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How To Survive Desolation:
Insights From St. Ignatius

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 314

Emphasis on healthy ministry is nothing new. It has been around since the writings of the prophets and the disciples. Christian leaders in subsequent centuries continued that tradition. They, too, wrote of consolation and hope in times of difficulty and  persecution.

Consolation vs. Desolation

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (1491-1556) is a one such example. In his "Rules For The Discernment Of Spirits," he addresses the issue of consolation and desolation. "Consolation," he wrote,  is when "the soul is aroused by an interior movement which causes it to be inflamed with love of its creator and Lord, and consequently can love no created thing on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of all things." (Anthony Mottola, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1964, p. 129).

"Desolation," in stark contrast to "consolation", he defined as the "darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, inclination to low and earthly things, restlessness resulting from many disturbances and temptations which lead to loss of faith, loss of hope, and loss of love. It is also desolation when a soul finds itself completely apathetic, tepid, sad, and separated as it were, from its Creator and Lord" (Spiritual Exercises, p. 130).

Strategies Desolation In Ministry

If the description of desolation sounds contemporary, so does Ignatius's advice for dealing with it.

1) When In Desolation, Stay The Course.

"In time of desolation one should never make a change, but stand firm and constant in the resolutions and decision which guided him the day before the desolation, or to the decision which he observed in the preceding consolation."

In crisis, Ignatius warned, Christians are tempted to follow the guidance and counsel of the evil spirits. If one follows these spirits, they will "never find the correct way to a right decision" (p. 130)

2) In Desolation, Remember God Is Really There.

Christians cannot endure testing by themselves. However, God has given all Christians sufficient grace to endure desolation and resist destruction.

"He can resist with Divine help, which is always available to him, even though he may not clearly perceive it: (p. 130).

3) The Most Important Thing In Desolation Is Patience.

Patience is a virtue because it tends to flee when we need it most. Yet patience is the most necessary virtue for persisting in desolation.

"One who is in desolation must strive to persevere in patience, which is contrary to the vexations that have come upon him" (p. 130).

4) In Desolation, Think Long-Term.

Patiently striving is essential in desolation. It's also extremely difficult. In order to encourage patient persistence in desolation, Ignatius urged,

"He should consider, also, that consolation will soon return, and strive diligently against the desolation" (p. 130).

5) Starve Desolation With Increased Spirituality.

In desolation, Ignatius did not advocate giving up, caving in, or otherwise throwing in the towel. Instead he urged that it was "advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. This can be done by insisting on prayer, meditation, frequent examinations, and by increasing our penance in some suitable manner" (p. 130).

Though not all would agree with the specific spiritual exercises suggested, the principle is clear. Spirituality starves desolation. Paul's advice from Ephesians 5:19-20 echoes this same sentiment.

"Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (NIV).

6) Use Times Of Consolation Wisely.

Ignatius placed considerable emphasis on the purpose of consolation. One of Ignatius' most remarkable suggestions is to plan ahead for the next desolation by gathering strength and insight which will help sustain one during desolation's trial. Those who consider how they will conduct themselves during the next desolation, he noted, "build up a new strength for that time" (Spiritual Exercises, p. 131).

Another purpose of consolation is to inculcate humble piety. "A person who is in consolation should take care to humble and abase himself as much as possible." It appears, from Ignatius' comments that the way to prepare for desolation is not to exalt oneself in an unduly fashion. Should anyone have trouble developing this humility Ignatius suggested that they "recall how little he is worth in time of desolation" (p. 131).

7) Know The Enemy.

At no time is is more critical to know the enemy than in the experience of desolation. Ignatius' description of the enemy appears, in some ways, to be something straight out of John Gray's Men are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Aside from the obvious gender bias, Ignatius' insight is rather fascinating.

"The enemy acts like a woman in that he is weak in the presence of strength, but strong if he has his will. For as it is the nature of a woman in a quarrel with a man to lose courage and take to flight when the man makes a show of strength and determination, in like manner, if the man loses courage and begins to flee, the anger, vindictiveness, and rage of the woman become great beyond all bounds. In the same manner it is the nature of our enemy to become powerless, lose courage, and take to flight as soon as a person who is following the spiritual life stands courageously against his temptation" (p. 131).

8) Consider The Reasons For Your Desolation. 

Not all trials and desolation are created equal. Ignatius notes three reasons we may be in desolation.

* The first reason we are in desolation may be because of our own negligence of spiritual discipline. "We are tepid [and] slothful." Desolation which results from such negligence is our own fault.

* The second reason may be because God is testing how we will respond when the result is desolation and not an expected reward.

"God may try us to test our worth, and the progress that we have made in His service and praise when we are without such generous rewards" (p. 131).

* The third reason for being in desolation may be that God wishes to impart special wisdom and spiritual understanding. "So that we may truly perceive that it is not within our power to acquire or retain great devotion, ardent love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation" on our own.

If such insight were attained apart from desolation, Ignatius noted that it would allow "our intellect to rise up in a spirit of pride or vainglory, attributing to ourselves the devotion or other aspects of consolation" (p. 131). In other words, one of the reasons God gives desolation is to give us a special grace of wisdom and insight.

Lest we think it was our own doing, God gives that insight during a time of "gracious desolation" to keep us from being overcome with pride. God used the "thorn in the flesh" to keep Paul from becoming puffed up from his special insight. We can expect that God will do whatever is necessary to give us insight...but keep us humble--and useful--for the Kingdom.

The Most Important Key To Surviving Desolation

Perhaps this most profound advice for those in desolation is found in Ignatius' focus on
"sufficient grace."

"A person who is in desolation should recall that he can do much to withstand all of his enemies by using the sufficient grace that he has, and taking strength in his Creator and Lord" (p. 131).

Whether from Ignatius, St. Paul, the prophets, or Jesus Himself, some things just never change. Surviving difficulty in ministry can be done. But it can only be done because of "sufficient grace."

Sufficient grace reminds us of Paul's words in Second Corinthians 12.

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (vv. 9-10, NIV).

Are you experiencing difficulty in ministry? Are you in "desolation"? Perhaps Ignatius' advice can be a roadmap to direct you back to the strength and sufficiency of God's grace in all times of weakness and desolation. With this assurance of sufficient grace, need we look for strength elsewhere?

Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:39 PM