For some of us who come from Evangelical Christian backgrounds, there can be a degree of confusion about what it should feel like to have a relationship with God. Some styles of worship and theological movements place such an emphasis on finding comfort and joy in following Christ, that those feelings can end up becoming a barometer of one’s Christian faith.
In those situations, a fluctuation in feelings can feel like a crisis of faith. And when the pressure in one’s Christian community is to constantly give the appearance of living in victory and joy, that struggle is often a hidden one. Who in that environment would want to admit to a fellow believer that they’re struggling in their faith, or going through a period where they’re having trouble feeling the presence of God?
Fortunately, in Catholic spirituality, there are many great saints who have not only gone through these spiritual peaks and valleys themselves, but have also shared incredibly helpful thoughts on how to navigate them.
One such saint is Ignatius of Loyola, who came up with 14 rules to help discern the voice of God in our lives. St. Ignatius refers to spiritual consolation as a feeling of joy and the presence of God in the soul, “quieting it and giving it peace in its Creator and Lord.” But he has several excellent recommendations for when we encounter spiritual desolation, which he connects with words like “tepid” and “unquiet,” and even a feeling of darkness and separation.
For those struggling with desolation in the spiritual life, here are a few key pieces of advice from those 14 rules of St. Ignatius:
Don’t change your spiritual disciplines in times of desolation.
St. Ignatius says to “be firm and constant” in our spiritual resolutions during times of desolation, because we often made those resolutions during a time of clarity and consolation.
Chasing spiritual novelty in order to keep up an emotional high puts the focus back on the self, rather than on God. Some of us have gone through the “church shopping” experience, bouncing from place to place seeking an emotionally satisfying worship experience, and it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on both the believer and the congregation they’re attending to “perform” in a satisfactory way, Sunday after Sunday. The Catholic liturgical life is meant to be an antidote to the impossible burden of having to come up with the perfect way to pray on our own. Keep praying, keep reading scripture, and stay as close as you can to the sacramental life.
Spiritual desolation isn’t necessarily your fault.
St Ignatius gives three main reasons why desolation can occur, and only one of them is related to our own negligence or sin. A second reason he points out is that God may be removing our sense of him in order to strengthen and mature our faith, so that it is not based solely on emotional payoff, but also on loyalty and self-sacrifical love. This leads to a third reason why a believer might be experiencing spiritual desolation:
God may be trying to teach you greater reliance on him.
According to St. Ignatius, sometimes these “low points” in the spiritual life are allowed by God because perhaps He is teaching us that consolation is not something we can manufacture through good works or the perfect devotional routine, but rather a gift of grace that comes from Him alone. St. Paul reflects on this very point in his second letter to the Corinthians, when he recalls his experience of a persistent “thorn in the flesh”:
“Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (I Cor 12:8-10)
Fortunately, in the Catholic world of liturgy and sacraments, we are able to rest on a promise of God’s presence that is not reliant upon our continually changing moods and feelings. We know that by virtue of the promise of Christ Himself, He is truly present in the Eucharist, regardless of where we are on the continuum of consolation and desolation. The grace we receive in the sacraments is not dependent upon our ability to feel it.
There are times when the journey is full of joy and peace, and times when the road is difficult and tumultuous. But we trust that the Lord who has begun a good work in us will be with us all the way, even when He is not present to our senses.