Faith Matters – Desolation

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26 Sep 2018

starry night sky illustration with stars and blue nebula

…neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39

When we empathise we look through the eyes of Jesus.

Although there are polarized views on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, we can all look at the person, empathise with their situation, act as Jesus did and bring the Gospel to life in our world.

We are able empathise with others as we have all experienced sadness and pain in our lives. Each of us has experienced life and the emotions that accompany our life experiences. We have all been lonely, afraid, persecuted, thirsty, lost, bereaved, isolated, hungry, cold, victimized . . . We can all look at someone’s situation and ‘feel’ what they are feeling. These emotions have a name in our tradition, we use the word desolation to describe these emotions and their source(s).

Saint Ignatius was well aware of such emotions, negative thoughts and how in his life they came to be. As he reflected on his life and his future after his injury at Pamplona he noticed that some thoughts bought him great joy and wholeness. He called this sensation consolation. At Manresa he wrote that:

‘…desolation is the name I give to everything contrary to consolation… darkness and disturbance in the soul, attraction to what is low and of the earth, anxiety arising from various agitations and temptations. All this tends to a lack of confidence in which the soul is without hope and without love; one finds oneself lazy, lukewarm, sad, and as though cut off from ones Creator…’

Desolation is the term we can use to describe the feeling of those asylum seekers as well as those feelings we experience personally.

Desolation always has a source. It may be an encounter with another person, a loss of some kind or our lack of attention towards something of importance. When we experience desolation we often focus intently on the cause rather than considering what is actually occurring within us emotionally and spiritually. When we experience desolation the most certain and efficient response is to remove oneself as Ignatius did and discern what is occurring. This is how we are able to clearly identify the cause, the reason for the situation and determine the appropriate response.

It is in the period of contemplation and discernment that we are able to see as God does. This is best done alone and away from distraction. When we experience things that are bad or hurtful we should actually focus our attention upon the feeling of desolation. Rather than seek to make good the experience of desolation we should accept that life has moments of both consolation and desolation; good and bad. When we sit within the context of desolation we can objectively view what is occurring, why it has occurred, who if anyone is at fault, how we might offer mercy and forgiveness to others and our self and how we might proceed in the future to move towards reconciliation and future consolation.

Desolation is often described as a period of emptiness or a sense of complete hopelessness. St John of Cross was a Spanish mystic and predecessor to Ignatius who wrote extensively of the ‘dark night of the soul’. Ignatius complimented St John of the Cross’ writings in offering a spiritual legacy that provides a way to move beyond the ‘dark night’, which Ignatius termed desolation, to wholeness and consolation. When we experience times of desolation we often perceive a spiritual loneliness. Just when we need God the most we can feel as though he is distant or ignoring us in our deep distress. This experience is common but erroneous.

When we feel lost and desperate for God we often focus our prayer on an image of a God who will come and save us. Often however what we are asking of God is a miracle and often they are ‘impossible’ for our God. Impossible as he will not force us or the other to do anything. He speaks to us thorough our conscience, but yet we still are offered the most perfect gift of free will. Our God cannot change some situations as he is faithful and will not interfere with our freedom. Our God is loving, merciful and kind. He does not force us in any way, he is gentle. He does not do things that are not part Creation without exceptional intention; of which we cannot understand. What God does during our experience of desolation is simple and true; he loves us.

When we contemplate the source of our desolation we find that the cause is something that is irreparable and the experience of desolation is in fact a period of grief where we must mourn what has been lost. God is present though even if we feel he is distant. He is especially near to us when we need him. Although we might feel empty and alone, we are deceived. When we experience desolation we have an opportunity to grow. Ignatius offers us a method, through stopping, observing and discerning, whereby we are able to become more spiritually mature, more grace filled and at peace with our journey. In seeking consolation and the good we also accept that life will have moments of desolation and loss.

Just as with the asylum seekers with whom we can empathise what is best for us in moments of desolation is to stop and seek God. He is always with us, guides us gently and patiently waits for us to respond to his promptings and his love. In times of desolation must observe carefully the movement of God in and around us as we try to calm the storm and remove the distractions and temptations that obscure our vision.

Brendan Nicholls is the liturgy coordinator at St Ignatius, Geelong.
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