I was on retreat a few years ago and discovered how wonderful prayer could be. For the first time in my life I was looking forward to my daily prayers. Within a few weeks after I got home, I had stopped daily meditation. My prayer had gotten dry and fruitless. It was hard to put the time in only to be disappointed. I was even a little upset at God. I felt like telling him, "I'm showing up at prayer every morning; where are you?" On my next retreat I learned about consolation and desolation. I felt like an idiot.
Consolation and Desolation
Sometimes we can feel God's love in a particularly strong way. We feel warm and joyful, loved, at peace, in union with God and on fire. St. Ignatius calls this Consolation. At other times, we cannot feel God's love. Even though we know God loves us, we feel, "darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad, and as if separated from one's Creator and Lord." (#317) This is Desolation, and it sucks.
Did I do something wrong? Why did God stop loving me? Notice what Ignatius says: as if separated from one's Creator and Lord. God never stops loving us! Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you (Isaiah 49:15). It would be easier for the sun to turn off, the moon to fall out of the sky, or the earth to become vapor, than for God to stop loving us. He is always pouring out His love upon us like sunbeams. Sometimes we can feel it, and sometimes we can't.
The Sun Never Stops Shining
Look at the root of each word. Con-solar means "with the sun"; De-solar means "away from the sun". When we sit in a sunbeam we tend to feel warm, joyful, peaceful, even loved. When clouds move in and cover the sun, we tend to feel cold, uneasy, sad, even lonely. Did I do something wrong that made the sun stop shining? No, the sun never stops shining. We just can't always feel it.
In a very similar way, God is always pouring out His love into us. Sometimes we feel it in a powerful way and sometimes we don't feel it at all. God allows us to feel desolation because he loves us. If we only love God because it makes us feel good, is that truly love? God wants our love to be true, and that means we have to love unconditionally. St. Ignatius provides us three reasons why we may experience desolation:
- The first is because we have been tepid, slothful or negligent in our exercises of piety, and so through our own fault spiritual consolation has been taken away from us.
- The second reason is because God wishes to try us, to see how much we are worth, and how much we will advance in His service and praise when left without the generous reward of consolations and signal favors.
- The third reason is because God wishes to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; but all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord. (#322)
- Don't make a change. Stick to what you had already planned or decided in consolation, for the Enemy provides plenty of suggestions and guidance during desolation, all of which are harmful to us. Carry through on the plans and resolutions you made when in consolation.
- Insist more upon prayer and mediation. Though your prayer may not seem fruitful, trust in your relationship wth God and do not look elsewhere for satisfaction.
- Be patient, knowing that consolation will inevitably return. God never leaves the soul without sufficient grace to follow Him faithfully and obtain salvation.
The spiritual life is full of sunny days and cloudy days. It is part of the way that God draws a soul into deeper love with Him. Consolations are inevitably followed by desolations, and vice-versa. Remember that Mother Theresa, one of the saintliest people of the 20th century, spent most of her later life in spiritual desolation. It was very painful and difficult for her, but it did not prevent her from living a holy life.
God, who never stops loving us, wants us to love him in the same unshakeable way. He uses consolation to encourage us and desolation to strengthen us. Do not be afraid of the ebbs and flows of the spiritual life. See them as opportunities to learn how to love God in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.
Notes: This post is the eighth and final of a series on prayer based on the Oremus study program by Ascension Press. I am indebted to Fr. Mark Toups for his many insights. We are both equally indebted to the Institute for Priestly Formation for their unwavering commitment to helping priests develop a life of constant, intimate communion with the Trinity. After 8 years of serving as a priest I have finally started learning how to pray. It is changing my life. My hope is that some of these posts might help you grow into a deeper communion with the God who loves you. Considering the Oremus study in your own parish. Thanks for reading. Peace and joy!
Quotes are from The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius by Louis J. Puhl (Chicago: Loyola Press, 1951). The numbers refer to paragraphs in this book.