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Consolation and Desolation… What does it really mean?

November 7, 2011 by  
Filed under Consolation/Desolation, Fr. Bartunek

for post on consolation and desolationDear Father John, I know you wrote before about consolation and desolation in the spiritual life. But I have a follow-up question. When we experience some kind of desolation, how do we know where it’s coming from? I mean, how do we know whether it’s really from God or not?

This is a great question – and an important one, for Christians in today’s society.

Consolation and Desolation: Grasping the Terms

First, we have to have a quick review of what we mean by “consolation and desolation” in the spiritual life. Usually, these terms refer to the felt presence of God in our soul (consolation), or the absence of that feeling (desolation). By faith we know that God is always thinking of us, with us, interested in our lives, and loving us with a personal, determined love.  We know that by faith. But we don’t always feel that in our emotional world. In fact, sometimes we can feel an intense and painful emptiness inside. Sometimes we can feel absolutely no excitement or pleasure at the thought of spiritual things. Sometimes we can feel dry as a desert even when we are at prayer: emotionally, we don’t even want to keep praying. We are like children with their homework: they know it is good for them to do it, and they know they should do it, but they just don’t feel like doing it.

This lack of the felt presence of God, a lack of emotional pleasure or resonance regarding God’s will for us, is usually referred to by spiritual writers as sensible desolation. The contrary is sensible consolation.

Now we can get to your question. If you are experiencing desolation, it can come from a variety of sources.  Simply knowing what those sources are can help us reflect on one’s personal situation and, usually, identify its source.

Our Own Fault

First, desolation can be caused by our own sin. We may be inordinately attached to something: some habit, some relationship, some hope, some fear, even some hobby or pastime that may not be evil in itself… Or we may have committed some sin that we haven’t confessed or repented of yet. Sooner or later, disordered attachments will interfere with our relationship with God. God loves us too much to let us idolize anything for long. If we are following him, when the time is right he will speak to our conscience about putting that disordered room in our soul back into order. During the struggle to decide whether or not to obey what he is asking of us, we can experience desolation, because as we dilly-dally, our hearts are divided. In this case, we are actually pushing God away, and the desolation is our own fault. This happens frequently in the early stages of the spiritual life, but can return with a vengeance even after much growth, when the spiritualized capital sins attempt to re-conquer the soul.

At times, it is hard to identify disordered attachments. If you are praying regularly (including at least an annual spiritual retreat), doing a regular examination of conscience, going to confession on a regular basis, and receiving some kind of spiritual direction (or at least you have a friend or small group of friends to whom you make yourself spiritually accountable), and following the commandments of God and the Church, you should be able to recognize these disordered attachments when the Holy Spirit points them out to you. If you are not following those basic spiritual practices, your desolation may have this cause, and I would recommend renewing your commitment to these means for spiritual growth that all spiritual writers recommend.

Our Fallen Nature’s Fault

Second, desolation can flow from advancing self-knowledge. As we grow in the spiritual life, God allows us to know ourselves better and better. We begin to see just how deep our self-centered tendencies really go. We begin to see just how vulnerable we are to temptations of vanity, pride, and sensuality. We begin to see just how helpless we really are, when it comes to growth in holiness, without the constant aid of God’s grace. This can create a disturbance in our relationship with God, because we no longer feel worthy of the great love he has for us.  We truly love God. We truly want to follow him. But when we resist approaching him because we have discovered that we actually don’t “deserve” to be loved so unconditionally we begin to stumble. It’s like the spouse who has been unfaithful and has difficulty accepting their spouse’s forgiveness, or the mother who has aborted her child and simply can’t seem to accept God’s mercy. But in this stage of the spiritual life, the specific cause of the interior resistance is often less clear.  Here again, we end up separating ourselves from God.

This hurdle has to be faced and overcome, in order to become spiritually mature. You have probably already detected the real source of the spiritual reluctance that comes from this situation. It is a subtle form of pride.  And the enemy of our souls will often seize on this, stir it up, and try to exaggerate it. The truly humble soul responds to its own unworthiness with peace and joy, throwing itself into God’s arms with total abandon, totally conscious of its absolute need for God’s grace, and contentedly aware of God’s delight in showing mercy to his needy children.

The deep interior resistance so many people experience when it comes to activating that kind of abandonment shows just how difficult developing the virtue of humility really is. It is the bedrock of the spiritual life, and digging foundations is never fun. But you can do it. Read the lives of the saints (especially St. Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul and St. Faustina’s Diary). Read the Psalms. And get on your knees in front of the Eucharist, simply learning to trust more deeply in God’s goodness by exercising whatever level of trust you can as you gaze at Our Lord, who has chosen to be there for you, no matter what.

The Doctor at Work

Finally, desolation can flow from God’s direct action on the soul. God can take away the consolation of his presence, without actually taking away his presence. This is a method he uses to purify the soul and to increase the soul’s capacity for love. If we can keep following God’s will in our lives even when we are passing through “a valley as dark as death” (Psalm 23:4), we will emerge with a much more mature faith, a more vibrant hope, and a deeper love. These are the theological virtues that unite the soul to God – and union with God is what we were created for, and what God yearns us to achieve and deepen.

So when he takes away interior consolation in this way, we can rest assured that his wisdom and goodness will permit us, when emerged from the darkness, to undergo greater consolations than we ever imagined, because our soul’s capacity to experience God will have been increased by God directly. These periods of purification initiated by God are often called the “dark night.” We can have dark nights of the senses, of the spirit, of the intellect… It is when God, the doctor of our soul, lays us on the spiritual operating table and takes direct action. Our job in this case is to trust and endure by continuing to seek and embrace God’s will in our lives (the commandments, the duties of our state in life, etc…). The book on [Saint] Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, chronicles a truly amazing journey through this kind of darkness.

I hope these reflections have helped you identify both where your current desolation is coming from, and how to react to it. If not, I recommend taking up the prayer Jesus taught us through St. Faustina, and making it the constant refrain of your heart and mind throughout this season of your spiritual journey: “Jesus, I trust in you.”

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Art for this post on Consolation and Desolation: María Magdalena como melancolía (Mary Magdalene as Melancholy), Artemisia Gentileschi, between 1622 and 1625, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

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  • jack g.

    It is another great post Fr. John. I am Polish born from Krakow so St. Faustina is really close to my heart and I have found her writings to be of a tremendous help. In my 2 year old reversion I have been experiencing many sensible consolations or should I say signal graces. I also on a few occasions, had the desolation issue and it was very painful.
    God the Father was the main source of my consolations at the beginning of my reversion. I have to admit that God just took care of many addictions I had prior to Him granting me the grace of profound reconversion. It was a true Holy Spirit Baptism with a sea of tears still flowing today. I believe we call it a gift of tears.
    I was addicted to at least 7 clinical addictions and from perspective I see that they all were my gods and I know that God is also a jealous God so He took care of the most of them. I only had to work on smoking cigarettes and weed.
    I write all that because when I was trying to quit weed I was afraid that my consolations will cease, so I said to God that He is going to have to be my drug and with great painful process I quit, with the help of Our Lady. If I knew how sinful I was then I would not have had courage to proceed. Only that God being a most delicate of Fathers, He hid my sinfulness and arrogance from me. After that there were more consolations and my spiritual life took off. I have trials every day of my life. You can imagine that my marriage must have been hell, and even now we are still working on all the scars, or should I say God is healing our marriage and our persons. It is difficult but it is also so beautiful to be close to God every day. Mass every day, Communion, Rosary, Chaplet and prayer. We were living as spoiled pagans for many years and now God consoles me and I am sure in His own way my wife hasn’t reconverted yet. She is Catholic and practicing with me, but rather without much zeal. I leave it all to God and I can see now that she would much faster be reconverted if I wasn’t in JESUSE’s way all the time by being impatient and arrogant. God shows me my own faults and weaknesses with compassion and He is so patient. I am so very overwhelmed by His Goodness, every day with tears of joy and sorrow flowing in prayer. I am sorry for the length of my comment, with love of Christ, jack g.

    • judeen

      God loves you so much… our past and our wounds we are delivered from and healed by God… all of heaven rejoices when we turn away from sin… no matter how big or small it is… remember the great saints that also changed their lives mathew was a tax collector.. paul was a murderer. some great doc. of the church were great sinners.. st. monica prayed 20 years for her son… and he did find God.. so now pray for us.. for you have found God… how powerful your prayers are now as you grow closer to God….

      • jack g.

        That is so right Judith. Whenever I read Scripture about Magdalene crying at the feet of our Lord or about the adulterous women and Jesus writing in the sand I just start crying with the tears of joy and gratitude. I once heard that the one who was forgiven much, loves much and that has been so true with me. It has been two years and we have ways to go, but I just know that I will never forget the Mercy of God and that I will always be grateful. In those two years Jesus has thought me so much through the heart of His mother, and having found myself unable to pray as much as I wanted to I asked Him to help me pray all day in everything I do. So now for many months I just converse with God the Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Mary and some saints and angels. It would seem crazy but it is so fascinating and beautiful. Well I do not hear any voices, no locutions, but God grants me many signal graces and I sing my own Psalms to Him throughout the day almost every day. Some people in my circles think I am crazy I believe, but by now they show more respect. On top of all the changes in my life I also send many e-mails about my journey through conversion, sometimes very intimate. I believe God wants me to share the gifts of conversion to bring others closer to Him, and so I do it without hesitation. God Bless and thank you.

    • Becky Ward

      Don’t be sorry. Our stories/testimonies provide strength and encouragement for one another. My story is not so different from yours……except that my husband is not Catholic….hasn’t even been baptized…..but he’s beginning to say a Hail Mary once in a while from a prayer card I have sitting close to his chair…..(Our Lady can work miracles!)……please pray for his conversion.

  • Dwyder

     wow! thank you sooooo much! Jesus I trust in you and please continue to bless all thos who bring us closer to your Heart, inclusing and especially Father John, Father Barron, Father Kobecki, Mark Mallett, Michael Voris and my parish priest, Father Tom Lequin….sincerely, diane wyder

  • Jgeneroso3

    Until now, I have not read nor heard an explanation of consolation/desolation as as profound and as intense as this. Thank you Fr. John.  

  • judeen

    so right.. confession unites one again with God and Gods gifts.. also the desert in the souls , God seems to be teaching one something… one can stop it at any time ,, by asking God one can not go through it.. and it will leave ,but come back again until you learn what is being taught you… so seek what God is teaching you. the dark night of the soul is a testing.. in mind body soul and heart. ones heart even is twisted. but each time one gets through theses things , one goes one step closer, or deeper with God and receives a grace or virtue,, so rejoice it is worth it..
        also the devil trys to trick so one will not trust God or steal ones faith .. praise the Lord… go to adoration… pray with others. do different prayers so one consintrates on the prayer more and not end up reciting it… pray more with the heart and all the strenght one has , give it your all… and flee to God… for your a warrior,, a soldier of God ,, your in a battle for souls ,,so stay on track

  • Roniopb

    Thank you so much. There is much here to keep and refer to often. The spiritual journey is so personal and the narrow road can be almost too difficult to travel. I pray constantly that the Lord will send me a spiritual director to help undo the damage and confusion caused by another. I know the Lord is always there but it helps to have Him “with skin on”. 

    “Everythng is grace.” 

  • Sue Clark

    Love this article. I am taking Fr. Gallagher’s class on Discernment of Spirits. In this class, the evil spirit is constantly referred to as the “enemy”, for me it really puts the devils intentions into perspective.
    Pax Christi,
    Sue Clark

    • Rose

      Where do have access to Fr. Gallagher’s class? I have been so interested in doing his series since hearing him a couple times on EWTN, he is fantastic.

  • jack g.

    God has been good to me in so many consolations and they are ongoing. My sister was reconverted in March of this year and her experiences are including vision of her own heart surrounded with the flame of love of the Father. We talk and she being at the beginning of the reconversion process has many desolations, same as I had with feeling of guilt and unworthiness. We know by now that that is devil trying to make us not accept the gift of conversion, so I tell her to trust and do not be afraid. Easy to say for me now, when I was experiencing this a while back I ran to my priest calling frantically looking for answers and trying to figure out where have I sinned. Satan will blame us almost for anything and try to confuse, especially the freshly reconverted ones.
    At one point on a few occasions I have experienced the terror of satan’s attack in a physical manner where I saw a vision of a dark figure and was unable to move or even to open my mouth for prayer, I was paralyzed and only Jesus I trust You, helped to disperse the image. Also another time when I was asleep something jumped on top of me and paralyzing, it felt it was chocking me. At this point I knew it was an angry devil trying to scare me and turn back from my conversion. so prayed again and with more trust, it helped to say Hail Mary, it stopped immediately. It happened another time and then I was not scared anymore and to stop it from happening I started to invite Jesus to my heart every knight when lying down to sleep. It never happened again.
    All this was happening parallel to my hours of prayer and almost exaggerated devotions, I believe it happens to all converts when we are so on fire, nothing else matters. At that time God was cleansing me from all my interior wounds or so I think, lots of crying and lots of hugging by my Daddy. Don’t get me wrong. I am an adult male 43 years old with a divorce history and 4 kids with 3 women, so my current marriage is not a n easy ride. Well now with the grace of God it is much, much easier. So I talk to God the Father just like Jesus wanted us to talk to Him. Use Abba, means Daddy, I am an adult but I am also a little child to my Daddy and this alone makes it another level of prayer. We have to loose our pride and adulthood in the eyes of God and this will bring us so much closer to Him.

    • judeen

       hi, I have had the parellized feeling.. the gripping fear.. and the presence of dark shadows also… also the pulling down of my blankets at night.. and the knoting of my rosarys…
         it is your prayers… that make the devil mad.. keep going.. read cure of ares . the preist who also had this happen… forgiveness is so powerful.. to forgive someone that hurt you… and I think this is also part of it.. for our sins will follow to others… and the devil losses the grip hold… I also have had other things happen from praying over people , and found fear is from the devil and ignore it… treasa of avila talks about this I think she would just turn over in her bed , I always say deal with God the Father for I His child and they run…..

  • Nick

    I juste found this website! Spiritual Direction is too hard to find! I truly believe every parish priest should offer spiritual direction. I’m glad this website is dedicated to the deepest questions of the spritual life.

  • jack g.

    Thank you Becky, what is your husbands name? My Lady made me a prayer warrior and so I enjoy praying for others. Try to fast for your husbands intention. And check out http://www.whyimcatholic.com where your husband can read many conversion stories, to help him see the truth of the Gospel. God Bless you. And I know it is very hard but try to offer your suffering. I suffer the same with my wife and sometimes it is a chalenge to just be patient. Then God reminds me of Him being patient with me for 20 years, so I should be patient with my wife and charitable. And I am not so many times, it is just so hard with people with emotional attachment.

    • Becky Ward

      Thank you Jack. My husband’s name is Jim. He doesn’t read or write well so that is a pretty large hurdle…and after 34 years of marriage I have received the grace to see that I am not the one to teach him…..anything. As I said, my story is not so unlike yours….conversion, tears, etc……..I understand them too….and I offer myself and my joys and sorrows to Jesus to do with as He sees fit……knowing that somehow…some way….he will take care of my family.

      I will check out that website….I’ve learned to always pay attention to what God places before me……the site might be good for others the Lord is sending my way.

      We are Blessed!!

  • Clare

    the Genesis of the soul lies in the Confessional. It is there one finds the Grace of Mercy. It is there every Virtue needed is infused. It is there where the soul finds Obedience. And it is there where the soul finds it’s Trust in Him. Yes the Genesis of the soul doth lie in His Redeeming Love-in the Confessional.

  • Lisa

    I am also taking Fr. Gallagher’s class on Discernment of Spirits on EWTN. It has helped me tremendously. This article explains Consolation and Desolation in another light for even more understanding. Thank you. 

  • Guest

    Thank you, Fr. John, for yet another Spirit-filled Post. Every time I see a Post from this Website, I open it with a thumping heart. And in each Post, I learn something new and especially something about myself. Walking with you in my spiritual journey is truly a Blessing from God. May He bless you always. This Post is very encouraging to wobbly me who gets frequent attacks from self-doubt. And as you advise, all I need to do is thrown myself at the Feet of Jesus and hide myself inside the Red and Pale Rays from His pierced Heart. And I thank Him daily for inviting me to become an Eucharistic Apostle of His Divine Mercy. St. Faustina’s Diary is precious to me. So is my daily Holy Hour of Great Mercy with Him in the Blessed Sacrament and the Divine Union in Holy Communion and particularly the weekly encounter with Him at His Tribunal of Mercy.

  • Becky Ward

    Just an additional note on consolation and desolation. You may notice that you experience these in a cycle; first one, then the other. I was taught in my formation program that as we progress on the path of perfection and when God is ‘operating on us’ He is watching to see if we are paying attention and learning.

    When we experience consolations we need to remember them and use them to get us through the periods of desolation. And when in desolation we need to do our best to identify the reason (have we been here before?) and abandon ourselves to God’s love & mercy as long as it lasts. 

    • http://www.spiritualdirection.com/ Dan Burke

      Well said Becky

    • http://www.marythedefender.wordpress.com MariaGo

      Thank you for your additional note. I think I really needed to hear this. I think I am always making the same mistakes. I think I often fall prey to the second desolation. Digging foundations of humility is really difficult. More so when it becomes difficult to distinguish whether or not bad thoughts are truly sins… Thank you again! 

      • Becky Ward

        Hi Maria,

        I struggled in regard to thoughts being sinful too; after all at Mass every week we say “In my thoughts and in my words…..” etc.

        It is not a sin to have bad thoughts!!

        God allows the devil to plant thoughts in our mind………and even the most advanced on the path to perfection have had horrible thoughts at holy moments. One priest I know is attacked with really ugly thoughts and images right when he is holding up the Eucharist!

        Bad thoughts can also come from the evil within us……judgmental thoughts, cynicism, sarcasm,etc.

        What matters is what we do with the thoughts. Give them to the Lord, say a Hail Mary, or anything else you can to not dwell on or entertain bad thoughts……when we “go with the thoughts”….that’s when we start to get into trouble.

        • http://www.marythedefender.wordpress.com MariaGo

          Thank you so very much! I have a hard time with them because I tend to worry although I know that that only makes worse. But I really really don’t want to think them and get angry at myself. I will take your advice and try to pray no matter how hard prayer gets. Thank you again! God Bless!

  • Damian Gaudet

    Comments : Can I get an explanation on the angels who were ousted from Heaven? What happened to them? Can this happen to us when we get to Heaven? Can we when in heaven reject God like the angels did?

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