Becoming De-occupied with Ourselves: The Place of Desolation in Prayer (Friedrich von Hügel)

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Every once in awhile I come across a work that is a hidden gem. Thanks to the recommendation of Eugene Peterson in his work Take and Read: Spiritual Reading – An Annotated List, I recently finished Baron Friedrich von Hügel’s brief work, The Life of Prayer. In the midst of his seven facts concerning God and seven facts concerning the human soul in prayer, I enjoyed particularly this section reflecting on the way that spiritual desolation provides an opportunity for us to become de-occupied with ourselves and occupied with God.  Hang on until the final sentences to get the most out of this.

If, then, spiritual dryness is indeed inevitable in the life of prayer, we will be much helped to bear these desert stretches, by persistent recognition—hence also, indeed especially in our times of fervour—of the normality and the necessity of such desolation. We will thus come to treat desolation in religious as we treat the recurrence of the night within every twenty-four hours of our physical existence; or as bodily weariness at the end of any protracted exertion in our psychic life. When desolation is actually upon us, we will quietly modify, as far as need be, the kind and the amount of our prayer—back, say from prayer of quiet to ordinary meditation, or to vocal prayer—even to but a few uttered aspirations. And, if the desolation is more acute, we will act somewhat like the Arab caravans behave in the face of a blinding sandstorm in the desert. The men dismount, throw themselves upon their faces in the sand; and there they remain, patient and uncomplaining, till the storm passes, and until, with their wonted patient endurance, they can and do continue on their way.

There are generally a weakness and an error at work within us, at such times, which considerably prolong the trouble, and largely neutralise the growth this very trouble would otherwise bring to our souls. The weakness lies in that we let our imagination and sensitiveness be directly absorbed in our trouble. We contemplate, and further enlarge, the trouble present in ourselves, instead of firmly and faithfully looking away, either at the great abiding realities of the spiritual world, or, if this is momentarily impossible for us, at some other, natural or human, wholesome fact or law. And the error lies in our lurking suspicions that, for such trials to purify us, we must feel them fully in their tryingness—that is, we must face and fathom them directly and completely. Such a view completely overlooks the fact that such trials are sent us for the purpose of deoccupying us with our smaller selves; and, again, it ignores the experience of God’s saints across the ages, that, precisely in proportion as we can get away from direct occupation with our troubles to the thought and love of God, to the presence of Him Who permits all this, in the same proportion do and will these trials purify our souls.

[From Baron Friedrich von Hügel, The Life of Prayer (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1929), 34-37.]

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