Spiritual desolation, as St. Ignatius of Loyola defines it in the Fourth Rule of his Spiritual Exercises, contains attributes “such as 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.”
Ignatius tells us that times of spiritual desolation are a normal part of the spiritual journey for those moving towards God, ebbing and flowing between periods of consolation. The spiritual desolation of which he speaks should not be confused with psychological or medical conditions, which bring on depressive feelings and sometimes require professional help. Spiritual desolation is characterized by our relationship with God. God feels far away. Prayer is dry, difficult, and unappealing, and we can feel tempted to abandon or lessen our faith practices. This can occur with or without concurrent psychological or physical desolation.
Spiritual desolation, the saint tells us, comes upon those earnestly seeking God, for three principal, but not exhaustive, reasons. In his Ninth Rule, he speaks of God’s saving purpose for allowing the enemy to oppress us with such troubles of the heart. The first reason is because we have become negligent in our own spiritual exercises (eg. prayer, Mass, the Sacrament of Reconciliation), and through our faults, spiritual consolation withdraws from us. The second is that God tries us to see how much we extend ourselves to serve and praise him without a sense of his grace or consolation. The third is to help us feel and understand that spiritual consolations are graces from God, and not due to our own striving, lest we become prideful and attribute them to ourselves.
God has a saving purpose in allowing the trial of spiritual desolation—that we might grow closer to Him. It is important to note, however, that spiritual desolation, of itself, does not produce spiritual growth. In fact, if not resisted, it will cause spiritual harm. That is why we would do well to heed the advice of St. Ignatius, who says in his Sixth Rule: “… it is very advantageous to change ourselves intensely against the desolation itself, as by insisting more upon prayer, meditation, upon much examination, and upon extending ourselves in some suitable way of doing penance.”
My prayer for you and me is that when spiritual desolation comes, we might face it courageously, like a stallion, galloping through a dense forest in the sure hope of reaching green pastures.
GETTING OUT OF SPIRITUAL DESOLATION – four key practices
In spiritual desolation, there is one change to be avoided. “Never,” says St. Ignatius, go back on a faith-filled, God-centered proposal or determination, made before the desolation began, because the good Spirit counsels us more in times of consolation, and the evil spirit advises us in our desolation, trying to root up and destroy what God just tried to plant. In the counsel of the evil spirit, we cannot find the right way to a decision.
In Rule Six of the Exercises, Ignatius helps us to stand firm in the hour of the test, by recommending we do the four following practices, and with greater frequency or length than is usual, for in this way, we habituate ourselves “not only to resist the adversary, but even to overthrow him.”
- PRAY: Often in desolation, we experience a sense of helplessness. The enemy insinuates the possibility or inevitability of our defeat. As difficult as it is to feel an attraction to God in such a state, turn to Him and the saints in prayer, and beg for the assistance that you need.
- MEDITATE: Meditate on the truths of faith, God’s promises, those words of Scripture, those memories of His personal touch–anything, that brings to mind God’s faithful love. Such meditation may require a certain effort, but it bears rich fruit.
- EXAMINATION: While it feels easier to escape into welcome diversions, like busyness, the media, or sundry gratifications, use time, instead, to examine possible sources within you and around you that brought on the desolation, in order to gain a deeper understanding of its causes and remedies. Ask, “What is my heart saying? When did my desolation begin? Do I know what caused it? With insights gained, an unbearable heaviness can be reduced to a manageable concern.
- PENANCE: Make small, suitable gestures of courage and initiative that counter desolation’s destructive tendencies. Fasting is a most powerful way to counter its effects. Bad habits, vices, and indulgences often contribute to spiritual desolation and prolong distress and unhappiness. Taking action to do a penance directly opposes this tendency of spiritual desolation. Pray to understand and act upon the personal sacrifices that will counteract any destructive distractions. Hope will grow through each small victory over self.
St. Ignatius of Loyola’s promise:
As long as we have made a fundamental choice for God in our lives and have abandoned (or never entered into) a life involving serious sin, we will find, through prayer, meditation, examination, and penance, the road that surely leads through the battleground of desolation into the peace of God’s love.
Copyright 2011 Christine Watkins