The Devotional Classics selection by Ignatius is taken from The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius the bulk of which he wrote after having decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, selling all of his worldly goods, only to find his ship stuck in Manresa (Spain) for a year.
Apparently, instead of moaning and groaning about plans thwarted, asking God why, or throwing in the towel, Ignatius presses into God and draws every bit out of that unexpected year in Manresa, not seeming to waste many moments, if any, having "several profound mystical experiences that led him to begin sharing his faith with others." (1)
And he wrote notes on what to do in hard times, how to prepare oneself for times of desolation, discerning what spirit is at work, standing firm with great determination. He explained that there is an evil spirit causing "anxiety and sadness" creating "obstacles based on false reasoning" and a good spirit who gives "courage and strength, consolation, tears, inspiration, and peace..." (2)
Reading those words this past week reminded me that there are indeed two very distinct spirits seeking to influence my thoughts, my day. I have a choice which voice I listen to. Listening to the voice that speaks anxiety and sadness, regret and guilt, causes me to build my day on false reasoning. But focusing on the Voice who speaks courage and strength allows me to move in freedom throughout my day, unhampered by the obstacles caused by unbelief.
He doesn't say, however, that there won't be hard times or moments of desolation. Rather, in the moments when we are pressing in to the Voice of the Holy Spirit and turning away from the evil one, we have a season of "consolation," moments of "increase of faith, hope, and charity and...interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things...inspiring it [one's soul] with peace and quiet in Christ our Lord."(3) These times of consolation serve to strengthen us, help us formulate a plan for how we will behave during any future time of desolation, and so store up strength for that time.
Desolation by contrast is that "darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, inclination to low and earthly things, restlessness resulting from many disturbances and temptations which leads to loss of faith, loss of hope, loss of love."(4) It encompasses those moments when we are tempted with the thoughts that God has abandoned us or turned His back on His promises to us.
Ignatius advises us: "In times of desolation one should never make a change, but stand firm and constant in the resolution and decision which guided him the day before the desolation, or to the decision which he observed in the preceding consolation."(5) Excellent advice.
My time as an exchange student in Spain was actually fraught with times of desolation. It really is a miracle that I got hooked at all by the Spanish bug. But I guess working through those deep times of distress, crying out to the Lord because where else could I turn?, connected me with the country in a deeply spiritual way that continues to today.
I was 17. I was alone. I knew no one. I had 3 years of high school Spanish that seemed to leak right out of my brain the moment I stepped foot off the airplane. I had a challenging host family situation that left me mentally and emotionally exhausted most of the time.
But I had the Lord. And best of all, He had me. He brought me through that time and inspired my soul with peace in more ways than I remember. He faithfully walked with me and taught me things about Him and about myself I don't think I could have learned any other way.
Spain is the ground where the rubber met the proverbial road in my spiritual life. And in perhaps the darkest times of my life, God kept my soul alive through moments of consolations where He strengthened me and poured in the courage I would need for the next stretch. He proved Himself faithful time and time again.
Those lessons learned in that season have served me well. And Ignatius' writings remind me today to walk in God's grace daily and to make the most of every opportunity to fuel up on God's courage, strength, and peace so that on that day desolation tries to lay hold of my soul, I am ready to stand determined on the truth of His Word to me.
So, do you find yourself feeling desolate? Call out to the Lord. Remind Yourself of the Truth. Stay the course. 1 Peter 5:6-11 sums it up:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith, Devotional Classics (New York: Harper Collins, Revised 2005), 193
2 Ibid, 193-194