How do you respond when people ask, “how are you doing?” If you’re like me, you often offer some form of an empty answer, like, “I’m good, how are you?” But do you ever think to answer, “Oh, I’m experiencing some serious desolation lately”? Or, “I’m experiencing a lot of consolation right now. Thank you for asking!”
Jesuits live on a steady diet of these two words: consolation and desolation. Perhaps you’ve heard them before. A simple definition of them is analogous to the typical response to the question above. Consolation is typically associated with “good” and desolation is taken to mean “bad”. While these two interpretations approach the truth, there’s a lot more to consolation and desolation than just feeling good or bad.
To better understand these important concepts of Ignatian spirituality, I’ll refer to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola for a working definition of each word. Then we’ll look at the causes of desolation. Finally, I’ll relay some tips Ignatius gives us on how to proceed when in either consolation or desolation.
The Context: Discernment of Spirits
We get our descriptions of consolation and desolation from St. Ignatius’s “rules for the discernment of spirits,” found in his Spiritual Exercises. The word “spirits,” in the Exercises, refers to either the “good spirit” or the “evil spirit.” The good spirit is the Holy Spirit, which draws us closer to God. That which moves us further away from God comes from the “evil spirit” or the “false spirit.” This includes our own sense of brokenness and sinfulness, but it also indicates Satan, that spirit which is opposed to God’s plan of salvation. Ignatius sometimes refers to this spirit as the “enemy of our human nature.”
Jesuit priest Mark Thibodeaux, a master of Ignatian Spirituality, says that we are constantly operating under the influence of one of these spirits. “All of us are guilty of DUI, so to speak—we are driving under the influence of movements within us of which we are hardly aware.”1 The purpose of the discernment of spirits is to become more aware of these movements. This is where consolation and desolation come in.
Ignatius calls consolation, “when some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord; and when it can, in consequence, love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but in the Creator of them all.”23
As you can see above, consolation (and desolation, as we’ll see) is more than just a feeling or feelings. Rather, it is a state of being. This means that we shouldn’t expect any particular feeling whether we’re in consolation. Rather, it is a lens through which we are looking at the world—the lens of God’s love. Even more than the lens, consolation also determines what we’re focusing on. Do we focus on the gifts and graces present in our life, or are we drawn to the things we lack, or what’s not going right? Do we experience gratitude? The answer to these questions will help us discern if we’re in either consolation or desolation.
Even if we’re looking at the world through the lens of consolation, that doesn’t mean that we necessarily feel happy. In fact, Ignatius writes that consolation can actually be marked by deep sadness for the times we’ve turned away from God or said no to his call to love. In short, feeling deep sorrow and contrition for our sins is also a sign of consolation, because these can draw us closer to God.4
Furthermore, when we are affectively moved in thinking about Christ’s passion and death, the most terrible thing imaginable, this is a sign of consolation as well. Although sorrowful, this can help us to appreciate the great magnitude of God’s love and mercy.
Finally, Ignatius 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.”5 I believe all people of faith can name moments when the joy of being in relationship with the Lord was tangible. It may have been on a retreat, at a holiday gathering with family, or even taking a walk through a beautiful forest. The joy that is felt in these moments isn’t just about being happy, rather it is a feeling of being rooted in something greater than ourselves. This experience is usually accompanied by a deep sense of trust that God is taking care of us and that our ultimate home is with him. It’s the peace that only Christ can give.6
The Spiritual Exercises gives us a rather simple definition of desolation: it is the opposite of the above. Ignatius describes desolation as “the contrary of [the above], such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to things low and earthly, the unquiet of different agitations and temptations, moving to want of confidence, without hope, without love, when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, said, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord.”7
Just like consolation, desolation isn’t a feeling either. Darkness and disturbance and disturbance of the soul sure don’t sound fun, but what about “movement to things low and earthly”? Ignatius was likely referring to sinful inclinations to the vices, such as lust, gluttony, greed, and so on. Surely, anyone can look to what’s glamorized in pop culture today to know that these things aren’t typically portrayed as “sad occasions.” Rather, happiness in today’s culture is often stipulated upon the fulfillment of such desires.
There are some people that seem to have it all in terms of worldly goods, but are left feeling like something is missing. They might even seem fairly happy, but they may not feel fulfilled. There are others who are miserable even though they have everything that they could ever want in the way of things “low and earthly.”When we chase fulfillment in all things, but fail to fill that space in our hearts that is reserved for God alone, that can bring us to desolation. So, desolation isn’t just about being sad, but it’s ultimately about being disconnected from God, as well as the hope and sense of purpose that come from God.
Causes of Desolation
Ignatius writes that there are three principal reasons why desolation occurs: 1) We can become desolate either through our own negligence to the matters of the spirit. 2) God allows desolation because he wants to try us to see how much we desire to love and follow him, even if we don’t feel consolation. 3) Finally God allows desolation to occur simply as a reminder that we’re not in control of God’s grace.
The first reason listed above shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Apathy is a sure path to desolation. And what’s worse is that desolation–feeling distant and dry in matters of the spirit–leads to a cycle of more desolation, since apathy causes a lack of desire to take up our practices. An analogy I like to use is comparing our spiritual lives to physical health. The more we exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, etc., the healthier we will likely feel. Once we begin to neglect one of these necessities, be it exercise, a good diet, or proper sleep, then not only will our physical health will suffer, but we’ll be less motivated to do anything about it
Obviously, this isn’t a perfect analogy, as is made evident with the second cause of desolation: God allowing desolation in order to try our love and desire to follow him without the reward or motivation of consolation. This cause may not sit well with our sense of “fairness.”
One of the ways I understand this cause of desolation is as an affirmation of our free will. God has no desire to train us like one of Pavlov’s dogs. We don’t do good things to receive the “good feelings” of consolation—remember, consolation isn’t a feeling. God doesn’t desire to condition us into simply following him so that we can receive the “award” of consolation. Rather, we pursue love and service to the Lord out of a desire to enter into communion with him. And we know that communion also means the cross. God wants our free choice, and the second cause of desolation helps remind us of that.
The third cause of desolation might at first seem very much like the second cause. I often have trouble seeing the difference between the two, but I find David Fleming’s translation of this third cause helpful. He writes, “[The desolation] is a time when God lets us experience our own poverty and need. We see more clearly that the free gift of consolation is not something we can control, buy, or make our own.”8 Rather than a time of testing, this third cause denotes a time of remembering. We do not control God or his gifts. This can help us to stay humble, lest we think that our consolation is a result of our own holiness. 9 It’s a great reminder, as we’ll see in the next section, that we must always savor consolation with immense gratitude.
The second and third causes of desolation could be characterized as periods of spiritual dryness. God does not use these moments to punish or mess with us, but rather to strengthen us. Great saints like Teresa of Ávila and Therese of Lisieux wrote that we grow in holiness much faster when we are faithful in times of dryness. 10
How to Proceed
Recognizing we’re in either consolation or desolation is only half the work. We’re called to respond in specific ways depending on which state we’re in. Ignatius gives several tips and warnings for those in desolation.
Ignatius warns us that someone in desolation should never change an important decision that was made when they were in a state of consolation. Take a rather simple example. A young woman has discerned religious life for a few years. She has sought advice of loved ones, as well as a trusted spiritual director. And she’s even been accepted into the novitiate. The summer before entering, however, she gets a little neglectful of her prayer life and soon finds herself in a state of desolation. In that state, she begins to panic at the prospect of entering religious life. She suddenly starts to feel a great deal of doubt and anxiety. Is God really calling her to religious life? Ignatius would say that this young woman should not change her original position because just as the good spirit counsels us in a time of consolation, it is the false spirit that counsels us in a state of desolation
Not only should we be resolute in a decision we made in consolation, but we should also intensify ourselves against the desolation by focusing even more on prayer, meditation, the Examen, and acts of penance. To continue the example above, the desolate young woman discerning a religious vocation should actually opt to spend a little more time in prayer rather than cut and run.
Ignatius also offers encouragement for those who are in desolation. He assures us that even though we are tempted and agitated in desolation, God is still providing us with sufficient grace to persevere. God doesn’t abandon us, even when we don’t feel his presence.
God is always providing us the grace sufficient to persevere through desolation, but that may be hard to accept in the midst of it. That’s why Ignatius also counseled patience for those in desolation. Consolation will return.
Counterintuitively, Ignatius also advises those in consolation to remember that they will sometime in the future be in desolation once more. As I alluded to in the section above, Ignatius counsels those in consolation to savor it so that they can remember it when desolation returns. The young woman discerning religious life, therefore, should recall those times when she has experienced God’s closeness to her in prayer and the consolation she received in her initial discernment. The memory of these will actually help her work against desolation.
One way I do this personally is by keeping a journal of received graces and answered prayers. When I experience desolation, I return to that journal and savor again those graces. This practice has played a vital roll in my spiritual life and persevering in my vocation as a Jesuit. I highly encourage everyone to do it.
It can be difficult to determine if we’re in consolation or desolation. But a habit of prayer, especially praying the Examen, is a great help to discern what spirit is guiding our daily thoughts, words, and actions.
Another great help in determining which lens we’re operating out of are people in our lives who can help guide us. These can be family, friends, wisdom figures, but they can also be people especially dedicated to helping people in this way. We call these people ‘spiritual directors’. These people will not only help us determine what state that we’re in; they’ll also help us see how we got there.
If you’re interested in receiving spiritual direction, you may ask your local priest for help finding one. Or you can visit the Jesuits website to see a listing of retreat centers that staff spiritual directors all over North America.
Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash
- Thibodeaux, Mark Going Deeper: Ignatian Discernment of Spirits for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Care, ix ↩
- All quotes from the Spiritual Exercises will be taken from David Fleming’s Draw Me into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises: A Literal Translation and Contemporary Reading. ↩
- Spiritual Exercises, § 316 ↩
- Spiritual Exercises, § 316 ↩
- Spiritual Exercises, § 316 ↩
- John 14:27 ↩
- Spiritual Exercises, § 317 ↩
- Found in David Fleming’s Draw Me into Your Friendship, p.255 ↩
- Insight from Fr. Bart Geger, SJ ↩
- Insight from Fr. Bart Geger, SJ ↩