When I first began studying the spiritual life, there seemed an apparent contradiction between the work of St. John of the Cross and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius seemed to suggest that the key to spiritual flourishing was learning to discern consolations and the inspirations that come from them while John of the Cross seemed to be suggesting that we should embrace and seek suffering. Among those who enjoy John of the Cross, you will even sometimes hear the idea that we should be detached from consolation.
My first answer in trying to grapple with the differences between the two was to believe that each author was using the language of consolation different. For example, in Ignatius consolation refers to increases in faith, hope, and love while in John of the Cross consolation seems to indicate pleasant and comforting emotions and sensations. Along these lines, both saints argue for the centrality of the theological virtues (i.e. faith, hope, and love), and in the Ascent of Mt. Carmel, John employs a structure whereby he shows how each theological virtue operates to sanctify and transform the individual. I believe now that I was misunderstanding the larger lesson that each saint wanted to teach.
The answer to reconciling the two major tenets of spiritual theology is to properly understand the Ignatian ideal of indifference and the Carmelite ideal of detachment. The two terms are meant to arrive at the same point which is spiritual freedom. For Ignatius, spiritual freedom stems from our ability to learn how to navigate our interior life and to recognize patterns of ordered and disordered thinking. He is not trying to tell his students that we should maximize consolations, but rather that we should learn how to respond when either in a state of consolation or desolation.
In addition, John of the Cross is not trying to teach us that we need to actively seek pain and suffering nor does he want to indicate that to be holy we need to be miserable. What he is pointing out is an important tendency that often takes place in the lives of Christians. When we experience some particular grace or some divine touch that overflows into our bodies and emotions, instead of being grateful and humble, we tend to become inflated and prideful. We think that we are the source of these gifts, and in this way we embrace a whole host of disordered patterns of thinking, feeling, and desiring. In contrast, suffering tends to strip of us of these illusions, and when embraced for the sake of Christ, can become a powerful catalyst for learning how to be other-centered.
Thus, detachment and indifference are not ends in themselves, but rather means to have the interior freedom to participate in the unconditional love of Jesus Christ. When we learn how to respond to our good days and our bad days and when we learn to not be so concerned about our personal comforts, this opens us up to a whole new horizon of service and self-donation. Instead of our love being petty and self-centered, the Holy Spirit is able to transform it so that we can be icons of Christ’s unconditional love for the world.
Today, let us walk the path of spiritual growth and constant conversion. Let us seek the Lord above all things so that we can love and be loved as God intended.
Sorry to my Carmelite friends for using the portrait of St. Ignatius. I could not have both saints pictured, so I had to choose one or the other.