Some Thoughts on Ignatian Spirituality
Consolation and desolation
These ideas are very often misunderstood, because the words are used in a technical sense that is not the same as their everyday meaning. Consolation is not about feeling happy, and desolation is not about feeling sad. Consolation is when your spirit is moving towards God, and desolation is when you are moving away from God. Consolation is usually accompanied by a deep sensation of peace and rightness, even if there are more disturbed feelings at a surface level. Ignatius compares water dripping gently onto the soft surface of a sponge. Desolation is usually accompanied by disturbance or restlessness: Ignatius compares water splashing onto a hard stone.
Thus it's possible to feel sad when you are in consolation. For example, if you have been sinning and you feel bad about it and want to change, you are in consolation: you are moving towards God. Deep down you will feel a sense of peace and rightness, in some measure, even though on the surface you may have some disturbing and painful feelings when you reflect on how harmful your sinful behaviour has been for other people.
On the other hand, if you are in a state of desolation because you have been pushing God out of your awareness and have given up your habit of praying, you might not have a great deal of surface emotion at all. You might have successfully put yourself into a state of apathy in which you refuse to think or feel at all.
But deep down you will be feeling ill at ease. Desolation can also be more hidden: a choice of second best, a distraction from a good thing, undermining a previous state of peace of mind. It can take a long time to realise that what looked like a good choice at the time was actually leading you away from God (e.g. by increasing your spiritual pride about the self-sacrificing work you are doing for God). This is why discernment is the key skill in the Ignatian repertoire.
Both of these states are described as they are experienced by someone whose fundamental orientation is towards God: someone who is not in a serious state of sinfulness and who is basically trying to live a good life. Someone whose fundamental orientation is towards evil, if there is such a person, would feel consolation when doing bad things and desolation when doing good things. It's easy to be overscrupulous and think 'my fundamental orientation must be towards evil', if you are feeling guilty about a sin; but anyone who tries to live a good life is fundamentally oriented towards God, even if they are committing sins. Our hypothetical evil person would not even begin to ask these questions. Consolation is going with the grain of your God-oriented soul, and desolation is going against the grain.
Both consolation and desolation are quite normal parts of spiritual experience and nothing to get anxious about. We make choices all day long, and many of these have a moral component: they move us nearer to God or further away from God. As we become more skilled in noticing our felt response to a choice, the more we notice the deep-down orientation pulling us towards God or away from God, and the deep-down rightness or dis-ease that goes with it. We can't always pull ourselves out of desolation by an act of will.
What we can do is follow Ignatius' advice not to go back on a decision made in consolation if you are in a time of desolation. For example, if you notice that you are in desolation, e.g. you are being tempted to skip the well-established pattern of prayer that you have, you can act against it, e.g. by praying for an extra 5 minutes.
If it leads to an increase of faith, hope and love, it is consolation
(even if it's painful).
If it leads to a decrease of faith, hope and love, it is desolation
(and that may not show itself for quite some time).
Desolation and dark night of the soul
There is a phase in the spiritual journey in which all the pleasures of prayer disappear and the person feels God has abandoned them. It is normally not difficult to identify, with the help of a spiritual director, and quite different from depression, though it can sometimes go alongside depression. It is also different from desolation. A person experiencing dark night wants to experience God and feels frustrated because they don't. Usually they will have, at least sometimes, the deep-down feeling of rightness, even though there are no pleasant surface feelings. Finally, people sometimes just feel sad without its being desolation in the Ignatian sense, or dark night of the soul, or depression!
In order to discern God's leading correctly, Ignatius stresses that we must be indifferent: not that we don't care, but that we are like the 'pointer on the scales' and can incline equally well in either direction when it comes to making a choice. God works through our deepest desire, because we are made to be fundamentally oriented towards God, but we can only hear our deepest desire if we can lay aside the distraction of surface desires that may shout more loudly. That is indifference. Thus when you are trying to make a choice, to discern God's will, it can be helpful to think of what will make you feel more at peace, more right with God. It is a mistake to think that if we want it, it can't possibly be God's will: some of our desires really do lead us to God. It's also important to ask yourself whether you want to choose this way, rather than that, because it will make you feel good, look good, 'win friends and influence people'. That is not indifference. We come to realise that various forces influence our choices: we are attracted to do God's will but we are also open to forces that work against it, such as our laziness, pride etc. We have to work to come to a place of indifference and be truly open to whichever choice is more in accordance with God's will.
Finally, Ignatius is realistic: sometimes we can pray for a long time and can still not get a clear answer as to what is the will of God. Sometimes we can distrust our own inclination and think we can't possibly get to a point of indifference. Therefore he suggests drawing up lists of pros and cons, and praying about them, asking God to show you the better choice. This is using the head. He also suggests using the heart as follows: what would you advise a friend who had the same choice to make? What would you want to have chosen if you were on your deathbed, looking back?
Discernment can be made harder by things like: inner fearfulness or rigidity; not taking enough time to pray; negative self-image (or inflated self-image); being tired or unwell; being unhealthily attached to a person or situation. The foundation of it all is that we know ourselves held in God's love: if we struggle there, we will have more trouble with discernment.