I recently returned from a wonderful family vacation. It was a great time. The natural beauty of the area we visited was breathtaking, and as I was taking it in, I frequently thanked God for the beauty of creation.
Despite this wonderful trip, though, I came back feeling somewhat empty. I felt like I was missing something. The vacation was great. My family was great. Yet something big was missing, and I just couldn’t “put my finger on it.”
It wasn’t until later, when I was talking with my spiritual director, that I realized that what I was feeling was what St. Ignatius calls desolation.
Confirming this realization, the reflection in my devotional that day was an excerpt from The Spiritual Exercises in which St. Ignatius addresses the action we ought to take in times of desolation.
Although we ought not to change our former resolutions in time of desolation, it is very profitable to make vigorous changes in ourselves against the desolation, for example, by insisting more on prayer, meditation, earnest self-examination, and some suitable way of doing penance.
When we are in desolation we should think that the Lord has left us to our own powers in order to test us, so that we may prove ourselves by resisting the various agitations and temptations of the enemy. For we can do this with God’s help, which always remains available, even if we do not clearly perceive it. (SE 319–320)
Reading this passage just a couple of hours after meeting with my spiritual director, I felt like St. Ignatius was speaking directly to me.
Spiritual desolation, as Ignatius taught, can happen at any time. It has little to do with our emotional state, so it can happen when we are happy. It can happen when we are actively seeking God or when we have forgotten God. In my case, I had forgotten to spend quality time with God. Sure, I did chat with God on the fly—I thanked God for the beauty of creation and for having fun and restful times with my family. But, being in relaxed vacation-mode, all discipline went out the window. I neglected integral parts of my daily prayer life; I didn’t take time to be alone with God, read Scripture, reflect on my day with the Examen, or crack open the spiritual reading I had brought with me. Also, not wanting to inconvenience my family, I didn’t try to get to Adoration, which for me is a most precious and fruitful time to meet up with Jesus. Bottom-line: I inadvertently took a vacation from God.
Fortunately, St. Ignatius and my spiritual director were there to help me get back on track. Ignatius reminds us that, like any relationship, our relationship with God needs to be nurtured. This takes time, discipline, and commitment. God, ever-present, offers us His presence and love at every moment. It is we who need to take God up on His offer to spend time with Him—even on vacation.