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What new life is this?

30 November, 1999

Brian O’Leary SJ tells us about St Ignatius of Loyola’s experience of and teaching on consolation and desolation in the spiritual life.

People who have undergone a deep conversion, whether moral or spiritual, tend initially to experience a period of unruffled consolation. To friends and observers it may even seem that they are ‘on a high’. This is what happened to Ignatius at the beginning of his stay in Manresa.

In the Autobiography he says, ‘Up to this time he continued undisturbed in the same interior state of great and constant joy without knowing anything about internal spiritual matters’. As he looks back, he realizes that the joy or consolation of that period of his life was accompanied by much ignorance. He is not referring to ignorance of book-learning but to lack of experience of the inner life. Such experience was not long in coming.

The first disturbance that shook his composure was a temptation to discouragement, an agitated questioning of his ability to persevere in his good intentions. He dealt well with this experience of inner turmoil but that was only the beginning. The Autobiography continues the story:

Notable changes
‘After the above-mentioned temptation, he began to feel notable changes in his soul. Sometimes he was so dejected that he found no enjoyment in the prayers he recited, not even in attending Mass, nor in any other form of prayer.

Sometimes the exact opposite happened to him, and so suddenly that it seemed he had stripped away all sadness and desolation, just as one strips a cloak from another’s shoulder. He was astonished at these changes, which he had never before experienced, and said to himself, “What kind of a new life is this that we are now beginning?”‘

Normal experience
Does any of this seem familiar? Have you noticed in your own life a similar pattern of alternating moods in relation to prayer and Mass – of elation and deflation, of comfort and distress? If so, have you too, reacted with surprise, bewilderment, confusion? But what Ignatius is describing, and what many good people also experience, is quite normal.

At the time the new convert did not know this. In his ‘ignorance’ Ignatius thought that he should always be in consolation. Simply turn to God, pray, do penance, lead a good life, and you will always be at peace. Not so! ‘My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing. Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be impetuous in time of calamity’ (Sir 2: 1-2).

Being impetuous would involve surrendering to the natural urge to give up when we are getting no satisfaction from prayer, or when (as people sometimes say) nothing is happening. Being steadfast involves the opposite, that is, continuing to pray or go to Mass in spite of the aridity, boredom, or even pain of the experience.

Ignatius tends to use the word ‘desolation’ to cover all kinds of emotional disturbance, or the absence of any emotional response at all, in our relationship with God. But, having learned from his own experience, he does not see desolation as a wholly negative occurrence, as though it were a spiritual calamity. He urges us to remain faithful, to refuse to give in to the desolation, and to trust that God will lead us out of the desolation in his own time.

If we take that approach, desolation can become an opportunity for an increase in self-knowledge, a purifying of our motives, and growth in our love of God. Ignatius wrote in his Rules for the Discernment of Spirits: ‘When we are in desolation we should think that the Lord has left us to our own powers in order to test us (see the quotation from Sirach above), so that we may prove ourselves by resisting the various agitations and temptations of the enemy’.

We see here how the mature Ignatius, in contrast to the immature pilgrim of his early days at Manresa, has come to understand the nature of desolation and is no longer surprised or frightened by it. It is simply a normal episode in the spiritual life, to be dealt with firmly, and indeed as calmly as we can.

Negative reaction
At the heart of all desolation there lies a sense that God is either distant or wholly absent, that God has withdrawn his love from us and abandoned us. This is often accompanied by a reactive tendency on our part to blame ourselves for what is happening. Why would God be treating us like this unless we had done something wrong? It must be our fault! God must be punishing us!

Such thoughts are generally untrue and unhelpful, and need to be resolutely set aside. Otherwise we get sucked even deeper into the desolation, into our feelings of isolation, abandonment, and helplessness.

This is why the next part of the above quotation from Ignatius’ Rules is so important: ‘For we can do this (resist the desolation) with God’s help, which always remains available, even if we do not clearly perceive it’.

Another way of expressing this teaching is that a felt absence of God is not the same as a real absence. We may not feel that God is with us but that does not mean that God (and God’s help) is really not with us. Indeed, faith assures us that God is always present to us, even if, in desolation it is a faith that cannot see, that is forced to live in darkness. We may be encouraged by the words of Jesus, although spoken in a different context, to doubting Thomas, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’ (Jn 20:29).

Once we come to accept that it is quite normal for periods of desolation to alternate with periods of consolation (when we feel comfort, joy, and ease in our relationship with God), we experience a great freedom. We are no longer overly dependent on the state of our feelings. We learn to pray out of sadness, darkness, and inner dryness as much as out of joy, lightness of spirit, and bubbling enthusiasm.

We can be as content to pray like Jacob wrestling all through the night with the angel – from which he came away wounded in the thigh (Gen 32:22-32) – as to pray like Mary, Martha’s sister, who sat quietly at Jesus’ feet listening to him speak (Lk 10:38-42).

This pattern of alternating moods is the reality of the ‘new life’ that opened up for Ignatius at Manresa. It is a life that is rich in contrasts, comforting and challenging, through all of which God leads us more deeply into his own life. 

This article first appeared in the Messenger (December 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.