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Discerning True Consolation

Consolation is an experience of greater love of God, or an increase in faith, hope and charity, or peace. However, we must discern true from false consolation. Why? Because all consolation does not come from the Holy Spirit.

Spirit-generated Consolation. There is an uncommon form of consolation that is unquestionably from the Spirit. It is when our minds, imaginations and senses are not involved. It is an experience of pure gift. Example: a devout person, who in the middle of experiencing the desolation of rejection, experiences the Spirit’s consolation. The consolation did not come from the person’s mind, imagination or senses. Just the opposite of what we would have expected. Undoubtedly, the consolation of the Spirit.

Even in the case of Spirit-generated consolation, St. Ignatius warns us to distinguish cautiously the actual time of the consolation from the “afterglow”, a peace and joy which remains while our minds, imaginations and senses start to enter our experience. Our faculties make the afterglow a dangerous time. We may form resolutions or plans that have not been confirmed by the Spirit. Spiritual direction is needed.

Self-initiated Consolation. We are encouraged to use our minds, imaginations and senses to encounter God, and frequently we experience consolation. It may be a beautiful sunset, a favorite scripture passage or prayer, or a meditation on Christ’s life when we try to envision a Gospel scene. We may experience an increase in faith, hope or charity. However, St. Ignatius counsels us to discern the source of this consolation. Is it from the Spirit or is it from the enemy? Whenever our faculties are involved, there is a question.

Enemy’s Strategies. It is obvious that the Spirit uses consolation to further our growth, but why should the enemy give us peace and joy? When the enemy cannot block our spiritual growth by desolation, he uses the weapon of consolation. If we love to pray, the enemy will encourage this love to foster pride or to neglect our apostolic responsibilities. If we are committed to works of justice and charity, the enemy will foster that commitment to the point where we despise less motivated persons and where we look upon prayer as a mere luxury.

Discernment. How can we discern the Spirit’s action from that of the enemy? St. Ignatius says that we must examine the beginning, middle and end of our consolation. If all three are good, it is a sign that it is from the Spirit. If the enemy appears in any of the three, it is suspect. “Beginning” refers to the context: Am I in the right place at the right time for the right reasons? If the inspiration to pray takes us away from our obligations or results in others shouldering our share of the work, it is suspect.

“Middle” refers to what happens during the consolation experience: Are we led to vain or judgmental thoughts? To resenting or despising those less pious? To anxiously clinging to God and to reaching for immediate perfection?

“End” refers to what we are moved to do or to think as a result: Does it end in what weakens us or terminate in what is destructive or less good? The enemy may inspire fervor to generate unrealistic expectations that lead us to give up entirely.

Thomas H. Green, SJ says the enemy is deceitful, but he can prove to be one of our best teachers, a real instrument of our sanctification, if we make a point to review immediately the whole course of our consolation experiences and the enemy’s deceits. The surest sign of spiritual maturity is a healthy mistrust of our motivations.

Understanding desolation and consolation, and the discernment of spirits enable us to practice the Awareness Examen more effectively, and to live our spiritual life more deeply, more richly and more wisely.