I recently started rereading the very humorous Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, the story of a crazed and impoverished Spanish noble who sets out with his much saner “squire” Sancho Panza in search of adventures to revive the chivalry of knighthood. Each of his adventures turns into a misadventure, probably the most famous of which being the run-in with the windmills. Don Quixote sees thirty or forty large windmills in the distance and declares to Sancho Panza that they are giants that he means to engage in “fierce and unequal combat.” Sancho tells him that they are windmills but Don Quixote responds by telling him that he is clearly not used to the business of adventures and that he should pray while he fights them. Don Quixote ends up seriously injured and unconvinced that he was defeated by windmills.
The irony of the story lies not only in the fact that Don Quixote is delusional but that he considers prayer to be a lesser alternative to his adventure. Anyone who has ever prayed seriously knows that prayer is a serious adventure. Don Quixote is engaged in a false combat with “giants” but the man at prayer is engaged in a real spiritual combat with the Enemy. Unlike Don Quixote, who swells with courage and “righteous” anger at windmills and leaves defeated, it is precisely when the person who prays has no consoling emotions or upward movements that he leaves victorious. It is these moments in prayer that can be the most important and the most triumphant.
When we do not experience the presence of God in prayer, or any of the consolations and uplifting emotions that can come along with His presence, we can be easily tempted to discouragement. We think that our prayer is useless, that God is not listening, that He has abandoned us, that we must be praying incorrectly, that we did something wrong, etc. In reality, going through periods of dryness in prayer is part of the ups and downs of the spiritual journey, just like it is in other areas of our lives.
C.S. Lewis says the closest thing to constancy we have in life is undulation. At a certain point in Don Quixote, Sancho asks his master what knights do for a certain boring, ordinary task and Don Quixote does not know how to respond because he has never read about it in his “histories” (books about chivalry that were popular at the time and were probably equivalent to low-grade romance novels today). The wandering, the sitting, the physical necessities, the waiting; these were not things of great adventure novels. They are the substance of everyday ordinary life, however. We all experience highs and lows, but the average is still the most common.
The same is true in the spiritual life. If the doing of dishes, the rocking the baby, the unclogging the drain, if all these things done with love are the most important, it follows then that the highs and lows of the spiritual life are not of the greatest value to God but rather our median, average, everyday, common prayer done with love; and especially when we do not feel like doing it. When we are able to offer an act of love to God in prayer when we do not feel like it, we are unable to receive any apparent benefit from it. Thus it comes from pure desire for the good of the other, which is an excellent definition of love.
Don Quixote, when he was about to enter into a particularly frightening and perilous adventure – something like the aversion we feel when our prayer is dry – would invoke his lady-love Dulcinea del Toboso. The memory of his love for her and the hope of making her proud would ennoble him to face the worst of enemies. The same can be true for us in our moments of aridity in prayer. When we do not swell with strong emotions in prayer, our acts of love are that much more heroic and precious. It means so much to us when someone does something that they do not feel like doing for love of us; how much more for God!
Don Quixote is a great and fun book to read, but it does not inspire to greatness. The lives of the saints, these are the true adventure stories. The man who held a door for 20 years, the wife who raised up daughters who became nuns, the scholar turned martyr, the fisherman turned pope: each of these people blew their nose, dried their tears, rested in exhaustion, laughed at jokes, and loved deeply. That is why their stories are adventures. So, unlike Don Quixote who mistook ordinary things for extraordinary things, the saints took ordinary things and made them extraordinary by their love. When we do not feel God, we pray and we love anyway – and that makes life an adventure worth pursuing.
Make an act of love to God the next time you feel aversion to prayer:
“O Lord God, I love you above all things and I love my neighbor for your sake because you are the highest, infinite and perfect good, worthy of all my love. In this love I intend to live and die. Amen.”
This month’s meditation is by Sr. Kalin Holthaus