As a former youth minister, I remember how exciting Steubenville Youth Conferences were. Thousands of passionate people, on fire for God, devoting an entire weekend to worshipping the Lord and coming to know Him better. That is powerful stuff!
But you know as well as I do that it usually doesn't last long. It usually doesn't take more than a week back at home, experiencing everyday life, for us to feel just like our regular, uninspired selves. What's the deal?
Saint Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises
In the 16th century, Ignatius of Loyola wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a series of meditations and prayers designed to lead a person closer to God. As a soldier, Ignatius had led a life of chivalry and honor, but his life was not centered on Christ. After a horrific injury however, Ignatius decided to devote his whole life to Christ. St. Ignatius wrote the Exercises as a way to lead a person through periods of consolation and desolation in the spiritual life.
Just in case you weren't sure, consolation means feelings of comfort and joy, and desolation means feelings of loneliness and sadness. On the bus ride home from a great retreat, who doesn't just feel overjoyed and in love with God!? That's consolation. But what about a week later when you fail a test or disappoint your parents or have a bad break-up? That's desolation. Sometimes we can feel like God is completely a part of our consoling moments, and completely absent from our desolating moments. But listen up: it's just not true.
Obviously, God is intimately connected with our moments of joy, comfort, and feeling loved. God is the source of all of those emotions and it is because of His great mercy and love that we are given those gifts. Saint Ignatius said there are three main ways to experience consolation:
- 'I call it consolation when the soul is aroused by an interior movement which causes it to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and consequently can love no created thing on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the creator of all things.'
- 'It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears inspired by love of the Lord, whether it be sorrow for sins or because of the Passion of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is directly connected to His service and praise.'
- Finally, I call consolation any increase of faith, hope, and charity and any interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things, and to the salvation of one's soul, inspiring it with peace and quiet in Christ our Lord.'
Consolation is the love we feel for God above all created things, the love we feel for Jesus as our savior, and the joy and peace that comes by thinking about heaven. What on earth could be better!?
On the other hand, it can be extremely difficult to recognize God in the moments of doubt, and pain, and sorrow. What about those? Saint Ignatius said two things about desolation:
- 'I call desolation all that is contrary to the third rule [consolation], as darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, inclination to low and earthly things, restlessness resulting from many disturbances and temptations which lead to loss of faith, loss of hope, and loss of love.'
- 'It is also desolation when a soul finds itself completely apathetic, tepid, sad, and separated as it were, from its Creator and Lord.'
Desolation is the feeling of the loss of hope and love, and the feeling of loneliness and separation from God. Here's the surprise though: in what can seem like the darkest and loneliest moments, God is just as intimately connected to you as He is when you feel consoled, but He is trying to help you grow.
Imagine a small child who ties a toy to a string. When the child stands right next to that toy, the toy doesn't move at all. It will stay in place. What if the child wanted to move that toy? What would have to happen? The child will have to move far enough away from the toy for the string to pull on the toy, and then it will move.
When we have moments of desolation, we are like that toy. God has seemed to move far away from us. But there's a good reason! He is trying to move us!
There's a very popular saying: 'God loves us just the way we are, but He loves us far too much to let us stay that way.' To move us, and to draw us to Him, sometimes God must withdraw so that we can grow. God wants us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and to do that we have to choose the path of Christ. Sometimes we are consoled and we feel so close to Jesus. Other times, maybe not so much. Just remember . . . when God feels far away, He is simply calling us to Him and He wants you to come along.
The Solution? Detachment!
Saint Ignatius said, 'We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things… we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short one.' What he is trying to say is this: we need to be detached from the things in this life so that we don't get so distracted by them that we forget to think about the next life.
When you feel caught up in those dark moments, there's plenty of things to do: pick up your Bible and read some of the Psalms, go outside and get some fresh air and enjoy God's creation, or just sit on the couch with a good book and some hot chocolate (God created those things too, ya know!).