When one enjoys consolation, let [her] consider how [she] will conduct [herself] during the time of ensuing desolation, and store up a supply of strength as defence against that day. Exx.323
He who enjoys consolation should take care to humble himself and lower himself as much as possible. Let him recall how little he is able to do in time of desolation, when he is left without such grace or consolation.
On the other hand, one who suffers desolation should remember that by making use of the sufficient grace offered him, [she] can do much to withstand all [her] enemies. Let [her] find [her] strength in [her] Creator and Lord. Exx.324
Normally in life, our experience oscillates between the felt connection with God – or feeling right in our skin – and encountering various forms of dis-ease – pain, hurt, emptiness, loneliness, self-criticism, shame, and so on. You may see this dynamic in these writings. The outtakes from The Spiritual Exercises at the head of this piece suggest that this is a recognised process. Our spiritual ancestors struggled with, and came to make sense of, this dynamic in their lives. After consolation, desolation; after desolation, consolation.
I’m not talking about halcyon summers or the train crashes of our lives, just the usual ups and downs of daily life.
We tend to enjoy the sun and to regret the rain – even though we know that without rain, no life.
Unlike the weather, when we feel good or bad, we can interpret these as consequences of having been good or bad – or the arbitrary action of fickle fate. “What have I done to deserve this?”, we ask in delight or resentment. And then we take a further step to feeling good (confident, proud, smug) because we feel good, and feeling bad (angry, guilt, shame) because we feel bad.
We can make a bad day significantly worse by resentment and accusation (of self or others). “I must have done something wrong that I feel like this, and God is so distant from me,” we say.
What the ancestors suggest is that consolation and desolation need not be occasions for praise or blame. They are opportunities to turn to God. Important to note is that one behaves differently in each of these experiences:
- In good times you simply live the connection, let it in, allow yourself to bathe in God and, like sun-bathing, let it warm you and work in you. Practise gratitude. Realise that this goodness is not all down to you: it is a gift.
- Times of dis-ease need attention, kindness, investigation more kindness, being present.
Ignatius talks about consolation and desolation. The two experiences I have outlined are not exactly consolation and desolation.
- Consolation is not about feeling good and God’s presence – for God is always present – but about trusting and loving God.
- Desolation is not about feeling bad and God’s absence – for God is never absent – but about losing trust and love in God.
Consolation and desolation are about the quality of faith, hope, and love of God.
Although not any old good feeling is consolation, and not any old bad feeling is desolation, feeling good and feeling bad may tend to lead to consolation and desolation. It is easier to trust in God and love God when we feel good; it is far less easy when we feel bad, especially if we are looking for someone to blame for our discomfort.
So, when you feel at ease, when God feels close, then make sure to express gratitude, and to let the feelings take root in this body. This is more than thanking God and feeling good. This is allowing yourself more and more to become the reality we call God.
When you feel dis-ease, or that God is distant, it is possible to assert that God is present.
- Turn your attention to God, who is always present;
- recall moments of consolation and what they feel like in this body; and
- take a kindly look at what is going on in you, as one might tenderly touch a child who is in tears.
Rather than see desolation as something wrong with life, or the result of some mistake you have made, perhaps you are being offered a graced opportunity for healing, to practise kindness in a world with too much pain and little enough kindness. Maybe, just at this moment, you are the captive, the prisoner, the sick, the homeless, the naked. The saying that ‘charity begins at home’ can be a hard-hearted refusal to see the suffering around; or it can be the practice of bringing kindness right here and now. Ultimately, there is no separation between yourself and the world. Self-kindness is planetary kindness.
Technically, if you do this, even if you continue to feel dis-ease, nevertheless you are in consolation, because you have turned to God with a degree of trust and love. This is to carry your cross, not as a burden of martyrdom or great drama, but as the occasion of reconciliation.
It would be so easy to stop here – to end with thinking about desolation. Life is difficult, dukkha. But this is not the kernel of all the great teachers and mystics.
The fundamental message is liberating: God is here, we are loved beyond our capacity to receive, and life is an amazing gift. Fundamentally, life is about consolation, a never-ending growing into God.