Desolation and Discernment

Last Sunday I was at Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House in Barrington, IL and I had the opportunity to preach. The first reading from the seventh chapter of Job made me think about St. Ignatius' Rules for the Discernment of Spirits and his advice about what to do during a time of desolation.

Job says: "Is not man's life on earth a drudgery? ... I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights are allotted to me. If in bed I say, 'When shall I arise?' then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle; they come to an end without hope. Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again."

Now here's how St. Ignatius describes spiritual desolation: "I call desolation ... darkness of soul, turmoil 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." Doesn't that sound like what Job was going through?

Then St. Ignatius gives very practical advice on how to deal with desolation.

First, he says that "in time of desolation we should never make any change, but remain firm and constant in the resolution and decision which guided us the day before the desolation, or in the decision we adhered in the preceding consolation." When we experience desolation our temptation is to change course or to do everything we can to escape from it. The problem is that it is the evil spirit which is behind the desolation and not the Holy Spirit. Thus, as Fr. Thomas Green, S.J., once said, if you want the evil spirit as your spiritual director then listen to the thoughts that arise during desolation.

The second piece of advice is a bit of a caveat. Though we are not to make a significant change in our decisions, we can make some changes in our prayer. Thus, Ignatius writes: "Though in desolation we must never change our former resolutions, it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves." This is because desolation tempts us to give up on prayer. We fight the temptation by going in its opposite direction.

Then St. Ignatius says that desolation is an opportunity to grow in humility. During times of consolation a person can become puffed up, thinking that one is really close to God and quite the holy person. Desolation reminds us that without God's grace, we are nothing. Ignatius writes: "When one is in desolation, he should be mindful that God has left him to his natural powers to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy in order to try him. He can resist with the help of God, which always remains, though he may not clearly perceive it. For though God has taken from him the abundance of fervor and overflowing love and the intensity of His favors, nevertheless, he has sufficient grace for eternal salvation."

Trials and temptations are opportunities to grow in particular virtues which are like spiritual muscles that develop through exercise. In desolation one is tempted to despair and give up hope; the opportunity is to exercise hope by making acts of hope and faith. Desolation is also an opportunity to exercise patience. St. Ignatius writes; "When one is in desolation, he should strive to persevere in patience. This reacts against the vexations that have overtaken him."

Finally, St. Ignatius gives advice that is also a slogan in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step Recovery Programs: This too shall pass. As he puts it: "Let him consider, too, that consolation will soon return, and in the meantime, he must diligently use the means" that are given above--prayer, meditation, and self-examination.

Desolation is never any fun and does not come from Holy Spirit, but God allows it and can even use it to help us grow in prayer and the virtues.