Q: Dear Father John, I know you wrote before about consolation and desolation in the spiritual life. But I have a follow-up question. When we experience some kind of desolation, how do we know where it’s coming from? I mean, how do we know whether it’s really from God or not?
A: This is a great question – and an important one, for Christians in today’s society.
Consolation and Desolation: Grasping the Terms
First, we have to have a quick review of what we mean by “consolation and desolation” in the spiritual life. Usually, these terms refer to the felt presence of God in our soul (consolation), or the absence of that feeling (desolation). By faith we know that God is always thinking of us, with us, interested in our lives, and loving us with a personal, determined love. We know that by faith. But we don’t always feel that in our emotional world. In fact, sometimes we can feel an intense and painful emptiness inside. Sometimes we can feel absolutely no excitement or pleasure at the thought of spiritual things. Sometimes we can feel dry as a desert even when we are at prayer: emotionally, we don’t even want to keep praying. We are like children with their homework: they know it is good for them to do it, and they know they should do it, but they just don’t feel like doing it.
This lack of the felt presence of God, a lack of emotional pleasure or resonance regarding God’s will for us, is usually referred to by spiritual writers as sensible desolation. The contrary is sensible consolation.
Now we can get to your question. If you are experiencing desolation, it can come from a variety of sources. Simply knowing what those sources are can help us reflect on one’s personal situation and, usually, identify its source.
Our Own Fault
First, desolation can be caused by our own sin. We may be inordinately attached to something: some habit, some relationship, some hope, some fear, even some hobby or pastime that may not be evil in itself… Or we may have committed some sin that we haven’t confessed or repented of yet. Sooner or later, disordered attachments will interfere with our relationship with God. God loves us too much to let us idolize anything for long. If we are following him, when the time is right he will speak to our conscience about putting that disordered room in our soul back into order. During the struggle to decide whether or not to obey what he is asking of us, we can experience desolation, because as we dilly-dally, our hearts are divided. In this case, we are actually pushing God away, and the desolation is our own fault. This happens frequently in the early stages of the spiritual life, but can return with a vengeance even after much growth, when the spiritualized capital sins attempt to re-conquer the soul.
At times, it is hard to identify disordered attachments. If you are praying regularly (including at least an annual spiritual retreat), doing a regular examination of conscience, going to confession on a regular basis, and receiving some kind of spiritual direction (or at least you have a friend or small group of friends to whom you make yourself spiritually accountable), and following the commandments of God and the Church, you should be able to recognize these disordered attachments when the Holy Spirit points them out to you. If you are not following those basic spiritual practices, your desolation may have this cause, and I would recommend renewing your commitment to these means for spiritual growth that all spiritual writers recommend.
Our Fallen Nature’s Fault
Second, desolation can flow from advancing self-knowledge. As we grow in the spiritual life, God allows us to know ourselves better and better. We begin to see just how deep our self-centered tendencies really go. We begin to see just how vulnerable we are to temptations of vanity, pride, and sensuality. We begin to see just how helpless we really are, when it comes to growth in holiness, without the constant aid of God’s grace. This can create a disturbance in our relationship with God, because we no longer feel worthy of the great love he has for us. We truly love God. We truly want to follow him. But when we resist approaching him because we have discovered that we actually don’t “deserve” to be loved so unconditionally we begin to stumble. It’s like the spouse who has been unfaithful and has difficulty accepting their spouse’s forgiveness, or the mother who has aborted her child and simply can’t seem to accept God’s mercy. But in this stage of the spiritual life, the specific cause of the interior resistance is often less clear. Here again, we end up separating ourselves from God.
This hurdle has to be faced and overcome, in order to become spiritually mature. You have probably already detected the real source of the spiritual reluctance that comes from this situation. It is a subtle form of pride. And the enemy of our souls will often seize on this, stir it up, and try to exaggerate it. The truly humble soul responds to its own unworthiness with peace and joy, throwing itself into God’s arms with total abandon, totally conscious of its absolute need for God’s grace, and contentedly aware of God’s delight in showing mercy to his needy children.
The deep interior resistance so many people experience when it comes to activating that kind of abandonment shows just how difficult developing the virtue of humility really is. It is the bedrock of the spiritual life, and digging foundations is never fun. But you can do it. Read the lives of the saints (especially St. Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul and St. Faustina’s Diary). Read the Psalms. And get on your knees in front of the Eucharist, simply learning to trust more deeply in God’s goodness by exercising whatever level of trust you can as you gaze at Our Lord, who has chosen to be there for you, no matter what.
The Doctor at Work
Finally, desolation can flow from God’s direct action on the soul. God can take away the consolation of his presence, without actually taking away his presence. This is a method he uses to purify the soul and to increase the soul’s capacity for love. If we can keep following God’s will in our lives even when we are passing through “a valley as dark as death” (Psalm 23:4), we will emerge with a much more mature faith, a more vibrant hope, and a deeper love. These are the theological virtues that unite the soul to God – and union with God is what we were created for, and what God yearns us to achieve and deepen.
So when he takes away interior consolation in this way, we can rest assured that his wisdom and goodness will permit us, when emerged from the darkness, to undergo greater consolations than we ever imagined, because our soul’s capacity to experience God will have been increased by God directly. These periods of purification initiated by God are often called the “dark night.” We can have dark nights of the senses, of the spirit, of the intellect… It is when God, the doctor of our soul, lays us on the spiritual operating table and takes direct action. Our job in this case is to trust and endure by continuing to seek and embrace God’s will in our lives (the commandments, the duties of our state in life, etc…). The recent book on Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, chronicles a truly amazing journey through this kind of darkness.
I hope these reflections have helped you identify both where your current desolation is coming from, and how to react to it. If not, I recommend taking up the prayer Jesus taught us through St. Faustina, and making it the constant refrain of your heart and mind throughout this season of your spiritual journey: “Jesus, I trust in you.”