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What are consolations in prayer and how should we respond to them?

If you spend much time reading or talking about prayer, you are sure to hear the word “consolations.” What are consolations? What is their purpose? How should we respond to them?
 
Forming the habit of prayer is difficult, especially at first. Prayer requires sacrifice. We might need to rise 30 minutes earlier, shut off the TV sooner, or delay another activity we enjoy. God knows our weaknesses. He knows that when we find more pleasure in entertainment or sleep than in prayer, we are likely to give up. He gives us consolations to help us persevere. 
 
A consolation is anything that makes us feel close to God. Consolations make tangible the communication between God and the soul. Beginners often feel peaceful and refreshed during mental prayer. These feelings are consolations from God. Insights into Scripture passages we are meditating on are consolations also. We feel God is speaking directly to us. Sometimes we sense that he is even speaking in our hearts beyond the words that we read in Scripture. We are excited to hear from him. 
 
All these consolations confirm our belief that God is really listening to our prayers. They encourage us to spend more time with him. They convince us it is worthwhile to give up other activities to make time for prayer. Thus, they enable us to form the habit of daily prayer.
 
Consolations are good, but they are not ends in themselves. Their purpose is to help us detach from created things and attach ourselves to God. Over time, though, a problem develops. We become attached to the consolations. We yearn for more of them. When a day without consolations comes, we might shorten our time with God. After several days without them, we are tempted to give up prayer altogether.
 
God uses periods of dryness in prayer to wean us from consolations. Like a mother with her infant, God desires to give us solid food. We don’t like the taste or the texture. We want to continue drinking milk. Until we are weaned, however, we cannot grow up spiritually. The new food from God has its own delights, but we are so used to the old way of being fed that we turn away in disgust.
 
Recognizing the place of consolations from the beginning helps us continue to grow. When God gives us consolations, it’s best to thank him, but not rest in them. They should move us to love him more. Keep in mind that he does not owe us consolations. We should not count on them or strive to acquire them. We should be ready to let them go when God decides the time is right.
 
The purpose of prayer is union with God. Sometimes consolations help us grow in union. At other times they hinder us. We should determine to see them only as a means, keeping our focus on God himself. 
 
Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of “The Contemplative Rosary” just released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.