Colorful foliage is at the heart of autumn where I live. In a good year with plenty of rain the past spring and summer, the hues are spectacular and varied. I remember learning some years ago that while we might think of green as the leaf’s “real” color, the chlorophyll that gives the leaf its color is masking the deeper colors beneath. Only when the chlorophyll disappears as the tree prepares to shed its leaves, are the leaf’s “true colors” revealed.
Dryness in prayer, or the absence of consolations or other sensible experiences of God, might be compared to the changing colors of a tree’s leaves. Dryness is different from desolation, in that desolation includes turmoil, disturbance, and restlessness in the soul, often accompanied by temptations. In dryness, however, we are not actively struggling with any particular disturbance; rather it is the felt absence of anything “happening” in prayer. Still, the experience of dryness can be anxiety-provoking. We may wonder whether God is still “there” when our typical modes of prayer no longer seem to function as before.
The image of a leaf can be helpful for God’s underlying action in dryness: like a leaf that has lost the energy-producing chlorophyll, the removal of sensible consolation often makes room for something else to enter in, an aspect of God’s life in us that is otherwise hidden. In dryness, we learn something about God: God is not reducible to any of our felt experiences of God, but a mystery beyond comprehension. We may also learn something about ourselves—for example, that our own love for God does not depend on passing spiritual feelings, but runs deeper. We can learn of the depth of our own faith and of love that is willed and not merely felt.
When a leaf falls from a tree, we may perceive only its decay. But the leaf is pushed forth because the tree has already produced new growth; the old must go to make room for the new. As with many instances of change, shifts in prayer can help us to see our true colors at a deeper level. What looks like inactivity in dryness may be an invitation to new growth and life. While dryness may be a trial to endure, keeping in mind that God’s loving action with us never ends can help us through autumn times of prayer.