Coping with Spiritual Desolation During the Holidays

desolation - sad man

Usually, during November and December, our thoughts turn to gratitude for God’s blessings and preparing our hearts for the coming of hope through the Christ Child. But what if, as the holidays approach, we feel anything but hopeful?

The other day, I was sharing with a friend how excited I was that Advent was coming. My friend usually loves Advent too. However, when I mentioned it, her face literally contorted in pain. She shared that, although she was embarrassed to say it, she just wasn’t into it this year at all. In fact, she wasn’t sure if she believed in God anymore. She wondered if her faith might have been a façade altogether and if the whole concept of God was just fiction. The words poured out of her. She then apologized for sharing these feelings with me, remarking with downcast eyes that she must be a “bad Catholic.” Her eyes welled with tears, but I could see that she was relieved to have finally unloaded these feelings.

It pained me to hear what my friend was going through, but I was so glad she had shared with me. Some call this a “crisis of faith.” St. Ignatius called this “spiritual desolation,” and he was no stranger to it. In fact, it seems that nearly every saint experienced it at times. Because spiritual desolation is something that we all experience at one time or another, Ignatius gave some very specific instructions in his Spiritual Exercises on the way of proceeding when one is in desolation.

If you think you may be struggling with spiritual desolation, you may want to consider some of Ignatius’s guidelines on surviving desolation.

  1. Call it out. Do not keep these unnerving feelings a secret. Tell your spiritual advisor or a trusted spiritual companion, and name the exact feelings that you are feeling. For instance, one might say, “I feel despair,” “I feel hopeless,” “I feel like God has abandoned me,” or “I feel angry at God.” Do not be ashamed. The Enemy wants us to keep it a secret so that these painful feelings and doubts can fester and grow. Naming the desolation out loud is one of the first steps in removing the power it has over us. In God’s Voice Within, one of my favorite “go to” books on Ignatian discernment, Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ, says:

    Despair is the opposite of hope and is practically never a characteristic of the true spirit. Even when a person is feeling unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings, consolation always leads to greater faith, hope, and love. This lack of hope tells us that you are in desolation…Those in the presence of the false spirit must follow Jesus’ lead in speaking aloud its proper name. To do so will remove a great deal of the power it has taken from us (66–67).

  2. Be compassionate toward yourself during this trying time. You are not a “bad” Catholic or Christian. You are simply working through a very difficult time and, with God’s grace, you will have the strength to get through this intact.
  3. Be disciplined. Stick to your spiritual routine. Don’t withdraw from your faith community or stop going to Mass. Do not make changes while in desolation.
  4. Don’t “go it alone.” Lean on your spiritual advisor and a few trusted spiritual companions. It is critical that you speak to your spiritual advisor during this time. Some of the hallmarks of desolation, in addition to doubts and hopelessness that draws one away from God, are confusion and lack of objectivity. Your trusted spiritual companions know you and your story. They can remind you of all of the blessings God has bestowed upon you over the years, and they can help you see things in a more objective light. And if your desolation is stemming from any other factors, your spiritual advisor can help you identify those factors and guide you through ways of addressing them or finding the professional help to do so.
  5. Trust that God has a purpose for allowing the desolation, even though it will likely be impossible for you to see this purpose at the time. According to Father Thibodeaux, “Ignatius suggests three difficult graces in particular that the desolate one has the potential of receiving: repentance, fortitude, and humility.” Thibodeaux suggests other fruits might include “patience, trust, self-assurance, self-confidence, wisdom, and unwavering loyalty toward God and toward Christian commitments” (100).

Desolation is disarming and painful, especially if one is enduring it during the holidays. Having Ignatius’s guidance to lead us through it is an invaluable tool.

And remember, if you are in spiritual desolation, trust that you remain precious to the God of all Hope, who is with you, accompanying you, guarding you, and loving you, through it all.

About Rebecca Ruiz 23 Articles
Rebecca Ruiz holds a B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and an M.A. from Tufts University. She has worked as an ethnomusicologist, composer, and writer, in academia, and, for the past 14 years, in domestic refugee resettlement in the Diocese of Arlington, VA. She and her husband have two children and live in the Washington, DC metro area. She strives, as St. Ignatius taught, to see God in all things and do “all things for the greater glory of God.”
Contact: Website

12 Comments on Coping with Spiritual Desolation During the Holidays

  1. Thankfully I am not experiencing desolation. But I wonder how many do really have a spiritual advisor they can turn to.
    Many of us have often wished for one, but other than lay persons ‘advising’ lay persons, there is no facility for a regular spiritual advisor in the Church in Sri Lanka. You are expexted to go to yoru priest – and they are rotated frequently (5 years for a Senior pries, 2 for junior).
    There is a big lacuna in the Catholic church in this regard … and this is gap in spiritual advise is being filled in by the ‘fundamentalist churches.

    • Random though: Having the priest swap in and out may not be all that bad. Work with the priest you have and, given today’s technology, if you find one you really like, stick with him remotely.

      And yeah, I wish I had a lay person to go to, I wish I could go to my wife but, alas, she was raised baptist. Unfortunately, there is no reason, only faith.

  2. This was a good time for me to read this. If only I had a Spiritual Advisor… Alone and longing for true friendship. I think Christmas time Can be on of the saddest times of the year ; for some people. My one true friend I CAN depend on is our Blessed Lord. I try very hard not to lose Faith in Him, It can be hard- going when one is old, unwell and siblings , and other family; sons&daughter far, far away. All very busy with their own lives! A.M.D.G. Thank you for this. I will follow it up with readings advised. Spiritual Advisors are pretty scarce on the ground around here and the priest is flat out attending to a huge Parish (On his own)

  3. From reading the comments about Spiritual Advisors I would really enjoy having one also . How does one find a Spiritual Advisor ? I am a member of five Catholic groups all are lay members .

  4. Finally I have a name for what I have been feeling. A series of events have led me to this point. Sadly to say it began with a pastor who lack humility, forgiveness, and mercy toward others.

  5. Dear friends,
    Thank you all for sharing. As I read through your comments, I see a common theme emerging about the desire to find a spiritual director.
    Becky Eldredge, my fellow dotMagis blogger, is a spiritual director and offers some really great advice about finding a spiritual director here: http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/14712/how-to-find-a-spiritual-director

    A few things to remember:
    A spiritual director is a person who can walk beside you on your spiritual journey. This person may be a priest, religious brother or sister, or a layperson with training in the practice of spiritual direction.
    You may want to start your search by asking your pastor if he knows of any local spiritual directors. He may refer you to another priest or a local religious community with members that offers spiritual direction. Some dioceses also have lists of spiritual directors on their diocesan websites. There is also an organization called “Spiritual Directors International” which maintains a national directory of Spiritual Directors of various faith traditions at “www.sdiworld.org” . You can enter your zip code and faith tradition to find a spiritual director in your area.
    In your search for a spiritual director, remember that it may take time to find someone with whom you are comfortable opening up about your spiritual life and with whom you feel comfortable walking with on your faith journey. During your first meeting with a spiritual director, both you and the director will assess whether it is a good fit. If one or both of you discern that it’s not a good fit, just be honest and keep looking.
    Being a spiritual director requires specific training and time commitment and is the primary source of income for many spiritual directors. As such, most spiritual directors charge a stipend.

    Loyola Press also offers some wonderful books that can greatly enrich your spiritual life. I highly recommend the book I referenced, “God’s Voice Within” by Fr. Mark Thibodeaux. “The Ignatian Adventure” by Kevin O’Brien, SJ and “A Friendship Like No Other” by William A. Barry, SJ are a couple more of my favorites.

    Finally, remember to include God in the equation as you search for a spiritual director. Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to the right person. God will provide!

    Wishing you a blessed Advent!
    Rebecca

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