It’s easy to misunderstand the Ignatian principles of consolation and desolation. Ignatius introduces these concepts as means to discern the spirits, the movements of God in my life. We often use these terms casually, referring to simple “highs and lows” of our day, or moments of happiness and sadness. While those daily realities and emotions are important to pay attention to, consolation and desolation, in Ignatian terms, are different and much more nuanced.
Ignatius defines consolation as “when some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord.” He defines desolation as the opposite—as the soul being disturbed and agitated, “without hope, without love, when one finds oneself all lazy, tepid, sad, and as if separated from his Creator and Lord.” What’s important to note is that both consolation and desolation have to do with one’s relationship with God. There is a spiritual orientation. At the end of each Jesuitical podcast, the hosts have a segment where they talk about their “consolations and desolations” from the past week. What they share certainly has import in their lives, but it’s not always directly connected to their relationship with God or their purpose in God; sometimes it’s just about moments of joy or sadness. And that’s fine, but it’s not the consolation and desolation Ignatius is talking about.
William Barry, SJ says that consolation is “a spiritual reality with relationship in faith to God’s love.” He references a moment from Ignatius’ autobiography when Ignatius experienced a moment of consolation while looking out at the stars. “This stirring is different from the professional awe and wonder of an astronomer,” Barry writes. Rather, the moment oriented Ignatius’ whole being toward the love and service of God. “When doing so he felt within himself a powerful urge to be serving our Lord,” Ignatius writes about himself in the Autobiography.
The Lens of the Principle and Foundation
This is a key connection to the Principle and Foundation, which states that our purpose is to love and serve God by sharing that transforming love with the world. Everything—absolutely everything—in the Ignatian worldview, should be oriented toward this: our use of created things, our relationships, and our choices and actions. The Principle and Foundation is the lens through which we see everything. When we understand this, we can say that consolation is when we feel our life fully connected with the context of the Principle and Foundation, when all seems oriented toward our purpose of loving God and neighbour. Desolation, on the other hand, is an unawareness or uncertainty of how our life fits within the context of the Principle and Foundation. Desolation can be a conscious or subconscious resistance to loving God or to God’s love. It’s not just negativity or feeling “down”, though that can be a symptom. Other symptoms may be dryness in prayer, little desire to go to church or a Bible study, or a sense of distance from God. Symptoms of consolation may include happiness, joy, love, peace, or elation, but it may also include tears or sorrow, so long as you find yourself moving toward God. Kevin O’Brien, SJ writes, “Sometimes an experience of sadness, loneliness, or restlessness is a moment of conversion and intimacy with God and others. Times of human suffering can be moments of grace.” To put it in traditional terms, desolation moves you toward “earthly” things and consolation moves you toward “heavenly” things.
In the Flow
Consider the many parts of your life that are intentionally oriented toward love of God and neighbour: volunteering, being a parent, spiritual reading, going to church, daily prayer, or spiritual conversation with a loved one, to name a few. Those things will flow naturally when you’re in a place of consolation but not so easily when in desolation. To put it simply: orientation toward God is natural in consolation, but not in desolation. Are you in the flow toward God and love? When you recognise that you’re in a state of desolation, Ignatius reverses things and says, do those spiritual things nonetheless! Don’t let desolation have the last word. It’s temporary. It’s kind of life how science has shown that just smiling can make you feel happy, even when you’re not. You need not wait to be in consolation to do those God-oriented things. Doing those things can lead you back to a sense of closeness with God.
It is easy to use these terms, consolation and desolation, when we discuss the particulars of our life like our career or partner or the kind of house we have, what we have or don’t have. That is more about happiness and sadness, joy and depression. Consolation and desolation instead have everything to do with God and our sense of the relationship. Is it close or distant? Rich or dry? Fulfilling or bland? Now career, relationship, and where we live can have spiritual significance, but the key word is spiritual. How do my career, relationship, and living situation sit within the context of the Principle and Foundation, my relationship with God, my purpose in God?
I may not always be aware I am in a state of consolation or desolation. The Examen can help me look at my daily activities and highs and lows through the lens of faith to discover where these things are moving me and how they’re orienting me. I may discover an ebb and flow of consolation and desolation throughout my day as I make choices and take actions. Day by day, through attentiveness to these movements, the language of discernment begins to make more sense, helping me in both daily decisions and larger life-decisions I may later encounter.
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