The spiritual exercise for last week’s online retreat session (see loyolapress.com/lentretreat) was to talk with someone I trusted about consolation and desolation. I was on a road trip with my husband, so we talked about this while wheeling through southern Illinois.
To anyone not yet initiated in the terminology of Ignatian spirituality, consolation and desolation refer to movements of the soul. We attend to such movements when discerning what is really happening inside us and what that means. I like to call them opposite poles of the interior spectrum. Consolation is emotionally light, free, joyous, and so forth, while desolation involves our darker indicators, such as dread or unease. Spiritual directors try to help people recognize what these signals are and what they might mean in a given situation. The idea is that God has designed humans with these interior signals so that we can know ourselves better and thus have better grounding when making a decision. This sort of decision making is preferable to what we sometimes do when pressed to choose among options: go with the moment’s emotion or get pushed to a decision by inner motives we don’t even understand.
Jim and I ended up not talking much about consolation/desolation proper, because we got stuck early on. While growing up, both of us were taught not to trust the emotional life. In fact, we were not to indulge it; mostly we feared it and tried to avoid it or at least gag it. In certain Christian communities, people try very hard to be “in control” of themselves. They have taken the New Testament references to “self-control” quite seriously, to the point of denying any say at all to a person’s natural inclinations or responses. And often what they think is self-control is really suppression. They expend enormous amounts of energy tamping down whatever they really feel or think that might be considered questionable by other people in their faith community.
Add to this habit the belief that some emotions are simply evil, and you’ve got a toxic combination. Thus, when I feel anger bubbling up, regardless of why it’s there I decide that I just can’t be angry, because that’s not Christian. So I tell myself not to be angry and I stuff down the authentic emotional responses that are trying to express themselves. I say “authentic” because sometime anger is the most appropriate response to an action or situation.
We also confuse emotional response to acts of the will, but they are not the same thing. An emotion is simply the mind and body’s response to a stimulus. Emotions, even so-called dark emotions—are not evil actions but interior signals. Someone insults me, and I feel angry because my personhood feels threatened. If I’m mature at all I can step back from the situation long enough to analyze what’s going on. In most cases, a simple insult is not really a threat to my well-being, only a threat to my ego. And I can choose not to act out of my anger because my thinking process determines that the wisest course is to let it go.
In another situation, someone close to me dies, and my response is grief. The prevailing culture considers it okay to cry during the first few days following the death; after that I’m supposed to “move on.” As someone who has acquired some spiritual and emotional intelligence over the years, I know that grief is a necessary stage that must be lived through and endured and allowed. So regardless of what others might think, I’ll just sit down and wail when the waves of grief wash over me, even if that happens months or years after the death.
In both cases—with the anger and the grief—I need to recognize what is happening, and then I need to choose how I will participate with my natural responses. If I don’t make a decision about the anger, I could get into a messy situation driven by temper. If I don’t make a decision about my grief, I could become ill from suppressing powerful physical and emotional processes inside me. In another situation, I may need to take some action because of whatever made me angry. And there are days when I may feel like crying but I’ve got children to care for and so I put off my good cry until after they’re down for a nap.
The point is, what goes on inside me happens for real reasons. Emotions and other inclinations can’t simply be willed away. They are part of the equipment God designed in the human person.
What my husband and I discovered, though, after talking awhile, is that we often threw out the baby with the bathwater when it came to dealing with what are considered the negative emotions. Because we tried to deny and suppress the anger, fear, melancholy, or whatever, we found it difficult to access anything else, such as joy, hope, or peace. And we recall very little joy or peace or hopefulness in our faith communities of those years. Little wonder—no one was allowed to pay attention to what was really happening inside them. People were afraid to be affected by their own emotions, no matter what they were.
In fact, about the only emotion we both had a lot of experience with in those early years was guilt. Guilt was allowed, guilt was encouraged, guilt was coddled and catered to. There was always some reason to feel guilty. Even when we should have experienced “joy in the Lord” there was some guilt screen in the way, mucking up the scenery.
And here’s what’s so ridiculous: Guilt is the one thing that, as a Christian, I don’t have to indulge. Jesus’ big message was: It’s all taken care of! The kingdom is here, starting now! God of the universe already loves you, the way a wonderful father loves his own child. God already forgives you! Rejoice!
So I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on the one emotion that should become less and less a response in my life. If I actually believe God, and thus receive, every hour of every day, the Divine love already offered, then sooner or later my responses will skip right over guilt. I won’t feel a necessity for it. My system of seeing the universe will no longer include it. As I grow spiritually, emotionally, and in every way, the guilt will be replaced by gratitude.
What does this have to do with desolation and consolation? It has everything to do with those interior signals. If we are not free to embrace and understand our true emotions and inclinations, then how in the world will we ever work with them wisely? How will we learn how to interpret them? After all these years, I can usually tell the difference between my own form of worry and the Holy Spirit’s nudge to pray about something. I know that I feel much more “inspired” after a big dose of caffeine, so I don’t make concrete plans when I’m on a cappuccino high—because once the espresso wears off I’ll see a few holes in the vision. I’m learning to ignore the impulse to feel guilty because I didn’t get everything checked off today’s list of things to do, because I know that my lists are always unrealistic. Guilt over a to-do list is wasted, and because I realize that, the emotion itself often dissolves before it has a chance to ruin my afternoon.
Is there any place for guilt in the life of a faith-filled person? Only if that guilt leads to gratitude for the forgiveness that is the backdrop of our life with God. Sometimes, for our own psychological and spiritual good, we need to confess, either in prayer or to another person, how we have failed or done harm; confession can help us articulate exactly what we’ve done, can lead us to apologize and begin a process of healing, can move us to make corrections in the future. Guilt can inspire us to wake up to the truth and shift to a better course. But guilt as an ongoing emotional state is not in line with holy reality. And such guilt can skew any discernment we try to make regarding consolation or desolation.
The trouble with guilt feelings is that they cloud our perception of everything else. If I’m feeling guilty most of the time, then any dark emotion will seem to be just another form of that guilt—or it will appear to be a punishment that I deserve because of my guilt. Even if I need to grieve for some legitimate reason, the guilt will cause me to see that grief as a spiritual weakness. (“I should be a mature enough Christian to feel better by now—but obviously I’m weak spiritually because of all my sin, so I keep getting bogged down in this grief.”)
A friend of mine, writer Alice Camille, co-wrote a book about forgiveness (The Forgiveness Book, Acta Publications. When asked why they wrote it, she said (and I paraphrase), “If we don’t understand and ‘get’ forgiveness, then we won’t get anywhere in the spiritual journey. Forgiveness is the key to everything.” Forgiveness describes God’s stance toward the human race, and forgiveness provides the only way for humans to love one another.
And if we accept that forgiveness is God’s stance toward the human race, then we have to let go of the guilt that mangles and mutilates us on so many levels. It will prevent us from reading ourselves with any wisdom or accuracy. Overriding guilt will prevent our free engagement with consolation and desolation. And it will whisper falsehood so loudly in our ears that we won’t hear the words of love that Holy presence speaks to us every moment.