Meditation : At The Heart Of The Spiritual Life

In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Levin, a main character in the story, has just encountered God in an experience of deep joy. The witness of an upright man who lives for God has opened for Levin the way to spiritual clarity. Tears express the profound happiness of his heart in the Lord. His faith has grown strong and new spiritual life opens before him. Levin hopes that the spiritual richness he has received will strengthen and deepen his relationship with his family. He is disheartened to find, however, that he continues to struggle as he interacts with various people of his household. When, finally, he is alone for a moment, Levin reflects on his recent spiritual experience:

“Can it have been only a momentary mood, and will it pass and leave no trace?” he thought. But the same instant, going back to his mood, he felt with delight that something new and important had happened to him. Real life had only for a time overcast the spiritual peace he had found, but it was still untouched within him.

Joy in God — then the depressing of that joy. A happy mood — then interactions that discourage and raise doubts about authentic spiritual progress. Anxiety that what seemed to be strong faith may have been only a passing mood — then again delight. Spiritual peace — then an overshadowing of that peace. Finally, untouched peace in God …. In this description of Levin’s thoughts and emotions, Tolstoy illustrates something fundamental in every life of faith: the alternations of joy and fear, peace and anxiety, hope and discouragement that the human heart experiences as it journeys toward God.

These alternations matter. The joy of experiencing God’s closeness instills new energy into the effort to love and serve. The darkness of discouragement and fear chills that quest and may overwhelm it completely. All faithful persons in all walks of life experience some form of these inner spiritual fluctuations: times of energy and desire for the things of God, and other times when that energy and attraction wane. Are we helpless in the face of such contrasting movements of the heart? Is there a way for us to understand this complex spiritual experience? Can we learn how to respond wisely to these changes in our hearts? If any teaching can answer these questions, clearly we will benefit immensely by learning that teaching. Such wisdom is, literally, at the heart of the spiritual life.

~from “The Discernment of Spirits” by Fr. Timothy M. Gallagher, O.M.V.