The last few months I have been writing about St. Ignatius of Loyola’s 14 rules for the Discernment of Spirits, having gone through the first four rules up to this point. Rules 1 and 2 were about two types of people, according to Ignatius: those who run from God (rule 1) and those who run toward God (rule 2). The rest of his rules apply to rule 2 persons, who actively seek intimacy with the Lord. The two fundamental experiences in the spiritual lives of rule 2 persons are consolations (experiences of hope and joy in the Lord) and desolations (experiences of darkness and sadness where God seems absent). While the spiritual life encompasses both of these movements, Ignatius concentrates the bulk of his rules on desolation, not necessarily because we experience it more but because it is more difficult to deal with. Consolations are more natural to us and we tend to receive them as such. Desolations can gravely injure us if we do not know how to deal with them.
First, Ignatius teaches us what not to do. Rule 5 tells us that when we are in a time of spiritual desolation we are to make no changes regarding our spiritual life. Oftentimes when we are in spiritual desolation (feeling dry in prayer and distant from God), the Evil Spirit will tempt us by telling us something is wrong. We believe that if we said the right prayers or lived the right way we would feel God close to us. Since we aren’t, then something is wrong and needs to change.
We can experience this temptation from the simplest things, such as a new form of prayer we have added to our prayer regimen, or from bigger things, such as our vocation. The fundamental temptation remains the same. This lie has two components. The first is that we are experiencing desolation because something has gone wrong. On the contrary, desolation is a natural part of the spiritual life and the Lord uses it for our growth. The second lie throws darkness on the deeply consoling experience that led us down this path. The fact is that God is the Word and he knows how to communicate with us. We must not doubt what the Lord has shown us in times of light when we are in the dark. In this case, Ignatius implores us to stand our ground and to not give in, to remember that the experience the Lord gave us in consolation is the truth, not the darkness we are experiencing now.
So, what can we do to actively resist these lies? Rule 6 gives us the game plan, which can be remembered with the acronym PREP: Prayer, Reflection, Examination and Penance.
Prayer is always the first thing we do whenever confronted with any challenge in the spiritual life. We call on the Lord’s aid, we beg the Lord to help us in our trial. Amidst our prayer, Ignatius gives us three tools to combat the desolation. The first is reflection. One of the challenges of desolation is the thought that nothing good will come of our pain.
Reflection combats this by having us remember previous times of desolation in our lives and to see how the Lord used that to help us to grow. This helps break up the lie that our suffering is needless, pointless and proof that God has abandoned us.
The next tool is examination. All desolation has a cause and oftentimes it is not related to God. In examination we reflect on what has recently occurred to put us in a place of desolation. Oftentimes it is a comment someone made or something that didn’t quite go our way which puts us in a funk. At first we are only dimly aware of this. Upon examining our past day or two and talking to God about it, oftentimes it becomes clear. After becoming aware of why we are in desolation, we can take appropriate actions to combat it, such as forgiving someone who hurt us or asking for forgiveness if we did something wrong.
Some desolations need to be resisted in patience; the best way to accomplish this is by penance. This should be something small to resist the desolation and to show the Evil Spirit that we can fight back. A suitable penance might be saying an extra prayer, not eating dessert or praying for an extra minute in your prayer time. Ask God what suitable penance would help you through your desolations.
Rules 5 and 6 give us the fundamental tools to resist and to fight back against the desolations of Satan. Know that he is a coward. With concentrated effort in prayer, he will run from us everytime!
(Fr. Corey Close is parochial vicar at St. Mary Parish and campus minister at the Newman Catholic Student Center, both in Iowa City.)