In this life we are meant to learn how to love as Christ loves. Christ empties Himself on the Cross in love of the Father as the Father empties Himself in love of the Son. That love between the Father and the Son gives rise to love Personified in the Holy Spirit. This self-emptying love of the Holy Trinity is the love we are called to enter into and also to live in communion with our neighbor.
There are countless opportunities throughout our day in which we are called to die to self and to see our neighbor as God sees them. This is the struggle we face on the path to holiness. Do I love as God loves? Do I love God above all things and love my neighbor with true Christian charity? All of us must answer in the negative at some point. Overcoming our own sinful inclinations and our failures in loving others is a constant battle we wage in the spiritual life. Our own pride and vanity causes us to place others’ needs lower than our own. Our selfishness wins out too often and we sin against charity.
This weakness on our part can become heightened in periods of desolation, which the spiritual masters tell us is where we will spend most of our lives. We don’t get to live on the mountain tops of consolation throughout most of our days. Rather, consolations are gifts God extends to us to refresh us for the journey, but desolation teaches us critical lessons about ourselves and our spiritual progress.
What is desolation?
St. Ignatius of Loyola says, in stark contrast to “consolation”, defined “Desolation” 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).”
All of us experience various aspects of desolation throughout our lives for a variety of reasons.
What is consolation?
St. Ignatius defines consolation as, “…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).” It is in consolation that we are able to see more clearly the supernatural realities around us. We are able to love God freely and see our neighbor in relation to God’s goodness and charity. There tend to be noticeable strides forward in the spiritual life.
Desolation can arise from our own weaknesses or laziness in the spiritual life. In cases such as these, resolution can often be found through an increase in prayer, reception of the Sacraments, and an increase in spiritual practices. Other reasons for desolation can be that God is testing our love for Him and our faith in Him or He may desire for us to enter into darkness in order to teach us spiritual lessons or wisdom that we are in need of in order to progress spiritually.
When God seeks to test us, He is showing us how we are failing to love Him and our neighbor. He reveals to us our weaknesses and the areas of our lives where the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity He has given to us may be weaker through our own fault. Our faith is often tested in periods of desolation. God wants us to rely on Him and turn to Him in all things. When our faith begins to waiver, we often turn to earthly things in order to lift a desolation temporarily through the pleasures of this world. This cannot work in principle since the point of this type of desolation is to test our devotion to God. We cannot lift desolation by seeking what is base or worldly. When we do, we impede our spiritual progress in this area.
Loving as Christ loves
In our Fallen state, our ability to love as Christ loves is greatly impaired. It is only through grace that we are able to progress in learning to love God and others as we are supposed to. Desolation can teach us to give and to love others when we ourselves will benefit very little from it. We may be distanced from others in periods of desolation which means we must simply do what we are meant to do in charity. There is no swell of emotion or great experience of joy. We are meant to respond by “willing the good of the other, as other” as St. Thomas Aquinas defines love.
We give that which is good purely for the other person because it is what God asks of us. This is where love is truly put to the test. When we give completely of ourselves with no hope of reward. In fact, we may experience absolutely no satisfaction from our self-emptying for the sake of another.
We also begin to see that love is required of us no matter what. We learn that loving another person means giving everything away to people who never fully understand or accept the love they are being given by us. It’s easy to love the people who return our love fully. It is another matter to love those who do not love us in return.
We must give everything to others, even those who don’t love us or who are incapable of loving us. This often requires enduring dismissal, ingratitude, abandonment, or hostility from the other person. We truly learn to love as Christ loves when we give of ourselves in the face of hostility and pain.
Can we love others when we receive nothing or when we are not loved in return? Can we love God when we do not have a visceral experience of His presence in our lives? These two often go hand-in-hand. It is when we experience the greatest distance from God that we often experience great distance from our neighbors. During these periods we are called to act in love. To choose to love no matter what. We must simply place one foot in front of the other and continue on the path towards God and all that demands of us.
Objectively speaking, it is easy to see why periods of desolation are essential for our spiritual progress. In periods of desolation the love we have for God and others can be purified and made holier if we endure and persevere by God’s grace. We no longer seek a reward for choosing to love God and others. We choose to love in the darkness. We no longer seek self-interest, but rather desire the good of the other. We no longer seek God purely for the consolations He gives to us—which would be to worship the good feelings consolations can provide—we begin to seek Him and love Him for His own sake.
This is true charity. It is only in learning to love in this manner that we can come to love as Christ loves. This is how saints love, which is the goal for each one of our lives.