The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series. This piece helps us to dive deeper into the subject of desolation from the Spiritual Exercises. To learn more, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: Consolation and Desolation.”
I love drinking coffee. The habit started when I was studying architecture and, obviously, I drank coffee to keep me awake during homework nights. It’s not just for staying awake. When someone tells me “let’s go for a coffee” I understand that it is time to listen and share our life: the joys and sorrows that we all live with. When I entered the Society of Jesus, coffee acquired a new flavor and a new sensation, not for the taste of consuming coffee itself, but for the meaning that this beverage has given to my spiritual life.
As a novice it was not easy to make prayer a fundamental habit for my vocation, because I was easily distracted by thoughts that steer my attention from the current prayer moment. Then, a Jesuit told us that “doing prayer is like going for a cup of coffee with Jesus: you sit, you look at him and you listen to each other lovingly.” Since then, having a cup of coffee in my hands and sitting looking at Jesus has become a habit that opens a sincere dialogue with Jesus and frees me to listen to what He asks of me, and strengthens my friendship with Him. I experience the same emotion when I go out with my friends for a coffee as when I make coffee in the mornings before starting my prayer. I know that the moment of sitting in silence, with coffee in my hands and dialoguing with Jesus, even with just a few words, fills my heart with faith, joy and hope.
However, there are days when it is difficult to maintain this relationship of friendship with Jesus, and it even becomes difficult and complicated to enjoy my morning coffee. When I started my time as a vocation promoter, I spent weeks traveling, plus a lot of time in the office. I didn’t feel rested due to accumulated fatigue. One morning, I was going to the kitchen to prepare my coffee, and some very uncomfortable thoughts came to my mind: “Why are you making your coffee? It is better to stay in bed and rest more.” Another inner voice told me, “don’t do your prayer but take advantage of your time to continue working,” I knew that in that voice it was not God who was speaking, but the ‘evil spirit’. At that moment of tiredness, confusion, sadness and when I felt very far from hope, I had to recognize with humility that all these were signs of what St. Ignatius calls a “spiritual desolation”.
Being in spiritual desolation is normal. Still, we can get upset by the uncomfortable feelings and emotions. The first thing we have to do is to accept that we are in desolation, and thus begin a journey towards God, waiting for spiritual consolation to return.
St. Ignatius experienced spiritual desolation and knew how difficult it is to live with an agitated and saddened heart. To help, he himself wrote some “rules” that we can follow in times of desolation. I find that they help me to keep my eyes and hope fixed on God, knowing that I am always accompanied by my best friend.
Here I share with you my interpretation of the rules of spiritual discernment of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises. They invite us to pay careful attention to the mixture of thoughts and feelings that we experience and that become a path of faith to return to God.
St. Ignatius tells us that…
S.E. 314. When we are in desolation the ‘evil spirit’ will make evil actions seem good so that we like them and become used to them. In the opposite way, the Holy Spirit will make us aware of the evil we do, making evident the difficulty of this time.
S.E. 315. When we begin to discern these thoughts and actions, the evil spirit will try to prevent us from walking toward God, disturbing and agitating the heart. At this time the Holy Spirit will give strength and encouragement in this process of walking toward God.
S.E. 318. In time of Spiritual Desolation, St. Ignatius invites us not to make decisions or important changes, since at this time there is no “clarity” in our heart, and we could possibly make a mistake.
S.E. 319. St. Ignatius also asks us to act “against” desolation with an extra spiritual effort, even if we don’t feel like putting in any effort. What sort of actions? He suggests praying more, examining our conscience and discerning more frequently, all with the knowledge that it is difficult to do this in such a spiritual state.
S.E. 320. Since everything, absolutely everything, comes from God and He accompanies us, St. Ignatius invites us to resist this difficult time by experiencing and being grateful for the small “signs” in which the grace and love of God is present in our lives.
S.E. 321. Finally, as we dedicate more time to prayer, St. Ignatius asks us to be patient, very patient, knowing that consolation will come soon with God’s grace.
In the times of desolation it is complicated to try to sit down, look at Jesus and dialogue sincerely with Him. In fact, my coffee can also become a distraction that prevents me from getting closer to God. As I sit at my desk, with a lighted candle and looking at the icon of Christ Pantocrator that my brother Sebastian wrote, the only thing left for me to do is to remember how I distanced myself from God and allowed the ‘evil spirit’ to cause confusion and sadness.
In the different moments that I have experienced spiritual desolation, I have understood the words of St. Ignatius about how the evil spirit comes to us. It makes that which we treasure and care for lose meaning and silences the deepest desires of the heart. For example, Ignatius says that the evil spirit will touch the most fragile and weakest part of us: our human nature (S.E. 325) by playing with our affections, feelings, that which we value most intimately. St. Ignatius also tells us that when we recognize that we are affected by the damage that the evil spirit does to us, we tend to keep secret what we experience, simply because of the shame and sorrow of knowing that we walked away from God.
On the contrary, Saint Ignatius invites us to open our hearts and allow ourselves to be helped in these moments of difficulty (S.E. 326), for that reason I like to think that my brother Jesuits, confessors, spiritual guides, and friends play the role of “God’s angels’ in whom I can trust to open my heart. Finally, the evil spirit will do everything possible to take away our peace (S.E. 327) by knowing what our weakest point is: our human relationships, our spiritual life, the work of our dreams, the friendships we love, or even something very small but important like enjoying a cup of coffee while talking with God.
A cup of coffee remind us of the importance of paying attention to our spiritual life. In times of desolation a coffee can lose its flavor and taste. In times of consolation the same cup of coffee reminds us how important it is to sit down to feel the warmth of the Friend who is always in front of us to listen to us at any moment. Let us pray every day that God may be our hope in time of Desolation, and that our friend Jesus may teach us to be grateful and to enjoy consolation.