I also think this is true for the spiritual life. Anyone who has been involved in the spiritual journey for any length of time knows all days are not equal. It is not unusual for the early days of the spiritual pilgrimage to be pretty good. Often there is that initial burst of enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, God can seem to be right there in your corner. The spiritual tradition calls these graces of God “consolations.” Consolations are good. In fact, there are a bit like spiritual goodies.
The truth of the matter is, however, we should not be thinking we are entitled to these spiritual goodies. It is important to recognize they are graces of God---spiritual gifts. They are your due to no merit on your own. You did not earn them. You do not “deserve” them. They are not a testament to your worthiness or spiritual prowess. What is given can be taken away.
And if you hang in with the spiritual journey long enough, consolations typically will be taken away. At this stage, it is important also to remember that this does not mean you have become unworthy. You have not become a spiritual skunk in God’s eye. It does not even mean you are no longer in favor with God.
The periods in which consolations are taken away and, apparently, you are now forced into a kind of spiritual desert is called “desolation.” To experience desolation is akin to finding yourself in a wasteland, instead of the promised land. It is easy to wonder what happened. You thought that you and God were buddies and now this! Instead of toasting your consolations, you are now feeling tested by the desolation.
These were the things that came to my mind when I worked with the biblical text from Vespers last night. Vespers is the time in the daily lectionary that is evening. I follow the lectionary of the Catholic monastery with which I am affiliated. I cannot do all the periods of worship and reflection, but I usually try to do the early morning one and the evening one. It is a good time for me to be disciplined for the long spiritual haul.
I don’t mind the idea of a long spiritual haul. If this were not the case, it would mean that I soon would be dead or would have given up the spiritual journey. I am in no hurry for the one and want to avoid the other. So I am quite content with the long spiritual haul---with its consolations and desolations.
When I read the Psalm text for Vespers---Psalm 137---I thought of the desolations that come with bad days. I immediately recognized the context for the opening verses of that Psalm. I know enough biblical history to know the historical context was the Babylonian Exile. During this period in the 6th century B.C.E., the leaders and some people of Israel had been driven from their homeland and into exile in Babylon---modern day Iraq. This would have been a hard time for the Israelites. It must have been a series of bad days.
Let’s listen to the words of the Psalmist as those days are recounted. The Psalmist opens the Psalm by saying “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” (137:1) These are the words of a forlorn group of people. Notice the “we” language. It is not just one sad guy. It is a group of people in a period of desolation---a series of bad days.
So what does one do on a bad day? Of course, you give up music and merry-making. The Psalmist says “On the willows there we hung up our harps.” (137:2) I had to smile. That’s a great way to respond to a bad day: you just hang up the harp! When you are sad or tied or feeling defeated, you certainly don’t feel like playing music, singing and having a good old time.
The Psalmist continues in that Psalm to talk about how the captors made fun of the Israelites and asked for music. And so it is with our bad days. Often we are not left alone to have a bad day. Our society is too often (and perversely) preoccupied with “having a good time.” No sadness is allowed. If you don’t feel well, fake it. Let the music roll.