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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.