I wrote the outline for this post about two weeks ago following a vacation, in a moment when I felt myself diving into a spiritual “trough”, or low point in one’s spiritual life where God’s presence seems to withdraw. I plotted out the following points, mostly as a reminder to myself about the tools available to get out of such a state. I woke up the next day planning to complete this writing, and I was pleasantly surprised by a re-invigorated drive to fully participate in my daily routine and the return of the presence of God! “I must have been overreacting,” I thought to myself as I brushed off the need to publish something that day.
When people find sobriety after a long run of abusing drugs and alcohol they tend to go through a period of time known as the “pink cloud”. This is a physical, emotional, and spiritual state that is characterized by a natural high, due to a combination of hope for the future, physical relief from the benefits of not intoxicating their bodies, and the rush of companionship and fellowship. For some it lasts a week or two. For others it lasts a few months. Some claim to experience a pink cloud that spans over the course of years. It’s a beautiful thing, and it can help newcomers overcome some extreme difficulties that tend to come in early sobriety. It can also impart the impression that all is good and we can do this on our own, not needing to rely on God in all of our affairs. “I must have been overreacting,” we proclaim as we reach to take our will back from God.
As time passes the law of undulation runs its course and the pink cloud inevitably fades. C.S. Lewis characterizes this law of undulation in his book, The Screwtape Letters:
As spirits [humans] belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to eternal objects, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.
This was something that I struggled with after a year or two of sobriety. In fact, maneuvering through the peaks and troughs inherent within the spiritual life is something that I still do very imperfectly. One question that I get asked quite often regards these ebbs and flows. “What would you suggest for the person who is having a hard time dealing with the apparent feeling of distance from God?”
That’s a great question, and the tools I’ll share in response to that are not any kind of new wisdom that I’ve imagine myself, but are consistent within the principles of recovery and inherent within the beauty of the Catholic Church.
Tell someone. You don’t have to do this alone, and the aid of a friend or fellowship can help get you through this! Isolation is a tool of the devil, especially for the addict who pulls away from the world and resorts to her vice in an effort to stay further disconnected. Telling someone about the trough you are going through can open opportunity for connection and bring an invitation for someone to share the experience with you. Friends or mentors can have a unique subjective view on your life that the emotional toll of darkness can fail to see. Reminders that you’ve been here before and have gotten out of it won’t solve your situation, but can provide encouragement to continue on the faithful path and practice you’re on.
Pray. This might feel like the last thing on your mind, and you may not truly believe the words that are being uttered at the time, but just pray. Getting honest with God about the situation is another way of telling someone, and might will aid you in the process of working through the situation. God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and just because we do not feel God’s presence at the time, it doesn’t mean His existence or love for us is diminished in any way. In fact, faithfulness is grown through the process of devotion regardless of feeling. That is true in our relationship with God as well as in our relationship with others.
Commit to your routine. When I feel pulled by the temptations of the lull, I have a tendency to make decisions that are lazy in nature and contrary to the routine that helps me stay sober. I sleep in longer than I hope to (an act of isolation for me). I don’t feel like being of service. I avoid going to the gym. All of these good things that have become a part of my commitment to a better way of life feel less important even though I know that they’re spiritually, emotionally, and physically beneficial. Making a commitment to an already-established routine builds consistency and offers new forms of grace to become present.
Do something for someone else. Reconnect with a friend or spiritual companion. Go the extra difference to make someone else’s day better. Seek out someone that is going through the darkness that God has given you the grace to overcome. If you’re a recovering alcoholic, drug addict, porn addict, or otherwise, look for a newcomer that is having difficulty getting started and share the mystery of what God has done in your life. They’re not hard to find. I’ve found that doing something for someone else is a sure way to rid myself of self-pity and self-seeking ambitions that keep me wrapped up in my own perceived loneliness. It’s contrary to what you may want to do, but it works!
Seek out the Sacraments. What is more renewing than the act of mercy offered by the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Admitting our faults to God, encountering his forgiveness, and answering the call to do penance for times of deviance is a sure way to reconnect with the loving God that implanted that yearning for Him in the first place. The same is true with receiving the Eucharist and allowing His Body to unite with ours, letting the mystery of His presence to change and transform us so that we may continue to be His presence here on earth.
C.S. Lewis’s character Screwtape, an experienced tempter doing the work of the devil, shares with his apprentice how this space of undulation—the spiritual troughs that we go through in our lives, can create opportunity for even greater devotion to God. He notes (from the perspective of evil, remember), “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s (God’s) will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”