By Fr. Corey Close
Last month I began writing on the 14 rules of the discernment of spirits of Ignatius of Loyola that so many have found helpful in their spiritual journey. I wrote on rules 1 and 2, which describe the two types of people in the world in regard to spiritual life.
Rule 1 refers to people essentially running away from God, whereby the evil spirit works on them by pretending to be their friend who proposes apparent pleasures that seem like they will bring fulfillment and happiness. Contrariwise, the good spirit bites people’s conscience with questions like: “Is this all there is in life? Will this really make me happy? Isn’t it time for a real change?” A rule 2 person fundamentally runs toward God, seeking to purify his or her life and grow closer to the Lord.
The rest of Ignatius’ rules apply to the rule 2 person. In this article, I will talk about rules 3 and 4, which I hope you find eye-opening and helpful. Last month’s column laid the foundation for these rules I will write about now and in the coming months.
Rules 3 and 4 deal with two fundamental experiences we have as spiritual people: spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation. The etymology of these words will help. In Latin, sol means “sun,” and con means “with” and de means “without.” Thus, consolation literally means: “with the sun,” while desolation means “without the sun.” All of us experience desolations and consolations throughout the day, but we can experience them on three levels: surface, psychological and spiritual. A surface level consolation would be feeling good because the sun is out and it is a nice day. Contrariwise, a surface level desolation would be that we feel a little down or lethargic because it is raining. These things are transient. The next level is psychological. This is where we experience consolations and desolations on a deeper, more pervasive level. Consolations might be something big like getting married or getting promoted, or something small like things really clicking at work. Psychological desolations might be something big like the loss of a family member or being fired, or something small such as someone saying something mean to you. Everyone experiences desolations and consolations on the surface and psychological levels.
But not everyone experiences spiritual consolations and desolations because one must be living a spiritual life to do so. So what are spiritual consolations and desolations? Ignatius’ third rule spells them out. He tells us we experience spiritual consolations when sense the love of God, when “earthly” things don’t attract us except in the light of God, when we have tears for our sins or for the Passion of Christ or out of love for God. We experience spiritual consolations with an increase of faith, hope or love, or when we are drawn to heavenly things or when we feel true peace. Contrariwise, spiritual desolation looks like this: darkness of the soul, disturbance, being drawn to “earthly” things for their own sake, disquiet with agitations and temptations, losing confidence, feeling hopeless or without love or feeling lazy, tepid and sad. We experience spiritual desolation when we are separated from God. All of these experiences directly affect our faith life and thus are spiritual.
Our psychological experiences, however powerful they are, do not necessarily lead to a spiritual experience, but they might. The loss of a close family member will leave one psychologically desolate, but perhaps they may feel consoled by God and the promise of eternal life.
Often, our psychological experiences form a base upon which either the good spirit or the evil spirit work. This is a crucial distinction which cannot be overestimated. Discernment is in large part learning how, with the gift of the Spirit, to distinguish between these two realities. Four fundamental experiences form in the human person who is seeking intimacy with God: consolation and desolation of a psychological or a spiritual nature. As noted before, psychological experiences do not automatically dictate what one may experience in the spiritual realm. One may have a profound psychological consolation, such as getting a much-wanted job and then be plagued with doubts and fears about it and even about whether God is present. This would be a case of psychological consolation turning into spiritual desolation!
Understanding the difference between psychological and spiritual experiences is crucial for our growth in the spiritual life, but what makes rules 3 and 4 so powerful for me is to be able to recognize the difference. When I feel down on myself, agitated and tempted, or when I feel like God isn’t with me, these are desolations. These thoughts aren’t really coming from me, but my enemy who seeks only to destroy me and lead me astray! It is profoundly freeing to know that these feelings aren’t really “mine,” or that I’ll just have to live with them. They are from an outside force which can both be recognized and rejected. We will look at how to do this in the following months.
In the meantime, pray for the gift of discernment and try to identify times that God has and continues to bless you through consolation and times when he allows you to experience desolation. God Bless!
(Fr. Corey Close is parochial vicar at St. Mary Parish and campus minister at the Newman Catholic Student Center, both in Iowa City.)