One of the least advertised parts of the spiritual journey is desolation or spiritual "dryness". Most people want to sell the consolation at the beginning of the trip or the mystical union down the road yet I think, for most of us, it is 90% desolation and 10% other. So why bother? Why not avoid it all, have a party at the beginning and then spend the rest of our lives trying to recreate the "dawn" by staying out of the desert through simulating the "ardent desire for things of the spirit" that seems so real at the start? Merton speaks to the positive side of desolation, implicitly acknowledging the redemptive option in suffering that Cassian discusses here in Conference IV, the path of freedom to love as God loves, a path that is made clear only in the suffering that comes in desolation.
Desolation in the spiritual life. And God gives us this desolation, God sends us desolation for a purpose. What causes desolation in our life in the way he just explained it? Why does this question of being dragged in both directions cause us desolation? Well, it's because we want to be carried away in the spiritual direction, we want to be going up to these beautiful things and we feel ourselves dragged down. Now in the world, with all due respect, with the world being taken out in sort of a bad sense, is the people outside [the monastery] it's not necessarily desolation for them if they are dragged towards pleasures and things like that. On the contrary, that's consolation to them. If a person has no particular desire to be dragged in the direction of divine things, he doesn't mind being dragged in the other direction. But it causes desolation to us because we want to go to God and we find ourselves being dragged in the other direction. Well, you can work that both ways. The desolation is lessened, and in a legitimate way, if you have a more realistic conception of your desire of divine things. I would say this is a basic truth of the spiritual life for everybody here [in the monastery] is that, be careful, of intense desires for divine things, which come especially to novices and not so often to the professed but which are familiar to the novitiate. That's alright, it's good to have those, but don't think that that is beginning and the end of everything. These intense desires have their purpose but they're not spiritual perfection and the thing you have to be a little careful of, is don't let yourself because carried away by those and don't push yourself too hard. The devil can pull you in that direction. This is one of the points that Cassian makes, that if the devil doesn't get you by giving you an ardent desire for the things of the flesh, he can get you with an excessive desire for the things of the spirit. And the thing we have to desire is neither one nor the other but the disposition of freedom and enlightenment in the middle, which God gives us. That's the one thing that the Devil won't give us because that's where we ought to be; he'll give us everything else but that. If the Devil were to give us the desire for this middle position, there is no point in him doing that, and if he does, accept it, he's giving you something good. I assure that he won't, according to tradition.
Why does God allow us to suffer this desolation? Why does he allow us to have a great desire to have spiritual things and to feel ourselves pulled in the other direction? What good does that do us? What does that teach us? . . . It gives us purity of intention, and it gives us humility, and it gives us self-knowledge. The purpose of trial, definitely, is giving us self-knowledge, trust in God, understanding of God's way with us, self-distrust, realization of our total dependence on grace, all those things. So, if you happen to get into some kind of a trial, remember what it's supposed to do for you. And, start working on these things a little bit, work in the direction of self-knowledge and self-distrust and trust in God and reliance on grace and total dependence on God. And, then, the other things that these trials do . . . is to test our perseverance and to test how serious we are about the spiritual life, to test the seriousness of our will, the seriousness of our desire to serve God. And, especially, not the seriousness of our desire for these concupiscentias spiritus , but it's the seriousness of our desire to stand in the middle and to exercise our freedom for the love of God. That's what we have to be serious about, that is the thing that we have to be most serious about, because that is the talent that God has given us to develop. He doesn't ask us to develop concupiscentias spiritus, that's what we think he asks us but it isn't. He doesn't ask us to develop all kinds of ardor and fire and sensible fervor and that sort of thing. One has no obligation whatever in the spiritual life to have or develop sensible fervor. Sensible fervor is there if it comes and you use it if you got it and so forth. You have no obligation to have it and you are not supposed necessarily to have it. What you are supposed to have is good will and a certain amount of intelligence and a certain amount of an enlightened of your freedom which makes use of both these things. (24:36)
Transcript from "Ways of Prayer: A Desert Father's Wisdom", lectures by Thomas Merton, Chapter 2.