Consolation and Desolation
Understanding the difference between consolation and desolation is a key element of St. Ignatius's Rules for the Discernment of Spirits.
- "In consolation, ever to be sober; in desolation, never to despair."
- -- John Henry Newman, "Second Spring"
- "In consolation, ever to be sober; in desolation, never to despair."
Consolation is when we feel close to God. It is easy to pray and it seems as though all of our prayers are answered. We feel like Jesus and are able to bear with insults gladly. Everyone we meet seems to be an angel in disguise and each day our faith grows by leaps and bounds. We work with zeal and take pleasures in meeting difficulties head-on.
Desolaton is the opposite mood. God seems to be paying no attention. We seek Him but do not find Him. Our prayers go nowhere. It is an agony to have to deal with our fellow human beings. It feels as though we are walking in darkness with leaden hearts; every step takes enormous effort.
Those are the times when you are near Jesus in His Agony in the Garden and in His death on the Cross. He also felt far away from His Father. He said, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" If the pure, innocent, and perfect God-man could feel this torment, we should not be surprised that we sinners do, too.
In times of desolation, we should:
- Keep following where Jesus leads.
- Keep on doing what we are doing ("age quod agis")--we should never make or change a major decision in desolation, if at all possible. We should not resign from a job in a rage, or walk out on our families, or plunge into a new enterprise or relationship, or say yes to the wrong good, etc.
- Act against (Latin: agere contra) our feelings of abandonment by making acts of faith, hope, and love. Persistence in doing the right thing will strengthen our character. Action erodes depression.
- Offer up our sufferings in union with the sufferings of Jesus. Suffering, in and of itself, is evil. Acceptance of suffering as an act of love for God and for our neighbor can, by God's grace and in God's time, bring good out of evil.
- Realize that this state will not last forever. The worst case that we know of is Mother Teresa. She felt the way you do for about 50 years. So say to yourself, "This probably won't last 50 years. And if it does, my faithfulness in suffering will make me a great saint like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta."
- "When God infuses extraordinary sweetnesses into the soul, we ought to prepare for some serious tribulation or temptation."
- "The fervour of spirituality is usually very great in the beginning, but afterwards, the Lord fingit se longius ire, makes as though He would go farther: in such a case we must stand firm and not be disturbed, because God is then withdrawing His most holy Hand of sweetness, to see if we are strong; and then, if we resist and overcome those tribulations and temptations, the sweetness and heavenly consolations return."
- "Patience is necessary for the servant of God; we must not be distressed at trouble, but wait for consolation."
- St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, Story of a Soul
- "That beautiful day passed just as the saddest ones do, since the most radiant of days has a tomorrow."
Faith and Feelings
It is not in our power to will consolation. One of the effects of original sin is that our feelings are often irrational and misleading. We cannot force God to visit and comfort us. There are no magical incantations to give us control over Him. God refuses to be used by us like a drug. When Marx called God "the opiate of the masses," he was dead wrong. Drugs are passive and act by the laws of physiology. God is a communion of Persons, and acts with sovereign freedom in our lives. He is not at our beck and call; we cannot summon Him to make us feel good.
Bright stars to steer by
Consolation sets the standard of praise that we should continue, even in desolation. In consolation our eyes are open, our minds are alert, our souls are filled with the glory of God, and we realize what God is truly like. Joy matters. The joy that God gives us in consolation is a permanent gift that we can draw on when we are in need.
In desolation, we are cut off from those sources of intimate personal awareness of God's greatness, but the reality of God's goodness and love remains. God's love does not change with our change of mood. He is always worthy of all of our love, praise, adoration, and gratitude. As Newman said elsewhere, life is short and eternity long. Desolation is a temporary condition; we are en route to an eternity of infinite bliss.
Our task in times of desolation, then, is to remember what God has revealed to us and set our course by the light of those truths, even though, for a moment, we feel lost in darkness.
Sometimes desolation means that we have sinned, damaging our relationship with God, and therefore need to repent and make amends for our sins.
Sometimes desolation follows from a change in our behavior.
The most painful kind of desolation is when we have not sinned and have remained faithful to the essentials of the spiritual life, but still feel abandoned. This feeling doesn't mean that we are bad people nor that God hates us; it may mean that God is working in our hearts to purify us, prepare the soil of our hearts for a new season of growth, or unite us to Jesus in His saving action.
Caused by our attitudes and actions
We should not be surprised that God withdraws the grace of awareness of His presence when we sin against Him.
- Not praying
- Not reading Scripture
- Not reading the lives of the saints
- Not seeking God "in all things"
- Self-centered enthusiasm (treating God like a drug)
Caused by God
God prunes us so that we can become more fruitful.
Union with Jesus
God does allow innocent people to suffer. Acceptance of innocent suffering develops the character of Jesus within us.
God joins us to Jesus in His Agony in the Garden and in His suffering on the Cross.
"Let this cup pass from me."
Jesus gives us a model of how we can and should pray when we are desolate.
It is completely truthful.
We express how we feel.
We surrender ourselves to God.
"Let this cup pass from me, but Thy will, not mine, be done."
"My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?"
- My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?
- And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which is translated, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
- And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
- "Jesus cries out in the words of Ps 22:2, a psalm of lament that is the Old Testament passage most frequently drawn upon in this narrative. In Mark the verse is cited entirely in Aramaic, which Matthew partially retains but changes the invocation of God to the Hebrew Eli, possibly because that is more easily related to the statement of the following verse about Jesus’ calling for Elijah."
- In positive terms, the battle against the possessive and dominating self requires vigilance, sobriety of heart. When Jesus insists on vigilance, he always relates it to himself, to his coming on the last day and every day: today. The bridegroom comes in the middle of the night; the light that must not be extinguished is that of faith: "'Come,' my heart says, 'seek his face!'" (Ps 27:8).
- Another difficulty, especially for those who sincerely want to pray, is dryness. Dryness belongs to contemplative prayer when the heart is separated from God, with no taste for thoughts, memories, and feelings, even spiritual ones. This is the moment of sheer faith clinging faithfully to Jesus in his agony and in his tomb. "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24). If dryness is due to the lack of roots, because the word has fallen on rocky soil, the battle requires conversion (Lk 8:6,13).
- The most common yet most hidden temptation is our lack of faith. It expresses itself less by declared incredulity than by our actual preferences. When we begin to pray, a thousand labors or cares thought to be urgent vie for priority; once again, it is the moment of truth for the heart: what is its real love? Sometimes we turn to the Lord as a last resort, but do we really believe he is? Sometimes we enlist the Lord as an ally, but our heart remains presumptuous. In each case, our lack of faith reveals that we do not yet share in the disposition of a humble heart: "Apart from me, you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5).
- Another temptation, to which presumption opens the gate, is acedia. The spiritual writers understand by this a form of depression due to lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart. "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mt 26:41). The greater the height, the harder the fall. Painful as discouragement is, it is the reverse of presumption. The humble are not surprised by their distress; it leads them to trust more, to hold fast in constancy.
Examples of mystical union with Jesus
- Teresa of Avila
- Thérèse of the Child Jesus
- Mother Teresa of Calcutta
- John of the Cross