“Why do you hide your face from me?”—Psalm 38:14
Anyone who has attempted to make strides in the spiritual life is familiar with the experience of desolation. Desolation is the name given by St. Ignatius of Loyola to the inner state characterized by darkness, dryness, torpor, agitation, melancholy, earthly-mindedness, and an acute sense of distance from our Lord and Creator. St. Ignatius gives three principal reasons for the condition, capturing in a few lines what is painstakingly elaborated throughout the ascetical tradition. Because desolation is so common and distressing, we should examine these reasons, that we might more deeply understand the phenomenon, and more prudently deal with it.
First, desolation often attends negligence toward the things of God. We grow sloppy and absentminded in prayer; we casually indulge passing enthusiasms; we ignore routine duties; we incautiously expose ourselves to worldly diversions; we toy with carnal thoughts and linger over silly fantasies. These faults initially appear trivial: here a little cut corner, there a frivolous indulgence. We conjure sly arguments to justify our laxity and explain away our compromises. When it comes time to pray our usual prayers, we say, “Why should I pray these prayers today? I prayed them yesterday. I will pray them tomorrow instead.” Or when it occurs to us that we should fast, we say, “But I will be weak and unable to fulfil my responsibilities. Anyway, what is the point of going hungry—how does it help others?” Or when the opportunity arises to choose between mortifying or indulging a desire, we say, “I will just scratch the itch for a moment, but then I will stop, and I will not do it again.” Of course, these excuses and equivocations rapidly multiply, half-hidden initially but then increasingly visible. Soon we find that even modest steps in God’s service and praise seem like impositions, burdens to be borne with resentment. Finally, we discover that our (supposed) cleverness has led us into the midst of utter confusion—yet again.
Second, God permits desolation to purify our hearts from inordinate attachment to consolations and graces. Such attachment, left untreated, eventually makes us prefer God’s gifts to God himself. Consequently, we end up serving and praising not God, but that which God bestows. Our spiritual life becomes entirely transactional: we labor so long as we receive agreeable wages. This is a practical form of idolatry, for we effectively associate our happiness with good things, rather than with Goodness himself. Worse yet, we debase and abuse the gifts we ostensibly cherish, foolishly rendering them ends in themselves. To cure this error, God withholds interior delights—including the awareness of his presence—so that we might learn how to serve and praise him for his own sake, rather than for the sake of the blessings he so generously bestows. And we may also be able to comprehend, by the light of faith, that God is nearer to us when we lack graces and consolations, since then he is not veiled by his effects—but this is a great mystery.
Third, God permits desolation so that we might recognize that every sweet fruit and lovely gift of the spiritual life descends from above, thereby overthrowing the quiet belief that we are the source of our own supernatural happiness. This absurd but persistent conviction hinders us from cultivating a proper sense of gratitude for the marvelous things God works in our souls, and so prevents progress in charity, which requires a grasp of our undeserving poverty and God’s unmerited generosity. For, in truth, we cannot generate a droplet of divine goodness by our own exertions; we depend entirely on the ineffable graciousness and fecundity of our Lord and Creator. The fire that burns within us has its origin outside of us! Evidently, God must teach us this lesson repeatedly, lest his gifts become stumbling blocks, making us conceited rather than grateful, self-righteous rather than reverent.
So much for the three principal reasons for desolation, according to St. Ignatius. How to prevent, endure, and conquer desolation warrants its own discussion, but the answer (put briefly) is as simple to express as it is difficult to realize. We must pray constantly and maintain strict interior vigilance, practicing patience and clinging to the knowledge that God has not abandoned us, that he loves us, and that he has many wonders in store for us: chiefly, the gift of his very Self. Yet he has determined that we should profit from a measure of spiritual suffering. The call to constant prayer and strict interior vigilance is not an invitation to neurotic scrupulosity, which is ultimately a function of pride. Rather, it is a summons to humility—gentle resignation to the divine assistance—which alone preserves us from our native infirmity.
We must let God fight in us and for us: God, who alone melts that which is frozen, stirs that which is languid, and instructs that which goes astray, as St. Ignatius affirms along with the other masters of ascetical doctrine. May we heed this wisdom when our souls are parched.