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.
- 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
- 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.