Discernment involves paying attention to the movements of the spirits so that we can continue moving towards our destination—the direction God is inviting us to head. As is clearly stated in the First Principle and Foundation, the goal of our life is to live with God forever. As I often tell spiritual directees, this goal means living with God both now in our present journey and in our journey of eternal life.
In the ocean of prayer life, the movements of consolation and desolation are like a sailboat rocking on the ocean. Even though there is sideway movement from the waves in the water, the sailboat continues to move forward towards its destination. In discernment, our guide through the waters is the Holy Spirit, ever helping us listen and adjust our sails to harness the wind that steadies and points our boat towards our ultimate goal of living with God, both now and forever.
Let’s take a look at how the Holy Spirit guides us and sets wind to our sails when we are in consolation. As St. Ignatius reminds us, when we are on the right course, seeking to rise in service to God, “the Holy Spirit gives strength, courage, consolation, inspiration, and peace” (Rules for Discernment #2).
When we are sailing in the right direction, the Holy Spirit fills our sails with winds that encourage us to continue forward in that direction. Our sails are often unexpectedly filled with the fruits of the spirit: peace, patience, joy, love, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. Consolation, like the wind when sailing, is pure gift. It moves us forward and encourages and inspires us to continue towards our spiritual destination of living with God.
Just as we might when setting sail, when we feel this breeze that moves us gently and steadily forward with purpose and intention, we are invited to settle in, harness the wind, and savor the experience of the source of energy that moves us forward. When consolation is gifted to us by God, we are invited to do the same thing that we would do while enjoying sailing: settle into the gift, harness the inspiration and courage of the Holy Spirit, and savor the gift. Consolation gives us the opportunity to see clearly, check our maps and direction, and oil our tools.
As we know, winds on an ocean will suddenly change direction and speed. The same is true for the movements of the spirits. The winds of desolation will, as St. Ignatius reminds us, surely come. The energetic winds of consolation may give way to quiet winds of desolation that cause the boat to stall and struggle to maintain its forward movement. The winds of desolation might even appear as gale-force winds that cause us angst, confusion, fear, and doubt, tempting us to steer our sailboat in a different direction.
It is in these moments that we are invited to remember the smooth-sailing winds of consolation. The winds of consolation, even when they are not blowing, continue to work against the desolation and steady the ship by our remembering the time of consolation and the gifts given to us by God.
Our guide, the Holy Spirit, will not let us forget the path and direction we are heading. The Holy Spirit inspires us onward, inspiring us when in consolation and drawing back on course when in desolation. Our job, as the sailors we are, is to listen for God in the continual movements of consolation and desolation as we seek to head in the direction that brings us closer to God, remembering we are not setting sail on any waters by ourselves, for God is surely with us.