we can begin again through it! It will no longer be a stumbling block, but a stepping stone!
The First Reading says: “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus… You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” (Gen 15:1-3). Abram’s spiritual journey is like most of ours: God called and he responded, God promised to bless him, and Abram was flourishing spiritually, in his family, and financially. Then comes the struggle: He has no child of his own, which is essentially a curse in ancient times. So God tries to strengthen him: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ Later on, God encourages Abram and Abram responds well: “The Lord brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… So shall your descendants be.’ And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:5-6).
God doesn’t give him the blessing right away in order for Abram’s faith to grow. It says, ‘Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ Does Abram only believe God when it’s easy, when he can see what’s coming? What kind of faith would that be?
The first reason God allows spiritual desolation is because it’s a test. Just as we’ve said about raising children: The human person needs challenges to grow. You can’t cower before every competitor, run away when you have a piano recital, go through life avoiding difficulties, otherwise you never internalize strength. God allows our faith to be tested precisely so that we grow!
There’s a beautiful analogy illustrating the difference between a mercenary and a patriot. When a mercenary is not paid, he stops fighting in a war. But when a patriot isn’t paid, he continues to fight because he loves his country. The mercenary fights for money. The patriot continues through the struggle because his heart is focused on the cause, not the reward (Fr. Timothy Gallagher, The Discernment of Spirits, 119). To be fully aware, you should recognize that most Catholics are spiritual mercenaries. They follow Jesus insofar as they get something: When prayer is easy, when their lives are blessed, when there’s little or no suffering. They pull back, however, when Jesus makes countercultural demands, when they suffer. They follow Jesus when it comes to His teachings on prayer and forgiveness, but they’re not fully pro-life; they don’t accept His teachings on sexuality or try to learn about them. However, disciples make Jesus the center of their lives, and believe, obey, and love Him no matter the cost.
How do we go from being mercenaries to disciples? We begin again through trials! Abram was somewhat of a mercenary, as he was concerned about his reward. But he grew through trials. There’s a great insight from the Second Reading: “By faith Sarah herself… received power to conceive, even when she was too old, because she considered him faithful, who had promised” (Heb 11:11). Every disciple knows He is faithful, even when His teachings are difficult and He challenges us.
The second reason God allows spiritual desolation is conversion. There are times in every human relationship where we become lazy and take the person we love for granted, especially after knowing them for some time. You know how before marriage, men and women tend to be more aware of their weight, and then, after marriage, it’s not as big a deal, because we’re already married? In the spiritual life, after we’ve married God, we’re not as careful in love, so we start skipping prayer, the time between confessions lengthens, we lose energy in evangelization. So God, out of love, withdraws consolation to wake us up, to convert our hearts more deeply.
Even after God blessed Abram, he still sinned against God (Gen 12:10-20; 16:1-4), so it’s natural that he would encounter difficulties. Look, if you hide from the sun, don’t be surprised if you get cold. If you grow lazy in discipleship, don’t be surprised that you can’t feel God. But He loves us so much that He allows us to start spiritually freezing so that we go back to the sun.
Begin again! There’s one man here, like so many, who, years ago, was close to God, then stopped coming to Mass for maybe over a year, but when he came back, his love for God and spiritual maturity were much deeper. Please know that these sorts of spiritual tests are actually signs of spiritual maturity. The fact that you’re experiencing spiritual desolation is a sign that you’re past the beginner’s stage of spiritual growth! God’s testing you precisely because you’re ready for better things!
In the Second Reading, notice when Abraham is put to the supreme test, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only-begotten son” (Heb 11:17). This refers to God’s asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. This happened when he was a more mature disciple, not a beginner.
God is calling us to begin again, not by becoming discouraged in these trials, but by renewing our commitment to Him. So, renew your prayer, among which is the 11:02 Prayer. Get out of yourself and pray for others, for those you love, that they encounter Jesus. We have an opportunity to start 2021 this New Year’s Eve, at midnight, to receive Jesus’ Eucharistic blessing. And renew your evangelization. Look for opportunities to invite to Alpha. People are hungering for a relationship with God. Use your trials as opportunities to share Jesus.
Since today is the feast of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, one couple in our parish family is happy to share a story about God’s being faithful during trials and, I would say, about their being faithful. Two Novembers ago, they had a miscarriage of their son, Marcus, and this was extremely difficult; they were left heartbroken. When they went to have Marcus removed from his mother’s body, they arrived early, sat in the car, and asked for strength to accept the situation and give it up to God. They weren’t upset at Him. Rather, the father told me that he knew it was part of God’s plan and for good, even if they didn’t understand it now.
But the trials didn’t stop there. Soon after, they were pregnant with twins, and the problem this time was that the two boys were sharing the placenta and blood supply. One baby appeared to be weaker, while the other stronger; there was potential for the weaker to die in utero and then the stronger would be affected. The doctors informed the parents of what could happen and one of the options was to clamp the umbilical cord to the weaker child to save the healthier one. So they called me, and I honestly was tempted not to give clear advice because I didn’t know if they could take it. But I chose to be faithful and tell them that we can never cause the death of one person to save another.
They prayed, asked their family to pray about it, and came quickly to the decision that they weren’t going to take any action that would harm the weaker child. They gave the two children up to God, knowing that, as twins, their fate had been joined since their conception. Two weeks later, the ultrasound showed that both children were growing, and every two weeks after became a celebration, and it kept on going. Now Jonah and Jacob have been born and both are healthy, and when I called the father on Christmas day, asking about this story and how Christmas was going, he said, “Well, it was more like a regular day of raising four children.”
To appreciate their faith, we need to remember that losing Marcus punctuated that this was a test. But they were faithful to God. The father said, “In the last year, God’s done so much for my life: good, bad, everything. I constantly reminded myself that, good or bad, it’s His plan. When situations are spiraling out of control, I pray, ‘This is your story. I can’t do anything about it, I give it up to you, tell me what You want me to do.’”
God allows spiritual desolation so that we grow. We begin again through trials.