Consolation and Desolation

hooded figure sitting on island

During Lent, we reflect upon our spiritual state and on our interior movement. Are we moving toward more doubt, fear, and anger? Or are we moving toward greater faith, hope, and love? The Ignatian principles of consolation and desolation can help us.

A person dwells in a state of consolation when she or he is moving toward God’s active presence in the world. We know we are moving in this way when we sense the growth of love or faith or mercy or hope—or any qualities we know as gifts of the Holy Spirit. If I am becoming more kind with people, and I experience this movement as life-giving and Christlike, I am in a state of consolation.

Consolation can hold many emotions and experiences. Consolation does not mean that I feel constantly happy or at peace. In fact, sometimes when I am doing precisely what God is leading me to do, I might feel negative pressure from others, or I might find the experience a challenge because I’m growing and learning. Yet if I sense in my spirit that I’m going the right way, this spiritual reality consoles me whether the day is bumpy or smooth.

A person dwells in a state of desolation when she or he is moving away from God’s active presence in the world. We know we are moving in this way when we sense the growth of resentment, ingratitude, selfishness, doubt, fear, and so on. If my outlook becomes increasingly gloomy and self-obsessed, I am in a state of desolation. I am resisting God or, if not actively resisting, I am being led away from God by other influences.

Desolation also holds many emotions and experiences. If I’m in desolation, I might try to alleviate the discomfort by drinking too much or seeking distraction through more work or social events. The food and drink and activity might feel quite good, but they are not leading me to greater joy, peace, and love. In fact, “false” consolations can help me avoid the true consolation of God’s presence.

I always refer people to two simple lists by writer and spiritual director Margaret Silf. They are quite accurate and helpful when a person is trying to determine if she is in consolation or desolation.

Desolation

  • Turns us in on ourselves
  • Drives us down the spiral ever deeper into our own negative feelings
  • Cuts us off from community
  • Makes us want to give up on the things that used to be important to us
  • Takes over our whole consciousness and crowds out our distant vision
  • Covers up all our landmarks [the signs of our journey with God so far]
  • Drains us of energy

Consolation

  • Directs our focus outside and beyond ourselves
  • Lifts our hearts so that we can see the joys and sorrows of other people
  • Bonds us more closely to our human community
  • Generates new inspiration and ideas
  • Restores balance and refreshes our inner vision
  • Shows us where God is active in our lives and where God is leading us
  • Releases new energy in us

As we learn to recognize when we are in desolation and consolation, we can respond accordingly: changing course (through prayer, community, discernment, spiritual direction) when in desolation, and staying the course when in consolation.

About Vinita Hampton Wright 73 Articles
Vinita Hampton Wright has served as senior editor at Loyola Press for 16 years and recently became managing editor of the trade books department. She has written various fiction and non-fiction books, including the novel Dwelling Places with HarperOne, Days of Deepening Friendship and The Art of Spiritual Writing for Loyola Press, and most recently, The St. Teresa of Avila Prayer Book for Paraclete Press. Vinita is a student and practitioner of Ignatian spirituality, and from 2009 to 2015 she blogged at Days of Deepening Friendship. For the past few years, she has co-led small groups through the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises. She lives in Chicago with her husband, three cats, and a dog. In her “spare” time these days, she is working on her next novel.

11 Comments on Consolation and Desolation

  1. I thought we were never to change course in spiritual desolation, but keep working on whatever was our course of action before the desolation began.

    • Yes, you’re right. Let me clarify. Ignatius encouraged those in desolation not to change course but to increase in actions that would come against the enemy of our souls. That is, I should pray more and do more spiritual practice when in desolation. That’s what I meant by “change course,” but I should have said it differently. In today’s language, I think Ignatius would say to be proactive in prayer when going through desolation, and that’s a bit different from simply continuing doing what you’re doing. Thanks for asking for the clarification.

  2. Hi Vinita,
    Do not know if you can answer or not but, I seem to be in some of each state. Is that possible?? Some of it I believe is circumstance driven. My husband is ill so our life Is very narrow right now in caring for him, but if I’m out I am so touched by the sorrows of others. I’m not sad at all in being with him 24/7, yet I feel in no community but separated from the world.
    Anyway if you can answer just say it is possible or not to be in both states at the same time.
    Bless you, Adair

    • I do think you can experience a wide variance in emotions and responses to your situation. Dealing with an ill loved one will bring on natural emotional responses such as sadness, greater sensitivity, and a feeling of being cut off. I don’t think this is desolation if you continue to grow in love and faith and hope. If you sense that you are doing what God desires, you are more likely in consolation. But we can experience “negative” emotions when we’re doing exactly the right thing. If you feel yourself drawing away from God and losing your hope and not caring as much about anyone else, that is more likely desolation. Does this make sense?

  3. Thank you Vinita. Once again you inspire me to keep your words so I may go back and remind myself how to get back on the path to holiness.
    Blessings to you,

    • God bless you Vanita. Your advice and direction, alongside Margaret Silf’s help certainly describe my ‘yo yo’ Lenten state. I think we all seem to experience dark days during our Lenten journey. ‘I thirst’ is my constant companion.
      In peace and hope and longing we move on together. God bless you all.
      Anne

    • Linda, this is an excellent question. One good check is simply a physical check-up with your doctor. Describe your symptoms. Thyroid problems can cause symptoms that might otherwise be felt as desolation. Other physical imbalances can cause problems as well. Sleep problems will set your whole life askew. Most doctors now will have you answer a set of questions designed to indicate clinical depression. Don’t be ashamed to see a counselor or psychiatrist if your doctor recommends this. Don’t be ashamed if a psychiatrist suggests medication.
      I think it’s a good idea to have someone to talk to about your spiritual life, whether it’s a pastor, pastoral counselor, or a spiritual director. It is always beneficial to practice prayer in its various forms, whether you’re physically ill, clinically depressed, or in spiritual desolation. In fact, when you are consistently tending your spiritual life, you are better able to recognize when the problem is spiritual or something else. One woman finally decided to try medication when she realized that all other factors in her life–relationships, spiritual life, work, etc–were not in crisis and that she was actually practicing prayer and taking care of herself. What she thought was spiritual desolation–or felt like God’s turning away from her–was in fact a form of depression that was helped by medication. Once the medication had rebalanced her system, she was better able to do her prayer and her work and engage with others.
      This answer is not very organized–sorry! I do think that Margaret Silf’s lists continue to help people determine if they are in desolation. I also encourage people to look at other possibilities when it seems that dealing with things only at a spiritual level does not bring much change. And don’t forget to talk with people who love you and know you; sometimes they can see what is not so clear to you. A friend can say, “I think you’ve been exhausted for two months” or “I sense that you’re closing in on yourself, and that’s not like you.” I hope this is helpful. Use it if it is, and if not–please disregard.

      • Thank you so much for your supportive answer. Being in desolation could feel depressing, and depression could make one unable to recognize the consolation even of God…

  4. I easily connect with your reflections. I find them inspiring and insightful. Thank you for helping me on my journey, and God bless you on yours.

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