Consolation and Desolation
Updated: May 3, 2020
In many ways, the experience of prayer is mysterious. The ways of God are mysterious to us and no experience of prayer can capture fully who God is. As a result, our experience of God is as if through a “mirror, dimly” as Saint Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians and, as much of God as we see in prayer, much more is veiled. Though we do have the ability to hear God’s authentic voice, we also have the capacity to deceive ourselves that we pray, talk, and listen to God when we are really just talking to ourselves.
Fortunately, Saint Ignatius gave us a method and guide to understanding what’s happening in our prayer; specifically, Ignatius asks us to look carefully at the movements before, during, and after our prayer. Movements can include thoughts, attitudes, urges, desires, feelings or any other internal reaction and feeling. These movements are not momentary but can last for hours, days, and even weeks. Understanding these movements allow us to understand how we are responding to God’s guidance and if we are moving closer to God or moving away. For Ignatius, there are two kinds of movements, which he calls Consolation and Desolation.
Consolation happens when “some interior motion is caused within the soul” through which we come to be inflamed with love of God. Consolation, then, is a gift from God by which our love for God and neighbor grows. When we are in consolation, the Holy Spirit is leading us closer to God and we are following faithfully.
You might be in consolation if:
You experience a growth in faith, hope, and love;
You experience God’s closeness in your prayer, daily life, and relationships;
You experience peace and tranquility or greater courage and energy;
You experience a deepening of desire, including a desire to be open, forgiving, and do loving things for God.
Consolation is not the same as good feelings. While sometimes consolations are accompanied by positive or warm feelings, the Holy Spirit also gives us consolation to confirm in us a desire to change or do something difficult, which may be the cause of some painful feelings.
Desolation is the opposite of consolation and happens when our souls are filled with pettiness, restlessness, self-obsession, superficial or selfish desires, and a lack of energy.
You might be in desolation if:
You experience a decrease in faith, hope, and love;
You experience God’s absence in your prayer, daily life, and relationships;
You experience restlessness and a lack of peace or limited courage and energy;
You experience a diminishment of desire, including a tendency to secrecy, an unwillingness to forgive, and no desire to do much of anything for God.
Desolation is not the same as bad feelings. While sometimes desolations are accompanied by negative or painful feelings, we can also feel self-content and comfortable when in desolation. At the same time, the Holy Spirit permits us to enter desolation when we are venturing away from loving God and neighbor. Desolation is not a permanent condition. We are allowed to experience desolation so we ultimately feel a hunger for God and so turn back towards God.
Remember, everything is ultimately caused by God; thus, God either leads us into consolation to draw us closer to God’s love and mercy or God permits us to enter desolation so that we might be so moved as to turn back towards God in love.
Determining if you are in consolation or desolation can be difficult. Hopefully, this guide can help you get a better sense of what movements you are experiencing in prayer. To know what direction the movements of your prayer are drawing you, pray the Examen and ask God to help you understand the movements in your heart. In addition, your retreat directors are here to listen and counsel you about the various movements you may experience in a retreat.