Jean Grou, in his book, Manual for Interior Souls, addresses a common theme in spiritual direction: consolation and desolation.
Experiences of consolation are those experiences of God’s felt presence, tangible comfort, refreshing insight or energizing guidance. The Christian life feels good in seasons of consolation.
Experiences of desolation are those times when spiritual disciplines are dry, we sense God more as absent than as present, or we feel unprotected from attacks or hardship. The Christian life feels bad in desolation. Grou puts it this way:
“Those who have given themselves up to the spiritual life have no difficulty in persuading themselves that they are pleasing to God, when He makes them feel the sweetness of His presence, and when He overwhelms them with His caresses, when they enjoy a peace which nothing seems to trouble, and when they experience nothing painful either from the attacks of the devil or from the malice of man. But when God withdraws His consolations, when he allows the devil to tempt them and men to put their virtue to the proof, then, if they are told that all this is a certain sign that they are pleasing to God, it would not be so easy to persuade them of it; on the contrary, they then think that God has forsaken them, that they please Him no longer as they once did, and they seek uneasily to discover what there can have been in their conduct to induce God to treat them with so much severity.” (Fr. Jean Grou, S. J. Manual for Interior Souls. London: St. Anselm’s Society, 1913, p. 167.)
In seasons of consolation, we have easy confidence in God’s favor. In seasons of desolation, we are painfully tempted to believe that we are in the dungeon of God’s great disfavor. This simply points up my tendency to evaluate the quality of my walk or the reality of my faith based on how it feels at a particular moment. Grou further describes experiences of desolation:
“The effect of anxieties, of weariness in doing good, of disgust at everything, of evident repugnance to duty, of extreme desolation, so that all sensible grace is withdrawn from us, and God seems to have forsaken us–the effect of all this is to purify our love, to increase our courage, our fidelity, and our perseverance. The effect of [slander], [aggravations], and persecutions is to raise us above all human respect, and at the same time to take away from us a certain good opinion of ourselves which the praise of men nourishes in us without our perceiving it. Finally, the general effect of all temptations is to detach us from the things of this world, to humble us in our own eyes, to inspire us with more trust in God, and to draw us into closer union with Him.” (Grou, p. 170.)
I don’t mind telling you that I had to read this paragraph a few times to take it in. Grou is providing what spiritual directors often find themselves offering: encouragement that seasons of desolation when combined with continued seeking and abiding in Christ, actually draw us into simpler and closer union with God through Christ.
In the midst, what I mostly feel is abhorrence of my own waywardness and felt distance from God. It is disturbing and disquieting. I find myself thinking, “What kind of ministry can I offer when my own spiritual journey is so dark and dry?”
I don’t feel anything happening with me that seems like purer love, increased courage, deeper faithfulness or longer perseverance. But, over time, I realize that this is exactly what God is up to in seasons like this. It happens without much conscious awareness. I prefer to know (or at least think I know) what’s going on. What about you?