What is Spiritual Consolation?
Q: Dear Father John, What kind of general advice should I give to a person who is experiencing a lot of consolation in their spiritual life? From what this person has told me in spiritual direction, this consolation is certainly coming from God. Is there any practical advice I should give this person?
A: God gives consolation in order to strengthen us and draw us closer to himself, just as he allows desolation in order to purify us from inordinate attachments. And so, when we experience spiritual consolation, the proper response is primarily gratitude (just enjoy it and thank God for it!). We also need to be sure to stay docile to God’s will – to use the experience of God’s goodness to reaffirm our commitment to obey whatever God asks of us. There is actually a connection between these two things.
What Is Spiritual Consolation?
But before I get into that, I want to go back to how St. Ignatius of Loyola describes spiritual consolation – as spiritual directors, we need to try to understand deeply the distinction between spiritual and non-spiritual consolation, even though they often overlap. And for these kinds of things, it’s always good to go back to the masters! Here’s how St. Ignatius describes spiritual consolation in his third rule of discernment of spirits:
I call it consolation when some interior movement in the soul is caused, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord; and when it can in consequence love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but in the Creator of them all.
In other words, spiritual consolation gives us a palpable experience of God’s loveableness, and that experience acts like a magnet, drawing us to desire greater union with him and putting good order in our affections towards all other merely created realities. With that in mind, I have two thoughts regarding what kind of advice to give to someone experiencing strong spiritual consolation.
First, to express their gratitude by a constant, loving effort to fulfill and accept God’s will in all the small details of life – normal responsibilities, faithfulness to conscience and to Church teaching, acts of kindness and mercy, etc… Make sure the gratitude doesn’t stay at the level of pure emotion, but also overflows into decisions to seek deeper love and fidelity to Christ and the Holy Spirit on a daily basis. God sends consolations to encourage us, to bolster our effort to live a more intimate friendship with Christ.
In Times of Peace Prepare for War
Second, St. Ignatius also says that times of consolation are meant to be times of preparation: trials and desolations will return. This is the natural rhythm of the spiritual life. And so, during times of consolation, we should remember that times of desolation will come back, and we should stay ready for them. It’s a question of remembering that earth is not heaven, and shoring up a deep appreciation for the truth of God’s goodness and love as we experience them during times of consolation – creating a kind of spiritual reservoir that we can then draw on when we experience dryness and spiritual desolation. Here is St. Ignatius’ tenth rule on the discernment of spirits, which addresses this issue:
Let the one who is in consolation think how he will conduct himself in the desolation which will come after, taking new strength for that time.
So, during these times, make acts of faith and love, acts of hope, acts of confidence in God, driving those fundamental Christian convictions deeper and deeper into the soul, so that when the next storm hits, you are stronger than before.
May God continue to bless you and your ministry as a spiritual director!
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