“How are you really doing?” I asked gently as I sat with my friend Jon over lunch. I could see the signs of worry and anxiety of heart upon his face. “Not good,” he admitted. “I’m really struggling and exhausted all the time. Whatever this is,” Jon continued, “it’s eating away at my sense of peace.”
While I wanted to help, from experience, I have learned that it is not often helpful in the moment to offer trite phrases, such as “get some rest,” “take good supplements” or “have you tried x, y and z?” Those solutions would come at a later time, but the best medicine for this sensitive moment between Jon and me was presence and compassion. So we sat in silence for a few moments and then we prayed together that the stone of weariness lying on his heart would be removed. We prayed that the Lord would reach into his life and shine a light into the dark corners of his heart where the spark of faith had grown dim.
We have all gone through it — times when we feel absolutely exhausted and drained. Nights when we toss and turn and wake up feeling depleted and worn thin, frayed to the edge of our patience. Days when the fog of tiredness makes our thinking dulled and our reactions muted. It is beyond physical, mental or emotional exhaustion, but certainly these are all factors in feeling this deep-down tiredness.
This is a kind of tiredness that neither sleep nor rest cures. What is it? “Spiritual exhaustion.”
Often referred to as “spiritual weariness or fatigue,” spiritual exhaustion is a natural part of life, but it often takes us by surprise. We imagine that having faith means that we are spared from such times, but it is not so. In fact, the lives of the saints teach us that to be a Christian means to expect times of spiritual depletion rather than to pretend that they don’t exist.
As Catholics, our great history teaches us that many saints — such as St. Gemma, St. Therese of Lisieux and St. John of the Cross — experienced spiritual exhaustion and that God uses these times to strengthen and purify us. St. Teresa of Kolkata wrote often about her intense feelings of abandonment and desolation.
“I am told God lives in me,” she wrote in 1957, “and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” This could aptly be described as a “dark night of the soul,” which is a term associated with the great Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross and taken from his writings.
Some years ago, I was wrestling with a project and some family worries. After nights of trying to work things out myself, I finally got up in the middle of the night and had a heart-to-heart with God. As I laid back down to sleep that night, a prayer came to me comprised of only 10 words. It is a simple one which has brought me much comfort through the years:
- “I can’t,
- “But you can,
- “Jesus, show me the way.”
It is a prayer of surrender to God’s plan. Feel free to make this prayer your own. Here’s how it works:
- I can’t. Tell God anything that you are struggling with here (I can’t heal this friendship, I can’t deal with X, I can’t stop worrying, I can’t start taking care of myself).
- But you can. Ask Jesus directly what your need is, such as, “But you can heal this situation, you can take this pain away.”
- Jesus, show me the way. This part of the prayer acknowledges God’s Lordship in your life and that you surrender your life to him from whom all goodness and blessings flow. Ask for the grace of strength to bear what is happening and for Jesus to show you the way.
We all have our “dark nights of the soul.” Some are more intense than others, some last for a season, others for years. Though it seems today, with the rapid pace of life, with the increased emphasis on individualism and materialism, that many people today are experiencing more spiritual exhaustion than ever.
The pandemic has undoubtedly contributed and intensified feelings of exhaustion and anxiety among individuals and families because this is a time of change, a liminal time, an in-between time. Life has changed and we are changing, too. During times like this, the Irish have a lovely expression that says “tóg go bog é,” or “take it easy on yourself.” This is a good reminder to us all, especially those who are spiritually exhausted.
Stanz is director of parish life and evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay and author of “Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church” (Loyola Press).