Doing Desolation Well


During one of the most spiritually dark times of my life, I felt like I didn’t know what to make of God. I couldn’t sense his presence, and while I knew intellectually that he was there, the inability to connect emotionally felt cruel. And I was horrified by the stark reality of having only my own resources with which to cope. I wish I had the wisdom of Ignatius during that time.

I’ve been doing the Ignatian exercises with a group in Baltimore this year. Ignatius knew something about the spiritual ups and downs of life and writes about them as times of consolation and desolation. Spiritual consolation is an experience of being on fire with God’s love and feeling alive and connected with others. Spiritual desolation is an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil that may lead to restlessness, anxiety, and feeling cut off from others. (p. 117, The Ignatian Adventure)

Ignatian offers “rules” for how to live during times of consolation and desolation that I think are very astute and helpful.

During consolation, we are to store up experiences to help us through times of desolation.

During desolation, these are his suggestions:

  1. Do not make any big life changes or decisions during times of desolation. Trust the choices you made during better times.
  2. Pick up your spiritual disciplines and/or add new ones.
  3. Believe that God has allowed this sense of being left to your own resources in order to grow you/refine you.
  4. Be patient, consolation will come again. These rhythms of desolation and consolation are to be expected—we are wise not to be surprised. (These points are summarized from pages 165-67)

The wisdom of this teaching is that Ignatian tells us that both consolation and desolation are to be expected as a normal part of a lifetime of faith. If you are like I was, we see desolation as an anomaly or a sign that something is wrong. We lack tolerance for these experiences and often make rash decisions or drop our prayer life out of a sense of hurt. With Ignatian’s wisdom, we might walk through desolation with more steadiness and patience. We might be able to understand desolation through the lens of normalcy rather than anomaly.

For more information on the exercises, click here.

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