De Yarrison explains how St. Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises can help us find direction in our spiritual life.
I’ve been feeling hopeless and helpless.
I keep thinking that God really doesn’t have a purpose for my life.
Why does this feel so hard?
When we are in the midst of circumstances that provoke these or similar sentiments, the ensuing emotions can be all consuming and blur our perspective, leading us to focus on our pain. I have sat with many a woman (and been there myself countless times), feeling very fragile and like even the slightest breeze could blow us over the edge into a pit of despair and hopelessness.
I want to share some really great news that has saved me again and again from spiraling down ... there is a map of this pit! Our map has labels to help name what we are experiencing, a well-marked pathway out and a set of directions to guide us through. Hallelujah! Our map, compliments of one of my favorite saints, Ignatius of Loyola, is known as the Spiritual Exercises. These exercises help us navigate the treacherous terrain of “desolation,” which is where the “You are here” pin would land in times of spiraling emotions, as spoken of above. The Spiritual Exercises also provide important insights and directions for times of “consolation.” A couple of definitions may be helpful, using Ignatius’ own words:
I call consolation every increase of hope, faith, and charity, and all interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Creator and Lord. (Spiritual Exercises, First Set of Rules, Third Rule.)
I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad, and as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord. (Spiritual Exercises, First Set of Rules, Fourth Rule)
Yeah, he nailed me with his description of desolation. Perhaps you as well. That is good news though, right?! When I am caught in a time of “disquiet from various agitations and temptations” and all the rest, I have now found myself on the map. And knowing where I am, means I can find the path forward, where previously I thought I was plain old stuck. There is an objective name for what’s happening to me, (desolation) and I now see it as such, rather than only seeing it as something terrible and adverse that I am going through. There is a little space. I am invited to step into that space, which shifts my viewpoint a bit and I now see my circumstances in light of Ignatius’ rules. I can reflect upon my circumstances with objective guidance and detachment.
St. Ignatius teaches us to not only become familiar with the terms consolation and desolation, but also to observe how our life’s journey moves predictability from a time of consolation to a time of desolation to a time of consolation and so on.
There are two rules of desolation that I particularly want to share here, as I lean upon them often in my coaching and ministry work. These are the Fifth Rule and the Seventh Rule. (Note: for a more complete and thorough treatment of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, I recommend Father Timothy Gallagher’s books, podcasts and retreats, in particular his series on the podcast, Discerning Hearts.)
The Fifth Rule reads:
In time of desolation, never make a change, but be firm and constant in the proposals and determination in which one was the day preceding such desolation.
In plain words, when you are feeling in the pit, stay firm in your spiritual commitments. Continue with your usual morning prayer routine, even though you don’t feel like it, or it is dry, or you are too tired. Don’t cancel your appointment with your spiritual director even if you think you have nothing to say. Don’t skip your prayer meeting or Rosary group even if “it’s not helping anyway.” This rule reminds us that the devil is really not that creative and tries to ensnare us all with the same set of temptations to skip our spiritual practices during times of desolation. But we rise above our desolate feelings, stand firmly in our free will, and choose perseverance. As Jesus told St. Faustina, in the context of spiritual warfare:
“Do not be guided by feeling, because it is not always under your control; but all merit lies in the will.” (Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, paragraph 1760)
The Seventh Rule reads,
Let him who is in desolation consider how the Lord has left him in trial in his natural powers, in order to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy; since he can with the Divine help, which always remains to him. [bold mine]
Ignatius is confirming St. James’ instruction in the Scriptures that we are to “resist the devil.” This is one of the reasons that the Lord allows us to undergo certain temptations and vexations; precisely so we will gain skill and strength in resisting those temptations and vexations!
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. (James 4:7-8)
So often, when we are in times of difficulty or mired in the pain of broken relationships or our own woundedness, the posture that comes most naturally is to fall on the floor in a heap, not to stand tall and resist. Yet, the reward for our efforts at resisting are great. The devil will truly flee, as he is not interested in fighting too hard. Once he realizes we are no longer easy prey for him, he will move on. And we gain much spiritual ground, consoled by God’s faithfulness and comforted by the increased awareness of His nearness.
I want to close with the Eleventh Rule, which is a beautiful summation of the mindset we are invited to live from, and which will lead us forward in the way of peace:
Let one who is consoled seek to humble himself and lower himself as much as he can, thinking of how little he is capable in the time of desolation without such grace or consolation. On the contrary, let him who is in desolation think that he can do much with God’s sufficient grace to resist all his enemies, taking strength in his Creator and Lord.
Copyright 2021 De Yarrison
Image: Nick Seagrave (2020), Unsplash
About the Author
De guides women along the journey to spiritual and emotional healing, through coaching, deliverance prayer, and healing retreats. At YouAreMadeNew.com, De walks alongside women as we grow, heal, and discover the abiding presence of Christ within our own hearts. De invites you to join the Catholic women’s community, Hope’s Garden, which she cofounded.