Have you ever had a moment when desolation hit you so hard you felt like you were stuck in the mud? Just a few weeks ago, I rode the wave of creative energy for several days in a row. Words poured out of me as I wrote talks for a retreat. More words came as I dug into another writing project. I can remember feeling the lightness and joy of living a call and thanking God for the ease of the process.
Then, BAM! The wall of desolation hit out of the blue in the middle of my creative wave one afternoon. I suddenly felt a heaviness come over me. Not only did it feel as if I were stuck in the mud, but my mind could no longer seem to create a clear thought. The lightness and joy I felt were replaced with doubt, heaviness, and confusion. I literally felt like I was stuck with no way out. My former words of thanking God for the call turned to groans of, “Why in the world did you ask me to do this? I am not cut out for this.”
I kept trying to push my way through or find a way out of the desolation. It felt like quicksand as the more I pushed, the more it swallowed me. Finally, completely defeated, I turned my computer off, walked away from my desk, and plopped on my couch, letting out an exasperated sigh. I sat silently grumbling.
As I sat there, a line a friend had texted me from Psalm 40 came into my mind. It was a psalm we both prayed with before, but we really appreciated the recent translation he found as we are both from Louisiana, and it referred to the swamp. The verse that entered my mind read:
God drew me out of the pit of destruction,
Out of the mud of the swamp,
Set my feet upon rock,
Steadied my steps. (Psalm 40:2)
When my friend texted me this verse a few days earlier, I immediately thought what a great description it was of the way God helps us out of desolation, especially when it is at the point of swallowing us. I repeated the line over to myself a few times, and I began to chuckle at how much it felt like I was in the Louisiana swamp that afternoon, trying to make my way through the thick, muddy waters of doubt and desolation.
The words of the psalm reminded me, though, that I did not have to stay stuck in the muddy swamp of desolation. The Holy Spirit would draw me out of it and steady my steps again. Even as I named this realization, heaviness began lifting a bit. Understanding I was stuck in the mud of desolation, I ran through St. Ignatius’s rules, the same ones I offer in spiritual direction meetings when people find themselves in desolation:
- Never change anything when in desolation. Stay the course.
- Do not keep it secret. Name it to God. Name it to trusted friends.
- Beg God to get you out of it.
- Pray more.
- Work against it.
I not only named the desolation to myself, but I began asking God fervently to help me get out of desolation. I texted two trusted friends to ask for their prayers as well. While the feeling of being stuck did not dissipate right away, there was a slow lifting up of my spirit over the next few hours. At bedtime, I talked to God more about all I was facing and feeling. As I did, I realized that there was no surprise desolation reared its head after a long, creative burst of energy and consolation. As I fell asleep that night, I knew what I had to do the next day. Work against the desolation by doing the very thing I was called to do—write.
That’s what I did the next morning after my normal morning prayer time and getting my kids on the bus—I sat down and made myself write. As my fingers hit the keys, I felt a surge of energy as the words that I thought had surely left me the day before returned. I typed a bit more, and as I did, I felt Psalm 40 take shape—God pulling me out of the mud of the swamp, setting my feet upon rock, and steadying my steps to once again say yes to my God-given call.