Sometimes the little analogies from nature that St. Francis de Sales uses to illustrate our development in the spiritual life bear more resemblance to a Disney cartoon than to real life. For example:
"When caught out in the field by a storm little bees pick up small stones so that they can keep their balance in the air and not be easily carried away by the wind."
Whatever the veracity of this little tale, it nevertheless has a point. Our soul, Francis says, needs to remain stable "amid the inconstancy and change that come from consolations and afflictions." To grow in "the devout life," we cannot allow ourselves to be blown about by the ups and downs of our emotions or by our experiences of consolation and desolation in prayer.
Consolation in prayer is a powerful stimulus to continue praying. The person who has just begun to grow in their relationship with the Lord will experience many consolations. It will be as though Jesus is sitting right beside you, as though you are transported into a world more wonderful and glorious than anything you've ever experienced.
You cannot get enough time in prayer. You cannot spend enough time reading your Bible or talking about God with your friends. It is like the honeymoon of being in love.
Alas! It cannot and does not last. After a period of time, that feeling of being lost in reverie with the Almighty dissipates. Prayer becomes a struggle. It is as dry as dust and soon one would rather do anything than spend time in prayer.
What is happening here? Have I lost my faith? Am I not trying hard enough? Has Jesus deserted me?
Likely, one will try to recreate the experience of consolation. Perhaps one lights more candles, burns incense or plays some of the music that accompanied the earlier time of wonder and awe. But all to no avail. The feeling cannot be recreated.
Maybe one finds oneself in conflict with others. "Why are they so hard to get along with?" And then one's anger or impatience boils over. "I thought I was becoming so holy, but look at me now? I have all the same faults that I've always had."
It is at this point that one may realize that it was not Jesus that one was loving, but rather the feeling that came from being with Jesus. There is a point to this time of dryness and desolation. It is to teach us that we are to love Jesus, not our feelings.
The feelings of consolation, however, were not an illusion. Jesus really was present in those feelings. St. Francis de Sales writes, "God generally grants some foretaste of heavenly delight to those who enter his service in order to draw them away from earthly pleasures and encourage them in the pursuit of his love."
Spiritual delights are like sugar. "We are given these bits of sugar because our minds are still tender and delicate and must have some bait and allurement to entice us to love God."
But then God weans us from those pleasures so that "we may learn to feed on the dryer, firmer bread of vigorous devotion, tested and proved by distaste and temptation."
This is not the time to give up on one's prayer life, as difficult as it may be to continue. This is the time to, if anything, grow in fervour. It is time to become, like Francis de Sales' fantastical bees, to pick up "small stones" so that we are not so easily blown away by the winds of our feelings.
What are these small stones? One might be performing an act of humility before God. Or, one might go to his or her confessor, tell him of the situation and desolation and accept his advice in obedience.
God loves humility and obedience because it tells him that we know we are finite creatures and he is the infinite Almighty God. It also tells him that we love him for who he is, not for the feelings of consolation that he provides.
Above all, we must not lose courage. Francis maintains that sometimes when we are in the springtime of spiritual consolations, we may be enjoying ourselves so much that we produce few good works. However, when we are in the time of dryness our good works multiply and we grow in true virtues such as patience, humility and the renunciation of self-love.
In that case, the bees are doing their work. They have risen above the superficial pleasures that come not only from our first love for God, but also are associated with worldliness. When it is pleasure that we seek, it can be difficult to tell the one from the other.
However, Francis warns that those who glut themselves on the pleasures of the world are incapable of true spiritual growth. They are satisfied with the feeling that does not last rather than seeking the joy of eternal life with God.
If only those bees had been carrying stones to keep them from blowing away . . .