In the Ignatian tradition of discernment (which has its roots in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola), we are taught to distinguish between consolation and desolation and to carefully consider the thoughts, feelings, and desires which accompany each. Along these lines, we must learn to adapt to the natural oscillation between these two poles of human interiority, learning to accommodate our decision making accordingly.
In a state of desolation, we must learn to reject the inspirations that arise until we are able to return to a place of greater stillness and interior freedom. While this does not mean that we should try and force desolation away with an ironclad will, it does mean that we must come to recognize that when in desolation, our ability to make good decisions is greater impaired. The pernicious problem with such wisdom is that often we fail to realize that we are in fact in desolation.
Although much can and has been said about how to recognize desolation, I have seen one particular lie that can often accompany it. For many of us, desolation isolates us from the company of our family and friends. Furthermore, desolation turns us in on ourselves in ways that prevent us from discovering God, holding us captive in patterns of anxiety and fear. As these patterns begin to dominate, we begin to think that no one will understand our problems and that we must focus on solving all our problems on our own. Thus, desolation hampers us from enjoying that blessed communion with God and neighbor which is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Often, it is easier to see desolation in others than to recognize it in our own lives. This is why wise spiritual direction (even if it is not done by a formal spiritual director) is an essential component of spiritual maturity. Spiritual friends help us to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ not because they are necessarily “better” than us or because they have it all figured out. The irony is that while each of us has our own struggles and weaknesses, with a little insight and spiritual development, we are often able to see disordered patterns of thinking, feeling, and desiring in others.
Of course, we must always walk with that humility which helps us to have a healthy amount of caution. Seeing desolation and disordered patterns of thinking, feeling, and desiring in others and helping them to come back to the Lord are two distinct things. The first is relatively easy; the second takes skill, compassion, and ultimately an authentic and genuine love. More often than not, our most significant contribution to another’s spiritual life is learning to listen to them without judgment or condemnation.
Today, let us work to build spiritual friendships which are truly nourishing and life-giving. Let us support those who struggle in this world, and let us learn to rely on others in our path of on-going conversion.