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Rossini: Discerning the source of consolation in spiritual life

Last time we looked at an overview of St. Ignatius’ teaching on consolation and desolation in the spiritual life. Let’s dive deeper into his teaching on consolation. How can we know if the peaceful and pleasant feelings we experience in our souls come from God or another source? How should we respond to them?

As I wrote previously, when we are moving toward God, striving to overcome sin – even though sometimes failing – God often sends consolations. He encourages us to continue seeking him. Consolations strengthen us. They teach us to find joy in God rather than earthly things.

In prayer, these consolations can include insight into the Scriptures, a feeling that God is near, joy, peace, increased love for God, a new resolve to do his will, sorrow for sin or forgiveness of others. Consolations make us feel that prayer is relevant and effective, that God is truly meeting with us there.

St. Ignatius teaches that when we are moving toward God, even though we might still be struggling in some areas, we can be confident 

that these experiences come from God. God is our Father. Like a good parent, he knows that children need encouragement to do the right thing. We have long habits of serving ourselves that we must overcome to draw near to God. We enjoy being the center of our lives, seeing our will accomplished, even at times at the expense of others.

To help us form holier habits of surrender to his will, God makes prayer pleasant, especially in the early stages. We enjoy the consolations of prayer, so we keep coming back. Gradually, our habits of selfishness begin changing.

Now, if we experience extraordinary phenomena in prayer, such as visions or locutions, those call for greater discernment, preferably discussing them with a spiritual director or another objective and knowledgeable person. But we can be confident that if we are sincerely trying to follow God, repenting of any sins we commit, then the ordinary experiences of consolation in prayer come from him. We don’t have to analyze each individual experience to discover its source.

How should we respond to consolations? We should let them accomplish their purpose, moving us toward greater love of God. In times of consolation, we make resolutions to be more converted, and follow through on them. St. Ignatius, in his Tenth Rule of Discernment, reminds us that consolation is temporary. At some point, God will allow us to fall into desolation. We need to prepare ourselves by storing up the strength that consolations give. We can make plans about how to act when they are gone.

In his Eleventh Rule, Ignatius urges us to be humble during consolation. Since it is a temporary state, which originates outside ourselves, we need to recognize that it is a gift. We can pray for the grace to persevere through the temptations of the desolation that will surely come.

St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross teach us to transfer our love of consolations to love of God. We should avoid being attached to God’s gifts. Instead, we let the gifts increase our love for the Giver.

Consolations in prayer are a blessing God bestows on those who are faithfully surrendering more of themselves to him. They are a powerful tool he uses to help us grow in holiness.

Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is the author of “The Q&A Guide to Mental Prayer,” now available at amazon.com, and five other books on Catholic spirituality.