For St Ignatius, spiritual consolation and desolation are major elements of the experience of spiritual life and the discernment of God’s will therein. From the Spiritual Exercises: “I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of them all. It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God. Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.”
Now we would all agree that “interior joy” and “peace and quiet” would readily qualify as consolations, but what about weeping for our sins? Doesn’t that make us feel rather desolate? St. Peter wept profusely (till the end of his days Tradition tells us) with the deepest of sorrow for denying Our Blessed Lord. But Peter’s deep repentance and tears served to purify him of his sin; he did not succumb to despair. To come nearer to God is a consolation, whether one experiences it subjectively as painful or pleasant. Some need to strive patiently for a long time to draw closer to God before they are rewarded with that transforming union with God that Jesus speaks of when He says: “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” (John 14:23) (Ultimately, of course, our complete communion with God can only be full of joy and wonder, but the way there is still the way of the Cross.)
Isaiah, when he experienced a vision of the glory of God, was terrified, because he became acutely aware of his sins. When Jesus worked a miracle in the presence of Simon Peter, the flabbergasted fisherman exclaimed, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” The coming to a deeper awareness of the presence and power and glory of God, and His immense love for me, a sinner, is a spiritual consolation, even if it requires a painful awareness of one’s own unworthiness. No, drawing close to God whilst feeling so utterly sinful and unholy should not depress or dishearten us. It should awaken a deeper love and gratitude towards God Who still loves us in spite of our sinfulness. It should also make us more conscience of the ugliness of sin, even venial sin, and should be the incentive we need to strive towards greater holiness and union with God.
Spiritual desolation on the other hand is the feeling of the absence of God. What does St. Ignatius says about desolation? “I call desolation what is entirely the opposite of consolation, as darkness of soul, torment of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.”
By Faith we know that God is always with us, interested in our lives, and loving us with a personal, determined love, but we don’t always feel that in our emotional world. In fact, sometimes we can feel complete dryness and an intense and painful emptiness inside. There is then no excitement or pleasure at the thought of spiritual things; we feel as dry as a desert when we try to pray. Doubts and anxiety grow deep within our hearts and minds. We are experiencing ‘the dark night of the soul’.
But where does this spiritual desolation come from?
According to Fr. Thomas Dubay, in his book ‘The Fire Within’ (published by Ignatius Press) St. John of the Cross gives this reason: “Until a soul is placed by God in the passive purification of that dark night, it cannot purify itself completely from imperfections, these imperfections or from others. No matter how much an individual does through his own efforts, he cannot actively purify himself enough to be disposed in the least degree for the divine union of the perfection of love. God must take over and purge him in that fire which is darkness for him.”
Spiritual desolation (or ‘the dark night of the soul’) is often caused by our own sins. We may have committed some serious sin that we haven’t confessed or even truly repented of yet. We may be letting some tragedy we have suffered, or some great fear or worry absorb our minds, letting it eat away at our imagination and thoughts. Or we may just be inordinately attached to something: some bad habit, some immoderate relationship, or some intemperate hope or dream, that we cannot break away from. Sooner or later, these disordered fears or attachments will interfere with our relationship with God, drawing us away from Him. At times it is hard for us to even recognise or identify disordered attachments, but Our loving God will eventually intervene and speak to our inner conscience that will then struggle to decide whether to obey or not. Whilst we dither, our hearts are divided. We are pushing God away (without realising it) and gradually a deeper sense of desolation creeps in.
So how does one identify those bad habits and attachments? Seeking some kind of spiritual direction in the first place to help calm these unwarranted fears, and to discern what these unhealthy attachments are (and helping us to avoid their allure in future) is certainly advisable. Then cling to Our Blessed Lord with the words, “Jesus, I trust in You”, praying to the Holy Spirit for the strength to overcome these attachments and fears by a firm purpose of amendment, whilst faithfully fulfilling the duties of our state in life and obeying the commandments of God and Church, as we accept any suffering that comes our way with humility. Regular prayer (however difficult at this time) and frequenting the sacraments of Confession and the Holy Eucharist, should gradually bring us back to establish peace in our hearts once more.
Excessive over-zealousness bordering on fanaticism often eventually plunges the soul into spiritual desolation, when the extreme measures placed upon oneself become unsustainable. But likewise, advancing self-knowledge can also do so. Our own vulnerability to temptations of every kind, especially vanity, pride and sensuality, can bring us to a sense of unworthiness and then onto over-scrupulousness and even despair. This has been the bane of some of the holiest of saints. This type of spiritual desolation is in fact a subtle sense of pride which the enemy of our souls will often seize upon to stir up and exaggerate.
Humility is the bedrock of the spiritual life. The truly humble soul responds to its own unworthiness with peace and joy, throwing itself into God’s arms with total abandon, totally conscious of its absolute need for God’s grace, and contentedly aware of God’s delight in showing mercy to his needy children.
Finally when a spiritual desolation befalls one for seemingly no reason at all, it might be that God is using this testing time to purify the soul and to increase the soul’s capacity for love. If we can trust God and endure the test, to keep following God’s will in our lives even when we are passing through “a valley as dark as death” (Psalm 23:4), we will emerge with a much more mature faith, a more vibrant hope, and a deeper love. These are the theological virtues that unite the soul to God – and union with God is what we were created for, and what God yearns us to achieve and deepen.