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When darkness falls, how shall we pray?

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One of the most insidious lies of Hell is that desolation will never end.

First in a Series on Jesuit Wisdom for Praying through Desolation

“Do you know what to do when the lights go out?” That’s not just a physical question—it’s a spiritual one as well. Just as we can stumble and fall in physical darkness, we can get lost, injured, confused, and perhaps even seriously damaged if we don’t know how to respond in times of spiritual darkness.  Fortunately, Saint Ignatius Loyola, in his “Spiritual Exercises,” can give us a succinct and masterly account of the art and science of navigating through times of spiritual darkness.

First, let’s look at some of Saint Ignatius’ vocabulary for describing various states and movements in the spiritual life. What we might call “spiritual light,” he defines as “consolation”:

I call it consolation when the soul is aroused by an interior movement which causes it to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord … It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears inspired by love of the Lord … Finally, I call consolation any increase of faith, hope, and charity and any interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things, and to the salvation of one’s soul, inspiring it with peace and quiet in Christ our Lord.

Consolation sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? And whoever could find a way to bottle it and sell it would become rich. The great saints know, however, that consolation, while welcome, lovely and delightful, is more like the icing on the cake and not the substance of the spiritual life. A wise Jesuit once told me that a fundamental error in the spiritual life is to think that “good prayer” is prayer that ends in consolation and “bad prayer” is prayer that ends in desolation. In other words, prayer is good (and I’m making progress in the spiritual life) if I enjoy it, and prayer is bad (and I’m not making progress in the spiritual life) when I don’t enjoy it.

“Good prayer,” he said, “is when you show up and actually pray—whether you feel like it or not.” I agree, and would add that prayer is good, and spiritual progress is being made, when you go from prayer to your daily duties, doing them to the best of your ability. Yes, consolation is a great grace to be savored, but it is not meant to be a constant feature of the spiritual life. Constant consolation is to be found in Heaven alone.

What we might call “spiritual darkness,” Saint Ignatius defines as “desolation”:

I call desolation all that is contrary to [consolation], as 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 …

If consolation is delighting with God on the mountaintop, desolation is a wandering in the desert—and time in the desert can be deadly. Desolation is more than just the absence of light or delight. If not resisted, desolation can become a downward spiral, a cycle of isolation and despair, the whispers of an enemy in (and of) the dark: “You are alone; you are alone and nobody knows; you are already lost and no one cares …”

One of the most insidious lies of Hell is that desolation will never end. Just as the expectation of never-ending consolation in this life can tempt one towards presumption (“This is great! It’s always going to be like this! I deserve it!”), so too the expectation of never-ending desolation in this life can tempt one towards despair (“This is terrible! It’s always going to be like this! God is a liar and I am an orphan!”).  But just as the state of constant consolation is found only in Heaven, so too the state of constant desolation is found only in Hell.

Saint Ignatius teaches us that the ordinary state of the soul in this life is the back-and-forth movement between consolation and desolation. Like the ocean, the tide comes in and then the tide goes out. Those familiar with The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis will remember this as “the law of undulation.” What we do during times of consolation can make the inevitable desolation more bearable. What we do during desolation can make the spiritual life more fruitful. Whether we are in consolation or desolation, we have choices to make. We can be prepared or be surprised. The wisdom of Saint Ignatius Loyola can help us to be prepared.

When I write next, I will continue with the exposition of Saint Ignatius Loyola’s strategy and tactics for praying our way—profitably—through times of darkness. Specifically, I will address why God permits spiritual desolation. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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