Spiritual Direction by Copernicus

“Copernicus” by Thorwaldsen Warsaw, via Wikimedia

“A revolution!” they say.  “A tale of persecution and ignorance!” they cry.  Most people are familiar with the name Galileo.  Sadly, a great many of those people associate that name with the idea that the Catholic Church opposes science.  While the Church’s handling of the Galileo situation wasn’t perfect, the common narrative is far from correct.  And never mind the fact that it wasn’t Galileo’s discovery in the first place.  Never mind the fact that Galileo was drawing on Copernicus, a Catholic clergyman who died in good standing with the Church.  Never mind the fact that it was barely a controversy until Galileo became pushy and antagonistic about a theory that, despite it’s overall truth, turned out to be less than accurate.

Still, mistakes were made (yes, by us, the Catholic Church) and it is accurate to call heliocentrism a “revolution.”  While a post about the dangers of jumping to historical and scientific conclusions would be helpful, I won’t do that today.  Jordan Haddad has already pointed out Fr. Ratzinger’s reflection on this revolution, but I want to offer a slightly different angle.  Instead of talking about our relation to the rest of the world, I want to offer some Copernican insight on the spiritual life.

The (Sun)light of Grace

When a soul first begins the journey to sanctity, it typically has a tangible sense of the grace and consolation of God.  They tend to be motivated and often feel some sense of reward for effort poured into prayer, fasting, and works of charity.  That vague warm sense you get when prayer is getting really good, that inexplicable sense of focus that keeps you from forgetting spiritual obligations, that sense of lightness that comes from escaping a more sinful way of life;  These and more are common experiences after a conversion, a reversion, or some other powerful experience of God.  When one first sets out in the spiritual life, they usually enjoy the light of grace in a more or less noticeable way.

Inevitably, darkness comes.  At some point, there will be dryness, irritability, boredom with spiritual things, and a loss of that consolation prayer used to bring.  Unprepared for this, many souls begin to wonder “what did I do?” or “why has God become so distant?”  Sometimes, it is in fact our own actions that lead to desolation, to a sense of being more distant from God and less eager to do spiritual things.  Ultimately, however, this experience ought to lead us to a kind of Copernican Revolution in the spiritual life.

Who Moved, Me or God?

When we first experience the dryness in prayer – the darkness – it is natural to assume that God or his grace went away.  In fact, its just as easy as looking up at the sky and saying the sun went away: – it set in the west and left us in darkness.  For the majority of human history, it was the natural assumption that the sun moved and we didn’t simply because that’s what experience told us.  But, Aristarchus, Copernicus, Galileo and many others were willing to dig deeper than that, to look beyond appearances into the real nature of things.  It’s actually a great example of the difference between the “order of knowing” and the “order of being.”

In essence, it’s is the difference between top-down and bottom-up.  We try to understand the universe by following cause and effect.  We see the effects first (like a moving sun) and then work our way back (or up) to the cause (we move around so it looks like the sun moves).  In reality, the cause came first, but it’s usually the last thing we figure out.

So, when our prayer life goes dim, it’s an invitation to look into the cause.  To simply assume that God has left us is, quite frankly, foolish even if it is a rather common and natural mistake.  God doesn’t move.  God doesn’t change.  God holds everything in existence and God is love.  If you exist, God is present to you and he loves you.  What changes is your ability to recognize his presence and respond to it.

So, What Does that Mean for Me?

It means that you (and I) need to learn how to make our spiritual life revolve around God’s unchanging goodness instead of my own fickle emotions and feelings.  Yes, of course feelings and emotions are an important component of a healthy spiritual life.  We are human beings, after all, and we should love and serve God as human beings.  But, these things can not, can not, can not be our primary source of direction.  The goal is to get as close as possible to living our lives according to the order of being: to learn the objective truth about ourselves, about the world, and about what needs to be done. Then we act accordingly, regardless of whatever false perceptions or misguided feelings try to get in the way.

“Christ Crucified” by Diego Velázquez, via Wikimedia

The times of darkness help us to search more deeply, either so that we find the obstacle and remove, or so that we realize our perspective is mistaken and so adjust it.  The goal is holiness, not good spiritual feelings.  Just as night and day are both part of our journey through time, so they are both part of our journey through the spiritual life.

When prayer seems to go dark or dry, there are a few things we should do:

  • Don’t stop praying!  In the Christian life, perseverance is the name of the game.  It makes no sense to give up on life just because night has come.  Day will break again.
    • Perhaps the amount or kind or prayer needs to change, but don’t make that decision on your own.  Get advice and please, please don’t stop praying altogether.
  • Examine your conscience: sin can and does darken our spiritual life so a thorough examination might uncover some habits or sins that are getting in the way.
    • Go to confession and make the necessary adjustments to your lifestyle.
  • Lean in a little bit: Don’t really want to finish that rosary? Do it anyway and then add a decade.  Things like that train you to look past night and to expect the dawn.
  • Be honest about the darkness and offer it up:  On the Cross, Christ prayed, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”  Clearly, God did not forsake Jesus, but this prayer was both an honest expression of human suffering and a prayer of faith.
    • Yes, it is okay to tell God that you are mad or that you feel abandoned.  It’s even okay if you’re a bit… intense in how you tell Him, just so long as you are talking to God and that you do not curse Him.  Also, give Him some room to work: a time of silence after you vent.
    • Sometimes, God leaves us in darkness so we can offer up that suffering, especially for those who live in darkness and don’t even know that there is a light.

No revolution comes without a cost, but I promise you that a Copernican Revolution of the soul, that learning to grow through those times of night and darkness, is absolutely worth it.  If Heliocentrism helped us understand and then go to space, imagine what Theo-centrism can do for your soul.

Posted by Fr. Albert

Fr. Alexander Albert is a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette. He was ordained a priest in June of 2016 after receiving an M.A. in Theology from Notre Dame Seminary. He currently serves as the Parochial Vicar for St. Peter's Catholic Church in New Iberia, Louisiana. He takes an interest in Spiritual Theology and has his own blog, Albert The Ordinary, where he posts homilies and analyzes movies.

Website: http://www.alberttheordinary.com