I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly..John 10:10b
As you walk into my school, this quote from John 10 is written on the front of reception and it is regular referred to in day to day school life. It is our motto. And it is used as a reference point and to back up what we do and why we are doing it. There are a lot of underlying assumptions when it is invoked, and as a spiritual director, I find myself sometimes challenging those assumptions, at least internally, if not explicitly. We see in the gospels where Satan tempts Jesus in the desert that Satan is also an expert in scripture and quotes it in order to justify his own ends. The full John 10.10 quotes is:
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.John 10:10
To my ears and understanding, Jesus is eloquently summing up spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation. Ignatius takes a few more words to explain it:
Spiritual Consolation. I call it consolation when an interior movement is aroused in the soul, by which it is inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord, and as a consequence, can love no creature on the face of the earth for its own sake, but only in the Creator of them all. It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God. Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in its Creator and Lord.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Spiritual Desolation. I call desolation what is entirely the opposite of what is described in the third rule, as darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord. For just as consolation is the opposite of desolation, so the thoughts that spring from consolation are the opposite of those that spring from desolation.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Consideration of these points lead to discernment questions in spiritual direction, either internally or externally:
Where is this coming from?
Where is it leading to?
Is this life giving? How?
Is this death dealing? How?
What is the more life giving choice here?
A preliminary understanding of life giving is around what makes you feel good, or happy. Elle, in Legally Blonde sums it up neatly:
Ignatius does list interior joy as one of the effects of spiritual consolation and the sense of contentment might be considered manifestations of peace and quiet. It is a simple equation that Elle describes: sensible consolation = spiritual consolation, where sensible consolation is about what makes you happy: it must be good then, right? Brooke is a happy person, therefore she is not likely to have committed the mortal sin of murder. And then, must the opposite be true? If it doesn’t feel good, if it makes us feel unhappy and sad, sensible desolation, then it must be bad: sensible desolation = spiritual desolation.
But the equations are not that simple. Ignatius defines spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation in terms of whether something leads us towards God, or away from God: it is not about feeling good or bad, it is firstly, noticing what we are feeling and then observing what is prompting that particular emotion, and where that leads us, in terms of our relationship with God. Consider the recent journey through Holy Week and the Passion of Jesus. The third week of the Spiritual Exercises aligns with this journey and the grace that Ignatius encourages us to ask for is:
Here it will be to ask for sorrow, compassion, and shame because the Lord is going to His suffering for my sinsThe Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius trans Louis J. Puhl S.J.
Sorrow, compassion and shame do not feel good: to feel these things is heartbreaking and brings “copious amounts of tears” as Ignatius writes frequently of his own prayer. Notice above (in bold), he has listed tears that move one to the love of God as spiritual consolation. The world seeks to fix sorrow and shame, and perhaps even overwhelming compassion for another which leads to tears, considering these things as pathological. I’m not saying that this may not sometimes be true: I am saying that sometimes these emotions are appropriate, and when they are leading to a deeper love of God, then they are spiritual consolation.
And sometimes, it is that simple: what makes us feel good is also leading us to God, and when we feel bad it may be because something is leading us away from God. The latter might be manifested as the “sting of conscience”. For example, perhaps I might feel bad about having gossiped unpleasantly about someone behind their back and I would identify such gossip as spiritual desolation, and the unpleasant sting of conscience the consolation inviting me to turn back to God.
Gerry. W. Hughes says On Desire:
If I were Satan’s advisor… I would suggest that Satan ensures that Christian leaders emphasise the danger of human desire, and the need to subject it totally to the will of God, constantly warning their flock that anything they desire must be rooted in their own selfishness, which they must constantly oppose. This will ensure that they always feel bad about feeling good….God in all Things, Gerard W. Hughes
I remember a teaching colleague once said:
I’m not designed for this.
and while I cannot remember the exact context – they may have been asked to teach a subject they had not trained in (it happens) – I do remember thinking what a brilliant way of expressing their dissatisfaction about it; the idea that we are designed for something, a purpose, and the desire for that purpose is written into our design: it brings us to life when we are fulfilling that purpose, our own personal vocation, both in the big things of the election, our state in life, and in the little day to day things which help us to fulfill that election. The spiritual consolation is that what we do is in the praise, reverance and service of God.
You show me the path of life.Psalm 16:11
In thinking about all of these things, and the slow burn of Easter Sunday, The Upper Room and lockdown, I’ve been considering the question posed at the top of the post. What does it mean for me?
Julian of Norwich considers that there are only two sins (sin being spiritual desolation, what leads us away from God): anxious fear and despairing fear or, want of faith and want of hope as described by Ignatius. Ignatius believed that ingratitude was the root of all sin. (Reimagining the examen App: Gratitude). These are a few of the key ideas and also Just for Today, that I am holding onto during this period of lockdown when it would be easy to succumb to fear, despair and anxiety at the state of things. I have myself a list of things that I know are lifegiving for me and I check it off every day (mostly) which reminds me to be grateful for the many blessings in my life and which challenges me to maintain my conscious contact with God.
Certainly, some of it is about endorphins and feeling good, and I might go for exercise or a hot bubble bath with candles and music (usually something spiritual), or even sleep, especially when I feel that creeping darkness weighing on my spirit. Self pity is a particularly distasteful manifestation of ingratitude and it is something I cannot stand within myself whenever I notice it.
So here are my questions for you:
How are you doing right now?
What are the things that bring you to life?
My suggestion is that you make a list of these things and put it on the fridge or somewhere prominent so that the next time you notice that creeping desolation within you, you already have a range of strategies to help you to act against it – all you have to do is choose one and do it.