What Should I Do When I Struggle?
Eight helpful tips to a priest’s question
Father Timothy Gallagher 0
Father Mark locked the church and walked to the rectory. It was 3 p.m. on a Sunday. He was physically tired and emotionally spent.
Weekend ministry had been mixed. His homily at the vigil Mass had felt flat, and few parishioners spoke of it as they exited the church. Mark knew that he should have worked on it earlier in the week. On Saturday morning, with limited time, he had prepared as best he could. He had retired that evening knowing that he had to preach it twice more on Sunday.
His two Sunday Masses had been reasonably well attended. The servers did not show — again — for the first Mass. As on Saturday, Mark struggled with his homily. A few parishioners expressed a perfunctory, “Nice homily, Father,” but that was all.
Baptisms followed the last Mass. One participant asked to speak with Mark. The meeting lasted 45 minutes, as Mark did his best to listen and respond pastorally.
Mark opened the rectory door and entered. He was alone in the large, silent building.
He looked at his phone and read through the emails. Nothing he found there lifted his tired spirits. He checked his voicemails, one of them from a finance board member. When Mark saw his name, he winced, and the message confirmed his fears. This board member had called to express disagreement with a financial decision Mark had made and told Mark that he would raise this in their meeting on Wednesday evening.
Normally, at this time in the afternoon, Mark prayed the office of readings and evening prayer. He looked at the breviary and felt no desire to pray. He flopped on the sofa, took up the remote, and flipped through channels. Eventually, he found some sports, and without much interest, watched. An hour later, he had had enough. The breviary was still there on his desk.
Reluctantly, Mark took it in hand and prayed — really, he read through in order to finish — the office of readings and evening prayer.
Not happy with the way he had “prayed” the office, Mark wandered into the kitchen. He felt no energy to prepare supper and ate whatever he found there. As he ate, Mark opened his phone. News and sports led to Netflix.
At 10 p.m., Mark went to his room. This was when he habitually said night prayer, made his examen and reviewed the readings for the next day.
Mark sat at his desk. He was tired, lonely and discouraged. The meeting on Wednesday would be difficult — one more in a series of such meetings. It seemed that his years in the parish had always been a struggle. He had arrived, had begun with enthusiasm, had spent himself … and little seemed different in the parish.
He found himself thinking of the years ahead. Would it always be like this? Tiring weekends? Lonely rectories? Expenditures of energy with limited response from parishioners? Renovations and capital campaigns added to the rest? A second and maybe a third parish when restructuring concluded?
How long could he go on this way? Mark had wondered from time to time if he were not called to religious life. Could that be the answer? Should he speak with his bishop?
A few inches in front of one hand lay the breviary. Nothing in Mark wanted to take it up. A few inches in front of the other lay the phone. Everything in Mark wanted to take it in hand. He knew where this could go; he knew how, when he was feeling as he did now, it could spiral downward. One touch would become 100, would become 200 … and the same sad pattern would repeat … .
Does any of this sound familiar?
The Priest, the Enemy and the Good Spirit
Father Mark’s choice at 10 p.m. this Sunday matters. If he takes the phone and lays it down an hour and a half later, what will be in his heart as he retires that evening? What will be in his heart the next morning as he rises and prepares for Mass? If Mark, with God’s grace and some courage, takes the breviary at 10 p.m. and never touches the phone that evening, what will be in his heart as he retires? What will be in his heart the next morning as he rises and prepares for Mass?
In spiritual terms, this Sunday afternoon and evening Mark experienced spiritual desolation: heaviness of heart on the spiritual level, on the level of prayer, on the level of his priestly vocation. Such desolation, together with temptation (deceptive suggestions of the enemy), is a basic, ordinary, undramatic tactic of the one Ignatius of Loyola calls the “enemy”: Satan and his associated fallen angels, together with concupiscence and harmful influences in the world. This is the classic triad of our spiritual tradition. Spiritual desolation is important precisely because it is part of the daily spiritual life.
Ignatius names the other actor the “good spirit”: God, as he works in the hearts of his children whom he loves; the good angels; the richness of grace infused in us through baptism (indwelling of the Trinity, sanctifying grace, theological and moral virtues, gifts of the Holy Spirit, individual charisms), and spiritually helpful influences around us in the world.
Both the enemy and the good spirit are real. But they are not equal! The enemy is no more than a fallen creature; yes, of a higher order than we, but still no more than a fallen creature. The good spirit is the infinite, omnipotent, endlessly loving and personally close God, together with those influences that are from God and directed to God. Our Christian and priestly spirituality is, therefore, fundamentally a spirituality of hope.
Another important note: There is no shame in experiencing spiritual desolation. Every saint, every person who has ever loved God, has this experience from time to time. This is simply what happens when living the spiritual life in a fallen but redeemed and loved world. What does matter is to note our physical and emotional vulnerabilities to desolation, to perceive when the enemy brings spiritual desolation into these vulnerabilities and to resolve both the vulnerabilities and the spiritual desolation. When we do this, we grow in our priestly life — which is why God permits Mark and any of us to undergo spiritual desolation. We also grow in the ability to help our people who, like us, experience this tactic of the enemy.
I offer here some thoughts on how to deal with such struggles. What follows is a mixture of counsel from our spiritual tradition, in particular St. Ignatius of Loyola, and the experience of 44 years of priesthood.
1. First of all, above all, ask God for help. Do this as you sit alone in the rectory or at 10 p.m. in your room. This is a prayer of petition and the most powerful means we have to resist in such struggles. Ask the Father, ask Jesus, ask the Holy Spirit for help. Ask Mary’s help. Ask your angel or a saint who is special to you for help.
We have been given a promise: “Ask and it will be given to you.” Years of priesthood have taught me that this promise is not just words. When I ask for help, I may still struggle for a time, but the struggle lightens, and it passes more quickly.
2. When you feel what Mark feels — when you are in spiritual desolation — never change anything you had planned to do in your spiritual life before that desolation began. Never! This is Ignatius’ famous Rule 5: “In time of desolation, never make a change.”
In Mark’s experience, Rule 5 tells him to pray the office of readings and evening prayer exactly as he had planned on Sunday afternoons, without delay. It tells him to pray night prayer at 10 p.m., as he does every evening. If, instead of watching sports, Mark prays the office of readings and evening prayer as usual, most likely his struggles that evening will lessen or pass entirely. Again, if Mark prays night prayer at 10 p.m., makes his examen and reviews the readings, as usual, the temptation of the phone with its possible consequences will weaken and maybe cease altogether. If Mark recognizes that his thoughts about religious life arise in a time of spiritual desolation, he will apply this rule to those thoughts as well.
I cannot tell you how grateful I am in my own priesthood for these eight words: “In time of desolation, never make a change.” They have saved me from much harm over the years. If you act on them, you will find the same in your priesthood.
3. When you experience spiritual desolation, do not remain alone with it. Note the experience, perhaps describe it in your journal, and share it with your spiritual director. In his lovely letter to priests on Aug. 4, 2019, Pope Francis describes spiritual direction as an “indispensable aid” for priests. Indispensable: The word merits our reflection.
Speak also with a priest friend. FaceTime with a family member. Such relationships are on different levels and the sharing will correspondingly vary. But do not be alone! What will happen, for example, if Mark, instead of passing the evening alone, speaks with a priest friend or a family member? Or if he details this experience in his journal and shares it when he next meets his director?
4. Spiritual desolation will attempt, falsely, to interpret your spiritual past and to predict your spiritual future. Both will always look dark. Mark experiences this tactic of the enemy on Sunday at 10 p.m. Not only does the present seem heavy, but the spiritual desolation (the enemy) tells him that his time in the parish has been fruitless and that the coming years will also be empty. If Mark believes this lie (cf. Jn 8:44), he will likely succumb to spiritual desolation. But if he identifies these thoughts as of the enemy and rejects them, he will be greatly strengthened both this Sunday night and for the future.
5. Do not attempt to flee desolation through some form of diversion (cf. Blaise Pascal). When you put down the remote, the tablet, the phone, when you close the refrigerator for the last time, when you turn from other such diversions, you find the desolation still present. Instead of fleeing, examine what you feel and how it began. If Mark does so, the seemingly overwhelming cloud of desolation will shrink to its true proportions: the starting point was a homily. A better way of preparing will reduce his vulnerability to spiritual desolation.
6. Remember that you are never helpless when in spiritual desolation. The desolation (enemy) will say: “You’re too weak. You can’t resist. You’ve failed in the past, and you will fail again this time. You can’t pray this evening, you can’t resist screens and earbuds, you can’t be a faithful priest, you can’t, you can’t, you can’t …” When you hear this voice, remember that you can resist because you know, with the certitude of faith, that God always gives the grace you need to stand firm in the trial (cf. 1 Cor 10:13).
7. Open your heart to the consoling action of the good spirit who is always with you when, like Mark, you struggle. The good spirit, Ignatius says, gives courage, strength and light not only to resist desolation but to reject it and to grow spiritually as we do. If Mark, with the grace and inspirations of the good spirit, resists his desolation this Sunday, he will not be harmed and he will grow in readiness to resist future desolation as well.
8. Finally, learn and apply Ignatius of Loyola’s 14 rules for becoming aware of, naming and rejecting spiritual desolation. Learn them! Apply them! I beg of you to do this. If you already know and apply them, you understand why I say this. If not, and you do learn and apply them, you will love what these do in your priesthood.
FATHER TIMOTHY GALLAGHER, OMV, was ordained in 1979 as a member of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, a religious community dedicated to retreats and spiritual formation according to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He currently holds the St. Ignatius Chair for Spiritual Formation at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.
Resources from Father Timothy Gallagher
The following are some resources produced by Father Timothy Gallagher, OMV, that may help with spiritual struggles.
• “The Discerning Priest: Ignatian Wisdom for Daily Life in Priesthood” (Institute of Priestly Formation, $10.95).
• “Struggles in the Spiritual Life: Their Nature and Their Remedies” (Sophia Institute Press, 18.95).
• “The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living” (Crossroad Publishing, $24.95)
• discerninghearts.com and the Discerning Hearts app (tap on “Spiritual Formation,” “Father Timothy Gallagher,” “Discernment of Spirits”