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Rossini: Understanding consolation and desolation in prayer

A common mistake people make in prayer is considering consolation as a testament to their personal holiness. Perhaps even more common is thinking something is awry when desolation hits. What are consolation and desolation, and what do they signify?

St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote, “I call it consolation when some interior movement is caused in the soul, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator…. Likewise when it sheds tears for love of its Lord …. (Also) every increase of hope, faith, and charity, and all interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Creator and Lord” (Third Rule, as quoted by Father Timothy Gallagher in “The Discernment of Spirits,” p. 48).

 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.

However, fallen human nature and the devil can give us positive feelings that we may mistake for consolations. Ignatius calls these forces together “the enemy.” When we are moving away from God, being lazy about resisting temptation, or missing our prayer time without serious cause, the enemy encourages us to continue distancing ourselves from God. The enemy might send peaceful feelings that do not correspond with the real state of our soul. He entices us with thoughts of worldly pleasure. He wants us to be complacent, to deceive us into believing that we can be happy without following God.

Consolation can come to anyone who is moving toward God, the new convert as well as the saint. It is not so much a sign of closeness to him as it is a sign we are on the right road. We may still have many miles to go before real intimacy with God.

Desolation is just the opposite. God allows us to experience desolation when we are growing cold. Ignatius writes, “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,” p. 60).

Desolation is a feeling that God is absent, a lack of peace in prayer, or difficulty meditating. Missing the peace we have felt before, we examine our conscience to see if we have offended God. Desolation can prompt us to repentance and new resolve to follow God. It thus makes us change direction so that we are once again moving toward God.

To complicate matters, the enemy can send desolation for another purpose. When we have been carefully following God, we might nonetheless feel weary in the spiritual life, almost despairing of ever succeeding. Our fallen nature desires an easy, indulgent life and rebels when we faithfully follow God. The enemy sends desolation so we will change direction and stop following God.

You can see that consolation and desolation are not easy to understand. We tend to think that all peaceful feelings in the spiritual life come from God and all desolate feelings indicate that something is wrong. In reality, peaceful feelings can come to those not following God, and desolation can come to saints. How can we know the source of these experiences? We will dive more deeply into Ignatius’s discernment of spirits next time.

Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of “The Contemplative Rosary” released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.

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