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Why does God permit the darkness that makes us feel so desolate?

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Once we understand how desolation works, we can become free from its tyranny, and even use it to our advantage.

Second in a Series on Jesuit Wisdom for Praying through Desolation

“Why does God allow this?” That’s a most poignant question asked by people of faith. Any experienced spiritual director has been asked that question many times. “God is good. Jesus is the Light of the World who came into the world to scatter the darkness—so why am I in darkness now?”

In last week’s column, I spoke of how to understand spiritual light and darkness using the wisdom of Saint Ignatius Loyola. This week, we’ll turn to him to understand why God permits spiritual darkness—what Ignatius calls “desolation.” Once we understand how desolation works, we can become free from its tyranny, and even use it to our advantage.

Spiritual desolation of itself has no value. It becomes fruitful only when we resist it. It’s easier to resist when we know what the purposes of God’s permission of the trial are. Ignatius says God permits desolation for three reasons: Conversion, learning, and humility. Let’s reflect on Ignatius’ own words.

Conversion: “The first is, because of our being tepid, lazy or negligent in our spiritual exercises; and so through our faults, spiritual consolation withdraws from us.”

God permits us to experience spiritual desolation as a means of healing us of our faults; in this case, the gift God wishes to give us is conversion and the spiritual growth that follows from it.

If I am actively seeking God, but start cutting corners on prayer, for example, I may be progressing towards God in general, but regressing in this particular aspect of my spiritual life. In order to heal me of this regression, God may permit spiritual desolation, so that I will wake up and fly right.

Learning: “The second, to try us and see how much we are and how much we let ourselves out in His service and praise without such great pay of consolation and great graces.”

God permits such desolation as a trial; the gift he wishes to give us here is learning. Such desolation may disclose to us our own limitations in a way that will put us on guard against ill-considered spiritual steps; it may reveal to us precisely where we can most helpfully pursue spiritual growth. Learning our limits as well as our areas of potential growth is a great lesson. We may take heart from these words of Saint Francis of Assisi: “I tell you in truth, no one must consider himself a servant of God until he has undergone temptations and tribulations. Temptation overcome is in a way a ring with which the Lord espouses the soul of his servant to himself.”

We may also need to learn about the purity of our intentions. Do we seek the gifts-of-the-giver or do we seek the Giver-of-the-gifts? How we respond to these times of desolation—whether with perseverance or resentment—can teach us about our priorities and intentions.

Humility: “The third, to give us true acquaintance and knowledge, that we may interiorly feel that it is not ours to get or keep great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation, but that all is the gift and grace of God our Lord, and that we may not build a nest in a thing not ours, raising our intellect into some pride or vainglory, attributing to us devotion or the other things of the spiritual consolation.”

Evangelical humility, rooted in evangelical poverty, is, according to Ignatius, the gateway to God’s grace and to following the Lord Jesus in our lives. Evangelical humility, he says, leads to “all the other virtues.”

Jesus says, “Without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) It’s good to be sure of that. Desolation can teach us that lesson—we cannot generate grace or consolation or the theological virtues on our own. They are always gifts of God.

Ignatius advises us to seek out which of the three causes can explain the present desolation. It may be that God wishes to alert us to some negligence in an area of our lives. But if that negligence is not present, then the desolation may be permitted for other good reasons not of our own making. That may be a comfort to those who believe that they are in trial only because somehow they have failed the Lord. It could be that precisely because they are faithful that God calls them up higher through trials of desolation.

Spiritual desolation is always painful and can be discouraging. If properly understood and responded to, spiritual darkness can become for us a path to spiritual strength and light.

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 how to pray within and against spiritual desolation. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

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