The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to better understand the concepts of consolation and desolation from the Spiritual Exercises. To learn more, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: Consolation and Desolation.”
I sat alone at a table in a small concrete room with white walls and bright institutional lights. I passed through several large, steel security doors that an officer had remotely buzzed open for me to get to this part of the county jail. I entered a meeting room next to the large pod that housed a few dozen residents of the jail. From my seat, I saw many of them through large windows, mostly dressed in orange jumpsuits, milling about in the common area, playing checkers or watching TV. As I sat there dressed in my clerics, at the time a second-year novice in the Society of Jesus, I wondered to myself, “How am I qualified to talk to any of these men as a chaplain?”
The short answer is, I wasn’t. But I did have one thing going for me: I had completed the 30-day Spiritual Exercises. Among many things, the Spiritual Exercises provide a roadmap to the human heart. They are filled with wisdom from St. Ignatius about how the heart responds to different inputs, whether they be nudges from God, our own thoughts, or temptations from the world. Any of these—thoughts, feelings, memories—that can be identified as coming from God and lead us towards God he called consolation, and any that lead us away from God he called desolation. The genius of Ignatius is that he realized we can usually tell the difference based on a careful examination of how they stir our spirit.
In the county jail where I ministered, I was about to find out that Ignatius’ roadmap does not solely apply to pious novices like myself, nor to those who are learned, churched, and well-catechized. It applies to anyone.
I heard a nearby steel door clang and watched as a guard led a limping man in orange along the hallway outside the meeting room. The last door was buzzed open, and after frisking the inmate, the guard let him come into the room where I was waiting. Though I learned in our conversation that Tony was only in his thirties, his skin was weathered and sagged as if he were much older, and he looked to be in a great deal of pain as he moved around. He told me that he was a lifelong diabetic and often had insufficient access to insulin. As a result he was missing several toes. He was addicted to meth, though abruptly forced into sobriety by his now month-long stint at the jail, and for the last several years had been in and out of homelessness. He was gentle, subdued, and relieved to talk with someone who would listen.
On the surface, I realized that Tony and I had very little in common. How could I begin to understand his experiences? What sort of language could we possibly have in common? I would soon find out that the Spiritual Exercises gave me a bridge to meet this man where he was at and to recognize in his life the same God that I had come to know and love in mine.
There was a point in our conversation when we began talking about Tony’s goals for when he got out of jail, which he thought might be soon. He told me in a dead tone that he would like to get to a point in his life where he only used meth occasionally, perhaps once a month or so. I sighed internally but was not sure what to say, so instead of cutting him off I resolved to continue listening and come back to this point if it seemed appropriate. Moments later, in the same monologue, Tony told me about how he used to go to church, how he wanted to return, and how he would like to sing in the choir. As he said this, his eyes lit up and his voice raised in excitement. Even his movements changed, as if some weight had been lifted from him.
“In the choir!” I repeated with surprise. He gave me a sheepish grin. After we talked for a few minutes about how much he liked to sing, I tossed up a quick mental prayer for guidance and asked Tony what he meant about using meth every few weeks. I will never forget his immediate response.
“You know, now that you say that… When I was talking about trying to use meth only sometimes, I felt this darkness around me and a heavy weight dragging me down. But when I talked about joining the choir at church, I felt a lightness in my heart and a hopefulness, like everything was going to be OK.”
I nearly leapt out of my chair. It was like he was reading to me straight out of the text of the Spiritual Exercises. In it, Ignatius defines desolations as anything that brings “darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to things low and earthly… without hope, without love.” 1 He calls consolation “every increase in hope, faith, and charity, and all interior joy which calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Creator and Lord.” 2 Tony had spit back to me these same principles, translated into the language of his own experience. As I explained this to him, that the stirrings in his soul were the result of God speaking directly to his heart, we both had tears in our eyes.
Paying attention to the stirrings of the soul is something anyone can do. Those of us seeking spiritual guidance or direction from God often hope for some external sign or indication of God’s will. But what Tony reaffirmed for me, and what I have since witnessed countless times in myself and in those I have listened to in spiritual direction, is that the language of the Lord is most often spoken directly to the heart. St. Ignatius shows us that this language is universally understandable, and Tony showed me that it can bring light and hope in even the most difficult circumstances.