Of Consolation and Desolation, part 2

In my last blog, the focus was on the idea of consolation as proposed by St. Ignatius de Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. The definition he offers for desolation was as follows:

I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, 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, sad, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord. [1]

To clarify consolation and desolation, there are degrees to which each concept applies. For instance, the darkness of soul need not be total darkness. And though there are times we may feel that low, the ultimate would be unbearable. Think of depression. One who is clinically depressed is most likely unable to bring themselves out of their depression by doing things that bring them out. They live in a darkness that prevents them from doing anything and those who live in the darkest depression have no hope at all. The only action those in such a dark place contemplate is suicide.

But there is also a lighter form of depression, one which everyone goes through at one point or another. A loved one dies, a promotion goes to someone else, a grade given on a paper is an “F”. Sometimes we want to wallow in that depression for a while. In the end, though, we are able through various coping methods to lift ourselves back up to normal. But what is “normal?”

I believe that we all live in some state of desolation most of the time. Yet that is not to say desolation need be a bad thing. Ignatius has more to say about desolation than he does consolation. Importantly, he gives three reasons one is in desolation:

The first is, because of our being tepid, lazy or negligent in our spiritual exercises; and so through our faults, spiritual consolation withdraws from us.

The second, to try us and see how much we are and how much we let ourselves out in His service and praise without such great pay of consolation and great graces.

The third, to give us true acquaintance and knowledge, that we may interiorly feel that it is not ours to get or keep great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation, but that all is the gift and grace of God our Lord, and that we may not build a nest in a thing not ours, raising our intellect into some pride or vainglory, attributing to us devotion or the other things of the spiritual consolation. [2]

The three may be summed up as Transgression, Testing, and Training. By Transgression, I mean that there is a desolation that is our fault. Desolation is the condition that consolation disappears. If you have ever cried out, “Where are you God,” then you have experienced desolation.

Testing is from God’s hand. He may not and often does not create that which tests us, but he does use things that are happening around us. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, ESV) Another way of looking at it is that God works all things. In either case, the emphasis is that testing from God is not designed to find out how holy we have become. He already knows that. However, we do not know where our faith is. Through trials, we discover how we have grown in our sanctification. We also discover how far we have to go. In fact, Ignatius looks at consolation as a kind of payment for our service to the King in further establishing his Kingdom on earth.  Desolation shows us how we work for Christ without reward which is the purest kind of service.

Then there is Training. What we must learn is maybe the most difficult thing to learn in both head and heart. We must discover that nothing, neither desolation not consolation, our devotion, and our gratitude comes from our inner self but all comes from the gracious hand of God our Father. If we suppose there is any personal source for anything good, it is not really good because it is destroyed by pride.

We have a lot to learn. Ignatius gives his students the gift of wisdom when he outlines a number of “rules” to help us navigate through our times of desolation. Some of them include never change commitments or vows made in times of consolation. This is one of the greatest temptations of desolation. In our race, we come to a hurdle that is too high to jump, a mountain too high to climb. Stick to it no matter how hard or how long it is to do it. So, we should not take any counsel from desolation, because apart from the grace of God, desolation darkens even our ability to think clearly.

Instead of changing our commitments to God, Ignatius tells us to change ourselves. This advice has been used in one form or another by pastors, self-help gurus, and personal coaches. “We can’t change the things around us so we should adapt and we will be happier,” they say. The flaw in this thinking is not in the principle but in the details of the change. The change he suggests is to work toward change “by insisting more on prayer, meditation, on much examination, and by giving ourselves more scope in some suitable way of doing penance.” [3]

Ignatius doesn’t get everything right. But he does give help to any of us who get trapped in the pop-culture of worship. A few years ago, when I had gone back to school, I attempted to “Protestantize” the Exercises and take what is good from them. My project was to test my work by training some small groups in local churches. The project was not a great success because I could not introduce the concepts of reflection on our sin and on the work Christ did on the cross to pay for our sin. “We are past the cross” was all they could say. My answer is that Christ is past the cross, but we are not completely past it. Yes, we are passing it, but if we were completely past, there would never be any desolation. This is why Paul reminds us:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3–4, ESV)

But even after this knowledge,

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:14–19, ESV)

Give thanks to God.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24–25, ESV)

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