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.”
In the book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, Fr. James Martin, SJ explains Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s perspective on the topic of consolation and desolation. For St. Ignatius, consolation means “you are in accord with God’s presence within you, you will feel a sense of rightness, of peace…It is an indication that you’re on the right path.” Desolation, meanwhile, is a “movement to disquiet from various agitations and temptations, a signal that you’re on the wrong path.” You experience a feeling of consolation when you feel in your spirit that you’re on the right path. You might feel some peace, joy, or happiness. In desolation, you feel that you’re on the wrong path. You might feel a sense of sadness, anger, or depression.
I went through all these during my pilgrimage in the novitiate, one of the stages during which we’re sent out on a journey with minimal resources. In my mission letter, my novice director suggested I travel via buses to three different locations in California and Colorado, fulfilling the pilgrimage checklist at each location like scavenger hunt activities. I was given only $5 and a one-way bus ticket from Kansas City, Missouri to San Diego, California. During this journey, he suggested I wear regular clothing and avoid living in Jesuit communities as much as possible. At every new place that I visited, I should get rid of all my money and restart with only $5 again, carrying no cell phone, extra money, or a credit card. The main goal of the experience was to trust in the Lord.
My first pivotal moment of consolation happened as I prepared for the journey. My mission letter was given to me around 11 pm, and my bus ride to San Diego started around 4 am the next day. I felt powerless to pray with God as I kept thinking about my life and health, I couldn’t sleep; the easiest path for me now was to walk away from this journey. I felt a profound sense of desolation.
Distressed, I walked outside hoping to find some clear insights. I gazed at the sky and was in awe of the beautiful stars, so I said in tears, “Holy Lord! I feel scared to embark on this pilgrimage. Please give me your love and grace so I can be free to do your will. If not, I am about to lose my mind.” After this moment looking at the stars, I felt more comfortable sharing my feelings with my novice directors and classmates. Still, I felt confused about whether I should quit this journey. Despite my trepidation, quitting did not feel right. I knew that was the wrong path.
I entered a profound moment of prayer. I had a vision of my experience entering the Society of Jesus, and God gave me a peaceful mind. I remembered the way God continued sustaining my life after my mother and I tried fleeing by boat from Vietnam to America many times. Finally, I remembered that as I prayed with the Eucharist, I heard Jesus saying to me, “Do you love me? Do you remember who gives you your life, health, and talents?” At this moment, I felt Jesus was embracing me like my mother caressing me in her arms. Jesus’s questions were a wake-up call for me. I recognized my talents and God’s love and grace for my family and me. With a feeling of joy, I desired to offer my love wholeheartedly to God by embarking on the pilgrimage. This was my first pivotal moment of consolation knowing God as the liberator. He freed me from my desolate feelings and fears. I knew that I was on the right path as the Lord helped me to accept my reservations.
On my journey to San Diego, I felt hungry and upset after being on the bus for about 14 hours. I had eaten just a banana and a snack bar before I left for the Greyhound station. I was upset because I was sitting next to a heavy man who would regularly push me off my seat. Most importantly, it felt shameful to say to people, “I am hungry. Please give me some money or food.” When my stomach felt uncomfortable, I prayed to the Holy Spirit, “Buckle me up! I am about to go all out. If not, I am going to die.” As my body was shaking, I held in my breath deeply and started to share my pilgrimage story with strangers around me. They immediately shouted, “You are crazy. I do not believe that you are going on this journey with no cell phone and only $5.” I suddenly agreed with their confusion and said, “Yes, I know. I guess I am crazy with love for my God.”
After naming and owning my desire, I felt consoled that I had learned to accept my love for God despite this uncertain journey. More concretely, I felt on the right path as I yearned fully to build a relationship with the Lord by accepting my limitations. Some moments later, one person touched my shoulder and gave me a Snickers; another person went to an ATM and shared with me a $20 bill. These people told me that my pilgrimage story somehow inspired them, so they wanted to help me. I looked into their eyes and felt touched by their generosity. Above all, I saw God’s compassion in these strangers as I hugged them in tears; we continued to share our personal stories. I felt consoled that I had met many people on this sacred pilgrimage, and through them I slowly learned to trust in God.
Halfway through the journey, I contracted the flu, experienced many sleepless nights, and had limited water to survive on. Despite this tragic situation, I still felt joyful in my body. I was lost one night in San Diego around 8 pm and had to walk for 20 minutes to my destination. When the bus dropped me off, I was tired as I carried a backpack. I noticed several people aggressively approaching me and shouting, “You, come here, boy!” Suddenly, I was frightened for my life and said to God, “Why did you let this happen to me?”, then later I screamed out loud “Jesus Christ! I love you” and ran away from men accosting me as fast as I could like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump.
I made it to my destination and praised the Lord immediately for my safety. After sharing this story with my Jesuit brothers and reflecting on the experience, my body was shaking, but I felt God’s love for me because I was still alive and desired to be in a relationship with God. Most importantly, I knew that I was on the right path. I arrived at my final destination in Colorado, filled with a freedom to finish the mission, surrender my worries, and trust in God wholeheartedly. In the end, I know I’m on the right path.