Are there times when you feel you are all alone, that your prayers are going unanswered? Does sorrow, or pain, or loneliness dominate your thoughts? Does God seem far away? This is desolation, a spiritual state. Many saints experienced periods of desolation, and we can take comfort in this knowledge. Blessed John Henry Newman is no exception.
While his ship was becalmed off Sardinia in 1833 during his Mediterranean voyage, Blessed Newman wrote a powerful poem, “Desolation.” Contrary to the title, however, the poem could be named, “Dispelling Desolation.” In these verses, Newman tells us all the ways that we can be sure that God has not, and will not, abandon us. We know that on this voyage, Newman had been very ill, and he was homesick. He was also worried about the Church of England. This poem, then, can help us when we, too, are feeling blue or desolate.
“O, SAY not thou art left of God,
Because His tokens in the sky
Thou canst not read; this earth He trod
To teach thee He was ever nigh.”
In the first stanza, Blessed Newman reminds us that we are not “left” of God, that is, God has not left us, even if we are unable to see Him in His “tokens” in the sky, His glorious creations of clouds and stars and sun and moon. And it’s because many did not see Him in these tokens that God sent His son to walk the earth as one of us. Since Christ walked on earth, we know of God through stories of Him as shown in the second stanza:
“He sees, beneath the fig tree green,
Nathaniel con his sacred lore;
Shouldst thou thy chamber seek, unseen
He enters through the unopen’d door.”
In this stanza, Newman recalls how Christ saw Nathaniel and called to him; Christ knew Nathaniel’s heart. Since Nathaniel remembered the sacred teachings of the Old Testament, he, through faith, recognized Christ. We, too, remembering God’s promises, can likewise recognize Him in faith. Though we may try to hide from Him, He will come in through the closed doors of our hearts if we let Him, even while we are asleep, as the next stanza illustrates:
“And when thou liest, by slumber bound,
Outwearied in the Christian fight,
In glory, girt with Saints around,
He stands above thee through the night.”
This comforting stanza gives us a powerful image to remember, that Jesus is standing over us, with us, all night, even as we sleep, and, with Him, the angels are also encamped around us, as the Old Testament has promised.
In the fourth stanza, Newman alludes to the time when he was very sick with fever on the voyage; and during this illness, he was sad, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
“When friends to Emmaus bend their course,
He joins, although He holds their eyes;
Or, shouldst thou feel some fever’s force,
He takes thy hand, He bids thee rise.”
But just as the two disciples at first did not recognize Christ, still He made Himself known to them, and He will do likewise for us. Lastly, Newman leaves us with the uplifting thought that no earthly thing, like the sea, is an impediment to Christ, Who can walk on the sea and give wind to the sail, for it is He who made them all.
“Or on a voyage, when calms prevail,
And prison thee upon the sea,
He walks the wave, He wings the sail,
The shore is gain’d, and thou art free.”
And so on our own voyage through life, our ships, too, may stall and we will suffer loss and illness. But Christ is ever with us, in sickness, in sleep, through closed doors, even if we don’t recognize Him. He will stretch out His hand to us, He will walk on the sea to us, and His wind will blow us to Him. We will reach the shore and be free.
If you are feeling desolate, if you do not recognize Him on the road, continue with prayers and the sacraments, for He will make Himself known to you again, in the breaking of the bread.