Responding to desolation in prayer
August 9, 2019
This summer we’ve been discussing St. Ignatius of Loyola’s teaching on consolation and desolation in prayer, which he calls “discernment of spirits.” Let’s look briefly at desolation to see how we should respond to it.
Recall Ignatius’ definition of desolation: “I call desolation all the contrary of (consolation), 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” (Fourth Rule, “The Discernment of Spirits,” Father Timothy Gallagher, p. 60).
Desolation comes to all people who pray. It alternates with consolation. Both consolation and desolation are needed to help us grow in holiness. God allows us to feel desolate so that we do not become proud, thinking we are already saints. He also allows desolation to bring us to a deeper repentance, teach us to persevere and wean us from dependence on consolation.
Dryness or lack of consolation in prayer is common and frequent. Desolation, however, is a specific kind of dryness. It is not just a lack of consolation, but the opposite of it. While consolation draws our minds and affections toward God, desolation turns our thoughts and desires toward worldliness, sin and despair. It saps our spiritual energy, tempting us to give up. Just as true consolation always comes from God, desolation always comes from the enemy, only being allowed by God.
How should we respond when desolation hits? Ignatius urges us to remember that desolation is temporary. It will pass and consolation will return. Knowing that desolation is normal and usually short-lived helps us to cling to hope and persevere in prayer. The enemy sends desolation to make us give up our virtuous habits or fail to follow through on resolutions.
In contrast, the Fifth Rule in the discernment of spirits is to “never make a change” in what we have previously resolved to practice in our spiritual lives. This is the time for faithfulness, for follow-through. Persevering while in desolation is difficult, yet the very perseverance often chases desolation away. We may only have to take one small step to feel our spirits relieved.
Instead of giving up on spiritual practices and resolutions, Ignatius in his Sixth Rule encourages us to “change ourselves” by more prayer, examination and penance. This courageous behavior necessitates leaning more on God’s strength than on our own. It shows us who is really in charge and that he always gives us the grace we need to do his will.
The Seventh and Eighth Rules teach that we need to resist the temptations toward despair and base thoughts and be patient in our trials. God will come to our aid in his own way and time. Meanwhile, Ignatius counsels us to open our hearts to a spiritual director or another person knowledgeable in the discernment of spirits who can help us (13th Rule). The enemy thrives on secrecy and isolation. God works in the light. Sometimes just being honest with another person removes temptation and dark feelings.
Desolation can be a time of surprising spiritual growth if we refuse to give in. It gives us the opportunity to prove the love that we expressed while in consolation and shows how completely dependent we are on God.