Pope Francis has been addressing the subject of discernment during his Wednesday audiences. This is an important subject for him, as a Jesuit, since discernment is a central part of the spirituality of the founder of the Jesuits, Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Saint Ignatius expressed the principles of discernment in his monumental work, The Spiritual Exercises.
The pope has most recently discussed the nature of consolation and desolation as part of discernment. He explained how these dispositions need to be recognized and accepted in the process of making a good decision, as it is necessary to understand what motivates us so as not to make hasty decisions spurred by the emotion of the moment.
We have all had experiences of consolation and desolation within our lives, and we continue to have them frequently. Consolation certainly is a more acceptable experience in its positive influence. However, as Pope Francis points out, desolation is also a positive influence and can many times help us, despite its negative experience. In fact, desolation is a necessary part of life.
Desolation can naturally occur through the difficult things we face in life, such as the loss of a loved one, an illness, a grave disappointment, a bad day or many other major or minor setbacks. Desolation can also occur in our spiritual life when it seems that God is not present to us, when we find it difficult to pray or when there is a state of feeling empty. Pope Francis explains that, “Desolation causes an ‘unrest in the soul’: when one is sad it is as if the soul is shaken. It keeps us alert, it fosters vigilance and humility, and protects us from the whims of fancy. These are indispensable conditions for progress in life, and hence also in the spiritual life.”
During this season of Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, whether we realize it or not, we experience many consolations as well as desolations. We are consoled by the realization of the presence of Christ in our lives as we prepare to celebrate His birth, but we feel desolation when His presence does not seem to be there. We are especially desolate when the distractions of shopping and preparing for Christmas take away our peace. We especially experience desolation when the existence of the perfect Christmas, in which family life has no tension and the perfect gift is given and received, just does not happen. It is good for us to realize that the perfect Christmas will never happen in this world. Advent is a good time to make decisions based on our consolations and desolations, and especially to use the desolations to grow in our relationship with the Lord.
On December 15, we will celebrate the feast of Saint John of the Cross, a mystic of the 16th century, who was quite familiar with the consolations and desolations that are experienced in life and the spiritual life. Probably his best-known work is The Dark Night of the Soul in which he describes how the soul goes forth under the cover of night to meet God. Many have found this work to be a source of great insight which touches every aspect of the spiritual life. One aspect is that God is closest to us when He may seem farthest away. Rather than entering more and more deeply into oneself in the experience of desolation, Saint John of the Cross encourages us to look upward, outside of ourselves, to God. He reminds us that even when we feel isolated, we never are since Christ is always close to us. The darkest time can be the brightest if we have the proper perspective of faith.
We soon will be approaching, on December 21, the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight. Shortly after that, daylight hours will slowly begin to increase each day. This is a reminder of nature that darkness brings light even when it seems not present. The dark night leads to the light of Christ.
As we continue in this season of Advent, as we celebrate the Feast of Saint John of the Cross and as we approach the darkest day of the year, Pope Francis’ words are good ones to keep before us, “Do not fear desolation, face it with perseverance. Do not evade it. And in desolation, try to find Christ’s Heart, to find the Lord. And the answer will always come, always!”
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
December 9, 2022