The Home Front
Antonia Robinson FAITH MAGAZINE January - February 2015
A Cure For Spiritual Dryness
Many years ago as a first-time mother with a tiny babe in arms, I received sound advice from a mother of adult children, a breastfeeding counsellor who had helped thousands of mothers and babies over decades.
There will be times, she said, when you don’t actually feel love for your baby. When you feel nothing at all. Don’t let this disturb you: it simply means that you’re drained, empty, unable to feel. When this happens mothers often take it as a sign that perhaps they don’t love their baby as much as they thought they did, that perhaps they need more time away from their baby, that perhaps somebody else should look after their baby. But this isn’t true, she continued. It merely means that you are exhausted, and there is a straightforward remedy. Simply behave tenderly towards your baby. Act as you did at those moments when you felt overwhelmed by maternal love for him. Behave lovingly and you will feel the loving feelings return.
Her words puzzled me at the time but weeks or months later, numbed by lack of sleep and overwhelmed by being the whole world to this one little person, my maternal feelings retreated and I was left feeling confused and empty, with a mewling infant in my arms. I remembered the wise words and I took that mother’s advice. More quickly than I imagined possible, the tender feelings towards my baby returned and mother-baby harmony was resumed.
I’ve used this advice many times. It isn’t simply the rigours of the baby stage that can empty a mother of the capacity to feel. Recognising that emotional dryness may come for many reasons I have found that behaving affectionately towards my children at those times when I’m actually feeling nothing of the sort has surprising results. Of course I love them deeply, even when I don’t feel as though I do. But by consistently affirming my love for them through my attitude, they feel loved and secure and – importantly – behave like loved and secure children, which in turn makes those genuine loving feelings rise easily to the fore.
Some years ago I started a family blog. My goal was to write briefly about one positive thing that had happened each day. To write it without context. To create a tangible string of positive memories. I did this because I felt bogged down by family life with small children and realised that it was too easy to focus on what had gone wrong each day. Negative feeings are more memorable than positive ones. We remember tragedy before we remember joy. Often the simple beauty of day-to-day life gets swallowed up and forgotten in its minor irritations. Having a record of the happy moments gave me a sense of perspective on my role as a parent.
So I find myself in the first week of Advent about to move house: surrounded by packing boxes, children needing attention, animals needing relocating, and a deadline for Faith magazine. The broadband customer services agent hung up on me yesterday and I have to drive my son a hundred miles to serve at a Mass for the Martyrs of the English College. Waaah! But I know I can reorient my perception of what’s going on by deliberately focusing on those things that are wonderful in my life, like a sailboat tacking to
correct its course.
My New Year’s resolution for 2015 will be to remember what I learned as a first-time mother and to apply it daily to my life – my children, husband, parents, in-laws and neighbours – and particularly to my relationship with God. When I feel alone, when I understand Psalm 22’s “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” better than I remember the promise in Leviticus, “I am your God and you are my people,” I will pour my heart into praying.
“Giving rein to doubts about God’s presence makes it easy to blunder down a road marked ‘agnosticism’ towards a dark precipice”
When overwhelmed by life’s unwelcome challenges, our prayer life suffers. Like cross children we ignore Our Father because things aren’t going as we’d like. Or perhaps we don’t pray because we don’t “feel” anything. Our relationship with God is a reverse parental relationship. Although in our human frailty we may not perceive His love for us, this bears no relation to the fact of His love for us. As a lapsing Catholic once, paradoxically, said to a mutual friend: “I’ve stopped believing in God, but he still believes in me.”
Dryness of spiritual life is nothing new: many great saints persevered through it, which should give us all hope. However, spiritual dryness can also be a staging post on the way to loss of faith, which is why it alarms us. It is comforting to “feel” that God is near when we need Him. When we don’t sense Him near, we can doubt His presence. Giving rein to that way of thinking makes it easy to blunder down a road marked “agnosticism” towards a dark precipice.
Yet, like the maternal love that God has given every mother-baby dyad, our love for Our Lord only needs to be nurtured; a tiny flame in the high winds of spiritual battle. We must pray as though we feel drenched in His love and attention – because we are, whether we realise it or not. Maintaining prayer life with the fervour of one who feels the warmth of God’s regard will get us through the dark times. We are knocking a door that will always eventually be opened.