In seeking to better understand spiritual experiences of consolation and desolation, I have especially appreciated the writings of Thomas H. Green. For example, in his book A Vacation With the Lord, he suggests:
“Desolation includes feeling states like turmoil, anxiety and restlessness, loss of faith, loss of hope, loss of love. Consolation is all that is opposite to desolation: joy, peace, tears of sorrow for sin, tears of gratitude because of the Lord’s love in the passion. All of these are feeling states, and they are the raw material of discernment. That is why, as I mentioned earlier, we have to be in touch with our feelings if we are going to be discerning persons.” (Green, p. 68.)
Desolation and consolation are “feeling states.” Discernment, Green suggests, has to do with sorting our feelings; not being driven by them or disregarding them. Lately, I have felt a great deal of desolation in the form of anxiety and restlessness.
As for feelings of desolation, Green draws on the insights of Ignatius of Loyola’s Exercises. In his rules for discernment, we read this counsel:
“[Ignatius] tells us (Rules for discernment #318) to never, never make or change a decision in times of desolation. Why? Because for the committed soul desolation is never God’s voice. Thus if someone did break off the prayer in restlessness, if he or she escaped from the silent listening and waiting because it seemed fruitless and restlessly shifted to something else, that would be a mistake. To repeat, desolation is never God’s voice for those who are sincerely seeking him. So we should never make a decision at that time unless we want the devil as our spiritual director.” (Green, p. 69.)
“[Ignatius] also tells us that we should pray a bit longer when we are desolate, rather than shortening our prayer. In this way we work against the enticements of the evil spirit.” (Green, p. 69.)
When I feel like avoiding or rushing times of prayer because I’m “not getting anything out of it,” God is actually inviting me to linger a little more patiently with Him. Anxiety and restlessness are not evidences of the Holy Spirit’s moving, but of a different spirit. The practice of extending prayer is an opportunity to act in faith in what feels like a fruitless activity. My praying a bit longer is a way of expressing my faith in the face of the perceived evidence of God’s apparent absence.
“…the Lord may allow desolation and permit the evil spirit to disturb us, first of all to teach us that everything—consolation, peace, joy, all the good things in our life—is pure gift.” (Thomas H. Green, S.J. A Vacation With the Lord. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1986, p. 91.)
Desolation, as Ignatius sees it, is not from God, but may be allowed by God to realize the sheer grace of every good thing we have from Him.
Father, may I come to You when I pray not seeking warm feelings, stimulating insights or motivating direction (though I am grateful when You give them), but seeking to make an offering of my time, my heart and my life to You in love.