Let’s be honest: meditation is not always sunshine and roses.
If you’ve ever tried to sustain a spiritual practice, you’ve probably experienced the phenomenon:
You spend weeks (months? years??) turning this practice into a daily habit. You whip out your mantra, crack open your book, or settle into silence. After some time, you begin to appreciate the groundedness it gives you throughout the day. It starts to feel like your anchor.
Then, without warning, you start to lose interest in your practice. You don’t feel God like you used to. The presence and peace that you once felt has evaporated. Worse, it’s started to feel like a drudgery. What am I doing wrong? you wonder. You try adjusting your posture, reading a different book, or calling a spiritual friend for advice.
But you remain stumped.
This is a very common experience. And--believe it or not--can be a very good sign.
For the mystic John of the Cross, it did not signal spiritual regression, divine abandonment, or a “user error.”
Rather, he saw it as an invitation to go deeper.
Unfortunately, in John’s day (as in ours), spiritual seekers would start to seriously fret about the experience. The Carmelite monk would see his spiritual children “run from it as from death, and wander about in search only of sweetness and delightful communications from God.” (Ascent 2.7.5)
John called this having a spiritual sweet tooth.
I tend to think of it as being a spiritual gold digger.
Gold Digger (noun, slang): one who is in a relationship for the financial benefits
Spiritual Gold Digger (noun, invented by Kelly): one who cares more about the felt “gifts” and experiences of the divine than they care about receiving God’s Self.
A Divine Sugar Daddy?
Prayer is another word for “relationship with the divine.”
More than that, many mystics liken it to a marriage. From Rumi to the Song of Songs to the Beguine women, our invitation to divine union is described in nothing less than erotic terms.
However, just like marriage, our relationship with God is not always blissful. The lead up may be saturated with delight--date nights, surprising each other with gifts, the longing for intimacy.
But marriage is so much more than that.
Marriage means living life together.
It means getting on each others’ nerves when they’re the only adult you’ve seen for the last 379 days of quarantine.
It means tag-teaming your impromptu homeschooling while you both juggle Zoom calls.
It means waiting on a diagnosis, not knowing if your life is about to turn upside down.
It means crying together when the grief of a lost “normal” feels too heavy to bear.
It means all the silly, mundane, bloody, messy, beautiful moments of life are journeyed with a traveling partner.
Anyone who entered into marriage thinking it would be all sex, romance, and a cushy Sugar Daddy is in for quite the surprise.
And besides, no one wants to be used as a vending machine, whether the candy bar looks like a romp or a vacation to Aruba.
So too with the divine.
He is not a great vending machine in the sky, the Sugar Daddy of all sugar daddies. No where is it written, “Blessed are those who pray, for they shall have perfect peace.”
In fact, these would be the anti-beatitudes:
Blessed are they who meditate 20 minutes a day, for all their stress will evaporate like the dew.
Blessed are they who go to church, for they shall feel God’s presence.
Blessed are they who serve those with COVID, for they shall be protected from harm.
Blessed are they who lead small groups and yoga and personal development all because of Me, for they shall have peaceful lives.
No, unfortunately the divine doesn’t work that way.
Some might say, “Yes, of course, we know that.”
But why, then, do we think we’ve been abandoned when difficult times come?
Why do we worry we’re doing something wrong when we no longer feel his presence?
Why do we give up our practice when it feels dry and difficult?
Notes of Citrus and Cardamom
It is easy to long for the peak moments. Flowers and love notes, sheets and sweets. However, anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that the honeymoon phase does not last forever.
As young love transitions into the normalcy of marriage, the flashy, whiz-bang intimacy matures into a richer, deeper form.
Hopefully you still have occasional dates, satisfying sex, and other tokens of affection. But that does not make up the bulk of a robust relationship. Added to it is a million mundane moments--watching a sitcom series together, waiting for a diagnosis, walking the dog while discussing books. Familiarity matures like a fine wine, adding exquisite flavors and notes that could never be imagined in the freshly squeezed juice.
This mature wine is what waits for us when the divine weans us off the juice of spiritual consolations. But the first taste of wine usually doesn’t taste good. It is an acquired palate, and it takes quite a bit of experience to appreciate the finer notes of citrus, oak, or cinnamon.
The mystics beg us to trust that something better is coming. If God is cutting off your juice, it’s because he’s preparing you for the good stuff. Gifts of peace and comfort are great, they say, but should not be clung to.
John of the Cross wrote extensively on the matter:
“The fly that clings to honey hinders its flight, and the soul that allows itself attachment to spiritual sweetness hinders its own liberty and contemplation.” (Sayings 24)
“It is seriously wrong to have more regard for God’s blessings than for God himself.” (Sayings 138)
“To come to enjoy what you have not, you must go by a way which you enjoy not.” (Sketch of Mount Carmel)
John is adamant about this because he saw far too many souls get stunted in their spiritual growth for a lack of direction. God would invite them to divine union, but they would not advance.
"It is so sad to see them continue in their lowly method of communication with God because they do not want or know how to advance, or because they receive no direction on breaking away from the methods of beginners… Although God does lead them -- since he can do so without their cooperation -- they do not accept his guidance. In resisting God who is conducting them, they make little progress… as a result they must endure greater suffering.” (Ascent P.3)
This is what most of us do when we don’t sense God like we used to. God is leading us in new, dark, subtle ways--but we like the old ways. And in resisting him, the dark night feels completely bewildering.
What am I doing wrong?
Has God abandoned me?
What’s the point of even trying to pray?
John tells us to trust the darkness. When you do receive spiritual gifts, enjoy them. Just don’t cling to them. For our images and knowledge and feelings of God are not God himself. And why would we want anything less than God?
Like the blind, they must lean on dark faith, accept it for their guide and light, and rest on nothing of what they understand, taste, feel, or imagine. All these perceptions are darkness that will lead them astray. Faith lies beyond all this understanding, taste, feeling, and imagining.
[...] If the soul in traveling this road leans on any elements of... its experience or knowledge of God, it will easily go astray or be detained because it did not desire to abide in complete blindness, in the faith that is its guide. However impressive may be one's knowledge or experience of God, that knowledge or experience will have no resemblance to God and amount to very little. (Ascent 2.4.2-3)
This is shocking news to many of us! Our feelings of God, our beliefs, knowledge, and understanding of him are what hinder us on our journey. John wants us to be naked-- denuded of all these gifts-- so we are free to receive divine intimacy.
For those who grew up in some Christian traditions, this is the opposite of what you were taught. All those spiritual gifts are not a sign of God’s “favor;” they are simply the beginnings of a relationship, the flowers and chocolates of the spiritual life.
Visions or images in prayer
Feelings of God’s presence, peace, or comfort
A grounding or trust that everything will be all right
Insights, connections, aha moments
Ecstasy; raptures and levitations
Feeling moved by a talk, retreat, or spiritual practice; the gift of tears
A sense that God is speaking to you, whether through your thoughts or a book or a conversation
Any pleasure received in thinking, learning, or speaking about spiritual matters
So when you experience these things, they are not an occasion of pride. (“Look how holy I am!”). Nor is it an occasion of jealousy when you see them in others. (“She must be so advanced to have such profound peace all the time.”) They are gifts to be enjoyed - but John recommends we “consider [them] of little import.”
"The higher the rank and esteem they give to all this knowledge, experience, and imagining (whether spiritual or not)... the more they delay in their journey toward him. And the less they esteem [these spiritual gifts] -- however estimable it may be… -- the closer they come to him.
In this way, in obscurity, souls approach union swiftly by means of faith, which is also dark. And in this way faith gives them wondrous light. Obviously, if they should desire to see, they would [want to] be in darkness..." (Ascent 2.4.6)
To usher you to divine union, God prepares you by making you naked and alone.
Thus, when he turns out the light, it is because he wants to speed up the process to intimacy.
Isn’t that what your lover would do?
The Mystery of the Other
It’s a tough transition to make, from honeymooning to humdrum.
The secret is that the humdrum conceals a far deeper magic than we could ever imagine.
Sometimes it doesn’t feel good. Or feel like anything at all.
And therein lies the distinction. Are we spiritual gold diggers? Are we in this for the fun bits, or for it all? Do we want the Giver, or just his gifts?
Because sometimes your lover isn’t what you want them to be.
They aren’t there to be your Sugar Daddy, your dispenser of gifts.
It would be wonderful if your partner were perfectly supportive when you feel weak, humorous when you need a laugh, and vulnerable when you want intimacy.
It would be amazing if God gave you peace when the world felt chaotic, trust when you worried, and clarity when you felt lost.
But part of the joy of relationship is discovering the Mystery of the Other. They are their own universe, with their own perceptions, desires, patterns. Even when we have known someone for decades they can surprise us.
I once heard an old man say of his lifelong spouse: “I know her so well I have no idea who she is.”
To understand that statement is to understand the spiritual path.
Kelly Deutsch specializes in audacity. Big dreams, fierce desires, restless hearts. When seekers are hungry for unspeakably more, she offers the space to explore contemplative depths and figure out where they fit in the vast spiritual landscape. She speaks and writes about divine intimacy, emotional intelligence, John of the Cross, trauma-informed spiritual practice, and neuropsychology. Kelly offers spiritual direction, coaching, contemplative cohorts, and retreats. She is the bestselling author of Spiritual Wanderlust: The Field Guide to Deep Desire. When she isn’t exploring the interior life, you might find her wandering under Oregonian skies or devouring red curry.