by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
A Jesuit told me that after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Fidel Castro was asked if he was going to reconsider Cuban economic and political policies.
Castro replied that one thing he remembered from his Jesuit education was not to make changes during a time of desolation. My Jesuit friend could not verify the authenticity of the anecdote, but it certainly makes a fascinating story.
During the first days of January each year, I participate in a retreat with the bishops from Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska. This year, our retreat master was Father Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV, who has devoted much of his energy and talent to acquainting Catholics with the rich spiritual guidance contained in St. Ignatius of Loyola’s writings on the discernment of spirits.
We spent the entire six days of the retreat unpacking the 14 rules for spiritual discernment found in “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.” The Ignatian rules for spiritual discernment are consistent with our rich Catholic tradition regarding the interior life.
However, Ignatius was original in codifying practical methods for interpreting and responding to the dynamics that we all experience in our spiritual lives.
St. Ignatius experienced a dramatic personal conversion while undergoing a long convalescence from combat injuries. Ignatius underwent two surgeries to repair a leg that had been shattered in battle. Both surgeries required lengthy periods of recuperation.
Up until this time, the entire focus of his energies had been devoted to becoming a skilled military officer and indulging in worldly pleasures.
It was during this time of convalescence with no other books available that Ignatius read a “Life of Christ” and the lives of the saints. Ignatius noticed the contrasting effects on his spirit when he pondered worldly thoughts as opposed to when he reflected on the life and ministry of Jesus, as well as the heroism of the saints.
The basic premise of St. Ignatius is that we all experience in our spiritual journey times of consolation alternating with periods of desolation. Ignatius noticed a pattern in his own spiritual life.
When he filled his mind with worldly desires, they brought him immediate pleasure but left him afterwards feeling empty and sad. On the other hand, when he pondered the life of Jesus and the saints, Ignatius experienced a peace and joy that remained with him.
Ignatius developed a threefold paradigm to help individuals deepen their interior life. First, one must be aware of the inner movements in one’s soul. Secondly, one needs to understand the source and meaning of these spiritual mood swings. Thirdly, we must act to either accept or reject the inclinations we are experiencing in our hearts.
The first two Sundays of Lent illustrate the spiritual ebb and flow that even Jesus experienced in his humanity. On the First Sunday of Lent, we always read one of the Gospel accounts of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Jesus experiences a type of desolation as the devil attempts to entice him to abandon the mission that the Father entrusted to him in order to gain worldly comfort, power or fame.
On the Second Sunday in Lent, we always reflect upon one of the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration. Jesus is glorified while he is engaged in conversation with Moses and Elijah. The Father is providing Our Lord with a great consolation.
At the same time, the three, who compose the inner circle within the Twelve Apostles — Peter, James and John — are given the profound consolation of witnessing Our Lord’s transfiguration. They are given a glimpse of not only the glory of Jesus, but the glory in which they are to share some day.
Peter, James and John will also accompany Jesus on Holy Thursday night in the Garden of Gethsemane. They witness Our Lord’s agony. The experience of the Transfiguration was to strengthen them for this moment. While John remains with Jesus throughout his passion and crucifixion, Peter denies Our Lord and James flees in terror.
Ignatius encourages those serious about the spiritual life to be aware of their experiences of consolation as well as desolation. We also need to understand that the devil uses desolation to cause us to doubt God’s goodness and to question our ability to persevere in following Jesus.
Once we are aware, we must seek to understand that our desolation is the devil’s work that seeks to create obstacles between ourselves and God.
Once we understand that consolation is a gift from God and not something we can make happen or create, we learn to accept this great grace from God allowing us, for a time, to taste the joy and peace he desires for us.
Similarly, once we understand that desolation is the result of the evil one’s lies by which he attempts to separate us from God and to cause us to doubt our ability to live a virtuous life, we learn to reject the temptations toward worldly pleasures and despair.
If we learn to notice and accept the consolations Our Lord provides for us, we can treasure the gift and make ourselves aware that this state of peace and happiness cannot last forever, but our memory of it can help shelter us from the attempts of the evil one to lead us into future despair (Rule 10).
Similarly, once we recognize the devil is the source of desolation and his purpose is to sow seeds of discontent in order to separate us from God and distrust his love, we can choose to reject his suggestions by electing to increase our prayer, meditation and ascetical practices (Rule 6).
Ignatian rules for spiritual discernment are eminently practical. The principle Fidel Castro remembered from his Jesuit education was actually a misapplication of Rule 5. Rule 8 encourages individuals during periods of desolation to remind oneself this state will not last forever.
Similarly, Rule 10 counsels individuals during times of consolation to remember that desolation will return. Thus, now is the time to store up memories and develop strategies to combat future attacks by the evil one.
Rule 13 points out to those seeking to progress in their prayer life the valuable perspective of a good confessor or spiritual director. When the devil is trying to isolate us and deceive us into attempting alone to combat his deceptions, confessors and/or spiritual directors will provide us with an objective evaluation of what we are experiencing.
If you wish to learn more about the Ignatian rules for spiritual discernment, I encourage you to purchase Father Timothy Gallagher’s book: “The Discernment of Spirits — An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living.”
I am confident it will help you to understand better the dynamics of your prayer life, as well as provide tips that will open up new vistas for spiritual growth.