5. Consolation and desolation
When Ignatius dictated his reminiscences towards the end of his life, he spoke at some length of the process of his conversion. After being wounded at a battle in Pamplona, Ignatius had to spend a long time in bed, and though he would have preferred his normal fare of tales of chivalry, the only available books were a life of Christ and the lives of the saints.
He used to pass long periods daydreaming, sometimes of his future exploits to win the heart of one of the noblest women in Spain, and sometimes of repeating the heroic actions of the great saints. He realised that these different thoughts gave rise to different feelings: while the former often turned to a sense of dissatisfaction, the positive feelings experienced when he imagined performing big exploits for God stayed with him for a long time.
He says that this experience of distinguishing between different spirits was the origin of his Rules of Discernment of Spirits, which we find in his book of the Spiritual Exercises. In these rules he speaks at length of two contrasting realities, which he calls consolation and desolation. It would take too long to explain in detail what he means, but I am sure we all recognise ourselves in this, for we do pass from one spirit to another in our interior life: sometimes we feel good, open to God and to others, and everything seems easy. It takes no effort to be generous, we pray well, and we feel close to God. Ignatius would call this consolation.
At other times we feel totally the opposite: listless and discouraged, sad, selfish and petty. We find no joy in prayer, and most of what we were so enthusiastic about now seems insipid, without meaning. We are in desolation.
While it is totally reasonable to say that we find God in consolation, Ignatius argues that we can find God also in desolation, for this can sometimes come from God. Moreover, what we think is consolation may sometimes in fact be coming from the bad spirit. That is why the discernment of our spirits is so important in discerning God’s will for us. We need to be able to understand the language of our heart.
When we are in consolation Ignatius tells us we should be grateful, and, keeping in mind that this will not last forever, we should do our best to enjoy this positive moment and make the most of it.
From God’s word:
◦ “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” – 2 Corinthians 1
◦ “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” – Matthew 5
◦ “This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your word has revived me.” – Psalm 119
◦ “Shout for joy, O heavens! And rejoice, O earth! Break forth into joyful shouting, O mountains! For the Lord has comforted His people and will have compassion on His afflicted.” – Is 49
◦ “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you.” – John 14
- Can you distinguish between consolation and desolation in your own life? How would you describe them to yourself, or to a close friend?
- When you are in consolation are you capable of feeling grateful, seeing this as God’s grace, or do you take it for granted? Are you already thinking it will soon end?
‘Still, there was this difference: that when he was thinking about that worldly stuff he would take much delight, but when he left it aside after getting tired, he would find himself dry and discontented. But when about going to Jerusalem barefoot, and about not eating except herbs, and about doing all the other rigours he was seeing the saints had done, not only used he to be consoled while in such thoughts, but he would remain content and happy even after having left them aside. But he wasn’t investigating this, nor stopping to ponder this difference, until one time when his eyes were opened a little, and he began to marvel at this difference in kind and to reflect on it, picking it up from experience that from some thoughts he would be left sad and from others happy, and little by little coming to know the difference in kind of spirits that were stirring: the one from the devil, and the other from God.
This was the first reflection he made on the things of God; and later, when he produced the Exercises, it was from here that he began to get clarity regarding the matter of the difference in kind of spirits.’ – From the Reminiscences of St Ignatius
More on Consolation and Desolation
Read more about Discernment in a Nutshell
Reflection aid: ‘Only in God’ by the St Louis Jesuits