Handling Desolation

The story of St. Ignatius is the story of a soldier who became a master of spirituality. Wounded in battle, he returned home to recover. Through spiritual reading he experienced a conversion. However, though now committed to God, he experienced alternating periods of highs (consolation) and lows (desolation). Gradually, Ignatius realized the difference between the spirits who moved him, the Spirit of God with consolation, and the spirit of the “enemy” with desolation.

We can interpret the term “enemy” as personifications of evil forces in ourselves and in the world, capable somehow to instigate interior motions, thoughts and affections, calculated to hinder the Spirit’s work in us. Ignatius had discovered that our feelings are essential to the discovery of God’s will, and our progress in the spiritual life.

St. Ignatius explained that there are three possible reasons why God permits the enemy to strike us with desolation. They are: (1) God withdraws his consolation because we have shown negligence in our practice of the spiritual life; (2) God wants to test (strengthen) us to see how much we will advance without his consolation; and (3) God wants to teach us that genuine consolation is pure gift, that we cannot manipulate or control it.

Further, St. Ignatius described the character and the tactics of the enemy: (1) The enemy is ruthless when we are timid, and cowardly when we are strong. He cannot overcome us by force; so he uses psychological warfare to tyrannize us or to outwit us; (2) The enemy will urge us to confide in no one, for fear that his obvious deceits will be easily recognized by a third party such as a spiritual director; and (3) The enemy studies our character and attacks us at our weakest point; self-knowledge is our best defense.

To fight the strategies of the enemy, St. Ignatius gave us some counter strategies

Strategy 1. The enemy will surely test and tempt beginners with desolation. Beginnings may not be only at the early stages of our life of prayer and commitment, but also when a person faces a major life change such as marriage or death of a loved one or a transforming weekend such as Cursillo. When the Spirit calls us to greater spiritual growth, we can expect a more intense conflict with the enemy who will attempt to deter us. Spiritual warfare is the name of the game. Counter Strategy: Be prepared!


Strategy 2. The enemy will tempt us by causing us to experience desolation—discouragement, anxiety, restlessness, fear or loss of peace. Counter Strategy: In time of desolation we should never make any change but remain firm in the resolution which guided us the day before the desolation. Father Thomas H. Green, SJ in his book “Weeds Among the Wheat”, says: “Most good people immediately infer that God is sending them a message when frustration and discouragement strike….Desolation is the work of the enemy, it is never a sign of God’s voice.”

Strategy 3. The enemy will fill us with self-pity and restlessness to cause us to experience desolation. Counter Strategy A: Do the opposite of what he suggests. We should intensify our activity against the desolation. For example, if the enemy makes us feel our prayer time is too long, we should extend it. Counter Strategy B: In desolation, we should consider how the Lord has left us to our natural powers, so that we may prove ourselves while resisting the enemy. We should recall that divine aid always remains with us, though we may not perceive it. Counter Strategy C: We should simply be patient and wait it out. Also, we should remind ourselves that consolation will soon return.

Lastly, when we are in consolation, we are advised to plan how we will behave when we experience desolation, and to humbly thank God for experiences of consolation.