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Desolation and Discernment

Posted by Theology of Home on
Desolation and Discernment

By Carrie Gress

Many years ago, my spiritual director advised me to avoid making major decisions during Lent. It is something my husband and I have held onto strongly over the last fifteen years of marriage. Often we've made major decisions the week before Lent, right up to Fat Tuesday, then waited to make bigger decisions until Easter arrived.

Those well versed in Ignatian Spirituality know the reason why. St. Ignatius explained in his "rules for discernment of spirits" in his Spiritual Exercises that there are cycles of desolation and consolation. The consolations are when we feel the spiritual highs, the closeness to God, and even we sometimes see a glimmer of fruit of our efforts.

Desolation, in contrast, are those arid times when God feels far away, when the spiritual life feels like an up hill climb instead of a mountain top experience. It is also the time when we face challenges and struggles, when the wrenches get thrown into our best laid plans. 

During desolation, Ignatius warns, we should not make any changes to things that we have already discerned we ought to do. Spiritual desolation is no time to end the relationship, close the business, stop writing the book, give up on the degree, leave the seminary, or abandon the dream. It is perhaps a universal experience that when we are faced with a challenge, we decide to just quit, to give up, to think that God changed his mind and that we were not supposed to move past this point because of the resistance. I know there have been many points in my own life where, when faced with what seemed insurmountable, I just wanted to throw in the towel. But the voice of St. Ignatius niggled in the back of my mind, "It isn't the right time to be making this decision."

Desolation is the season where there will be challenges. Through them, we see not only how we respond to them -- hopefully with greater patience and humility -- but we are also to recall the times of consolation and find solace in those warm memories, to let our actions be driven by what we know to be true instead of by the frustration we are facing in a difficult moment. 

Lent and Advent are the liturgical seasons where we can simply expect that there will be challenges, that our faith is being sharpened, virtues stretched through pockets of confusion or suffering. Even if we may feel we are in consolation, by default, these seasons of preparation are desolate stretches. 

There might still be situations that arise that require quick decisions, or doors might be closed unexpectedly. Like everything, these need to be navigated with grace, patience, and the proper discernment. But like a dry and desolate desert, we should focus on getting through it wiser and stronger, instead of being distracted by a mirage that lures us into an elusive place of rest.

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