Lately people have been either recommending or giving me books on Ignatian spirituality. I’m not sure why, since that’s not really part of the Byzantine tradition. Maybe it’s something the Lord wants me to be more aware of. He probably just shakes his head, anyway, at the way we divide his revelation up into “traditions” and then quarrel over them. We exclude others from “our” tradition and deny ourselves whatever good may be found in “their” tradition and in the process make all Christians look rather narrow and petty in the eyes of the world. But anyway, let’s discover something from the Ignatian “tradition.”
For St Ignatius, spiritual consolation and desolation are major elements of the experience of spiritual life and the discernment of God’s will therein. But they may not be exactly what we would expect in the common use of the terms. In general, we would think that consolation is about feeling good and desolation about feeling bad. But there’s actually much more to it in the spiritual sense. The best way to know what St Ignatius means by these terms is to learn how he defines them (my source for the subsequent quotations from the Spiritual Exercises is the book Finding God in All Things, by William A. Barry, SJ).
“I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of them all. It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God. Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.”
Now we would all agree that “interior joy” and “peace and quiet” would readily qualify as consolations, but what about weeping for our sins? Doesn’t that make us feel rather desolate? I think that St Ignatius was not so concerned about our subjective good feelings as he was about the objective reality of our drawing closer to God. To come nearer to God is a consolation, whether one experiences it subjectively as painful or pleasant. Ultimately, of course, our complete communion with God can only be full of joy and wonder, but the way there is still the way of the Cross.
Isaiah, when he experienced a vision of the glory of God, was terrified, because he became acutely aware of his sins. When Jesus worked a miracle in the presence of Simon Peter, the flabbergasted fisherman exclaimed, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” The coming to a deeper awareness of the presence and power and glory of God is a spiritual consolation, even if it requires a painful awareness of one’s own unworthiness. William Barry writes, “the experience of getting that close to God and feeling that unholy does not seem to have depressed the saints. Ignatius provides an interesting example. Early on in his days at Manresa when he was beginning the process of conversion, he notes that a fever brought him to death’s door. He ‘fully believed that his soul was about to leave him. At this a thought came to him telling him that he was just, but this caused him so much trouble that he rejected it and recalled his sins to mind.’” Many years later, when he again felt he was about to die, “he felt such happiness and such spiritual consolation at having to die that he dissolved entirely into tears.” Fr Barry goes on: “When God reveals our sins and sinful tendencies to us, we may well feel deep sorrow and even tears for what we have done, but we do not feel that God is gloating over us and is making us feel unworthy of his love and friendship. God’s revelation of sin and sinful tendencies is enabling; it gives us courage to pick ourselves up and reform our lives.” Thus even the revelation of our sins can be a form of consolation, if the end result is that we repent and enter into a deeper relationship with God.
Now let’s see what Ignatius says about desolation. “I call desolation what is entirely the opposite of (consolation), as darkness of soul, torment of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord.”
We would likely agree that darkness, torment, disturbances, sadness, etc, would surely qualify as elements of desolation. But let’s look at, say, “inclination to what is low and earthly.” There’s a whole lot of stuff in that category with which some people might actually have a riotous good time, and they wouldn’t call it desolation at all! But again, to gain some subjective pleasure from things that are “low and earthly” does not mean that one is not objectively in a state of desolation. For if consolation has to do with whatever draws one near to God (be the feeling of it painful or pleasurable), then desolation has to do with whatever draws one away from God, regardless of the subjective feeling.
According to this understanding, there may be many people in a state of spiritual desolation that aren’t even aware of it. Perhaps, though, Ignatius might only intend the use of these terms for those who actually believe in God and are seeking Him. But I think that even for those who are serious about the spiritual life, it is good to make the distinction between subjective feelings and objective reality when trying to discern one’s spiritual state as consolation or desolation. If you are grieved over your sins, don’t call it desolation, for this grief is the “godly grief” that “produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret” (2Cor. 7:10). On the other hand, if you are feeling some pleasure or contentment due to the indulgence of some “low and earthly” thing or activity, don’t automatically consider it consolation, for it may be leading you away from God.
So let us simply strive to come closer to God in every way possible, happy feelings or not, and strive to avoid all that has the potential to take us farther from Him. For our spiritual life is all about union with God, and thus our consolation is in everything that helps make that happen.