This week is the perfect time for me to reflect on spiritual desolation and the fourth and fifth rules of St. Ignatius.
As talked about in my February podcast, the last couple of weeks have been challenging, and while I didn’t recognize it as spiritual desolation immediately that’s what it was. Now, even though I am coming out of it, I’m still struggling to put my experience into perspective.
This is, as Fr. Timothy Gallagher says, in The Discernment of Spirits (affiliate link) daunting. But I’m going to take him at his word and expect to find encouragement in the Fourth and Fifth Rules of St. Ignatius.
Defining Spiritual Desolation
In his fourth rule Ignatius discusses spiritual desolation, the counterpart of the spiritual consolation he described in the previous rule. Consideration of spiritual consolation, given the uplifting nature of this interior movement, is welcome and heartening. Reflection on spiritual desolation, however, is more daunting, at least initially. Yet in all discernment of spirits few considerations are more valuable and more ultimately encouraging than those Ignatius’s offers on spiritual desolation.The Discernment of Spirit by Fr. Timothy Gallagher
So what is the fourth rule?
Here it is in St. Ignatius’s own words.
Fourth Rule. The fourth is of spiritual desolation. 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.The Rules of Saint Ignatius as translated by Fr. Timothy Gallagher in The Discernment of Spirit
There is a lot here. The darkness of the soul which we all know. The pull of low and earthly things, like worry and temptation. Lack of confidence. Lost hope. Difficulty feeling or expressing love. Loss of interest in spiritual things. Sadness. A feeling of separation from God.
What St. Ignatius and Fr. Gallagher stress here is that all of these things are feelings and that the thoughts that these feelings trigger are lies. We may feel separated from God but we are not. God is always near.
Most people of faith know this, but when we feel that sense of separation we struggle to hang on to this truth. Our loss of interest in our own spiritual practice leads to doubt. We falter.
Or I did anyway. I think the lesson of spiritual desolation is, as Fr. Gallagher points out, to learn to reject these thought and push on. Part of this, for me, is realizing that it’s a mistake to base our relationship with God on our emotional state.
This makes practical sense. There are times in life when no one can maintain a steady emotional state. If we are in the habit of drifting away from God when we’re feeling low, we’ll have a hard time finding Him when we need Him most.
With the fifth rule… a shift occurs and the rules become predominately normative, providing guidelines for action.The Discernment of Spirits by Fr. Timothy Gallagher
Up until this point, Fr. Gallagher tells us, the Rules have focused on helping us discern between the work of the good spirt and that of the bad. Remember that these two spirits, for St. Ignatius, are (a) Holy Spirit or, at times, our guardian angel and (b) demonic influence or Satan.
For me, recognizing this is key in spiritual warfare. It is SO easy to mistake our own thoughts and feelings for the truth. Especially when the enemy mixes factual information in with things that are fundamentally untrue.
This past week, I found Scripture (both the readings from the Mass and Scripture from a talk on St. Faustina I heard on YouTube) a good counter measure to my own spiritual desolation. It was the focus of my last podcast. But I woke up this morning feeling that I didn’t really talk about how other aspects of our faith can help and that I should have included that information too.
Fortunately St. Ignatius is giving me the chance to include it here.
For most dedicated people, as they progress on their spiritual journey, this is the principal obstacle in growth toward God: the weakening induced by the discouragement and disheartening insinuations of spiritual desolation. Assistance toward achieving increased freedom from this obstacle is one of the greatest gifts that our spiritual tradition can offer us.The Discernment of Spirits by Fr. Timothy Gallagher
I agree with Fr. Gallagher. This IS one of the great gifts of our faith. What I sometimes think of as the spiritual tools of Catholicism – the Mass, the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Holy Scripture and Lectio Divina, specific prayers and nonspecific prayers, the wisdom of the Catechism and the writings of saints like Ignatius – are incomparable aids in our fight spiritual desolation.
So what is St. Ignatius’s first actionable step in regard to spiritual desolation?
To sit tight.
Fifth Rule. The fifth: 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, or in the determination in which one was in the preceding consolation. Because, as in consolation the good spirit guides and counsels us more, so in desolation the bad spirit, with whose counsels we cannot find the way to a right decision.The Rules of Saint Ignatius as translated by Fr. Timothy Gallagher in The Discernment of Spirit
At first glance, St. Ignatius seems to be saying that our first action is no action. But holding the line against the enemy is actionable. There is no movement, true, and we tend to think of movement as action. But giving ground is movement – in the wrong direction.
My example from this week is my blog.
I’m on the tail end of a deep period of spiritual desolation. Thanks to listening to two especially good homilies in a row from my home parish (which I still can’t attend due to COVID) and an inspiriting YouTube talk on spiritual warfare and St. Ignatius I have begun to pull out of it. A couple of weeks prior I’d committed to my current creative projects.
But when I was discouraged I started to feel overwhelmed and began to think about giving up on writing altogether. Now, thanks to Ignatius, I’ve decided to stay the course.
The guideline is simple and absolute: in time of spiritual desolation never make a change.The Discernment of Spirits by Fr. Timothy Gallagher
- To listen to my February podcast on Spiritual Warfare, Life Purpose and the Example of Jesus please click here.
- Read my previous post on St. Ignatius 3rd Rule on Spiritual Consolation here.
- My Next post will on the 6th Rule of St. Ignatius.
- For more on the Rules of St. Ignatius, please check out “The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living” by Fr. Timothy Gallagher (affiliate link).