Consolations and desolations are part of the spiritual journey. They go hand in hand, each preparing for the other. The graces we receive in consolation can only be tested and applied in desolation. Yet desolations humble us and cause us to cry out to God for more graces that we then receive in consolation. We need them both and the more we become aware of them, the greater we can profit from each.
Consolations are those times when God seems so close, His voice so clear, and there’s true peace and joy in our hearts. Then there are desolations. When God seems to be far away, silent, and there’s anxiety, sadness or fear. St. Ignatius of Loyola composed the spiritual exercises to help us navigate the consolations and desolations, and while I’m no expert, I’ll share what I’ve found helpful in applying them.
When in desolation, it’s hard to admit, but the desolation is often caused by our own doing. (Unless we’re like St. Mother Teresa and St. John of the Cross and other saints who experienced the dark night of the soul in which God purposefully withdrew Himself!) Desolation is usually caused by our own sinfulness that starts to creep in and then reaches a point in which we look away from God. It’s often a gradual process and I’ve recognized how it slowly develops in my life:
- First, it begins with losing an interest in prayer or becoming too busy to have time to pray. Then when I do pray, it’s dry and distracted. This makes it all the more harder to make time for it, so it slowly gets shorter and shallower.
- Second, is when I start doubting God’s closeness and care because I don’t have the deep prayer life to hear the loving voice of The Father. This leads to an inward focus, which starts to be expressed in selfishness and a criticizing spirit of others and eventually myself.
- Third, it’s losing a taste for spiritual things. Daily Mass feels more like a burden than a joy. All the while, worldly things take priority for attention, especially food.
- Fourth, is when there’s a lack of the sense of sin around us. That TV show isn’t that bad. That lie wasn’t that big. That comment wasn’t that inappropriate.
- Fifth, we sin ourselves.
Needless to say, desolation can lead to a dark place, to sin. So that’s why it’s important to recognize when we’re starting down the path of desolation. We know God will never try us beyond our strength, but we must also give desolation a good fight! Sometimes it can be as easy as doing a physical activity– a brisk walk, a bike ride, or a run to snap us out of desolation. Sometimes we need more:
- First, put more effort and love into prayer. Now is not the time to change your prayer routine, stick with it. If you can add more, perhaps a visit to the tabernacle or ejaculatory prayer of, “God help me to pass through this desolation without sinning!”
- Second, help another person. Choose a corporal work of mercy or volunteer at a soup kitchen. By doing so, we come out of ourselves.
- Third, make a sacrifice to curb the draw to worldly things. Fast from a dessert or coffee, or a TV show, or Facebook. By fasting we are praying with our bodies.
- Fourth, express more thanksgiving and praise to God. Recognizing everything we’re thankful for, even the desolation, lifts our heart to Heavenly things. Thanksgiving helps us regain God’s outlook on sin.
- Fifth, get to Confession. All that has bubbled up in the desolation is ready to be purified by the Blood of Christ. Hold nothing back from Him.
If we are attentive to the sins uprooted in each desolation, we truly are better off at the end of it. Better yet, the consolations will be all the more sweeter. It is then in those consolations we should begin praying for the grace to go through our next desolation. As we journey along the spiritual life, let us remember that we will become more sensitive to the change from consolation to desolation and vice versa.
So if you’re in desolation, be at peace. It will pass. Keep praying. Keep fighting. Keep going.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, pray for us!