I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things, I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.—Philippians 4:12
I’ve often thought about this passage from St. Paul and what it has meant during the lean years, especially, of my life. God wants each of us to be pruned during the times when it seems He has taken everything away from us, in order that we might more fully embrace the abundance of times ahead.
Everything moves cyclically. We know this from nature, but in our own lives, patterns also exist. There are times of financial prosperity, but times of scraping and scrimping. We may understand the difficulties of what it means to start a family, then suddenly find ourselves in the midst of the sweeping chaos of raising a brood of small children.
In creative work, too, in which we all participate in some way, there are patches of extreme aridity. Inspiration is scant, if present at all. And this can string weeks into months and even years, when we wonder if we’ll ever again find the wellspring of what gives us life.
I have written about the cadence of desolation and consolation, noting that one always prepares us for the other. It’s important to remember this when we are in one place or the other, so that we don’t become attached to the sweetness of consolation (abundance), nor become too discouraged by the dryness of desolation (scarcity).
Deprivation is another, more secular concept with nuanced meaning that can be attributed to the spirituality of desolation. How do we connect deprivation with desolation? Semantically, they differ greatly. Deprivation, as described by author Dena Hunt, is “a state of mind, not a real-life condition.” In her article with the same title, she opened with the literal poverty of her childhood, which she explained as lacking the basic necessities of food, shelter, and clothing.
But she said she did not feel deprived until she was older and noticed the conversations of her peers that centered around what made a person’s life full, abundant. “You’re not deprived unless you think you are,” she reiterated. This mindset coincides with our Catholic belief that one can be materially poor but spiritually rich—“rich in what matters to God,” as the Gospel of Luke (12: 21) says.
Hunt continued to connect the concept of deprivation with living the Gospel: “We can continue deprivation forever, if we choose to, and many do—they’re heavily invested in it (in a great many ways). We can go on seeing it in our own lives or in others, choosing to be eternally dissatisfied, always covetous, angry, and unhappy, never having enough time, or money, or love…Or we can say with the wise psalmist, ‘I shall not want’…”
Deprivation is a sense of scarcity, that we do not have “enough,” that we aren’t enough, that life is meaningless and empty without—something. This something is anything other than God.
I think this sense of lack happens when we experience the spirituality of desolation. Many of us are familiar with consolations, because we either have experienced them firsthand, or we understand them to be an aspect of holiness (fact check: this isn’t always the case).
On IgnatianSpirituality.com, consolation is defined as “moving toward God’s active presence in the world.” Desolation is described, of course, as the opposite—a moving away, rather than toward, God. Many saints have explained that periods of desolation are not always self-inflicted, however. The simple statements above make it seem so.
St. John of the Cross declared that we should pay little or no attention to consolations, because doing so could be spiritually dangerous. His reasons were that consolations can become the means by which we attribute our spiritual progress, falsely thinking that the more consolations we receive, the holier we are becoming. They can also be transposed for God Himself, so that we attribute—whether consciously or not—our love for God based on what He gives us, rather than to love Him for His own sake.
Finally, consolations can be deceptive strategies from the devil to lure us away from what really matters in our interior disposition, and that is to be faithful to God even and especially when we do not feel, see, hear, or receive any sort of signs and sweetness from Him.
St. Margaret of Cortona explains periods of spiritual desolation well: “In times of desolation, God conceals himself from us so that we can discover for ourselves what we are without him.” A painful truth, to be sure, but one that is a stark and sobering reminder that we need God. This kind of desperate dependence on God can only occur when we learn detachment.
Deprivation may be a psychological frame of mind, but desolation happens without any indication of its onset. God permits a soul who has grown, to a certain extent, to enter into this mystical darkness in order to purify it. Therefore, we can learn to live with or without material wealth (the concept of deprivation) and also with or without God’s consolations (the concept of desolation), yet still choose fidelity and perseverance—both aspects of the virtue of fortitude—to endure to the end of our earthly days.